A Czar in the Making

Dec. 1, 2007

Flush with oil money and fuming at perceived slights of recent years, a revanchist Russia is emerging on the world scene—and it is not happy. Many are startled at the angry, combative tone Moscow displays toward the West in general and the United States in particular. They wonder where it all will lead.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has tightened the vise on political opposition and press freedom at home. At the same time, the ex-KGB colonel has lashed out at Washington and its allies around the world. He displays an authoritarian streak worthy of a Romanov.

“The United States has overstepped its borders in all spheres—economic, political, humanitarian—and has imposed itself on other states,” Putin said in an incendiary speech last February at the Munich Conference on Security Policy.

Russia’s president has made invidious comparisons between the Bush Administration and Nazi Germany’s Third Reich. He characterized the demise of the communist Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Putin is hostile to US plans to station elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Indeed, he has hinted that any such move would force Moscow to resume targeting Western Europe with its nuclear weapons.

He has suspended Russian participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, in theory freeing Moscow to once again deploy massive tank formations west of the Ural Mountains, and threatened to leave “peacekeeping” troops in Georgia and Moldova indefinitely.

Western foreign affairs experts are most alarmed by Putin’s bent for following up his inflammatory rhetoric with provocative action. Last year Moscow cut off deliveries of Russian oil to Europe in a dispute with one of its neighbors. Many regarded it as energy blackmail.

Putin has pointedly refused to extradite a former KGB officer accused by British authorities of using Polonium 210—a rare radioactive substance—to fatally poison a Russian expatriate, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, in London. Litvinenko had earlier broken with the Kremlin.

New Missiles, New Tests

In all of this, analysts discern a disturbing pattern. Many of Putin’s critics, within Russia and around the world, have been winding up in jail or dead.

Putin last summer announced that, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russian strategic bombers were resuming regular long-range combat patrols that bring them into close proximity to Western forces and borders.

In July, two Russian bombers skirted the coast of Norway and briefly entered British airspace before departing under RAF fighter escort. In August, Russian bombers flew near Guam during US military exercises in the Pacific.

In that same month, a Russian-led submarine team planted a titanium flag on the North Pole, claiming it as sovereign territory, and Russian bombers practiced launching cruise missiles during Arctic exercises.

Recent press reports suggest that Moscow may be negotiating with Syria for the use by the Russian Navy of two Mediterranean ports at Tartus and Latakia.

Russia and China, along with other members of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), held the group’s most ambitious wargame ever, which included 6,500 troops and more than 100 aircraft.

SCO is a regional alliance sometimes called a “club for dictators,” in recognition of a deeply autocratic membership that includes Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. During wargames in 2005, the SCO demanded that the US vacate Central Asian military bases used to support operations in Afghanistan—leaving little doubt about who would fill the security vacuum.

This summer, amid Russia-Georgia tensions over Moscow’s continued stationing of “peacekeeping” troops in Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia claimed a Russian warplane had invaded its airspace and fired an anti-radar missile at a new Georgian mobile radar site. Russia denied this, but an outside probe concluded, in effect, that Moscow was lying.

In recent months Russia has tested new land- and sea-based intercontinental missiles and what it called “the father of all [conventional] bombs.”

To cap off all of this, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei B. Ivanov has announced a $200 billion military modernization program designed to replace half of Russia’s current military equipment with new systems by 2015.

Where is all of this headed? Can a Russia that was considered the sick man of Eurasia as recently as the late 1990s truly be spoiling for a Cold War-style showdown with the West

At least part of Putin’s confrontational approach can be chalked up to a desire to erase the painful memories of the “lost decade” of the 1990s—which included the breakup of the Soviet empire, devaluation of the ruble, and a spectacular debt default—and reclaim what Russians feel is their rightful role as a major player on the world scene.

Now, with economic growth fueled by heavy sales of record-price oil, Russia’s gross domestic product has expanded sixfold—from $200 billion to $1.2 trillion—over the past eight years. Russian GDP is still climbing, said Andrew C. Kuchins, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and the roughly 2.7 percent of GDP that Russia devotes to its military thus has seen its absolute value rise accordingly. Russia now spends some $30 billion on its military annually, making the Russian defense budget sixth in the world in terms of overall size.

Angered by Washington’s post-Cold War insistence on expanding the NATO alliance to Russia’s borders and its support for democratic revolutions in Russia’s “near abroad,” Russian leaders evidently believe the US, with its military tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, is due for a little no-cost payback.

