Russia on the Rebound?

Aug. 1, 2009
This year, Russia’s Victory Day military parade was spectacular. The May 9 procession through Red Square proved to be the largest such event since the fall of the Soviet Union some two decades earlier.

The ceremonial demonstration began with a fanfare and the playing of a drum band from the Moscow Military Conservatory. Then, 9,000 troops from various training academies and military units wheeled by, marching 20 abreast. They were followed by T90 main battle tanks, road-mobile ICBMs, and dozens of other vehicular weapons.

A pair of Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters over Red Square and the Kremlin. (Photo by Mikhail Kuznetsov)

The flyby came near the end. Sixty-nine fixed wing and rotary aircraft that had taken off from Moscow military airfields passed in precise sequence over the GUM department store, just off Red Square’s centerline. The climax was a nine-ship diamond formation of the Russian Knights and Swifts display team of Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft, which dropped decoy flares as they roared away.

Victory Day is meant to celebrate the Soviet Union’s hard-won triumph over Nazi German forces of World War II, but Kremlin leaders have long used it to advertise their military and geopolitical ambitions. This year, President Dmitry Medvedev used the occasion to insist, with words and deeds, that Russia’s military pride is back.

“Among the descendants of war heroes marching in the square are those who in actual battle have demonstrated the great fighting efficiency of the modern Russian Army,” said Medvedev, referring to the Georgian conflict of August 2008.

Nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the USSR led to the virtual collapse of the Soviet Union’s once-feared armed forces, today’s Kremlin appears intent on building a truly modern Russian military.

Russia has raised defense spending every year since the late 1990s. Russia has increased its weapon modernization efforts, inching up its conventional capabilities year by year. Russian air defense systems and fighter aircraft, by the middle of the next decade, could well possess capabilities approaching those of US counterparts, say US officials.

Both President Medvedev and his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, have vowed to reform the ossified structure of Russian forces. Planned changes include deep cuts in the bloated officer corps and the introduction of a Western-style cadre of strong noncommissioned officers.

A Fundamental Shift

But the days of “Soviet Military Power”—the Pentagon’s series of annual, glossy reports detailing the threat from the USSR—are not coming back. Today’s Russian military efforts are taking place in a totally different economic and geopolitical environment.

The Kremlin’s purpose is to exorcise the humiliation of the post-Soviet breakdown, and build forces capable of dominating their neighbors, say US officials. Despite Medvedev’s words at the May parade, last year’s incursion into Georgia revealed grave faults in Russia’s military machine.

“As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several Presidents, I can say that Russia’s conventional military, although vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor,” wrote Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates earlier this year in the journal Foreign Affairs.

During the days of Communist rule, the Red Army and other branches of the armed services occupied a unique and privileged niche in Soviet society. Revered for the great triumph in World War II, held up as defenders of the homeland against the decadent West, the armed forces were sacrosanct in official ideology and propaganda.

And they were huge. By the mid-1980s, the USSR had some 4.3 million personnel in uniform.

Then it all fell apart. The Victory Day parade, a staple of Soviet propaganda since the days of Stalin, was canceled.The last such Communist-era celebration was held in 1990.

With the dissolution of the Soviet state at the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of troops were withdrawn from former client states in Eastern Europe, from portions of the Soviet Union that were suddenly independent nations, and from the Third World. Massive budget cuts and troop reductions threw hundreds of thousands of personnel out of work in a depressed economy. Troop strength fell to about 1.2 million.

“Weapons procurement virtually came to a halt in the 1990s,” says a 2008 Congressional Research Service report on Russian political and security issues.

Defense spending reeled downward. Determining the Russian military budget is a difficult matter, given that official figures can understate it by a factor of 10. But by 1997, Moscow’s estimated defense expenditures bottomed out at a ruble equivalent of $36 billion, according to an April 2009 British House of Commons study of Russia’s military posture.

Then two things happened which helped to reverse the trend. Russia’s economy recovered, particularly when oil and gas prices began to rise. And Putin became the Russian President, following Boris Yeltsin’s sudden resignation at the end of 1999.

A Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber, normally based at Engels Air Base, Saratov, lifts off from the runway at Kubinka Air Base. The Blackjack is to be upgraded, adding precision guided weapons capability. (Photo by Mikhail Kuznetsov)

“The election of Vladimir Putin … precipitated a fundamental shift in Russian society, its politics, its economy, and ultimately within its military,” says the House of Commons study.

