Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 166

Amid the recriminations which have reverberated throughout Russia in the wake of the Kursk submarine disaster, it has been difficult to get a handle in recent weeks on what appears to have become a moving target: the Russian defense budget for 2001. A draft state budget has been submitted to Russian lawmakers, but the figures have yet to be finalized. The Kursk disaster, meanwhile, sharpened a long-standing debate over whether the cash-strapped Russian government should allocate additional funding to the armed forces. For the time being, this argument appears to have carried the day. But the amount of increase in defense spending being discussed in Russian news sources is a small one which will seemingly neither satisfy Russia’s ever-hungry generals nor make any significant impact on the armed forces’ manifold problems.

Several forces are at play here. President Vladimir Putin ascended to power on promises of restoring Russia’s military might. Sloganeering of that sort (and its embodiment in Moscow’s Caucasus war) was intended not only to serve Putin in his campaign for president, but also to cement an alliance with the Russian military leadership. But Putin’s talk of military greatness and his frequent posturing with armed forces personnel has raised expectations within the Russian military. And Putin seems now unable to deliver–at least on the question of defense spending. In that regard, Putin is running up against the same sort of restraints (albeit perhaps not quite so severe), as did former President Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s economy remains too weak, and the state budget too small, to return Russia to the days of Soviet military glory. As a self-proclaimed champion of Russian national interests, Putin will likely have his political skills tested in the coming months as he tries to manage this disjunction between expectations and reality.

An examination of the numbers highlight’s the Kremlin’s problems in this area. On August 9, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a defense-spending bill for the fiscal year which totals US$287.5 billion. The fiscal year begins next month. The amount is roughly US$30 billion larger than Russia’s entire gross domestic product and dwarfs Moscow’s declared military budget, which equals about US$4.5 billion (Reuters, August 11).

The Russian numbers do not look any better. The Russian military budget for this year is 140 billion rubles. Various figures have been bandied about in recent weeks regarding the level at which defense spending is likely to be set for next year, but the most recent indications say that it will be 206 billion rubles. That seems like a significant increase, but, when inflation is taken into consideration, the rise in Russian defense spending as a percentage of GDP rises only from about 2.4 percent to 2.65 percent of GDP (Kommersant daily, August 19). This is hardly an impressive figure, particularly given that President Boris Yeltsin had earlier promised to lift defense spending to 3.5 percent of GDP. Russia’s military leadership has repeatedly–and in vain–called for the government to meet that commitment. Military sensibilities have been further bruised by the fact that the government has generally failed even to pay out to the military all the formally allocated money. It is worth noting, moreover, that as limited as current and projected Russian defense spending seems, it nevertheless amounts to close to one-third of Russia’s total state budget (Izvestia, August 25). Any major increase would be a budget buster which would only further shortchange countless other programs that are in at least equal need of state funds.

In the wake of the Kursk disaster, which has reportedly prompted many lawmakers to begin demanding substantial new defense spending (and which prompted Putin to give all military personnel a 20 percent pay raise), the debate over military spending could turn into a highly politicized one. According to one Russian commentary, this debate is likely to break down into a battle between those who claim that only more money can fix Russia’s broken-down military machine, and those (especially the Finance Ministry) which say that the real problem lies in the Defense Ministry’s failure to optimize use of the funding that it is already receiving. Should Putin choose to join Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin in making that second argument, the trick will be to frame it in such a way as to assure Russian voters that they remain true patriots and defenders of Russia’s interests (Vedomosti, August 25).

The question of whether Russia’s military leadership is making optimum use of its current funding raises the obvious issue of corruption in the army’s highest ranks. But it also spills into more fundamental questions related to the army’s future. One recent Russian commentary, for example, looked at the inordinate number of generals and admirals serving in the Russian armed forces (compared proportionately to the much larger Soviet armed forces) and concluded that the military’s repeated failure to restructure itself in the post-Soviet period is related at least in part to an effort to maintain posts for all these senior officers. That has led to a bloated and inefficient military structure which continues to waste large amounts of funding. Indeed, the same report also compared Soviet and Russian GDP figures and concluded that Moscow is now economically capable of maintaining an army of only 600,000-800,000 soldiers (Novaya gazeta, No. 41, August).

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that some reports suggested in the wake of the key Security Council meeting held last month–one devoted to military reform–that the Kremlin is considering cutting the armed forces to a million from its current force level of 1.2 million (Obshchaya gazeta, August 17-23). And the Russian military news agency AVN yesterday quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry source as saying that the number could actually fall to as low as 800,000 over the next three years (Reuters, UPI, September 7). Previous efforts to cut military manpower below the 1.2 million mark have been strongly opposed by the High Command, however. Ultimately, it would seem that Putin’s ability to launch this sort of major restructuring of the armed forces–and to impose the fiscal responsibility that would have to go along with it–is the best measure of all in terms of his self-proclaimed determination to restore the Russian military to respectability. Whether military leaders will agree with that notion remains to be seen.