Russia’s Military Retrenchment

Aug. 1, 2001

Russia’s military, tapped by President Vladimir Putin for a thorough revitalization, is under pressure to clean up its own act.

Even staunch advocates of increased support for Russia’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen are turning their guns on the waste and mismanagement that have weakened the force in recent years. They say that spending more on the military as presently constituted will only feed its penchant for squandering resources on a gargantuan scale.

Few have any doubts that Russia’s armed forces were in a deep crisis, the scope and magnitude of which can be glimpsed in a random sampling of problems:

  • Fighter pilots get 14 hours of flying time per year.
  • Murder claims 500 troops per year–18 times the number in US armed forces.
  • Ground station fires knock out ground military communications systems and communications with satellites.
  • Commanders sometimes seize electricity plants to prevent loss of power to ICBM bases.
  • Thieves in the navy–including officers–are stripping submarines of valuable equipment for sale to criminal gangs.

Now, the Kremlin, for the first time since collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, seems serious about tackling problems besetting the force. Fueled by humiliating setbacks in Chechnya and the disastrous loss last summer of the submarine Kursk with all hands, Putin’s planned revitalization aims to increase the resources and prestige of the armed forces.

Experts say that Putin’s support, however, will not be sufficient by itself to bring about a military revival. Moscow simply does not have enough money to rebuild the force in its traditional form. Eliminating wasteful practices and structures is the key, they say, and painful reform is inevitable.

As experts see it, the best outcome for Russia would be the emergence of a smaller, more modern fighting force shaped to deal with border incursions and internal disruptions.

The president himself vows to end the practice of devoting “colossal resources” to lumbering forces which “wasted” precious sustenance on “peripheral issues.”

Putin has warned, “The structure of the armed forces must precisely correspond to the threats Russia faces now and will face in the future. To maintain such a cumbersome and at times ineffective military organization is extravagant. In our situation it’s simply impermissible.”

Putin repeated his insistence on reforms in remarks to graduates of Russia’s military academies in late June, declaring: “We are paying special attention to military construction and military reform. The unique geopolitical location of Russia, its vast territory and long borders present great demands before defenders of the homeland.”

Attacking the Bloat

The most intense reform pressure focuses on cutting Russia’s bloated and expensive force structure.

It is true that Russian forces, including paramilitary rear services, have already been cut from Cold War levels. Their end strength in the 1990s shrank from about four million to 1.2 million. (However, some 1.5 million of the troops that were eliminated came from rear support and strategic forces-not from theater units.) Even so, analysts are virtually unanimous in the view that Russia no longer has a need for a million-man force.

They note the size of today’s Russian military approximates that of US forces, which have global responsibilities and conduct operations at far higher intensity.

For a poor country like Russia, keeping such a large force has obvious drawbacks in terms of quality. Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s defense committee, has noted that the US per-troop expenditure exceeds that of the Russian military by a factor of 45. The implication is that Russia can have quantity or quality, but not both.

Russia “is unable to fully finance the armed forces,” says Gen. Vladislav Putilin, deputy chief of the Russian armed forces’ general staff and head of the general staff directorate for organization and mobilization. “The reduction of armed forces personnel is inevitable.”

In a search for more balance in forces and budget, Putin last September ordered a three-year reduction to slice another 350,000 service personnel from the rolls, leaving only 850,000 in 2003. That force will be only 21 percent as large as the force that existed at the end of the Cold War.

Hardest hit in the Putin plan will be the regular army, currently at 348,000, which would have to absorb cuts of about 180,000 troops.

Still, the other services are not immune. Russia’s 185,000-strong air force would drop by another 40,000 service members and the 172,000-man navy would lose 50,000 sailors.

Russia’s reform-minded politicians and military commanders are hoping that the personnel reductions will free enough funding to bring about a substantial boost in spending on fuel, spares, maintenance, and training.

There are dangers, however. By any standard, the cut is a large one, and it has been opposed by more traditional elements in the armed forces. Mindful of the risks of a political backlash, Putin describes his force-cut crusade as a “measured, calm, and smooth” effort to “optimize the country’s military machine” with “no massive, wholesale reductions.”

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov adds: “National security is not a sphere where revolutions are admissible.”