Putin is now Prime Minister, following two terms as Russia’s President. The former KGB officer is an assertive nationalist, having famously lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster in history. His attitude toward the military as a symbol of national purpose perhaps can best be seen in the fact that he is the one who revived the inclusion of military hardware in the Victory Day parade, in 2008.

And Putin did it with style. In the later Soviet years, aircraft were often excluded from the celebration for safety reasons. No longer, not under Putin and Medvedev, his hand-picked successor.

Year by year, Putin has pushed up the defense budget, to an estimated $81 billion in 2007, the latest year for which full figures are available. That is about four percent of Russian GDP, according to British government estimates.

Russian defense spending still lags far behind current US or former Soviet levels. But under Putin, Russia has resumed development and production of some major weapons, such as the SS-27 ICBM and the Bulava SS-NX-32 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Russia has been working on a fifth generation fighter project since 2002, the PAK FA, with Sukhoi as prime contractor. The new aircraft reportedly will be about the same size as the US F-35 but with twin engines, supersonic cruise, a small radar cross section, and extreme maneuverability.

Sukhoi’s prototype Su-47 Golden Eagle fighter, meanwhile, has wowed air show audiences with its forward-swept wings and turning ability. The PAK FA will incorporate some of the advances from this test aircraft, according to Russian media, but will have a more traditional wing form.

Russia already has capable air defense equipment. The Russian SA-20 is similar to the US Patriot PAC-2 missile, but with a longer range and a radar “that is very effective in detecting stealthy aircraft,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Some Western analysts worry that a true fifth generation aircraft, in tandem with the SA-20, could present a dire military problem to US forces. But Gates, for one, says that concern is misplaced.

“Russia is probably six years away from initial operating capability of a fifth generation fighter,” Gates told lawmakers this spring. “By then, we expect to have more than 1,000 fifth generation fighters in our inventory.”

Readiness has gone up, particularly in rapid-deployment units, and in recent years the Russian military has begun again to engage in “show-the-flag” activities. These include overseas port visits by naval warships and long-range bomber patrols along the edge of US and NATO airspace.

Overall, “Russia is trying to re-establish military power that it believes commensurate with its economic strength and general political confidence,” said Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, then Defense Intelligence Agency director, at a March Senate hearing.

But despite all the effort and money devoted to improvement in recent years, the Russian military is still far from the polished, efficient machine of Medvedev’s Victory Day boast.

Russia’s modern weapons are good, but they account for only about 10 percent of the military’s capability, according to a British estimate. Waste and fraud remain rampant, eating up perhaps a third of the Russian defense budget.

Problems Exposed

Commanders routinely overstate the number of troops in their units, to increase food rations and equipment draws. Conscripts still account for at least half of Russia’s military manpower, and they are often from the lower rungs of society, too poor or inept to evade service.

“Readiness and morale remain low, and draft evasion and desertion are widespread,” according to the CRS report.

Maintenance of complex weapons is often neglected. An investigation into the December 2008 crash of a MiG-29 in Trans-Baikal territory found that the cause was heavy corrosion in the aircraft’s load-bearing structure. The head of the Air Force’s flight safety program subsequently said that a servicewide inspection of MiGs found that only 30 percent were corrosion free.

These problems, and more, were exposed by Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in August.

While Russian forces prevailed, their shortcomings were obvious. Medvedev heard as much firsthand in a visit to the headquarters of the North Caucasus Military District after the fighting was over.

Vehicles routinely broke down on the advance into Georgian territory, the troops told Medvedev.

Reactive armor mounted on tanks was defective—and an estimated 75 percent of the tanks themselves were older T62 and T72 models.

Lt. Gen. Anatoly Khrulyev, commander of Russia’s 58th Army, had to borrow a satellite phone from a journalist to speak with his troops—in the midst of combat—since his military communications equipment was inadequate.

A lack of air controllers attached to Russian ground units allowed Georgian multiple launch rocket systems to fire unopposed on Russian-occupied territory for 14 hours.

“Despite the best efforts of the Russian government to present the five-day war with Georgia … as a military success, the ‘victory’ proved pyrrhic,” write Dale Herspring, a political science professor at Kansas State University, and Roger N. McDermott, a military research fellow at the University of Kent at Canterbury, Britain, in a recent analysis.

As a result of the Georgian war experience, the Kremlin’s high command launched a major shake-up of its military establishment. The reforms could be as sweeping as any carried out in Russia since the end of World War II.

