In 1976, when Soviet fighter pilot Viktor Belenko defected to the West in
his MiG-25, his U.S. debriefers discovered (along with a trove of Soviet
secrets) a military man with a life's accumulation of grievances against the
Soviet system. Even at the height of Moscow's power, Belenko told them, the
political leadership could not properly provide for its soldiers, sailors, and
airmen, who often lived in squalid conditions with almost no means of
entertainment or diversion.
The central obsession of the higher-ranking officers at the aerodrome where
he was based was inventing ways to steal the highly purified grain alcohol that
was used for cooling the MiG-25's avionics and deicing the wings. This often
required that several tons of jet fuel be dumped on the ground and a
nonexistent flight of the MiG-25 entered into the logbook in order to make it
seem as though the alcohol had been consumed in service of the aircraft rather
than at some drunken late-night dinner. A senseless waste, as he saw it, to
soak hundreds of gallons of fuel into the soil and then later say there was not
enough funding for proper base housing or an officers' club.
But the main source of Belenko's alienation was what he described as the
Communist party's penchant for "trying to repeal the laws of nature by
decree." In the case of his MiG-25, this translated into the impossible
task of being ready to take on the latest U.S. military aircraft in an airplane
that still used vacuum-tube technology.
One wonders if there is a similar
divorce from reality inside the Kremlin today with regard to the Russian armed
forces. The past few months have seen a number of grandiose promises for
restoring the might and modernity of Moscow's men at arms, but even the most optimistic
projections for the Russian economy fall well short of what would be needed to
pay for major military initiatives.
In July, a Russian admiral, Vladimir Vysotsky, announced on
the Naval Fleet Day holiday that the Russian navy would add six carriers to its
force--plus all of the cruisers, destroyers, supply ships, minesweepers, etc.,
that form a complete carrier battle group. Russia has never had even one proper
carrier battle group, has only one aircraft carrier in operation, and has
demonstrated that its shipyards are not up to the task even of refitting an old
Soviet-era carrier for the Indian Navy. (The shipyards where the current
Russian carrier was built during the Soviet period are in Nikolaev, Ukraine,
and there are no comparable facilities in Russia.)
More recently, the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, made
a speech calling for a massive military modernization program and a substantial
increase in defense spending. According to his statements, by 2020 Russia will
have built substantial numbers of new naval vessels, will have developed a
combined air defense and missile defense system with both land and space-based
elements, and will have upgraded the nation's conventional forces to a
"permanent state of combat readiness."
This is all just so much chest-thumping. The immense sums
required to support these lavish promises will not materialize. You can't get
there from here, as the old aphorism goes. The price of oil (which Russia
depends on for a great deal of its state revenues) has dropped to less than
half its value from this past summer, the Russian stock market is in free fall,
and foreign investment has fled Russia.
Medvedev has announced an increase in military spending, but total outlays are
still far less than the U.S. defense budget, and much of what has been
allocated will have to go towards undoing the years of neglect and decay during
the Boris Yeltsin presidency.
The performance of the Russian armed forces during the
invasion of Georgia in August showed the dismal state of Moscow's military
machine. Some Russian soldiers went into battle wearing athletic shoes because
there were not enough boots to go around. Russian troops stole everything they
could lay hands on--particularly from the Georgian army facilities they overran.
Uniforms, beds, U.S.-supplied Humvees, and toilets were even pulled off the
walls by Russian forces. "They had everything; the most amazing f--ing
beds, amazing f--ing barracks with sealed windows," one Russian soldier
was recorded saying in a short mobile phone video that was later
broadcast--awestruck like Goldilocks when she stumbled upon Baby Bear's
boudoir. Apparently living conditions for soldiers have improved little in the
decades since Belenko's defection.
Russian forces were able to overcome Georgian forces because
of sheer numbers, but in air operations the Russians had their proverbial head
handed to them. A total of 12 Russian aircraft were lost to Georgian air
defense units, including one Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bomber. By the time
hostilities ceased Russian pilots were being offered lavish bonus payments if
they were willing to fly missions over Georgia, and still some of them turned
the offers down, preferring to stay on the ground where it was safe.
The loss of the Tu-22M is
symptomatic of the deep and pervasive ills of Russia's military machine. There
were no operational pilots with enough hours to fly the mission, so instructor
pilots had to be press-ganged into service--only two of whom were able to eject
safely. The fact that the aircraft--a medium-range strategic bomber that was
originally designed to carry nuclear weapons--was misused for a reconnaissance
mission is another source of embarrassment.
A colleague of mine was impolitic enough to point all of
this out at a conference in London, only to learn later that one of the
attendees in the audience was the Russian air attaché, who later declared
himself to be offended. More often than not, this is the standard Russian
response to any honest assessment of its military. It is always easier to shoot
the messenger than criticize those who should be getting a good working-over
for failing to do their jobs properly.
At the top of the list of Russian failures should be the
intelligence agencies. Like their counterparts at the CIA and so many other spy
services around the world, Russian intelligence officers have lived by the
axiom that "information is not worth anything unless it has been
Almost all the data on purchases made by the Georgian air
defense forces and the radar networking modernization contracts that had been
carried out by Aerotechnica in Kiev and other Ukrainian firms was available in
the Russian-language press, on the Internet, and from other open sources, but
no one at GRU (the Russian military intelligence service) seemed to be paying
any attention. The former commander of the Russian Air Force, General Anatoly
Kornukov, blasted the current military leadership, telling the Interfax
news agency in Moscow that "they sent the Tu-22 crew to their deaths thinking
that the Georgian air defense would mount no resistance."
More recently, Medvedev announced that the Russian Navy
would conduct maneuvers off the coast of Venezuela in conjunction with the
armed forces of Moscow's good ally and compañero Hugo Chávez in order to show
his determination to carry out this military renaissance. But it is not an
activity that is sustainable or has anything other than the symbolic value of
annoying the United States. It's also an enormous expenditure at a time when
the basic needs for equipment, clothing, housing, and training of the men in
uniform are not being met.
Such failures led to 20 Russian sailors being killed last
week. A Freon-based fire extinguishing system on a nuclear submarine
accidentally activated, and there were not enough breathing apparatuses on
board for all personnel--a basic piece of equipment for which there is no
excuse for a shortage. A former Black Sea Fleet commander, Vladimir Komoyedov,
told the Russian RIA-Novosti news service that this accident was the result of
"the greatest lack of professionalism and negligence."
All signs suggest that the waste and neglect that made
Belenko so disdainful of the political commissars were never dealt with. So, be
on the lookout for more armed men in tennis shoes carrying stolen toilets in
carjacked Humvees the next time Russia decides to make mischief beyond its
borders. And don't be surprised if the average Russian serviceman continues to
risk being needlessly sent to an early grave.