Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 17

?Not surprisingly, recriminations over the Kursk disaster spilled into Russia’s military reform debate. Ironically, perhaps, a meeting of the Russian Security Council, one devoted to crucial military restructuring issues, took place only a day before the Kursk went down. In what was an odd and seemingly prescient foreshadowing of what was to come, Putin charged that the Russian armed forces continued to face major problems and that they remained an effective arm of state power. He appeared also to speak of limitations, namely, that urgent military reforms would have to be conducted while keeping in mind the government’s dearth of financial resources. This emphasis on restraining military spending was challenged in the immediate aftermath of the Kursk accident, however, as lawmakers joined military leaders in proclaiming the need for more defense spending. Putin himself bent to this wind, announcing a 20 percent hike in military pay and suggesting that defense expenditures would rise. Given Russia’s financial problems, however, it is difficult to see where any significant new defense funding can to be found.

The military spending issue could evolve into a significant political dilemma for the Russian president. Putin has long raised the expectations of military leaders by casting himself as a defender of Russian national interests and an advocate for rebuilding the country’s military machine. His ability to satisfy the demands of Russia’s now more assertive High Command while simultaneously safeguarding the state budget will likely test Putin’s political skills. Indeed, there were suggestions in the Russian press that the August 11 Security Council meeting had failed to resolve the sharp institutional conflict that has erupted between backers of Russia’s strategic missile troops and those arguing for a shift of funding to the conventional forces. Yet resolution of this conflict would appear to be linked to a broader need for a major restructuring of the armed forces as a whole. The issue of comprehensive military reform carries enormous implications for Russian political and economic development. But military reform repeatedly stymied Putin’s predecessor, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Putin has not yet demonstrated any greater capacity to deal with it.