“The future Russian military could well be unrecognizable to those who have watched the evolution of the Soviet or current Russian armed forces,” write Herspring and McDermott.

Among the key items of the shake-up is a reduction in the military’s size. Total personnel are to be cut to one million men by 2012. The officer corps is set to be slashed from 355,000 to 150,000.

The Russian military’s 65 institutions of higher learning are to be consolidated into 10 locations. Russian armed forces are to establish a noncommissioned officer corps as a basis for training and discipline—something they currently lack.

An Su-35 fighter is shown here on its first flight in 2008. US defense officials believe that Russia is about six years away from fielding a fifth generation fighter. Planned new systems also include a fleet of Borei-class nuclear submarines. (Photo by Sukhoi via Aleksey Mikheyev)

If all goes according to plan, units not fully manned are to be disbanded, and all remaining units put on permanent high readiness status. Ground forces are to be reorganized into a brigade system—eliminating division, corps, and army echelons.

The Air Force plans to eliminate all its divisions and regiments, replacing them with squadrons.

As to weaponry, by 2015 the Russian government says it will spend $190 billion on a modernization program that will replace 45 percent of its entire arsenal.

Planned new systems include the fifth generation fighter, a new RS-24 ICBM, a fleet of eight new Borei-class nuclear submarines, and upgrades for long-range bombers, including conventional precision guided munitions capability for the Tu-160.

Overall, the reforms appear intended to reorient the Russian military toward more localized conflicts.

“These reforms, if carried out, would improve Russian capability to respond to limited, regional threats, but reduce their capability for large-scale conventional war,” Maples of the DIA told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Making all residual forces permanently ready and establishing the brigade as the basic ground unit would facilitate rapid mobilization and deployment of these relatively compact units to threatened areas.”

But will these reforms be carried out? That is a large and difficult question.

For one thing, the world economic crisis has hit Russia hard. Spreading recession is not the only problem; half of the Russian state’s cash comes from oil and gas revenues. Falling petroleum prices have thus deprived the Kremlin of anticipated resources. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in February announced that the 2009 defense budget was being cut by 15 percent.

Then there is the nation’s poor health and demographic outlook. Russia has the overall worst health indicators of any industrialized country, with an average life expectancy of 58 years for men. Combined with a birthrate that fell sharply in the post-Soviet years, this means that the pool of draft-age young men is about to get much smaller.

By 2018, the number of Russia’s eligible military recruits will be only half as large as it was in 2005, said Dennis C. Blair, Director of National Intelligence, at a February hearing of the Senate select committee on intelligence.

Opposition Within

Furthermore, with the exception of such niche areas as air defense systems, the largely state-run Russian defense industrial complex has been unable to keep pace with the technological changes that have swept through the West and even China.

“Russia has been adept at developing prototype advanced capabilities such as next generation fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, but the ability of industry to mass produce those capabilities is severely lacking,” according to the British study.

Finally, there is the opposition within. Institutions generally resist major changes to their culture, and the Russian military is no exception. Putin and Medvedev have sacked several top generals and defense officials, including the heads of military intelligence and the personnel directorate, over perceived opposition to proposed changes.

The tens of thousands of officers who are slated to lose their posts as the result of the shuffle are another possible source of push back. Officers with less than 10 years of service are to receive only a severance package. Those with more are slated to get an apartment, and perhaps a retirement package, as well. But the housing could well be in an outlying rural area, not Moscow or St. Petersburg. Retraining efforts are questionable, according to Western analysts.

“There are clear indications of unhappiness inside the officer corps,” write Herspring and McDermott.

Still, Putin has been the defining leader of Russia’s initial emergence from its Soviet past, and it might be unwise to bet against his and Medvedev’s ability to push through changes they want.

Two years ago, Putin’s choice of Serdyukov as Defense Minister was a surprising one, given that Serdyukov had virtually no military background. Many of Russia’s generals were not happy with the choice. But Serdyukov is still on the job, and by many accounts has attacked corruption in the armed forces with vigor.

“The Russian military at present is far more frightening on paper than in reality,” concludes Zoltan Barany, a University of Texas political scientist, in a Hoover Institution report on Russia’s military prospects. “Nevertheless, the period of deterioration and stagnation seems to have ended and the recovery has begun.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “CyberPatriot Smackdown,” appeared in the June.