Russia Ready For Meaningful Military Reform. Again. Really.

On Friday 26 September, President Medvedev used a meeting in Orenburg with military district commanders during the Centre-2008 exercises to make his latest statements about defence modernisation. The headlines were made by his pledge to revamp Russia’s strategic arsenal: “A guaranteed nuclear deterrent system for various military and political circumstances must be provided by 2020.” However, he promised modernisation across the board: “We must ensure air superiority, precision strikes on land and sea targets, the timely deployment of troops. We are planning to launch large-scale production of warships, primarily, nuclear submarines with cruise missiles and multi-purpose attack submarines… We will also build an air and space defence network.”

On the face of it, this all sounds like news. And yet the Kremlin has been promising much the same for years. Essentially, the Orenburg statement ought best to be considered a restatement, of the pledges announced by then-defence minister (and Medvedev rival for the presidency) Sergei Ivanov back in February 2007. Then he unveiled a new, promising to spend Rs. 5 trillion ($189 billion) over the next eight years on a rearmament programme including new strategic nuclear weapons, naval expansion including aircraft carriers and overall the replacement of 45% of Russia’s weapons and vehicles by 2015.

Defence spending increased through the Putin era in line with the expansion of the oil- and gas-fuelled economy, but what has been striking has been the very lack of effective modernisation. Plans for a professional army have been pushed back now to 2030 (which in effect means ‘some day, who knows?’), and even the reduction of the armed forces to a million men by 2013 will place heavy burdens on a conscription system struggling to find enough young men to fill the ranks. Meanwhile, the new Borei class nuclear missile submarine is in service – but the SS-N-30 Bulava missile it was meant to carry still has an embarrassing propensity to fail flight tests and so is not yet in production. As for the hopes of building 5-6 new nuclear aircraft carriers as the basis for global blue-water naval taskforces, the money has still to be earmarked and, more to the point, Russia lacks the shipyards able to build them. After all, the navy’s only current aircraft carrier, the less-than-wholly-operational Admiral Kuznetsov (a ship whose names alone offer a summary of the past twenty years of Russian history, originally being dubbed Riga, then Leonid Brezhnev, then Tbilisi before being named after a WW2-vintage Soviet admiral) was built at the Nikolaev yards in what is now Ukraine.

Medvedev has ordered the high command to prepare an action plan for implementing this modernisation programme by December and the defence budget continues to grow. It rose 20% in 2008 to around one trillion rubles ($40 billion), with defence spending to be held at 15.5-16% of total federal budgets in 2008-10. However, years of increased spending have yet to manifest itself in substantive improvements, witnessed by the adequate but hardly impressive performance of Russian forces in Georgia. Operational effectiveness, while improving, is still relatively low. At the same time, procurement has been slow. Most of the army’s vehicles, for example, have been in service for at least 20 years, including front-line tanks.

More money is only part of the answer. Financial management has been a problem for the defence ministry. Embezzlement remains rife and its own auditors report that in real terms the ministry must pay manufacturers 12-18% more and wait up to twice as long compared with foreign buyers. Defence Minster Serdyukov was drafted in precisely to address this, given his background in the tax service, but we still have to see evidence of progress. Perhaps more important are the doctrinal dilemmas. Implicit in Russia’s military planning is the belief that it must essentially follow Soviet assumptions and prepare for the possibility of a major land war with China, possibly at the same time as a smaller engagement to the south or west. This demands not only substantial active armed forces but maintaining the draft so that there in a suitable pool of reservists. While a new doctrine has been promised, and Serdyukov has been able to assert his authority over the generals through ousting Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky and replacing him with his own choice, General Nikolai Makarov, the omens seem mixed as to how far they have managed so far to bring about real change in how the military see their role and their future. Makarov understand the logistical and managerial side of defence administration from his time as Head of Armaments, but also made a name for himself while commanding the Siberian Military District (2002-7) for an unfashionable interest in the importance of training, long neglected within the Russian military, and small-unit tactics.

There is the scope for a genuine reform of the Russian military, with a civilian defence minister supported by an unusually-thoughtful chief of the general staff bankrolled – so long as it lasts – by buoyant oil and gas revenues. But there has been scope for reform many times in the past: windows have opened and closed periodically since 1991, but rarely has any fresh air made it in during those brief interludes. The rhetoric is always the same; time will tell if the reality on the ground will be any different this time.

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