Is Russia really readying itself for war? Certainly the drum-beat of alarmist propaganda on TV would seem to be conditioning the population for a new era of twenty-first century Stalingrads. Appearances can be deceiving, though: while the Kremlin is indeed adopting a strategy of national mobilisation, and regards itself at war – a post-modern, political war – its efforts and achievements ought not be to be taken at face value. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s long-term attempts to build a powerful military may well prove eventually to be his undoing.
Mayparade in Moscow. Photo Anton Gvozdikov
When the West frets about Russian ‘hybrid war’, it tends to focus on small, covert or deniable operations. However, to Moscow the lesson of modern war are rather different. It persists in believing, evidence to the contrary, that the rising of Ukraine’s Euromaidan and the Arab Spring were US-organised plots. To Russia’s military and strategic planners, though, destabilisation, through propaganda, information warfare, and other dark arts, is not the end but the beginning, the prelude to a full-scale war against an enemy whose morale, cohesion and chain of command have already been mortally damaged.
They see the response not in small, but big war: such a conflict, one fought first on the political, economic, and social fronts, then the military, tests the whole spectrum of a system’s capacities. Thus, whether for offensive or defensive purposes, the Kremlin is looking to create a mobilisation regime, one in which it can control and harness the full resources of the state.
Hence the emphasis on trying to create a culture of military preparedness, telling Russians over and over again that they are under threat. Hence the establishment and testing of command structures that would subordinate civil to military hierarchies in time of conflict. Hence also the new interest in proofing financial and administrative systems against anything from financial attack to cyber intrusion.
This is a sinister development, one that speaks volumes about the Kremlin’s belief that it is already in a time of direct contestation with the West, if not outright, undeclared war. However, three significant caveats need to be borne in mind. The first is that there is still a sharp limitation to what this impoverished, inefficient, corrupt remnant of the USSR can do, even when relying on the executive capacities of an authoritarian to focus resources on its security sector.
Second, this is no Stalinist mobilization state, not even the later Soviet one with its plans to summon millions of men to arms in time of war.
Third, much of this militarization of politics has less to do with warfighting and everything to do with politics.
War and politics
There are distinct economic constraints on Russia’s military ambitions, and already the debate for 2017 seems not to be about whether there will have to be cuts to the defence budget, but how much. More to the point, creating a true mobilisation state and global military power is not only beyond the capacity of today’s Russia, it would also involve political trade-offs that the Kremlin is unwilling to countenance.
First of all, the military may be considered a powerful political and executive instrument – it is one of the few that gives Russia’s claims to major power status any real credibility – but it is now powerful within the Russian system. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu has tremendous personal authority (he is second only to Putin in public esteem), but in part his very rise has been based as much on his lack of apparent ambition as his very real competence. He may have played a role in some of the strategic decision-making over Crimea and the Donbas, and has managed to gain a certain personal connection with Putin – the most important political resource today – through their shared affinity for hunting trips, but he is certainly not one of the president’s innermost circle.
More generally, the size of Russia’s defence budget cannot be taken as a sign of the armed forces’ power. Rearmament benefits the military, of course, but it is not being forced on a grudging Kremlin so much as a central element of Putin’s own vision of how to restore Russia to what he considers its rightful pace in the world.
Besides which, the greatest beneficiaries are arguably not the soldiers but the ‘metal eaters,’ the defence industrialists. Much procurement is still driven not by military necessities but political-economic ones. Giants of the defence-industrial complex (VPK) such as Uralvagonzavod, Sukhoi and Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) are mainstays not just of Putin’s support but often also local economies.
