Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 178

Among the many consequences of Moscow’s war in the Caucasus is a resurgence of rumors that Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s days may be numbered. Although denied on September 24 by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (aptly enough, the former spymaster called reports of Sergeev’s imminent demise an “ideological subversive action”), opponents of the defense chief are reportedly laying a number of the army’s recent shortcomings at Sergeev’s door. Those include the poor coordination of troops from Russia’s various “power ministries” during the military operation in Dagestan that began last month, and the apparent failure of the government to equip Russian troops with the latest weaponry and military hardware throughout the Caucasus crisis (Segodnya, September 23; Krasnaya zvezda, September 24).

That last criticism is particularly telling, because it is linked to a broader debate–one which has long divided the Russian high command–over budgetary priorities for the country’s strategic rather than its conventional forces. Sergeev is himself a former rocket forces commander, and as defense minister he has pushed a concept of military reform which prioritizes support for the strategic forces while deferring much-needed modernization of the conventional forces’ aging military-technical base.

That decision has come back to haunt the Defense Ministry during the current conflict in the Caucasus. The High Command had repeatedly boasted that, while reducing the size of the regular army, it had nevertheless managed to develop a core of high-readiness units which would be ready in the event of conflicts like the current one. Those high-readiness units have proven to be something less than that, however, and the country appears now incapable of launching a major ground operation in Chechnya if a decision to do so should be taken. Amid complaints of shortages of weaponry and equipment, the Russian military leadership looks to have learned few lessons from the debacle of its war in Chechnya earlier this decade.

Sergeev is hardly the lone author of the army’s current difficulties, however. His decision to prioritize funding for the country’s strategic forces accorded with the views of most Russian defense experts, who continue to see maintenance of Russia’s strategic deterrent as the cheapest and most effective way both to ensure Russia’s security and to retain at least some of the country’s superpower status. More divisive, however, has been the question of what constitutes the most serious potential military threat to Russia: a large-scale attack from the West or smaller-scale conflicts along the country’s southern periphery.

Although the latter has been officially identified a number of times as the more important near-term threat to Russia, resistance to that concept remains active in the armed forces and has obstructed the Defense Ministry from taking the necessary steps to prepare the army for localized conflicts. NATO’s air war in Kosovo, moreover, sharpened the debate in Moscow, because it gave more traditional-minded generals a pretext to exaggerate the threat posed by NATO to Russia.

Against that background, the enduring contradictions in Russian defense policy planning have been especially pronounced in recent months. On July 2, for example, Russian President Boris Yeltsin made a rare appearance at the Defense Ministry. The ostensible purpose of the visit was to review with Russian generals the results of a major military exercise conducted the month before.

The Zapad-99 exercise was the largest conducted by Russia’s armed forces in the post-Soviet period, and was aimed at repulsing a hypothetical attack by NATO. Yeltsin apparently used the session, however, to remind the High Command that local and regional conflicts remain the most likely threats to Russia’s security. His remarks were made, moreover, as hostilities in Russia’s Caucasus region had begun to take shape. But despite these developments, the armed forces in August launched another series of maneuvers, this time in the Far East, that included a probing by Russian bombers of U.S. air defenses along the Alaska coast. Like a similar action during the Zapad-99 exercise, the bomber incident was militarily of little significance, but provided the Russian High Command an opportunity to do a little muscle-flexing for the West. Given the military’s scarce resources, however, it is unclear how it contributed either to preparing the army for local conflicts, as Yeltsin had ordered, or for dealing with the more specific hostilities in the Caucasus (see the Monitor, July 7).