With the last year defense budget of $72 billion, Russia has overtaken Britain and France to become the world’s third-largest defense spender. The Russian armed forces are in the midst of wide ranging transformation whilst acquiring some state-of-the-art weapons, including French-built Mistral amphibious assault ships.
Yet, despite some impressive strides in reforming its armed forces and boisterous rhetoric, Russia still has quite a long way to go in building a genuinely modern military force on par with Western militaries.
The role of armed forces in Russian policy making tends to be more nuanced and less clear-cut than ostentatious displaying of military hardware and political sound bites might otherwise suggest.
First, the current Russian leadership and President Vladimir Putin in particular take great pride in armed forces as a testament to their country’s growing confidence on the international scene. Left to rust and rot in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian army, which had to cope with the ignominious exit from the first Chechen War, was only a hollow shell of its past Soviet glory throughout much of the 1990s. This changed in 2000, with the first election of Putin as president in 2000. He made the reform of the Russian military central to his quest of restoring Russia as a great power. Ever since then Putin has positioned himself as an undisputable champion of strong armed forces. Under Putin’s watch, the Russian Air Force has resumed flights of its long-range bombers, much to the ire of NATO, and Russian submarines have been dispatched on patrolling missions off the eastern seaboard of the United States, echoing a more assertive stance by the Russian leadership. Tanks and mobile missile launchers have found their way back to Moscow to parade on the Red Square to celebrate Victory Day. One can certainly question the military utility of such actions but they remain instrumental in conveying the regime’s central message both to the domestic and international audience that Russia is back as a great power.
Second, the strong army is viewed by many in the Russian leadership as a necessary prerequisite to attain one of the key objectives of Putin’s foreign policy agenda – making Russia an independent center of gravity in world affairs. As amply enumerated in country’s foreign policy and defense doctrines, the perennial objective of Russia’s foreign policy is to strengthen its ability to act independently on the world stage. Interrelated is Moscow’s heightened sense of own sovereignty fuelled by its fear of foreign meddling and constant need to preclude it at all cost.
Yet more than new tanks and fighter jets, it is Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal that really stands out in this particular regard. Its vast nuclear arsenal, inherited from the Soviet era, remains for Russia its only credible claim to great power status in today’s world.
Finally, deploying more effective and mobile troops is a crucial element in Russia’s strategy to maintain its geopolitical grip on the post-Soviet Space. Neighboring countries have been traditionally viewed as Russia’s sphere of influence and Moscow has been busy coaxing these countries into alliances or some form of subservience. With the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan looming large, Central Asia is set to face growing threat of militant extremism putting in danger some of Moscow’s allies in the region. The need to project military power in Russia’s near abroad and defend against the threat of militant Islamism on its restive southern tier is yet another powerful driving force behind the Russian government’s push for army modernization.
That being said, the transformation of the Russian armed forces has so far delivered only mixed results. On the positive side, some long overdue reforms have been accomplished. Most notably, the government has completed the major administrative restructuring of the armed forces.
The defense ministry in now mostly civilian-led with responsibility for oversight and support of the armed forces, while the General Staff is in charge of planning, command and control, and combat training. Given the substantial opposition among the army brass, the relocation of responsibilities was no small feat and the credit goes to the civilian leadership of the defense ministry headed by minister Anatoliy Serdyukov. With support from both Putin and Medvedev, defense minister Serdykov, a former head of the Federal Tax Office, has been appointing experienced civilian managers to senior posts at the ministry with the aim to fight corruption and mismanagement in the implementation of defense contracts.
Nevertheless, major obstacles remain in bringing the transformation of the Russian army full circle to its successful completion.
Russia’s armed forces sorely lack modern weapons and according to some estimates the proportion of modern weaponry in the Russian army is as low as ten percent. In fact, this is not a lesson entirely lost on Putin, who has announced a massive armament program that envisages spending roughly $710 billion spent over the course of next ten years on new weapons. The goal is to increase the proportion of modern weapons in the hands of the Russian troops to seventy percent by 2020.
Whether the Russian military-industrial base will be able to fulfil the state’s orders remains to be seen. Russia’s weapons manufacturers begin to lag behind in certain crucial areas, such as the development of a new generation jet engines, and they suffer from the dearth of skilled labor. These deficiencies continue to plague the development of Russia’s truly next generation weapons systems, such as a new stealth fighter Sukhoi T-50 or S-400 air-defense missile systems. This is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially given the fact that not much remains left of the pool of scientific discoveries and weapons designs from the Soviet era that Russia’s military-industrial complex has so far happily exploited.
Apart from the decrepit military industrial base, the Russian armed forces have to contend with the declining population and the resulting lack of able-bodied young man to recruit. This trend is unlikely to change for the better any time soon and is even made worse by the reportedly poor health of available conscripts. Despite numerous government programs to reverse the decline in population number and an ill-fated campaign to lure Russian speakers form former Soviet republics to enlist in the Russian army, these stopgap measures have produced only limited results. The defense ministry has succeeded in temporally increasing the number of contract personal but this too risks to prove rather short-lived unless better pay and living conditions are introduced.
Despite the occasional conspicuous displaying of force, the Russian army does not harbor expeditionary aspirations beyond the remit of the post-Soviet space. In fact, the role of the Russian forces in the thinking of the Russian leadership remains rather static. This is partly explained by the insurmountable difficulties in turning the Russian army into a more mobile and modern force, but more importantly by the emphasis of Moscow on the statues-seeking in its foreign policy. To that end, the Russian army’s role can be expected to be to cement the image of Russia as a country to be reckoned with, which inevitably involves more posturing than anything else, and will see the development of Russia’s nuclear forces at the expense of other branches of the armed forces.
Jakub Kulhanek is a policy consultant and research fellow at the Association for International Affairs, Prague.