Recently, it seems that not a week goes by where the Russian military is not staging some very public exercise or announcing the arrival or planning of new equipment. Not since Peter the Great or the massive military buildup in WWII has the Russian military experienced such a windfall of money and political support. The rationale for this support lies in Putin’s desire to re-store Russia’s once mighty and powerful military and its place as a powerful global actor. To Putin, an important state will not only have a modern military but be able to display it through exercises and demonstrations. To this end, Putin has launched an ambitious military modernizatsiia program and seeks to create a modern force that is not only professional but is able to project Russia’s ambitions and interests.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military was left in a state of complete disrepair, leading to it becoming a shell of its former self. The wars in Chechnya (especially the chaotic and ultimately unsuccessful 1994-1996 war) showed how truly far the Russian military had fallen, and became a source of resentment and embarrassment for members of the political elite. Even still, much of the bloated officer corps and General Staff resisted drastic changes, fearing that their power, autonomy, and control would be threatened. But with Russia’s economic situation starting to rebound—recovered from the 1998 ruble crash and experiencing growing commodity prices—and Vladimir Putin gaining the presidency in 2000, the modernizatsiia of the military was given new life.
Throughout the last decade the military had been able to gradually regain some of its lost prestige, ability, and operational effectiveness, even with some resistance from the officer and general corps. Yet despite the improvements, Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia revealed many glaring deficiencies—especially in command and control—and demonstrated the need for modernization, facts that even the hesitant General Staff could not ignore.
The modernization drive was also a centerpiece of Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. He published, “Being Strong: National Security Guarantees for Russia” in the state-owned Rossiikaya Gazeta that detailed both his beliefs and rationale for the need to reform and upgrade the Russian military, “Obviously, we will not be able to strengthen our international standing, develop our economy and democratic institutions, unless we are able to protect Russia.” With this platform Putin made the modernization of the military central to his view of a resurgent Russia.
To modernize the military, Putin has embarked on a massive re-armament and re-organization effort. Putin launched the State Armaments Programme (SAP-2020), which has sought to invest $773 billion by 2020. The SAP-2020’s goal is to arm 70% of the Russian military with modern weaponry by 2020: 350 new fighter jets (including the new fifth generation T-50 fighter), some 1,000 helicopters, 54 surface ships and 24 new submarines (including the Borei-class ballistic missile submarine), and additional nuclear strike capabilities (which includes designing a new ICBM, the RS-26). Despite the impressive plans and designs, there are significant questions as to whether the Russian defense industry can actually meet its goals. The powerful defense lobby, under the patronage of Dmitry Rogozin, has increasingly lagged far behind production standards and timetables, seemingly more content to simply upgrade Soviet era equipment and technology (former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, not content to purchase sub-standard Russian gear, looked to foreign suppliers, including when he ordered four French Mistral class assault ships, which angered the defense establishment. Some of the foreign orders made under Serdyukov have since been questioned). But the revival of the defense sector to Putin is a key component in the modernization of not only the military but of the economy, stating that it will become “…a locomotive that will pull the various industries: metallurgy, mechanical engineering, the chemical and radio-electric industries, the entire IT and telecommunications range.”
But weaponry was not the only facet of the modernization plan. Personnel and organizational changes are just as, if not more, important to creating the modern military Putin so desires. To accomplish this, the Russian military is attempting to transition from conscription to a force consisting of contract professional soldiers, kontraktniki. This plan was originally started by Yeltsin in 1996 but has only recently become a focal point for modernizatsiia. The plans call for kontraktniki to number some 425,000 by 2017, and staffing airborne non-commissioned-officer and technical staff positions much sooner (currently the military has about 200,000 kontraktniki, leading to questions of whether the goal of 425,000 by 2017 can be reached, as the incentives to serve are still not attracting many young Russians). At the same time, the increase in kontraktniki was to coincide with a reduction in the conscripts’ term of service. In 2007, the two year service requirement was reduced to 12 months. With the term of service cut in half, the military has had to call up even more conscripts to maintain the military’s staffing level of 1 million. But this plan has come up against the demographic challenges that are plaguing Russia as a whole, with fewer and fewer recruits willing and able to serve. It also diminishes the capabilities of the military, as a one year service length is incredibly short when considering the time needed to effectively train new personnel. This leaves even the fully staffed units woefully unprepared to fulfill their duties.
