The Future of the Russian Army: An Interview with Stephen Blank
Washington Profile News Agency
April 1, 2003
Stephen Blank is the MacArthur Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College and the author of numerous books on military strategy.
Q: What can Russian generals learn from the operations in Iraq?
A: The Russians expected a contactless war, probably something like Kosovo - an air campaign. I think they will be surprised that our ground forces and our power projection capability is also strong. I don't really think Russian generals understand modern war. They're a generation behind in weapons, in theory, and in the conduct of operations. They're going to be rather disoriented by what is happening, and will be scrambling for an explanation. Some people may understand it, but we have the capability that outstrips most people's ability to even comprehend, let alone emulate. From what I've seen, they really have difficulty coming to terms with contemporary warfare.
It's going to take some time for Russians to learn anything from the war in Iraq - it's a very different war, and very different kind of armies. The American and British armies are professional, well-trained, there's a tremendous esprit de corps, the morale is high, they have weapons second to none, the commanders are schooled in contemporary operations, they have been in Iraq and the Balkans. The Russian military is a conscript army, technologically backward, its leadership is inferior. They have difficulty learning from other people's military experiences, and even their own - they had difficulty learning from the Afghanistan experience. They don't have money, and they are trying to do too much - Russia is still trying to compete at a nuclear level as well as a conventional level, setting up blocs in the CIS which they can't sustain. So someone has to come along and force Russia to adapt to reality.
Q: What ways do you see the Russian army could reform?
A: The real problem is that the military is not under effective democratic control - it answers to Putin, not to the people, not to the Duma. There's no accountability, so you have a quasi-legal form of krepostnoye pravo. The commanding officer is essentially God and Tzar. What really needs to happen is that first, they need more money but also, there needs to be a responsible army which is forced to give an account of its actions and explain its methods, and army governed by law and one that provides a basis for a dialogue on what kind of threats Russia faces. That really is the big problem, because if they did that they would have more money, better soldiers, a better educated officer corps, and much more popular support.
Q: What about armies in the FSUs?
A: They all have certain similar problems - none of these stamocracies, Russia perhaps is more evolved than the others. None of them have money. But Russia had a military tradition and military institutions, and after the break-up of the Soviet Union it retained about 83% of the Soviet defense industry. None of these other republics had anything to start with, so while all of them had similar problems, some of them faced a much greater threat, for example in Central Asia, where there was a greater threat of terrorism or internal insurgency. In the Caucasus all the governments face the threat of ethnic war. The Armenian army has shown itself to be extremely capable, but it's probably reached the limit of its capability and the economy of Armenia is in a terrible situation. Georgia can't even afford an army. And these are not complete states, they've only existed for a decade or so. Russia wants to me a major player in world affairs, and it can't afford to do it, even in the CIS. The Eurasian idea that dominated Russian security doctrine in the 1990s cannot be sustained. The economy is not growing fast enough. They are going to have to retrench and rethink the military doctrine. We'll see what the new upcoming doctrine says, and what threats to Russia the military and political leadership see now.
Q: How successful are the Russian forces in Chechnya, in your opinion?
A: There has been tremendous change between the first and second Chechen campaign. The Russian army rehearsed operations for the second war, and improved to some degree the problem of command and control and communication between MVD and the army and FSB. They have not solved the problem, there's still a lack of communications. But they did better tactically in the second battle of Grozny, better urban warfare, and it was successful. There is an improvement in tactical performance, but at the operational and strategic level I don't think the Russian army knows how to bring this war to victory, I don't think they're interested in doing so, because they have to many opportunities for corruption, and because they're looking for a vindication of the 1994-6 campaign, where they believe the Russian politicians stole victory from them, which is not true - the politicians saved the Russian army. Lebed saved the Russian army, and thus Russia - they won't admit it. What you see now, to a large degree, is a large mob - soldiers committing atrocities, all the things that have been amply reported in the West. The real problem is that the Russian army refuses to reform. They plan to reform in 2020 or 2015, they have been talking about reform since 1985, and they haven't done. And they don't want to do it, and they will not do it unless Mr. Putin completely coerces them to do so, and he is not willing or able to do that.
Q: What do you think of the current state of Russian military leadership?
A: I don't see anybody on a high level like Ogarkov, ???. Since he died, there is no one of that stature, and that's a part of the general crisis - the tradition has weakened. The best man they have is Kareyev, who was deputy chief of state to Ogarkov, but he is 80 years old, and even he is not completely au currant with the new trends in warfare.
Q: Forecast for future? New threats?
A: You need to distinguish between internal and external threats. Virtually every Russian analyst says that the main threats to Russia are internal, and they are connected to the weakness of the state and the poverty of the economy, and those things are very connected. You have a very low level of competence in the government, you don't really have people looking out for the national interest, mostly just people looking out for themselves. You have an economy which has failed over the last 40 years to keep up with the West. Remember what Putin said in his famous address at the end of 1999 - Russian economy has to grown at 8% for 15 years in order to reach the current status of Portugal. They have failed to do that - the growth rate was 8% in 2000, and this year they expect 29% inflation. So the main threats are the lack of government, the general lack of complete democracy, and the economy. There's also a need to restore the balance between center and periphery - Putin has pushed very much in favor of the center, and he has just created a lot of bureaucratic headaches for Russia, Russian needs more self-government and less centralization.
Now, external threats. We can start with what is clearly observable - terrorism. There is no doubt that the wahhabis have been in Chechnya for some time, they undermined the peace settlement in 1996, and this brought about the war in 1999, but that is the only link to bin Laden inside Russia. In Central Asia, threats to Russian security exist without people realizing it - the military is still wrapped around the American threat. The military answer is not the only answer, but as long as we're fighting terrorism we need to look at Central Asia. So there's the possibility of instability in Russia because of failing states in that region.
Another threat is the stagnation of Ukraine. They are no making much progress at all. If there is a crisis in Ukraine, it will be a major crisis because both Russia and the West have legitimate interests in it. In the Pacific, there are enormous threats, mainly due to the economy. Putin has said that if they don't get their act together, these regions will be speaking Japanese and Chinese and Korean. The problem is not so much Chinese military power - I don't see that - the problem is the shadow of Chinese economic power, and that power is bound to grow. That will make the Far East a very difficult place for Russia, because they can't compete and they don't know how to compete, and have failed miserably over the years. A further threat in that region is a war in North Korea. This is very dangerous, and I think the Russian attitude has been extremely short-sighted, they don't really forsee the threat. This could conceivably become a major threat to all of Asia.
So those are the threats I see. I don't see a threat from NATO, which has not been a threat since 1991, although Russian generals keep reminding about it so they can maintain a big army and mobilization capability. But NATO is in no way a threat to Russia, as long as Russia is a nuclear power. Proliferation in the Middle East and Asia and terrorist threats in the Cacauses are the big threats they face outside. The real threat is a failure to put Russia in order. Some reforms have been passed last year - taxes, land reform - the question is whether these will be implemented. This also includes an urgent need for military reform, but I don't think they're going to do it.