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Russia: Military Reform, A Priority On Paper, Continues To Confound Kremlin

  • Jeremy Bransten

The head of the Russian Duma's Defense Committee, General Andrei Nikolaev, gave a blunt assessment last week of the state of the country's military. Nikolaev told the newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that so far, attempts at reform have failed across the board. Russia's military, according to Nikolaev, lags ever farther behind other leading world armies, in the state of its technology, the skills of its soldiers, and tactical abilities of its commanders. Is Nikolaev's assessment correct and if it is, what are the underlying causes of Russia's military decline?

Prague, 11 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, like his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, has frequently declared military reform to be one of his main priorities.

Under Putin, commanders from the minister of defense on down have been reshuffled, military budgets have grown, various reorganizations have been proposed. But the net effect, Russian defense experts agree, has so far been negligible.

Since 1999, Russia's official defense budget has nearly tripled -- in ruble terms -- from 109 billion rubles to a current high of 284 billion rubles. But what kind of defense has Russia been getting for the money?

One of the main problems hobbling Russian military reform, analysts say, is Moscow's continued perceived need to maintain parity with the United States. Comparing the amount of money each country spends on its military would be enough to convince any observer of the futility of such a race. In strict dollar terms, Washington currently spends some 35 times more money on its armed forces than Moscow -- adjusted for purchasing power parity, U.S. spending is still some six times greater. But Russia's political and military establishment refuses to acknowledge this.

Michael Orr is an expert on Russian military affairs at the British Army's Conflict Studies Research Centre. He tells RFE/RL: "Russia cannot compete with the United States and with a lot of other countries, given the state of its economy, in overall size of defense spending. But the money they do have is being spent on a lot of things which, frankly, a poor country -- which Russia is -- in terms of defense finance, cannot afford to do."

To effectively use the financial resources it does have, Orr says, Russia needs to make some fundamental choices about cutting back forces whose main aim is to project power. Orr says strategic questions need to be asked.

"It's questions such as how much do they need to spend on strategic missiles, i.e. are they aiming to maintain parity or something like parity with the United States or do they need a smaller force like Britain, France, or China? They can probably get security without having to be equal or even approach United States capability in nuclear terms. Then you can look at things like does Russia really need to maintain a navy on the scale it's tried to maintain over the last few years?"

The answer to that last question, Orr says, is clearly no.

"I think one could argue, given their financial problems, that putting men and money into large warships as opposed to a more coastal defense capability is a mistake. It's looking at a strategic situation, strategic requirements, which vanished with the Soviet Union. You could, I think, argue the same thing about the ground forces and this insistence on keeping conscription. Individual soldiers may be cheaper under conscription. A conscript -- you pay him far less, but the whole system has a tremendous amount of waste in it, when the money would be better spent on properly trained professional soldiers."

It was Boris Yeltsin who first put forward the idea of switching to a professional military, as the United States did more than two decades ago and most European countries are in the process of doing. Putin last autumn called for Russia's conversion to be realized by the year 2010. But many experts doubt whether this timetable can be achieved.

Again, the reason is resistance on the part of the General Staff, first on ideological grounds. Michael Orr: "The Russian Federation at the moment is trying to maintain a Soviet-style system, in which the whole country is geared-up -- one way or another, in terms of training and mobilization capability -- for a repeat of World War II, and it's totally out of date."

But self-interest also plays a big role in the General Staff's reluctance to abolish conscription. Many officers simply fear losing their sinecures. Aleksandr Goltz is a Moscow-based independent defense analyst.

"The structure of the Russian officer corps is a reverse pyramid. We have more colonels than lieutenants. And the sole justification for this is that if there were to be a war tomorrow, millions of reservists will take up arms and all these colonels who today shuffle papers will become commanders of these divisions."

Recent wars, especially the conflict in Afghanistan, demonstrate that maintaining vast standing armies is of little use. But aside from the questionable nature of such a military strategy, the financial waste is also staggering. Here too, however, reform would entail untangling the murky web of Russian military finances. As in Soviet times, Russia's official defense budget represents only a portion of the money Moscow spends on the military.