Kuchins noted, “There are certainly a lot of worrisome signs emanating from Russia that are reminiscent of the Cold War, but I’m fairly confident that they don’t really want to get into another bipolar, global contest with the United States.”

Others see Moscow plunging toward a more confrontational and assertive approach, with uncertain meaning.

Now in his eighth year in office, Putin has cowed his political opposition and solidified his power by elevating former KGB cronies—almost all of whom have deeply hostile views of the West—to an estimated two-thirds of the top positions in the Kremlin hierarchy.

Hot Rhetoric

Putin has also learned that rhetorical jabs at the United States and NATO countries play well at home and feed his image as a tough leader. He enjoys a sky-high 80 percent public approval rating.

With Russia flush with cash and eager to diversify its economy, it also makes sense to many observers that Moscow would decide to invest much more heavily in a military-industrial complex that honed its skills as a major exporter of weaponry during the Cold War arms race.

“A lot of Putin’s hot rhetoric and the military buildup in Russia are driven by internal politics,” said Pavel L. Podvig, a researcher at the Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a former researcher at the Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology. It is, said Podvig, “a way for him and his people to assert themselves as tough guys.”

Russia’s new $200 billion modernization program, covering the years 2007 through 2015, focuses on strategic forces. It may have only a moderate impact in transforming Russian ground and tactical aviation forces that suffered a decade of neglect in the 1990s, and which fought two wars in Chechnya.

Especially since the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the dismantlement of a significant portion of its conventional military force structure, Russian military doctrine has focused on strategic nuclear forces as the chief deterrent against attack or intimidation by any major power. As such, Russia’s nuclear forces received relatively favorable treatment and funding even throughout the 1990s, and they maintain the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads in the world.

Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces constitute a separate branch of the armed forces. As of January 2007, it operated 489 missile systems capable of carrying 1,788 warheads, according to Russian officials.

This missile force includes 76 SS-18 ICBMs, each capable of carrying 10 warheads; 123 SS-19s, each capable of carrying six warheads; 243 road-mobile, single-warhead SS-25s; and 47 advanced SS-27s, also single-warhead missiles.

The SS-27 is advertised as being able to penetrate any known missile defense system.

Russia’s 37th Air Army is Russian strategic aviation, and, as of January 2007, it operated 79 strategic bombers capable of carrying up to 884 long-range cruise missiles. These include 32 Tu-95MS Bear and 15 Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.

The Blackjacks are advertised as the world’s largest and fastest strategic bombers. The Russian air forces and navy also operate 162 other versions of Tu-22M bombers.

“Russian security policy is all about prestige and economic benefits, and as such their current modernization is focused on strategic nuclear forces,” said Lowell H. Schwartz, an international policy analyst with the RAND Corp. who is working on an upcoming report on the Russian military. “That’s where the Russians see themselves as our equals, and they are constantly trying to maintain the prestige of that position.”

As part of its tactical aviation modernization program, Russia is currently developing a fifth generation fighter aircraft to replace MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters in the Russian Air Force, with initial flight anticipated later this decade.

The Air Force is reportedly planning to field advanced MiG-29SM or SMT Fulcrum fighters and Su-34 fighter-bombers to replace older models in its tactical fighter inventory, and it has an estimated 386 advanced MiG-31 interceptors. In all, the Russian Air Force has a reported total of 3,365 aircraft, 2,400 of which are combat aircraft.

Advanced Russian fighters are well-respected around the world and are aggressively marketed to potential adversaries (such as Venezuela, another dictatorship drunk on petrodollars) and in operations around Russian airspace.

Tactical air forces lack expeditionary capability and sustainability, however, and few experts view Russia’s tactical aviation modernization as the threat that once shadowed Europe during the Cold War.

The Russian Army is still in dire straits, despite undergoing a modernization and reform program designed to transform it into a more professional force.

It suffers from overcentralization, old equipment, a lack of experienced noncommissioned officers, and poor morale.

On paper, Russian Ground Forces still appear formidable. This land force comprises an estimated 395,000 troops (down from 670,000 in the mid-1990s), organized around 19 motorized rifle divisions, three tank divisions, five or six artillery and rocket force divisions, and a field artillery division. A separate airborne service boasts four divisions of paratroopers.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance, Russian ground forces retain a very large inventory of vehicles. These include the largest tank arsenal in the world at 22,800 main battle tanks.