Mig-35 at airshow. Photo Andrey Degtyaryov
When the hipsters of Moscow were protesting on Bolotnaya Square in 2011-12, it was workers of Uralvagonzavod who offered to come to the capital to teach them a lesson. It was only fair. After all, when erstwhile defence minister Serdyukov announced in 2011 that for the moment Russia had quite enough tanks (it had 15,000 at the time, more than all of NATO put together) and was not going to order any more, Putin publicly countermanded him. Uralvagonzavod suddently received a $2 billion order for new T-90s. As for the new T-14 Armata tank, feted in the Russian media and talked up as the new threat in the West, I have not yet met a Russian officer who says this is the tank they wanted. So advanced it is likely to be temperamental, ludicrously expensive, it is the tank Uralvagonzavod wanted to sell them, and even though at the time they were seeing the advantages of cheap, light, highly-mobile wheeled tank destroyers to supplement their tank fleet, like it or not they are now committed to the T-14 and its whole family of behemoths.
Likewise, there is pressure to buy MiG fighters because that firm has had little success securing overseas orders, and often the military must field essentially similar platforms from different companies, pay over the odds for them, and be kept waiting for delivery while export customers get priority. Certainly as far as military officers are concerned, the ‘metal eaters’ have much more political pull than they do.
Finally, a crucial indicator of group’s political power in Russia is often the career trajectories of its members when they leave. It is striking that at a time when security officials of various services, but especially Putin’s former bodyguards from the Presidential Security Service (SBP) are moving into business, governorships, parliament, and even other security agencies, the military have far fewer options. A few make it into the essentially symbolic parliament, and there are a few position in military-related bodies such as the Military-Industrial Commission, but otherwise their options appear few.
The new Russian army
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that while there has been very real progress in reforming the Russian military and dragging it back from the terrible state in which it found itself in the 1990s, this is still very much a work in progress and not as advanced as some in the West fear. After all, recent outings have very much been on Moscow’s terms. Crimea was seized by the elite of the military – Spetsnaz commandos and Naval Infantry marines – against Ukrainians who had neither orders to resist nor any clear sense of what was happening in Kiev, and supported by not just thuggish local ‘self-defence volunteers’ (largely co-opted gangsters and gunmen) but also a local population which rightly felt it had been neglected for twenty years. In the Donbas, most of the fighting is being done by local mercenaries and warlord militias and when regular Russian units have been surged in, to resist Ukrainian government offensives, they have again been elite units backed with massive firepower. Finally, in Syria the Russians are largely fighting an air war against civilians and rebel units with little real anti-air capability.
Russian special forces exercise. Photo NE Studio
But even these adventures are probably stretching Moscow’s operational and intervention capabilities as far as they can go. Around half the armed forces are still conscripts, serving just twelve-month terms (which, between training and demobilisation means they are only really usable for around three months) and legally barred from being sent into peacetime conflicts unless they volunteer. Many units are still awaiting the fruits of modernisation, whether sailors serving on Soviet-legacy ships or engineers keeping 1950s airframes like the Tu-95 bomber in the air. In the Russian Far East and Siberia, the improvements in barracks and family housing seen elsewhere are still rarities.
Very broadly, perhaps a third of the military has been properly reformed, bringing them up to, if not quite first-rank NATO standard, at least modern levels of operational effectiveness. These are especially the Spetsnaz, the Naval Infantry, the Airborne Troops, and some selected army brigades. However, to an extent this has been at the expense of the rest, even cannibalising them. A smart and ambitious young officer, for example, knows that by getting into one of these units he has the best troops under his command and the greatest likelihood of seeing action, which is a fast track to promotion. The result is that the other units get a disproportion of the less able officers, the disciplinary cases, the draftees.
Of course, these other units would fight, and to the best of their abilities, were there a true threat to the Motherland. However, given the need to rotate units for resupply, for retraining, for replacing soldiers, under peacetime conditions only half can comfortably be deployed at any one time. Russia has some 765,000 soldiers under arms, of whom the Ground Forces number around 300,000. If a third are fully modernised, and half of those can be deployed, that provides a force of just some 50,000. This is pretty much the size of the force currently deployed in and around the Donbas and in Syria. In other words, there are no ‘spare’ soldiers left of the best for any new adventures, or to deal with unexpected crises.
