Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 1

By Stephen Blank

The Chechen terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in October and its violent denouement stimulated Russia’s government to launch, yet again, a round of military reform. Immediately afterwards President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov ordered fundamental changes in Russia’s defense policy and posture.

They instructed the armed forces to devise a new national security concept emphasizing the priority threat of terrorism and smaller-scale contingencies in the south (not NATO attacks), reorganized training to stress antiterrorism operations, and authorized additional spending on antiterrorism measures for the 2003 budget to the tune of 500 million rubles [US$15.7 million]. They initiated another round of demobilization, inadvertently confirming that earlier reductions had failed and that the figures given then concerning the size of the military had been false. And Ivanov has announced that military professionalization will begin in 2007, not in 2011 as envisioned by the General Staff. In December they also fired General Gennady Troshev, commander in chief of the forces in Chechnya, when he publicly refused a new assignment, decisively quashing his insubordination.

All these initiatives display important facts about the Russian armed forces. First, that despite years of effort, defense reform has failed to either produce a competent army or achieve victory in Chechnya. Even though Putin allegedly gave the armed forces new instructions concerning operations in Chechnya after the terrorist attack in Moscow, reports indicate that nothing new had occurred. The destruction of the government headquarters in Grozny on December 27, at the cost of more than eighty lives, dramatically underlined the military’s incompetence. This bureaucratic foot-dragging and obstruction pervades Russia’s entire administration but the military has a special expertise here. Despite seventeen years of calls for military reform dating back to Mikhail Gorbachev, nothing substantial has come to pass.

Instead, Russia’s multiple military organizations have obstructed all efforts to create a professional, democratically accountable, or technologically capable army adapted to today’s real threats, and able to fight a war against them. Although some of this stems from the ongoing economic crisis, this has also been an alibi for institutions that have rejected reform. The multiple militaries reject democratic accountability or transparency and exploit the fact that neither Yeltsin nor Putin submitted their policies to democratic scrutiny and budgetary transparency.

The military authorities also still insist on possessing a capability to mobilize all of Russia’s resources to fight NATO or its equivalent. They have constantly objected to and obstructed professionalizing the armed forces. The real reason, of course, is not that professionals are costlier or less capable (arguments that do not stand up to examination over time) but rather because members of such a force would have rights, could not, as is now the case, be treated like serfs. The repeated reports of pervasive brutality, degradation and corruption within the military are well known but the problems continue with impunity, costing some 3,500 lives each year. Similarly, the brutality in Chechnya also continues because Russian forces are themselves brutalized. One oft-cited reason for continued war is that so many officers profit from it, often in deals with Chechen terrorists, from sale of weapons to ransoming of captives (by both sides).

Despite Putin’s overtures to the West, the regular military has steadfastly refused to jettison its cold war mentality that America and NATO are intrinsically threats to Russia. Their exercises are all targeted against NATO and the United States, hence the need for a new training regimen. Second, by obstructing partnership with NATO they have acted to frustrate one of Putin’s key priorities. Therefore he even asked NATO to help him with defense reform. While the Ministry of Emergency Situations, EMERCON, has conducted large joint exercises with NATO, those have been the exception, not the rule.

These new trends also indicate that Putin’s and Ivanov’s unhappiness with the military leadership may finally lead to real action to change it and the overall armed forces. Clearly this military kingdom of darkness and endless obstructionism has endlessly frustrated them. Putin is frequently reported as being wholly disenchanted with the military but has not found a leader who can transform the situation to his satisfaction. Chechnya is undoubtedly a prime reason for this disenchantment as the army’s repeated promises of imminent victory have never remotely approached realization.

Moreover, as Troshev’s example indicates, the military undoubtedly felt it could run the war in Chechnya as it sees fit. Defense officials have repeatedly stated that no negotiations with the Chechen leaders were possible and blocked all efforts to move contacts with them forward. They publicly threatened to challenge Putin if he did launch such negotiations. This was all part of the military’s continuing belief that they only lost the first Chechen war because the politicians sold them out, a view not unlike that of the stab in the back that so corroded Germany’s politics after 1918.

Troshev’s public insubordination and obvious effort to blackmail the regime was only the latest and perhaps strongest manifestation of this consuming quest for vindication that has been the most consistent motivating force of the Chechen generals since their defeat in 1996. In firing Troshev, Putin and Ivanov have perhaps begun to demonstrate that they will no longer accept the generals’ attempts to dictate the course of the war in Chechnya and will try to bring operations there back under some form of political control.

Hence the new initiatives. Clearly they did not emerge suddenly after October 2002, but were instead being carefully considered before then. Adroit politician that he is, Putin exploited the Chechen attack and its aftermath to impose these new initiatives. We must be careful in assessing them, however, because we have been down this road before to no avail.

The General Staff has sabotaged the Pskov experiment, under which the 76th parachute division based there was to be the first unit to be fully professionalized. Delays in paying salaries and providing housing have led to recruitment shortfalls. Although Putin has doubled defense spending since 1999 and the military is now getting 30 percent of the federal budget, the generals constantly complain of lack of funds for structural reform.

Rather than accept professionalization, the military leadership still believes in conscription and mass mobilization, as evidenced by their recent calls to draft deferred college students, because the autumn draft collared only 11 percent of the eligible pool.

Likewise we must wait on the new national security concept before being unduly optimistic. This document is critical because it has normative and even, it is sometimes argued, judicial significance. By postulating the main threats to Russia along with an officially sanctioned assessment of how to respond to them, it can open the way to creation of a new military force posture and profile provided that Putin intends to make this happen. In doing so he would help move the army from its reflexive hostility to the West that justifies its demands for large unaffordable forces and a rickety defense economy and make progress toward building an army that could adequately defend against the real threats. No less important, such an army, over time, might be more amenable to the kinds of democratization, both within itself and then vis-a-vis the state that must develop if it is to be a viable institution in contemporary Russia. Finally such an Army would probably be more receptive to cooperation with the West and give defense integration with Europe and the United States much needed impetus.

Finally, the prospect for military reform is inextricably bound up with the course of events in Chechnya, and the government’s ability to extricate Russia from this unwinnable war. Placing the war under effective political control that is bound up with the genuine search for a negotiated settlement would both weaken the terrorists, and allow for military reform to take place since it is virtually impossible to reform an army that is engaged in a war. Such steps would indicate a genuine rethinking of overall national security policy if they were to materialize. However, we should not hold our breath. Too often reforms have been proclaimed only to wither. We need proof of a real commitment to new men and new policies before abandoning a skeptical view of defense policy and the likelihood of reform. For while this military continues to dominate defense policy and Russian leaders refuse to democratize the armed forces and defense policy; Russia will have armed forces that cannot defend the country but that actually will continue to be the main threat to Russia’s security, prosperity and democracy.

Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College, Carlisle PA. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. government.