Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 202

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin held a well-staged national televised phone-in to answer rehearsed questions from selected citizens. Such phone-ins are performed in Russia once a year and provide an opportunity to state the Kremlin’s position on different aspects of Russian political and bureaucratic life.

Among other things, Putin praised the Russian military and the Kremlin’s defense policy. “From 2000 to 2005-2006,” Putin announced, “we increased the financing that the army receives by three and a half times. I consider that these are well-founded expenses.” (“Army financing” indicates overall Russian national defense spending.) Putin acknowledged that Russia spends “about 2.6% of GDP” on defense, “but in absolute terms this represents significantly less than other countries spend” (kremlin.ru, October 25). Russia, according to Putin, spends on defense “approximately $30 billion,” which is 25 times less than the United States, two times less than China, “and less than France.”

Putin believes the current military is smaller, better equipped, and more effective. He stated that between 1991 and 2006 Defense Ministry service personnel have been reduced almost threefold and that active personnel currently number “1,131,000 people.” “I am pleased,” declared Putin, “I am happy with how both the General Staff and the Defense Ministry are proceeding.” In response to Western challenges, the Russian military industrial complex and Ministry of Defense will respond “effectively and asymmetrically,” ensuring long-term national security “without any undue exaggeration.”

Putin has often before used the phrase “asymmetric response,” but without explaining it. Perhaps he means that Moscow will spend its limited resources wisely, while Washington and other states squander theirs? It is not easy to comprehend, because virtually everything connected with defense and national security is secret or deliberately distorted.

The proportion of classified budget spending has drastically increased in recent years (Vedomosti, September 20). Spending on weapons procurement, maintenance, and development has been expanding dramatically, while all details and numbers are withheld from the public. Only the lump sum is published: In 2007, the government has asked for over $10 billion for MoD procurement, research, and development.

Government officials say that the constant increase in secrecy is the result of the drastic growth of procurement and R&D of strategic nuclear weapons (Vedomosti, September 20). Construction of the new Borei class (“Project 955”) strategic nuclear submarines is approaching completion, as is the new Bulava submarine strategic missile. The new land-based Topol-M ICBMs and new cruise missiles are being manufactured, and everything concerning all of these weapons is totally secret.

However, secrecy does not go well with efficiency. Two hours after Putin ended his phone-in, a new Bulava (SS-NX-30) missile exploded 200 seconds after take off during a test launch from the Dmitry Donskoi submarine in the White Sea. The previous Bulava launch on September 7 also ended in an explosion soon after take off (see EDM, September 11). Of the two Bulava launches in 2005, only one was entirely successful — meaning a 25% success rate overall (Kommersant, October 26).

The Bulava is an essential ICBM for the Russian military, and units must be fitted on the new Borei class subs that are being built in Severodvinsk. If the Bulava fails to be ready for production and deployment on time next year, which seems plausible, there will be no weapons to arm the new subs. The procurement of new nuclear strategic subs when there are no missiles to fit them with is an “asymmetrical response” by definition, but is it at the same time “effective”?

Russia now has three classes of deployed strategic nuclear subs: Delta III, Delta IV, and Typhoon. ICBMs are being produced only for the Delta IV, so the other two sub classes are either being scrapped or sent out to sea with old, unreliable missiles. Some of the Typhoon class — the largest subs ever made, more than two times bigger than the U.S. Ohio class — are still serviceable, but they are being scrapped, because there are no missiles to arm them. Now a new class of subs is arriving — but without the Borei missiles.

Last week Putin repeated the argument that the manifold reduction in the number of active military personnel after the demise of the Soviet Union equates genuine military reform. But is the number — “1,131,000 people” — valid?

The number of personnel in Russia’s power ministries and services is a state secret and is not regularly published. Officials make announcements from time to time, like Putin last week, but the figures seldom add up. In 2001, for example, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that there were 2.3 million men in active military service in all the structures. However, this figure did not include Russia’s centralized and militarized police force. Paramilitary police forces, known in Russia as OMON and SOBR, were also not included. Ivanov also did not count the 876,000 civilian employees of the Ministry of Defense, most of whom are retired military personnel performing purely military tasks, as part of his 2.3 million figure.

During a December 18, 2003, national phone-in, Putin announced, “The number of military personnel in Russia and those of the same legal status is 4 million” (kremlin.ru, December 19, 2003). Since there have been no drastic cuts in personnel since then, 4 million is likely the true measure of Russia’s present militarization.

The actual number of men under arms in Russia is huge, and such an inflated force cannot possibly be “efficient.” The current classification of defense spending covers up massive misspending and possible misappropriation. Secrecy is the lifeblood and, at the same time, the curse of authoritarian dictatorships.