Much of the equipment is old. A current modernization plan calls for fielding a next generation T-95 main battle tank and S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft and anti-missile air defense system to more than two dozen battalions by 2015, according to the Russian News and Information Agency.

Given current funding levels and production rates, however, it could take as long as 30 years for Russia to modernize the equipment in all of its ground formations.

Toward a Professional Force

Under Russia’s current Ground Forces reform plans, 70 percent of servicemen and all sergeants would be professionals by 2010, with the rest conscripts. The length of conscription is also being reduced from two years to 18 months, with an ultimate goal of limiting conscription terms to one year, in part to limit the backlash from an extremely unpopular draft.

According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, only about 30 percent of Russian Ground Forces were professional at the end of 2005, raising serious doubts about Russia’s ability to meet its goals in professionalizing the Army.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think the Russian Army is an offensive, expeditionary threat anywhere,” said a senior US Army officer in US European Command who has recently participated in joint exercises with the Russians.

“Their equipment is getting better, and the T-90 is a pretty capable tank, but their leadership and training systems just haven’t progressed very much,” the officer said. The Russians “don’t invest in junior officers, they don’t have a professional NCO corps, they still use analog systems and sticky acetate maps, they still focus on massed artillery instead of precision strike, … and their command structures are still very stovepiped in the old Soviet style. After working with them, I personally don’t go to sleep worrying about the threat of Russia’s conventional tactical forces.”

“The idea of reconstituting a Soviet-style conventional juggernaut is pretty much out of the question,” said Podvig, who contributed to the book Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces.

“There is really no political constituency in Russia for reconstituting threatening conventional forces and armies that can be massed on the border,” he said. “Even military leaders would like to focus on a smaller force and a modernization process that they can more easily manage. No one is really interested in a massive, conventional force expansion.”

Under its current rearmament program, Russia has for the first time put modernization of the Russian Navy on an equal footing with strategic nuclear forces, devoting roughly 25 percent of an estimated $200 billion modernization budget to ship construction. Ivanov, first deputy prime minister and former defense minister, told the Russian News and Information Agency that the Russian Navy was a prime beneficiary of the present military modernization campaign.

“We are already building practically as many ships as we did in Soviet times,” he said. “The problem now is not lack of money, but how to optimize production so that the Navy can get new ships three, not five, years after laying them down.”

A Navy in Slow Turnaround

Once again the Russians face a formidable challenge, however, in turning around a precipitous deterioration of the once vaunted Russian Navy that began in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. After defense spending was slashed and production of new ships ground virtually to a halt for much of the decade, the Russians had to manage a process of scrapping much of the former Soviet fleet and shuttering huge amounts of naval infrastructure.

By the time of its demise, for instance, the Soviet Union had nearly 250 different types of warships. The subsequent lax storage of decommissioned nuclear submarines in ports such as Murmansk became a national scandal and many naval bases outside of Russia were closed.

Cuts in naval training and readiness also led to mishaps, including the August 2000 loss of the Kursk submarine during Northern Fleet exercises, and an accident in 2005 involving a Priz-class Russian minisubmarine that had to be rescued by a British Royal Navy unmanned robotic vehicle in the Far East.

The Russian Navy maintains four fleets (Northern, Pacific, Baltic, and Black Sea), but under decommissioning plans, soon only the Northern Fleet will deploy strategic submarines capable of carrying nuclear-tipped missiles. As of 2006, the Navy had a total of 50 nuclear submarines (compared to 170 in 1991), but only 26 are operational. Of those, just 12 submarines are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, according to Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. They are armed with 173 sea-launched ballistic missiles capable of delivering 609 nuclear warheads.

RAND’s Schwartz said the Russians are “very consciously and methodically modernizing nuclear forces with the goal of maintaining parity with the United States to the extent that is possible, and ensuring that they could overcome any planned US missile defenses.”

In terms of transforming conventional and tactical forces into a more modern and professional force, Schwartz confirmed the Russians are experiencing much slower progress and decidedly mixed results. Force transformation is a lower priority for them, however.

“That corresponds with another interesting phenomenon, which is that despite the provocative rhetoric, Putin is actually very cautious about using Russian military forces outside of Russian borders,” Schwartz added. The Russian military understands that its “conventional forces are inherently weak, and they’ve gotten smarter about using soft power such as oil resources to influence world events.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine “Espionage, the Sequel,” appeared in the March issue.