Increasing Professionalism

Equally important is the goal of reining in the military’s harsh and sometimes murderous ways and increasing the professionalism of the force.

Putin reportedly captured 90 percent of all military votes, at least partly because of his pledge to curtail the hated draft long used to fill the ranks of the Russian armed forces. Many Russian analysts maintain that reform efforts will produce only cosmetic improvements unless it somehow brings an end to conscription and ushers in a volunteer force.

Reality is extraordinarily bleak for Russia’s hand-me-down armed forces and has been for years. Putin, elected in 2000, has declared his dedication to ending the neglect that has brought missed paydays, food shortages, brutal hazing of conscripts, and corrupt moonlighting by underpaid and undisciplined troops.

The poor quality of basic provisions and equipment only adds to miseries of the Russian fighting man.

Combat equipment is shoddy. In Chechnya, Russian troops would rather risk injury or death than put on outmoded protective gear. They enter combat wearing bandannas instead of helmets, not for lack of discipline but because out-of-date army flak jackets and helmets impede movement while offering almost no protection.

The Russian air force complains it receives a fifth of the fuel that it needs to sustain proper training. The story is much the same elsewhere. The navy, for example, has not deployed to train in the Mediterranean since the winter of 1996-97.

It appears that only the vestiges of strict Soviet­era control have prevented a disastrous revolt in the face of perilous conditions that spawn an estimated 400 to 600 suicides by troops each year, about four times the rate in American armed forces.

It is the draft that lies at the root of Russia’s most serious problems. Everyone agrees that the twice-yearly roundup is a nightmare to run. It is increasingly unpopular with the Russian people. And it leads to demoralization in the ranks.

The draft law calls on all draft-age men to serve two years in the armed forces. In reality, a majority obtains exemptions, leaving the armed forces filled with second-class recruits drawn from barely 12 percent of all draft-age men between ages of 18 and 27. Health problems disqualify 30 percent of the would-be recruits.

Violence in the ranks is so common that it is considered part of Russian military tradition. Hazing, beatings, and worse are commonplace.

These low-paid, poorly disciplined troops are deployed to operate the submarines, warplanes, and nuclear weapons.

Now, political reformers and many senior Russian military officers themselves back efforts to end conscription and shift to an all-volunteer force. As Putilin puts it, a professional armed force that is well-paid, well-fed, and widely respected remains “the great dream of all servicemen.”

The effort faces two major roadblocks. The first is cost. Today’s Russian conscript comes close to being a slave laborer, with a paycheck of about one dollar per day. Russians are only too aware that the American switch over from a draft army to an all-volunteer force in 1973 has resulted in vastly increased outlays for pay, housing, and benefits.

The second barrier is overtly political-the strong desire on the part of some military and Kremlin figures to hold onto the prestige that comes from having a large standing military, even if it is of the paper-tiger variety.

Redirecting Investment

In addition to taking on force structure and the draft, the reform effort seeks to divert defense funds into new areas.

The goal would be to speed the modernization of what has become a badly outmoded Industrial Age force, one that lags well behind the West and even some newly emergent nations in the sophistication of its defense systems.

The Kremlin says that, by 2015, it should be devoting 50 percent of the Russian national defense budget to research and development and weapon procurement. That would mark a dramatic shift in emphasis. Today, Moscow devotes roughly 70 percent of defense spending to personnel and maintenance.

“Our army must be a modern, flexible, mobile, combat-capable force,” Putin says. “We cannot simply maintain the army, refusing to train it in new technologies or to buy modern equipment.”

Already, the military is shifting around forces in anticipation of the payoff of additional budget resources arising from the shift in investment decisions. Oksana Antonenko, a research fellow with the London­based International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes that the Russians plan to create by 2006 a pair of high-readiness joint force groups, one to be based in Southwestern Asia and one in Central Asia.

“These forces will be the first to receive new weapons systems,” says Antonenko. “Priority in equipment modernization will be given to air force and missile air defense, communications, and reconnaissance systems as well as precision weapons.”

De-Emphasizing Nukes

Another goal of the overhaul is to close down or at least greatly reduce the Russian military’s traditional emphasis on nuclear might.

Nuclear arms have been the showcase weapons that have afforded impoverished Russia a plausible claim to something like superpower status. However, these days are ending.

