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Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009

“Never in the history of modern Russia have there been such favourable conditions to create a contemporary highly efficient armed forces.” So said President Dmitry Medvedev, optimistically, on March 17th at a meeting of the country’s top defence officials, during which he outlined plans for a major reform of Russia’s huge, unwieldy military.

The rearmament plans are not entirely new. President Medvedev called for a modern, effective military in September, after the Georgian war had highlighted the gaps in Russian capabilities. Some concrete numbers had been announced in January, and on March 10 a senior Defence Department official discussed the defence budget in the context of military reform.

In his speech, the President prioritised Russia’s nuclear forces, stating that “[T]hey must be able to fulfil all the necessary tasks to ensure Russia's security." The reforms have already created 20 new motorised infantry brigades as part of a shift from a four-tier command structure to a three-tier one. New tanks, jet fighters and helicopters will all be delivered in 2009, although the rearmament programme will not officially begin until 2011. Conscripts, the backbone of the Russian military, will be phased out and replaced with contract soldiers, a welcome piece of news to the thousands of young Russian men that suffer notoriously bad treatment during their year’s national service.

There are three significant issues in the reforms. The first is the hugely divisive issue of streamlining the armed forces, which will see the bloated officer corps slashed and many units amalgamated or cut. 200,000 officers will lose their jobs by 2012, along with many other soldiers. The controversy that this issue raises was clear in an anti-government demonstration on March 9 at which special forces soldiers from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence directorate, also participated. The men involved were from the 67th brigade, which is due to be demobilised under the reforms. Strikingly, the GRU’s head, General Valentin Korabelnikov, was rumoured to have tendered his resignation in March, citing his age (63) as a pretext, but in reality concerned over the planned reform of the directorate. The Kremlin has reportedly extended his term by another two years, forcing him to stay in his post and oversee the reforms. These are merely flickers of dissatisfaction, rather than an outright revolt; but cutting 200,000 officers, at a time when job prospects are already dim, could have major ramifications.

The second issue is doctrinal. The emphasis on the nuclear force – 25% of the year’s procurement budget, or $10.7 billion, will go on upgrading the deterrent – suggests that Moscow’s new military doctrine will remain reliant on its strategic rocket forces. Although clearly there is a need to upgrade the decaying missiles, continuing to keep nuclear missiles as a central plank of military doctrine seems to conflict somewhat with the aim of making the military more agile and effective. Clearly, a nuclear force is a deterrent and a weapon of last resort, rather than an efficient tool to deal with regional conflicts in Russia’s ‘southern tier’, international terrorism, or recalcitrant ex-Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine. It is only useful in the relationship with NATO and the US. The positive turn that this relationship has recently taken, and the Obama Administration’s determination to begin new arms-reduction treaties, makes the Kremlin’s promotion of its nuclear arm rather surprising.

However, as Pavel Felgenhauer observes, the statements made by President Medvedev and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov were primarily for domestic consumption. The Russian military continues to view NATO as its main threat, and the nuclear forces as the best way to threaten the West. The emphasis on the nuclear forces was thus part of a compromise, in which the military top brass receives continued funding for its favourite project in return for a downsizing of the conventional forces and a re-orientation away from massed conventional deployments on the western borders, towards smaller forces capable of tackling localised conflicts.

The headline-grabbing line about the threat from NATO is therefore not very significant. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates brushed off the announcement, recognising that Russia was actually shrinking its military and reducing the forces it deploys in Europe. Mr Serdyukov’s complaints about the US attempting to seize energy assets in Russia’s backyard are also nothing new or surprising, but would have won approval from his military audience.

The third issue is the cost. Analysts and commentators have been extremely sceptical about the military reform, coming as it does, in the middle of a global downturn which has begun to batter Russia’s economy and which will get worse before it gets better. The Russian defence industry, one of the pillars of its economy, has recently been allocated $220 million in financial assistance and $1.6 billion in bank loans. The middle of a recession may appear to be the worst time to begin an ambitious rearmament programme, but the Kremlin clearly sees the procurement plan as part of its economic stimulus. In his speech, President Medvedev said that repairing military equipment, rather than buying new hardware, was “unacceptable” in the face of economic problems. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov made a similar point in February. Cutting back on procurement would be a death blow to the many ‘factory towns’ in Russia which are sustained through a single large industrial facility, many of them connected with the military-industrial complex.

Rising unemployment is already making Moscow nervous, and the procurement programme will help to stave off some of the job losses in key sectors. The Chief of the General Staff’s declaration that no cuts in the officer corps will be made until 2010 looks like another attempt to postpone adding to the unemployment tally until the economy begins to recover. Both of these points demonstrate that Russia’s military reform is more of an internally focused issue than an externally focused one. They also tie in with the theme of the revised budget, presented on March 19, which boosted funding for social programmes and pensions. Clearly, preserving social stability is the priority.

The biggest problem would be a further slump in energy prices, which would force further budget cuts. In such a situation, the wisdom of pouring government money into the nuclear deterrent and in buying expensive new helicopters will look increasingly questionable without a clear justification. If oil and gas prices drop further, expect to hear a lot more about the malicious intentions of NATO, and how only more money can help defend the Motherland.

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