Much spending, including military construction and arms production, is concealed within the budgets of various ministries, state committees, and an enormous network of semi-state contractors. Those weapons are then sold to countries like China and India in what Stephen Blank, of the U.S. Army War College, likens to a type of pyramid scheme, whereby funds obtained from one source are used to cover short-term debts elsewhere.

"The fact of the matter is that the Defense Ministry has run up enormous bills and is still producing weapons in the belief that only by producing weapons for export -- because the army can't buy them -- can they maintain the defense industrial basis until such time as the [Russian] military can buy new weapons. So essentially what you've got here is a Ponzi scheme."

While Moscow's arms sales to Beijing and New Delhi may look impressive, they only reflect one side of the financial story. Stephen Blank: "They've gotten, let's say, $3.5 or $4 billion the last couple of years and they say they have a pretty full order book. But that only looks at one side of the ledger. That says we're receiving $4.5 billion total for the arms we've sold this year plus we have orders for the following year. It doesn't tell you what the real costs of producing these weapons are."

There are no clear figures on how much Moscow spends in direct subsidies to the country's some 1,700 state-linked defense enterprises. Combined with indirect subsidies such as artificially low prices for energy and rent, the true cost of manufacturing is actually much higher than any profits the country may receive.

The cost of Moscow's war in Chechnya -- in both human and financial terms -- also remains incalculable. Again, Stephen Blank: "There are various estimates out there and none of them is authoritative. It's difficult to say how credible any of them are because here again, you have total lack of transparency. What is clear is that the Russian army is getting nowhere fast. There are 86,000 troops, at least -- according to [Chief of General Staff Anatolii] Kvashnin -- tied down there and all they do is just loot and rob and pillage, essentially, judging from their own accounts. These endless 'mopping-up' operations are just another opportunity to steal whatever they can and they commit unspeakable acts of terror against the population. The Russians don't want anybody to talk about this but it has to be said."

General Nikolaev -- the head of the Duma Defense Committee, who lambasted the military establishment last week for its failure to reform -- proposed his own program for change. Michael Orr, in Britain, is not optimistic.

"Nikolaev has been talking about the need for a 15-year military program in four phases. If I can be cynical, then I would say that one of the Russians' problems is that they spend a lot of time talking about programs and phases and timetables and they don't do anything about putting it into practice."

At best, periodic reshufflings mean a temporary reallocation of funds from one branch of the military to another. But this is usually based on personal rivalries among commanders and does not reflect an overall strategic concept, says Orr.

"What we do certainly have is a great deal of jealousy and squabbling for their share of this limited budget between the different armed services. And one could look at, for example, the way in which under the last minister of defense, [Igor] Sergeev, who was in the strategic rocket forces, budgets went into the strategic rocket forces rather than into the general purpose forces and the way that has now been reversed or changed since he left office. One could look at the very bitter fighting or squabbling between the airborne forces and the ground forces. There are a lot of things in the Russian system which are almost set up to encourage this interdepartmental and inter-branch fighting."

The bottom line, for Stephen Blank, is the Russian military's lack of civilian accountability at nearly all levels. Until Duma deputies can find out the true cost of the war in Chechnya, how much is being spent on salaries and benefits to the bloated officer corps, and how much subsidies to defense enterprises really amount to, reforms will continue to add up to nothing.

"The fact of the matter is that the Russian government itself has no clear idea of how much money it's really spending on defense, and it refuses to make it clear to anybody else what's going on. And this allows for massive corruption and bureaucratic game-playing. There's no accountability, either within the government or to the Duma, and until you have democratic control and accountability by law for military spending and for the use of the armed forces, you're not going to get major military reform -- and that includes professionalization of the army or anything else."

At this point, Russian politicians still cannot get an accurate count from the generals on the number of personnel in the armed forces. One simple example illustrates the basic difficulties facing those trying to bring some measure of accountability to Russia's armed forces. In 1999, the number of men under arms was officially estimated at 1,200,000. At the start of 2002 -- three years later -- Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that after a successful reduction of 91,000 men, Russia's armed forces now number 1,275,000. A humorist's dream -- a reformist's nightmare.