The State of the Russian Army

Putin’s Military Might Fails to Keep Pace With His Ambitions

russian_army_badge2.jpgRussia’s military, which once defined its power and is central to President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for global influence, is lagging behind its energy- driven economic boom.

The nation’s armed forces remain beset by manpower and morale problems, aging equipment, graft and unfulfilled promises to overhaul their Cold War-era structure, Western and Russian analysts say. While Putin, 55, has increased Russia’s defense budget to a level four times greater than when he became president in 2000, it is still less than 6 percent of U.S. spending.

“There is this notion in the West that the Russian army is coming back,” said Zoltan Barany, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who published a book this year about the decline of the Russian military. “They’re not back. Things have started to change, but there’s a long way to go before they’re back, and I don’t think they will ever be back like they were.”

A report last month by Moscow’s Institute for National Strategy and two other independent research groups underscored the lack of progress. It said defense spending during Putin’s tenure had grown only 15 percent after inflation from the 1990s, and that Russia has bought fewer weapons under him because of a “dramatic rise in corruption.”

Outdated Fears

The analysts said military doctrine was still based on outdated fears of war with the West instead of more realistic threats from China or Islamic terrorists.

Russian and Western news media “are inflating the myth of an active remilitarization of modern Russia,” the analysts said. “This myth bears no relation to reality.”

The gap between Putin’s ambitions and his capabilities was evident in August, when he said that regular strategic-bomber flights would resume after a 15-year hiatus. The announcement revived memories of Cold War days, when Soviet and U.S. nuclear- armed bombers patrolled on hair-trigger alert.

The reality turned out to be far different. The new patrols are done mostly by aging Tu-95 “Bear” bombers that have turbo- prop rather than jet engines, carry no nuclear weapons and are limited to about one flight a week by budget and equipment constraints, according to Pavel Baev, a military analyst at Oslo’s International Peace Research Institute.

A Shrinking Fleet

The resource crunch affects all military branches, analysts say. The Russian Navy now has one active-duty aircraft carrier — the U.S. has 12 — and its fleet of strategic nuclear submarines is shrinking as vessels wear out and aren’t replaced.

The most modern sub, the 11-year-old Yuri Dolgoruky, was designed as a platform for the Bulava-M long-range nuclear missile. The Bulava failed several tests, raising questions about its future and the sub’s utility, Baev said.

While Russian defense industries produce some good-quality equipment, especially fighter planes and surface-to-air missiles, most is sold abroad, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Virginia-based military research group.

“They’re basically playing with the same set of toys that Gorbachev gave them,” Pike said, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader.

Russia still fields a formidable nuclear arsenal, with 4,237 warheads deployed on 875 missiles and bombers as of July, according to data compiled by the Arms Control Association, a Washington research group. Only the U.S., with 5,914 warheads on 1,225 missiles and bombers, has more.

Repairs Required

Still, 60 percent of Russian missiles have exceeded their service life and half require major repairs, according to a 2005 Defense Ministry report, Barany said. Just 30 percent of the country’s fighter planes are combat-ready, he said.

The Moscow researchers said that if present trends continue, attrition will reduce Russia’s intercontinental missile arsenal to between 100 and 200 in a decade. Russia’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to written questions about the military’s capability.

The head of the Russian Strategic Missile Troops, Colonel- General Nikolai Solovtsov, was quoted by the official Itar-Tass news agency Dec. 17 as saying that Russia would be “compelled” to maintain the strength of its nuclear arsenal because of U.S. plans to base a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Manpower problems remain acute, although some — such as chronic late payment of officers’ salaries — have been eased by the budget increases.

Russia‘s Spending

Aided by a 255 percent surge in oil prices during Putin’s eight years in office, Russia’s 2007 defense spending was about 821 billion rubles ($33.6 billion), about 15 percent of total government expenditures, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. U.S. military spending in 2007 was about $582 billion, or 21 percent of the total federal budget, the institute said.

Russia also suffers from endemic draft avoidance, with as many as nine out of 10 of those in the eligible 18-to-26 age group escaping service. “If you’ve got 90 percent draft evasion, those who show up are just too stupid to evade it,” Pike said. “Imagine what kind of military you can put together with that.”

Military officials are seeking to make compliance more common by eliminating some deferments and gradually reducing draftees’ terms to one year from two. Meanwhile, they have created all-volunteer units and stationed them in the volatile northern Caucasus, Baev said. “That’s why Georgia has reason to be worried,” he said.

Vested Interest

Russian political leaders have long talked of shifting to a smaller, more professional all-contract military. They have made little progress, partly because of opposition from generals who have a vested interest in blocking the change, analysts say.

The generals exploit draftees by using them to do personal work or renting them out as cheap labor to enterprises, with the generals pocketing the fees, said William Hill, a professor at the U.S. National War College in Washington.

The military pressures draftees to sign long-term service contracts, according to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Moscow-based group that works to expose abuses in the military. The pressure includes sleep deprivation, beatings and threats of transfer to combat zones.

Hazing persists even after high-profile cases generated official promises to curb abuses, Baev said.

“Soldiers are mistreated in every possible way,” he said. “That’s why it’s so difficult for this army to shift into contract service. You have to treat soldiers differently if they are professionals. Many of the officers aren’t prepared to do this.”

By Ken Fireman
Dec. 21 (Bloomberg).

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