Building a Better Bear
Can Russia reform its outmoded military without scaring the United States?
Mitt Romney is not the only one worried about Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Four years after the end of the brief Russo-Georgian war, Tbilisi is again agitated. On September 15, Russia is conducting military exercises in Armenia, and two days later it is starting a much bigger war game in the North Caucasus. These military maneuvers to Georgia’s immediate south and north coincide with the final phase of the country’s political campaign season, in which the opposition force, headed by a billionaire who made his money in Russia, is challenging President Mikheil Saakashvili’s control over the legislature. No wonder Saakashvili’s government is anxious.
The Russian army will not attack Georgia or depose its president. Saakashvili is profoundly despised in the Kremlin, but one thing President Vladimir Putin and others, to their surprise, have learned since the 2008 war is that, as long as Saakashvili remains in power, Georgia has zero chance of joining NATO. In the eyes of Berlin, Paris, and even Washington, the current Georgian president is not a dependable partner. Rather, the Russians are concerned about the rising tensions between Armenia, which they have pledged to defend, and Azerbaijan, which, 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, refuses to recognize the secession of Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian occupation of part of Azerbaijani territory. An even more serious security concern in Moscow is the widening crisis in the Middle East involving Syria and Iran — but it is not a concern that the Kremlin would consider acting on militarily.
This distinction between neighborhood conflicts and more global concerns is a new one — and it is very much in keeping with the military doctrine adopted two years ago as part of Moscow’s effort to reform Russia’s armed forces. That doctrine, for the first time in 100 years, eschews the notion of fighting a large-scale war. In the current official thinking, Russia’s relations with other great powers, such as the United States and China, are securely managed through nuclear deterrence; the main mission of its armed forces is now to prepare for local conflicts, along the country’s borders or even within them.
This may be little comfort for Saakashvili, but it is a quantum leap for the Russian military and its political leadership. Not always appreciated by Putin’s critics or even his supporters, Russia’s military reform, signaled by the appointment of former business manager and tax official Anatoly Serdyukov as defense minister in February 2007, has been a fairly successful effort to redesign a well-entrenched piece of the state machinery. Although the blueprints for reform were being readied previously, it was the 2008 Georgia war that gave it real impetus.
The Russian military’s performance during the five days that the war lasted was anything but stellar. Control of the operation through various levels of headquarters was plainly cumbersome; communications were abominable or even nonexistent; and the losses, both human and material, were too high. The resultant soul-searching in the Kremlin and the brooding over the price of victory created an atmosphere propitious for military reform to begin openly and in earnest. The "lessons of the war" also weakened the unreconstructed traditionalists, military and nonmilitary alike, who were driven by inertia and who had clung to the decaying remnants of the Soviet military system for nearly two decades, in the vain hope that it might be revived.
The reform, sanctioned by Putin, formally overseen by Dmitry Medvedev, and ruthlessly executed by Serdyukov, is aimed at replacing the scaled-down and dysfunctional version of the Red Army with a more modern military institution. The plan’s centerpiece is to replace the concept of a mobilization army — the bedrock of the Soviet system whose main function was to draft millions of men into the armed forces at a moment’s notice — with a permanent, mobile, and more professional fighting force. The command-and-control structure would be streamlined, the weapons arsenal upgraded, combat readiness enhanced, and conscripts increasingly replaced with volunteer soldiers.
Under its "new look," the Russian military is to have just four military districts, to be called commands in wartime (Western, Southern, Central, and Eastern) reporting to the General Staff in Moscow; within the districts, brigades will be the main large units. Divisions will be allowed to continue to exist only within the airborne forces. In total, the Russian armed forces will number 150,000 commissioned officers, a similar number of volunteers, and 700,000 conscripts. The proportion of modern weaponry and materiel — that is, materiel more recent than the 1970s and 1980s vintage equipment that dominates the arsenal today — is to increase from around 20 percent now to 70 percent by 2020.
So far, these goals have only partially been met. Streamlining, painful as it was, has occurred; the pay of the commissioned officers has doubled or tripled; soldiers have begun to exercise more often; pilots have started to log more hours; and sailors are once again navigating the seas. Still, the government’s defense procurement plans have failed miserably; a stable corps of noncommissioned officers has yet to be built; and the reform of military education and training, beyond drastic cuts, has been put on hold for the time being.
Yet, for the first time in two decades, something is moving in the Russian armed forces. For a country that vociferously insists on its strategic independence — in Russia they call it being a "great power" — possessing a usable military instrument is a clear must. Spending roughly $700 billion over 10 years to upgrade weapons and military equipment, as Putin has repeatedly vowed to do, is not unwarranted. There is a question, asked by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, among others, as to how much military spending the country can afford under present economic circumstances, but the most important question is not budgetary — it is strategic in the grandest sense.
The progress of Russian military reform resembles building a body from the feet up, with the head to come last. The proudly pragmatic Putin leadership sees Russia alone and essentially friendless in the world. It still counts the United States as a potential military adversary and NATO as its tool; it hopes for continued neighborliness with China, but it will take no chances; and it faces a diverse set of real enemies along its southern border. It is time to take a new look at Russia’s strategic environment and try to improve it.
If there is one thing that would do that, it is the demilitarization of relations with the United States, and cooperating on missile defenses in Europe is the most important step toward that goal. This would be a huge load off Moscow’s back, freeing it of the fear that the United States is out to deploy a first-strike capability. Ridding themselves of the residual adversity of the United States, Russians would be able to address real security challenges. For the United States, a Russia engaged in strategic and institutionalized military collaboration with America would be a virtual guarantee that, whatever else may happen on the world’s strategic landscape, Russia will not land on the wrong side — and perhaps Gov. Romney can sleep better at night.