“Everything should be balanced,” says Ivanov, the defense minister. While strategic rocket forces are “the nuclear shield of the country” and “a reliable barrier against aggression toward Russia,” says Ivanov, “the world is changing; we see new threats that were not apparent 10 years ago.”

Aging ICBMs are being allowed to reach the end of their operational lives without replacement. Production of the SS-27 Topol-M weapon, Russia’s only new-production ICBM, has been slowed from 10 to six per year.

The strategic rocket forces, once the pride of the defense establishment, has lost command of Russia’s missile defenses and space-based assets. Putin plans to fold strategic rocket forces into the Russian air force–a severe bureaucratic blow to this once mighty bureaucratic organization.

For now, the strategic rocket forces’ command structure has been amalgamated with the general staff chain of command. A 2006 review will map plans for integration into the air force.

This issue is politically explosive. Last year, the then-Defense Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, publicly rebuked Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, for even suggesting that the strategic rocket forces be turned over to the air force. He said the scheme was a “psychotic attack” that betrayed “plain madness.” Sergeyev, by the way, is a strategic rocket forces veteran.

Putin gave encouragement to military reformers by the way in which he put an end to the dispute. He sacked Sergeyev and turned over the defense minister post to Ivanov, 48, a trusted colleague and former KGB two-star general.

Putin’s challenges are far from over. In fact, many Western analysts express deep skepticism about his prospects for ultimate success.

“There has been a remarkable lack of progress in most areas of military reform and that fact in itself is news,” says Terence Taylor, IISS assistant director. “I suspect the armed forces will be able to get their share of the defense budget, but whether that will enhance the situation is doubtful.”

Putin’s regime has not yet met its commitments to pay special salaries to former soldiers who rejoined the armed forces as contract soldiers to fight in Chechnya. The re-enlisted troops were promised about $1,000 a month in contrast to the $200 a month paid to midlevel career Russian officers.

Other experts say that Putin’s move to end the Sergeyev­Kvashnin standoff masked wider bureaucratic jockeying over such issues as the role of coastal vs. internal border defenses and the importance of strike aviation vs. land forces.

And Then, Chechnya …

On top of everything else, there’s the military millstone in Chechnya. Russian troops have yet to fulfill Putin’s promise to quell the Chechen rebellion and preserve Russian territorial integrity against terrorist threats after waging a 20-month campaign with the loss of an estimated 3,100 Russian troops.

Chechen fighters still pester Russian forces garrisoned in the restive area. The Russians have destroyed the capital of Grozny and captured most of the territory in a counter-insurgency operation that turned into a large scale military intervention before subsiding into a garrison-based occupation featuring checkpoints, bases, and Russian convoys.

Kvashnin conceded that 200 of Chechnya’s 357 population centers remain so unsettled that Russian troops are needed to keep order. In Chechnya, Russia no longer maintains a 100,000-man force, but in early May Ivanov canceled plans to make another major cut, instead reducing the remaining 80,000 troops by only 5,000.

Chechnya’s Kremlin­backed civilian government was forced to retreat from Grozny in early May back to the second largest city of Gudermes. And a fierce two-day battle claimed the lives of at least 15 Russian soldiers and 28 Chechen irregulars. Russian forces have failed to eliminate the small- and medium-size Chechen armed groups and their leaders or effectively seal the region against an infusion of military supplies and financial resources to support guerrilla activities.

Putin remains adamant, rejecting any suggestion of scaling back operations. “It would be an unforgivable mistake to retreat and abandon the republic again,” he said.

Putin is underscoring that he is not afraid to tackle the tough issues or wade through controversy to achieve his goals. He is moving to correct past mistakes, including taking steps to arm Russian forces with better equipment, ranging from night vision equipment and improved artillery to airborne reconnaissance from aircraft and electronic intelligence.

What does this portend for broad military revitalization

Putin is politically stronger and better positioned than anyone else to revamp the military, but even he has said that the changeover could take a decade or more. Yet to be seen is whether Putin’s determination will be enough to bring about the changes in attitude and organization that everyone agrees will be needed.

Stewart M. Powell, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered national and international affairs for 30 years in the United States and overseas. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Air Force Medics in Peace and War,” appeared in the January 2000 issue.