Speaking to high-level generals this week, Dmitry Medvedev vowed to move forward with controversial personnel reforms and rearmament plans for Russia’s military. He cited NATO expansion as the primary motivator for the plans, sparking concerns about a renewed arms race in the face of deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations.
The modernisation was necessary because of the danger posed by the west’s transatlantic military alliance, he said. “Attempts to expand the military infrastructure of Nato near the borders of our country are continuing.”
Russia’s defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, said the world situation meant the “likelihood of armed conflicts and their potential danger for Russia” was rising. “The military-political situation is characterised by the US leadership’s desire … to expand its military presence and that of its allies in regions adjacent to Russia,” he declared.
The changes will be the first major transformation to Russia’s military structure since World War II and are designed to make it more capable of quick mobilization for local conflicts (i.e. Georgia). The size of the military will be reduced from around 1.13 million to 1 million troops, including a significant reduction to the officer corps. Starting in 2011, modern weaponry will begin to replace the approximately 90 percent of Russian equipment and weapons that are outdated. Medvedev added that Russia’s nuclear forces will be updated.
Many officers have complained that the reforms leave the country less able to fight a large-scale war against a force such as NATO or China — Medvedev’s specific mention of NATO was likely an attempt to assuage these worries. However, analysts noted that the details of the plan seem to contradict Moscow’s very public concerns about the supposed threat posed by NATO. Alexander Golts, a Russian military expert, commented in the WaPo, “If you really believed in the possibility of military confrontation with NATO and the United States, you can’t move to an armed forces of this kind.”
Moreover, a deeper purpose of Medvedev’s remarks was likely to send the message to Obama that Russia intends to play hardball on many of the issues tabled for discussion, including Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear program and the planned U.S. missile defense shield for Europe. The two will have their first face-to-face meeting at the London G20 summit in April. The WSJ:
“It’s more a message to America: Don’t take us for granted,” said Nikolai Zlobin, a senior fellow at the World Security Institute, a Washington think tank. “Medvedev is trying to create leverage and certain spaces that he can give up later, calling it a compromise.”
The Kremlin is also upset over progress made by the U.S. in relations with former Soviet countries, particularly Georgia, Ukraine, and the Central Asian states. Serdyukov stated, “Active support was given to the processes aimed at pushing Russia out of the sphere of its traditional interests.” This follows speculation that Russian promises of aid pressured Kyrgyzstan into closing the U.S. airbase at Manas, a vital transport point into Afghanistan.
Obama should continue to press for a deal over Iran. Issues like arms control and supply routes to Afghanistan will certainly benefit tremendously from Russian help, but disrupting Iran’s nuclear program will be near impossible without it.
Peter Cassata is associate editor of the Atlantic Council.