Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 13

Russian sources have reported in recent days that President Vladimir Putin may have put off a series of key decisions related to reducing and restructuring Russia’s troubled armed forces. Few details have been made public, but at least one Russian daily has speculated that the military reform effort may be back to square one. Izvestia reported yesterday that Putin had recently declined to sign a development plan for the Russian armed forces for the years 2001-2005. The plan grew out of a brawling debate on defense reform which began last July and intensified following the loss of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk. Putin had planned to sign the new defense reform plan this past December. His failure to do so, Izvestia suggested, has returned the Russian Defense Ministry and General Staff to the position they occupied this past fall: ignorant of the direction in which military restructuring in Russia is to proceed (Izvestia, January 18).

Other sources have suggested that the reason for the president’s indecision on the military reform plan is related to the issue which started Russia’s military reform debate: the question of whether priority spending is to go to Russia’s strategic or its conventional forces. Throughout the latter part of the 1990s the needs of Russia’s strategic forces–and of its strategic missile forces in particular–were emphasized in Russian defense planning. Those priorities were reflected in the appointment of a former rocket forces commander, Marshal Igor Sergeev, to the post of defense minister. Russia’s conventional forces, meanwhile, continued the long decline which had begun even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That policy came back to haunt Moscow, however, with the start of the current war in the Caucasus, which demonstrated (as had the first) the dismal capabilities of Russia’s conventional forces. The war also opened the way for General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin–long a Sergeev rival–to press for a reordering of budgetary priorities as a way to rebuild the strength of Russia’s regular army.

To date, most indications had been that the defense review Putin launched last year had wound up favoring Kvashnin, and that the Strategic Missile Troops were in for some lean years. Several sources suggested this week, however, that the Kremlin may be reconsidering that decision, and that the election and looming inauguration of George W. Bush may have had something to do with the Kremlin’s reported change of heart. Segodnya reported this week that Russian security chiefs are reexamining the country’s defense posture while taking into account the increased likelihood that the new Bush administration will indeed proceed with the deployment of some form of U.S. national missile defense. According to Segodnya, that fact is leading some Russian defense experts to conclude that Moscow may be better off weakening its previous hardline opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and seeking instead some sort of accommodation with Washington (Segodnya, January 17).

A British report published yesterday, however, points to another possibility. The Guardian quoted Russian sources as saying that, as a response to expected U.S. missile defense deployment plans, the Kremlin has in fact decided to shelve plans which called for restructuring the country’s armed forces and reducing military manpower by more than 350,000 over the next several years. Russian defense policymakers will reportedly now wait until March to decide whether to proceed with the defense restructuring program–that is, until after the incoming administration has made the details of both its own missile defense plan and its approach to relations with Russia more clear. Meanwhile, the newspaper quoted Russian sources as saying that the initial signals from the Bush administration on security matters have helped to strengthen Sergeev and those in Russia who want to maintain robust nuclear missile forces as a counterweight to a possible U.S. missile defense system deployment (The Guardian, January 18).

It is unclear how seriously reports of this sort should be taken. Putin’s military reform effort does indeed seem to have faltered for the moment, but difficulties in finalizing Russian military restructuring plans would likely have arisen regardless of whether a change of administrations loomed in Washington. The restructuring and defense reduction plan which Putin’s Security Council drafted is, after all, sufficiently radical to have generated considerable opposition not only within various service arms of the regular armed forces, but also among elites in Russia’s various other security ministries. In that context, the Bush election victory–and the accent put by his incoming cabinet on the administration’s national missile defense priorities–may be serving as but one more factor in an already intense struggle over Russian military reform plans. Against this background, the inauguration of a new American president may provide the Russian leadership with a good reason to step back a bit and to see where the chips are likely to fall with regard to Russian-U.S. ties before continuing on with defense restructuring.