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Russia: Will Oil Windfall Go To Military?

Vladimir Putin watching military parade with World War II veterans on May 9 (epa) WASHINGTON May 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- While Russian President Vladimir Putin focused on domestic political issues in his annual state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly on May 10, he did mention making new purchases of nuclear submarines and boosting the "procurement of modern aircraft, submarines, and strategic missiles for the armed forces."

RFE/RL correspondent Julie A. Corwin asked Brian D. Taylor, an expert on the Russian military at Syracuse University's Maxwell School and author of "Politics and the Russian Army: Civil-Military Relations, 1689-2000," to put Putin's remarks in context.

RFE/RL: In his annual address, Putin talked about commissioning two strategic nuclear submarines among other military expenditures. Is this how Russia is going to spend its new oil wealth? Does this represent a real commitment to higher military spending or is this a just bone thrown to the military?

Brian Taylor: He obviously [has been] flush with oil and gas money over the last few years, and it has shown up in defense expenditures really starting around 2002 or so. But at the same time he himself notes in the annual address this year that they shouldn't expect to match the U.S. or even countries like France and Britain in terms of how much they're outlaying on defense.

There is some need for certain investments in strategic nuclear forces given that there was very little investment in those in the 1990s, but it doesn't mean that we are looking at a new nuclear arms race. You know, I think it's probably real that they are going to be spending more money in this area but it's nothing that from the U.S. perspective that should be seen as alarming or worrying.

RFE/RL: So the procurement budget has already been going up?

Taylor: The procurement budget has been going up -- that is certainly true, but we shouldn't overestimate the extent to which things have really sort of taken off. And we also shouldn't overestimate what impact that will have on military performance, because military performance depends on a lot of other things other than weapons systems.

The S-300 air-defense missile system (epa file photo)

And he [Putin] didn't have anything really to say -- or he didn't have much to say in the speech about that. He talked a bit about some of the changes in personnel policy in short term of the draft and getting more NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and sergeants and that sort of thing.

But that's been something they have been talking about for quite some time, too, and it doesn't seem to have had a big impact in terms of reducing certain dysfunctional elements of serving in the Russian military, like hazing and death from suicide and death from accidents and the fact that most people don't want to send their kids to serve in the military.

Professionalizing Army

RFE/RL: Why not use some of the oil money to recruit soldiers and make the army fully professional? Perhaps with the right recruitment bonus, young men wouldn't try so hard to avoid the draft?

Taylor: I think people would come for certain amounts of money. I mean there are people particularly in rural areas and certain working-class families who see it as a viable option. So they have increased the so-called professional component of their armed forces over time and they're reducing -- in fact they've eliminated in terms of the armed forces sending draftees to Chechnya. And there is this sort of long-term trajectory towards creating more professional forces.

But again, this is old rhetoric. I mean if you go back to [former President Boris] Yeltsin and when he ran for president the second time in 1996, he was going to end the draft and create a professional military.

Importance For United States

RFE/RL: So what's the U.S. reaction to this speech likely to be?

Taylor: I don't really think the U.S. will respond in any sort of serious way, rhetorical or otherwise, and I really don't think the U.S. should or needs to. If you just look at the trajectory in terms of nuclear forces, which is the one area in which he made some specific commitments today, the U.S. is well out ahead of Russia in terms of developing new systems -- in deploying new systems, and the number of warheads available.

A Russian MIG-29-OVT jet fighter (epa file photo)

And really we're in a situation in which the U.S. probably has a much larger nuclear arsenal than it needs and the trends are sort of down, over time, and somewhat consistent with certain arms-control treaties, although those don't have a lot of teeth. And Russia is going to continue over time to let the size of its nuclear force reduce, too, as older systems go offline.

RFE/RL: So in conclusion it sounds like you don't think the Russian military will be the recipient of the "oil dividend"?

Taylor: They're going to be one of the beneficiaries of an oil-and-gas dividend, but there are other things that Putin wants to spend the money on, too, He's got his whole national projects in terms of education, agriculture, housing, and those sorts of things. And in terms of delivering voters to his anointed successor in 2008, if that's the plan, spending the money on the national projects seems like a better way to try and attract voters, assuming that elections matter, than spending it on nuclear submarines.

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