Russia’s military modernization: Economist

 

THIS week Vladimir Putin said he had ordered 40,000 of his troops, strung along the border with Ukraine since March, back to barracks. As with two previous similar “orders”, there was little sign of an immediate withdrawal. Russia’s president may indeed wish to avoid a ground invasion. But the deployment of large numbers of well-equipped, combat-ready troops has proved useful, to intimidate and provide psychological support for the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists. For Mr Putin, this amply justifies the painful and expensive military modernisation he began nearly seven years ago. Any illusion that Russia could be a partner of NATO and the West has gone. This has brought the realisation that what kind of forces Mr Putin has and the uses he might put them to matter.

It is an article of faith for the Russian president that a great power must be able to project military force. He sees the modernisation of Russia’s armed forces as a vital national interest. Yet it was not until his second term that reform began. Money had been found to maintain strategic nuclear forces. But Russia’s conventional forces were almost useless, based on the Soviet model of mass mobilisation, top-heavy with officers and dependent on miserable conscripts stuck in crumbling barracks and equipped with worn-out kit.

A first step was the appointment as defence minister in early 2007 of Anatoly Serdyukov, a 45-year-old former furniture salesman who was once part of Mr Putin’s St Petersburg clique. Something of a bulldozer, Mr Serdyukov was not afraid to take on the military top brass. But the real catalyst for modernisation was the 2008 war in Georgia. The brief campaign confirmed Mr Putin’s belief that Russia could use hard power in its near-abroad without risking a military response from the West. But it also laid bare the army’s failings. Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council says: “The sloppy performance was a ‘come to Jesus’ moment in the Kremlin.” Russia achieved its goals, but with difficulty against a tiny foe.

Mr Serdyukov smashed through the remaining resistance. The size of the armed forces would be cut from 1.2m to about 1m. The bloated officer corps was to be slimmed by almost 50%, while the creation of well-trained NCOs became a priority. Conscription would stay, but better pay and conditions would create a more professional army. The reforms replaced the old four-tier command system of military districts, armies, divisions, and regiments with a two-tier system of strategic commands and leaner, more mobile combat brigades. Nikolas Gvosdev of the US Naval War College says: “The intention was to be able to throw force around in the region and create ‘facts on the ground.’”

w640A fast-rising defence budget provided more money for maintenance and training, allowing large-scale exercises to become routine, while funding pensions and housing for retired officers. Mr Serdyukov also set out to instil better accountability and to attack corruption that, by some estimates, was siphoning off a third of the equipment budget. But the biggest reform was a ten-year weapons-modernisation programme launched in 2010, at a cost of $720 billion. The aim was to go from only 10% of kit classed as “modern” to 70% by 2020. According to IHS Jane’s, Russia’s defence spending has nearly doubled in nominal terms since 2007. This year alone it will rise by 18.4%.

Reform backed by money has transformed Russia’s military effectiveness. Progress has continued even though Mr Serdyukov was replaced 18 months ago (ironically, after a corruption scandal) by the more emollient Sergei Shoigu. Yet attempts to create a more professional force and better NCOs have been only partly successful. There is a big gap between special forces, such as the GRU Spetsnaz who took over Crimea, the elite airborne VDV troops, and the rest. Conscripts, who only do a year’s service, cannot handle sophisticated equipment.

There are also demographic problems caused by a low birth rate and poor health: Russia has too few fit young men. The defence ministry likes to talk of a million men under arms, but the true figure is more like 700,000. Nor is it easy recruiting 60,000 professional soldiers a year. Mr Gvosdev points to glossy ads offering good pay and “a great life” but the army will struggle to meet its target of a force that is 40% professional. As for the re-equipment plan, the defence ministry’s definition of “modern” is slippery, says Keir Giles of the Conflict Studies Research Centre. It often just means newer versions of old designs. Better planes, helicopters, tanks, missiles and ships are getting through, but only slowly.

One reason is that the defence industry remains quasi-Soviet, inefficient and riddled with corruption. Much of its output is updated late-Soviet-era stuff. Until the T-50 stealth fighter appears in small numbers towards the end of the decade, the mainstay of the air force will remain upgraded SU-27s and MiG-29s that first flew in the 1970s. The navy is getting new corvettes and frigates, but the industry cannot produce bigger vessels: hence the order of two Mistral ships from France. The army is to replace Soviet armour with the Armata family of tracked vehicles, but not yet.

Mr Serdyukov was keen on buying foreign kit, partly to put pressure on the sluggish home industry. But when Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, was put in charge of the defence and aerospace industry in 2012, that policy seemed to be abandoned. Mr Putin sees the industry in highly nationalistic terms and as a way to boost Russian high-tech manufacturing. But there is a lost generation of skilled engineers. Many are in their 60s and, although the industry is now recruiting younger talent, it lacks people to run big programmes who understand the digital technologies modern weapons are built around.

Do these weaknesses matter? The Kremlin still sees NATO as an American-led alliance intent on doing Russia down, and Mr Putin is determined to prevent its further expansion. But besides opportunistic “poking around” in the Baltics, which might involve cyber-attacks and other forms of 21st-century asymmetric warfare, reckons Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council, taking NATO on directly is unlikely. Yet with the army Russia now has, Mr Putin can project and concentrate superior force quickly around the country’s periphery, where he sees himself as a “security manager in a zone of privileged interest”, says Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, which absorb a third of the defence budget, are still seen as the “trump card” according to Dmitry Gorenburg of CNA Corporation, a research outfit, and are critical to preserving the capacity for autonomous action by deterring Western interference. The nuclear forces, particularly the huge number of sub-strategic systems that Russia keeps, are also a necessary hedge against a rising China. Russia does not see China as an antagonist. But its fast-growing military clout and hunger for natural resources worry the Kremlin. Russian doctrine assumes that theatre nuclear missiles will compensate for inferior conventional forces.

Judged by the quality of their new equipment, it is the southern military district (one of four) that is the high command’s greatest concern. There is potential for instability and jihadist terrorism in the Caucasus. It now includes Crimea. And it is near Georgia and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia, says Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, could “re-emerge as a thorn that would have to be dealt with”.

A big question is whether Russia can afford to devote a rising share of its GDP to the armed forces. The defence budget accounts for over 20% of all public spending. A weakening economy, lower energy prices and an ageing society will lead to hard choices. But as long as Mr Putin is in the Kremlin, defence will come first. Russia’s growing military power announces that it is back as a serious country; Mr Putin is betting that this still matters to ordinary Russians, too.

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