While Russia's bombs rained and its tanks rolled over Georgian soil,
much of the world oscillated between shock and bewilderment. Something just didn't appear to add up. As President Bush pointed out from China, Russia’s response is completely out of proportion to the stakes involved in the Ossetian territorial dispute. By flexing its military muscle in this way, the Kremlin is clearly pursuing some other agenda.
A clue as to what it is happening can be found in an avowal made last month. After Condoleezza Rice had signed an agreement with the Czech Republic to host a radar in the ballistic defense shield, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement which said that Russia “will be forced to react not with diplomatic, but with military-technical methods.”
This was not the first time Russia expressed its objections to the ballistic shield. A year ago, then President Vladimir Putin shocked the world by raising the possibility of nuclear measures against the project’s European participants. In a move designed to frighten and intimidate, Putin said this the eve of last year’s G-8 meeting:
It is obvious that if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States is located in Europe we will have to respond. What kind of steps are we are going to take in response? Of course we are going to acquire new targets in Europe.
Hungry for superpower status and desirous to intimidate Europe, Russia perceives the ballistic missile shield as a major obstacle to its international ambitions. Seeing that the tough rhetoric has failed to dent America’s resolve, Russia has now gone one step further.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had it almost right when said that the Russian offensive is “in a certain sense also an aggression against America.” What we are seeing now in Georgia is a brazen attempt at intimidation. Its objective is to make clear to the United States and our allies that Russia is not to be contended with lightly.
But before we get wobbly in the knees, it would be wise to review the current state of Russia’s military to see how formidable our opponent actually is.
At 1.13 million strong, the Russian army may be formidable in size, but the quality of its personnel leaves much to be desired. Made up largely of teenage conscripts drafted for one-year compulsory service, most show little commitment to their mission. Given the dire conditions they are forced to endure this is no surprise. Poorly equipped and supplied, many fall ill from a lack of proper care and nutrition. That frostbite is a common scourge in wintertime shows just how inadequately clothed and outfitted the Russian army is. It is hard to believe that only this year the transition was made to regular socks. Up until now, Russian soldiers wore the kind of foot wraps in use since the Napoleonic wars.
The conduct of these beleaguered conscripts tends to be rowdy and unruly. Hazing of younger soldiers is a persistent problem with hundreds dying each year as a result. Those who think that Abu Ghraib represents the apotheosis of ruthless chicanery have not seen what goes on in the barracks of the Russian military.
The morale of officers is hardly better. With most earning less than $500 a month, many turn to theft and misappropriation as a way of supplementing their income. This is especially true of those in logistic and support units who have access to valuable material and equipment. The level of embezzlement can be gauged by counting foreign-made cars in front of the buildings where these officers work. That they are allowed to flaunt their unlawfully acquired affluence with such impunity testifies to the degree of corruption that permeates all levels of the military establishment.
One high-ranking retired officer put it this way:
I would say the quality of personnel is the biggest challenge that needs to be addressed. What we have now after the chaos of the 1990s is a long cry from Soviet days, when personnel were well paid, kept busy training and regularly zombie-fied by political drill officers on how they should be prepared to fight for the motherland.
In an effort to up the grade of its fighting men, the Russian Defense Ministry devised plans to turn the army into a semi-professional force with a core of salaried recruits. One of the goalposts of the program was to make the sergeant corps fully filled with volunteers by 2011. It is now clear that this objective will not be met as there is little interest, given that the basic wage offered is only 8,000 rubles (roughly $350) a month. Since in most cases housing is not included, it is difficult to survive on so little even in the cheaper regions of the country.
The old generals – almost all veterans of the Cold War era – blame the executive and legislative branches for not doing enough to support the motherland’s warriors. They are partially right: The Russian military is indeed underfunded. But the lack of money is not necessarily the result of the political leadership’s unwillingness to supply the needs, but rather a reflection of the realities of Russia’s new political system. In democratic societies – even in such borderline cases as Russia is today – it is far more difficult to gain support for large military expenditure than it is under totalitarian regimes. It is a universal axiom of democratic politics that the electorate is for the most part reluctant to back extensive military spending, especially if there is no clear and present danger. Most people would much rather see the money spent on social programs and various forms of economic assistance. This pressure is becoming increasingly pronounced in Russia, a country which sees an ever-swelling inflow of cash from its enormous natural wealth but where most of the population is still poor.
Many of the old guard generals refuse to be reconciled to the new political realities and there are growing numbers among them who think that the military should not be within civilian purview at all. During his presidency, Vladimir Putin was uniquely able to control these discontented hardliners. A strongman with an extensive security background (KGB), he knew which strings to pull in order to keep them in line. His macho persona complete with a black belt in judo was decidedly an asset in that regard. His successor Dmitri Medvedev, however, may not be able to pull off the balancing act with quite the same success. A lawyer by training and businessman by profession, he is a far less imposing personality. The quintessential technocrat, he is the kind of man whom hardened military types neither like nor respect.
Even if the generals manage to intimidate or manipulate Medvedev, one thing remains clear. They will never receive anywhere close to the Cold War levels of funding when most of the country’s wealth was gobbled up by the military machine. As a point of comparison, last year’s defense expenditures came to 2.1 percent of the gross domestic product. This is less than the 2.8 percent of a few years earlier. These levels are simply not sufficient to maintain in a satisfactory condition as large a military as Russia has today.
Conscious of this, the government two years ago commissioned one of Russia’s foremost military theoreticians to draft a document – the so-called ‘new military doctrine’ – which would convey a vision for the post Cold War military. Awaited with considerable anticipation, the document was scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2007. In a sign of the disorder that currently pervades the defense circles, the deadline was not met. It is now unclear when or even if this document will ever see the light of day.
The ultimate strength of the Russian military lies, of course, in its nuclear arsenal. But even on that front serious problems abound. Most of the country’s assets still date from the Soviet era with more and more becoming obsolete with each passing year. Expensive to maintain and replace, the government has decided to pare down the strategic arsenal to 1,700 warheads (the Soviets had 10,000 at the height of the Cold War). The new equipment, however, has been slow in arriving and there have been questions about how much of the country’s nuclear store is actually operational. At the same time, the government has been forced to decommission hundreds of aging Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missiles, but due to budgetary constraints, the military can only afford some 10 new Topol ICBMs a year by way of replacement.
To add to the woes, the defense industry has been experiencing problems with the development of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. Intended as the naval component of the strategic air-land-sea nuclear trinity, several test firings of the much-hyped Bulava missile ended in failure. To Putin’s considerable embarrassment, one failed attempt occurred while he and his entourage were in attendance.
Troubled and underfunded, the Russian military finds itself in a state of upheaval and endemic disorder. In spite of Russia’s rhetorical bluster and the current flexing of its military muscle against a tiny neighbor, its actual military capabilities are a far cry from those of the Soviet Union whose superpower mantle it seeks to reclaim. This is all the more reason why America and its allies should not get intimidated by the bullying of Putin and company over the defense shield in Europe. The project is an integral part of our security arrangements, since it is the most effective method of countering the dangers inherent in the proliferation of ballistic technology. The Shield must be completed and speedily so, Russia’s bellicosity and posturing notwithstanding.