The final component of modernizatsiia has been the re-organization of the military’s organizational structure. Before the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia was still organized along a four tier command system that was designed to fight large battles with its NATO opponent. The military was poised not to rapidly respond to emerging conflicts requiring well-coordinated operations, but to win large tank battles. Because of this realization after the war, the military began to change from the large unwieldy division structure (there were 203 divisions before the war) to a more manageable and flexible brigade-based organizational structure (military district, operational command and brigade) where units would be on “permanent readiness” and able to respond to situations as they arose, rather than waiting for mobilization. By embracing the brigade model, the military can more effectively adapt to the current security situations that require mobility and flexibility. Despite the plan to embrace the brigade model, the 80 or so brigades are still 20-30% undermanned and are facing significant difficulties in maintaining operational effectiveness, especially with the one year conscript commitment (even the elite paratroops, VDV, are only 30% kontraktniki).
Even with the reforms to create a truly modern army by 2020 underway, the economy may dictate the actual extent of these plans. The IMF’s growth outlook for Russia has been cut from 3.4% to 1.5%, just below the Central Bank’s own projection of 1.8%. The decline in growth has been attributed by the Kremlin to global economic weakness, but an increasing chorus of voices, from finance minister Anton Siluanov to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, are calling for Russia to make the necessary structural changes to the economy or risk a full blown recession (foreign investment is also beginning to shy away from the country). The IMF, in addition to downgrading its outlook, has also voiced its concern for the future prospects of the economy and that its growth prospects “have been dampened by a weak external environment, some acceleration of capital outflows and declining equity prices and subdued investment.” The IMF also noted that the Russian reliance on rising oil prices will no longer work to underpin economic growth. Illustrating the priority that has been placed on modernizatsiia is the fact that the 2014 budget sees stagnant or decreasing levels of spending for domestic and social programs, but actually increases defense expenditures from 15.7% to 17.8%.
Yet, the lengths the military still needs to go to modernize and the increasingly disturbing economic picture have not deterred Putin from embracing the image of Russia’s military as one of truly modern and global proportions. He has actively used the military to both project and portray Russia’s intentions, desires and capabilities to both regional and global actors. Engaging in naval exercises with China, or using its elite paratroopers to conduct anti-terror drills with India are means to both strengthen ties and signal emerging activity and presence of Russian power. It is in this regard that the image is more important than the substance. When Russia launched its largest war games—nominally involving some 160,000 troops, 130 planes and 70 ships in the Russian Far East—the size and scale were meant to signal that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with in the region. However, there have been criticisms that the numbers of forces involved were grossly inflated. It is also highly unlikely that the exercises were, in Putin’s own words, “more than satisfactory,” especially considering the incomplete modernization process that is behind schedule.
The most recent example of a demonstration of a resurgent Russian military was the recently concluded “Zapad” exercises that are held bi-annually. The exercises included some of the most professional and well trained Russian airborne units (VDV) and Spetsgruppy (special forces) alongside their Belarussian counterparts. It even included Interior Ministry (VV) troops and was conducted along the borders with the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. This large exercise also came on the heels of a simulated bombing run of Sweden last month by the Russian air force. The recent activity by Russia has understandably unnerved many states in the region. As Mark Galeotti noted of the exercises, “Zapad-2013 is just one more psychological play in a long-running political game.”
To Putin the military is on its way to regaining its lost glory and can again be an instrument of Russian power. As Putin remarked after the snap drills in the Far East, “Today we can be proud of our army.”