Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 98

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual speech to the Federal Assembly on May 10 was notable for its emphasis on military affairs. Putin outlined new and increasing threats from the arms race, stated that terrorism and other conflicts were coming closer to Russia, and cited America’s interest in using conventional missiles on ICBM boosters, defense spending, discussions about nuclear strikes, and lectures about democracy as threats to Russia. Yet simultaneously he resisted a typical Soviet-style response. Indeed, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov immediately reiterated that defense spending would remain an annual 2.6-2.8% of GDP and not go beyond that figure. Yet Ivanov also said that next year’s procurement budget would rise by 27-28%, not 20% as was originally announced. While this discrepancy might result from inflationary pressures for raw materials, it might also suggest that the lack of transparency in Russian defense spending is growing.

The professional military responses to Putin’s speech suggest growing pressure for increased procurements. Although some commentators like Pavel Felgenhauer, a well-known critic of the military, believe that Putin is leading the armed forces into the same dead end as did Boris Yeltsin, reforms have in fact occurred, training is increasing, and new weapons systems are coming on line. Even if this process remains incomplete, it represents a measurable change from the not-so-distant past. More importantly, Putin clearly is trying to hold the line on spending, calling for an asymmetric intellectual response, emphasizing nuclear weapons and a more mobile and technologically sophisticated army.

Yet it is a measure of the inherent contradictions of Russian military thinking that even as Ivanov and Putin say that contemporary threats are more dangerous than those seen during the Cold War, due to potential terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction, this threat inflation generates no additional spending. Putin now says, for the first time, that the Russian Army must be ready to fight multiple conflicts at any given time, a significant amendment of previous public recommendations. Yet this demand should lead to more spending on training, procurement, and professionalization, none of which seems apparent in current projections.

Worse, Putin and Ivanov admit that the large, poor quality conscript army will last until 2011, as they refuse to move publicly away from past defense-spending targets. While actual spending may be increasingly opaque even to the regime, this figure of 2.6-2.8% of annual GDP is obviously a political red line. Hewing to it says that there is no discernible threat that cannot be met by currently planned procurements. Likewise, the current plan for refurbishing Russia’s armaments will last until 2020, another sign of a perceived benign threat environment. Presumably the qualitative improvement of the armed forces to meet this new criterion of readiness for multiple conflicts will emerge through improved mobilization and command and control. Yet this area requires sizable investments. Meanwhile, despite this benign threat environment, new missions are emerging. For example, the Northern Fleet, and presumably other formations as well, are now openly tasked with defending energy platforms and tankers. Thus it remains unclear how this semi-professional and qualitatively backward armed force can fulfill Putin’s new guidance, which simultaneously assumes both a benign threat environment and a worsening of that environment.

Compounding the problems involved in clarifying defense policy, Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov now says that a new security doctrine may soon be forthcoming. This refrain has been frequently heard since at least since 2002, but it has not been matched by a new doctrine. Thus, Ivanov’s remarks give rise to speculation about what this new doctrine will say about the threats to Russia, the nature of the forces it needs to meet them, their mission, and how they will be funded and supplied.

Official and non-official analyses of Putin’s speech therefore greatly diverge. Ivanov simultaneously implies a worsening threat environment, yet he refuses to take the logical steps of increased procurement and professionalization. Other analysts, including Felgenhauer, think Putin has fallen into a neo-Soviet trap of over-militarizing the country and returning to a mobilization framework.

What does seem clear is a visible sense of heightened and diversifying threats, mainly from the United States and NATO, and a sense that Moscow will face equally heightened and intensified pressure to respond both in conventional and nuclear terms. Putin’s speech, which actually announced no new procurement programs, may have been an effort to thread a path through that pressure and the obvious signs of mounting tension with Washington. But it is by no means clear if he or his successors will be able to resist the pressure for militarization that, in the final analysis, is the logical culmination of all Putin’s policies to date, which have restored both autocracy and the imperialism to the Russian state.

(Vedomosti, May 11, 16; Novaya gazeta, May 15-17; Biznes, May 12-14;, Moscow Times, Interfax-AVN, May 11; Interfax, May 16; Itar-Tass, May 12, 16; Agence France Presse, May 12; Komsomolskaya pravda, May 11-18)