This is an entirely reasonable capacity for what President Obama called – to Putin’s evident anger – a “regional power.” It suffices for bullying neighbouring post-Soviet states (although the chances of being able to mount some quick and neat offensive against Kiev are now gone), and for mounting a few power projection missions abroad. However, this is a military capacity that is both limited and brittle.
It is limited in that it is not sufficient for major operations geared not just to taking territory but also holding it. While the National Guard, created earlier this year from the existing Interior Troops and other police public order forces, could be pressed into service behind the front line, it is not really geared to be an invasion force. About 200,000 of the National Guard’s 380,000 are just security guards who would be of no use in this role; many of the remaining 180,000 are much the same, currently guarding government installations or helping police football matches.
Nor could Russia count on its reservists in time of war. In theory, hundreds of thousands could be mobilised. There are certainly spare weapons for them, but in practice the reserve system is in shambles, few take their regular refresher training, and even the records are largely out of date or lost. Again, outside some major existential crisis it is unlikely more than 100,000 under-trained and poorly-equipped reservists could be mustered, and that over a period of weeks or months.
This is also a brittle capacity in that it has been bought by massive amounts of money, inefficiently spent. Poor levels of retention have meant that many specialists join, are trained, and then leave as soon as their minimum term of service is over. The Main Military Prosecutor has estimated that anything up to a quarter of procurement funds are wasted through embezzlement, contract padding or sheer waste. Projects such as the new Bulava submarine-launched nuclear missile have overrun their schedules and their budgets.
Of course price overruns tend to be a feature of all defence projects, but the point is that Russia has less and less scope to absorb the costs of Putin’s ambitious plans. Reforming the ‘cannibalised’ portion of the military is likely to prove disproportionately expensive, and with budgets falling, the areas with the greatest scope for cuts are precisely training and procurement, the line items most closely correlating to operational effectiveness. Barracks still need to be heated, salaries still need to be kept competitive if the military are to maintain their share of professional volunteers, and there seems little likelihood of any reduction in the overall force size, so although there will be talk of efficiency savings (there always is), other areas will have to be cut.
The challenge for the West is thus to calibrate its responses to the real threat, not that which Putin seeks to project, nor that which complacent domestic politicians have sometimes tried to claim. Putin has had considerable success in revising his military, not just in terms of its equipment and structures, but also its morale and effectiveness. Russia is now a serious regional military power with limited but genuine power projection capabilities.
However, this is a force most suited for supporting domestic security (as the North Caucasus may become an area of renewed concern as Islamic State fighters return home from Syria and Iraq), limited border aggression, and use as an instrument of geopolitical legerdemain. After all, from his bomber patrols along and within NATO airspace to his deployment of a naval task force to the Mediterranean, Putin is using his military to project not so much armed force as the illusion of being a stronger power than Russia really is. To an extent, it is working, as the West tends, like all democracies, to swing from over-compensation to over-compensation. Having not believed that Russia could take Crimea so easily, let alone deploy forces to Syria, there is now a temptation to exaggerate its military capabilities, to see it as a force which could swallow the Baltic states and stare down NATO retaliation.
The more the West fears Russia, the more Putin likes it, as it gives him that much greater leverage. To build his existing military force, Putin has made disastrous long-term decisions which are now coming to haunt him, from neglecting economic diversification to limiting social spending. To put it bluntly, much like the late Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is spending itself into crisis. His military is likely to be the greatest threat to his rule, not because it turns against him – there are many control mechanisms in place to prevent any chance of a coup by the generals – but because it drains the treasury. If he is to survive, he will have to learn to do more with less, and for Putin a good start is precisely to get the West believing that his military is ten foot tall and ready for anything.
Dr Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and currently a visiting fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. His next book, ‘The Modern Russian Army,’ will be published by Osprey in February 2017.