Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 219

Continuing his courtship of the military leadership and his campaigning as a defense hawk, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday called for restoring Russia to a “fitting place among the leading naval powers in the world.” Putin’s proclamation followed a meeting of the Russian Security Council at which problems related to Russia’s naval and commercial sea power were a primary topic of discussion. Putin complained of the decline of Russia’s navy over the past decade, and said that the presence of the country’s ships on the oceans of the world is necessary to uphold Russian interests abroad. He also identified what he said was a trend aimed at “pushing” the Russian fleet from the seas. Putin announced that a presidential decree devoted to the modernization of the Russian navy would be drafted based on the results of yesterday’s Security Council meeting (Reuters, Itar-Tass, November 23).

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Klebanov, who oversees the Russian defense industrial sector, also spoke yesterday on the need to strengthen the Russian navy. Commenting on a program of military and civilian shipbuilding which had apparently also been approved during yesterday’s Security Council session, Klebanov said that the amount of money allocated for the development of the Russian navy would be doubled in the year 2000, from just over 9 percent of the state defense order to 20 percent. He said that Russian naval commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov had presented the new plan for Russian naval development to military and political leaders during the Security Council session.

Klebanov, however, is not running for the Russian presidency (at least not as this was being written), and his description of Russian naval plans therefore sounded a bit more balanced than that presented by Putin. Rather than suggesting that Moscow was on the verge of reconstructing a blue water navy, Klebanov said that Russian naval forces would concentrate at present on coastal defense and particularly on protecting economic interests in these areas. He suggested that maintenance of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet would be an overriding priority, one which would demand considerable funding. The construction of surface ships will apparently be deferred. Klebanov said that “practically no new ships will be built” until 2007-2008. Until that time, Moscow will concentrate its naval funding primarily on the repair and modernization of radar stations and other electronic equipment (Itar-Tass, November 23).

If Klebanov’s talk of Russian naval development plans was more measured than Putin’s, it nevertheless only added to the questions over priorities in the Russian military’s future spending plans. Putin announced late last month that Russian military spending is slated to rise by 57 percent in the year 2000, to a total of 146 billion rubles. Over US$150 million has already reportedly been added to this year’s budget to help cover the costs of Russia’s military operations in Chechnya (see the Monitor, October 29). But those are still less than impressive sums, given the enormous problems facing the armed forces as a result of nearly a decade of declining military budgets, not to mention the costs associated with the war in Chechnya and Russian peacekeeping missions abroad. In recent months, moreover, Russian officials have at various times suggested both that funding for the strategic forces will rise significantly (to counter U.S. ballistic missile defense plans), and that (driven by early experiences of the Chechen conflict) the country’s conventional forces will henceforth receive priority funding–to redress years of favoring the strategic forces. Now the needs of the navy are being emphasized. To further confuse the issue, moreover, Klebanov also said yesterday that special attention would be given to funding “military aerospace” (Itar-Tass, November 23).

Clearly, even an expanded Russian defense budget–should the government actually be successful at raising the funds necessary to finance one–cannot make a priority of all of these needs. Tough choices lie ahead for Russia’s increasingly assertive generals, and for the prime minister who seems to want to be a friend to all of them.