Russia - A New Cold War ??
At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a total population of nearly 290 million, and a Gross National Product estimated at about $2.5 trillion. At that time, the United States had a total population of nearly 250 million, with a Gross Domestic Product of about $5.2 trillion. That is, the population of the United States was smaller than that of the Soviet Union, with an economy that was only twice that of the Soviet Union. Two decades later, Russia's population is about 140 million, with a GDP of about $1.3 trillion, while the population of the United States is over 300 million, with a GDP of $13 trillion. Today, the population of the United States is twice that of Russia, and the US economy is ten times as large.
That is to say, with considerably more advantageous population and economic resources, the Soviet Union was destroyed by the effort to remain a peer competitor with the United States during the Cold War. Presently, with relatively more modest resources, it is beyond the capacity of the Russian Federation to mount any sustained challenge to the United States beyond the immediate area of the former Soviet Union.
In August 2008 Russia sent tanks and troops to South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Georgia launched a major military offensive to reclaim the breakaway republics. This was the culmination of months of escalation by both sides. Russia saw the events in South Ossetia in the larger context of a widening confrontation with the West, and in particular the United States. Russia sought this confrontation for a variety of reasons, including providing an appropriate context for a resumption of spending on military hardware, which ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Asked whether the fighting will influence the pace of Russia's army modernization, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the General Staff said on Thursday 14 August 2008 that the country would "draw serious conclusions" from the events.
The confrontation in Georgia is part of a larger pattern of events in which Russia has sought confrontation with the West. On a whole range of issues, from Kosovo independence to missile defense facilities in central Europe, Russia has taken an extremely confrontational stance towards the United States in particular. The common theme is that Russia faces a clear and present danger from its traditional foe, and that after a time of prostration, the bear is back.
This renewed emphasis on external security threats and the need for a strong military is one component of the emerging image of the Russian state held by Russian policy circles. Gazing across the centuries in search of role models to replace the discredited liberal model of the 1990s, a powerful state headed by a powerful leader in command of a powerful army would seem to be the consistent precedent offered by both Czars and Commisars. The power of the leader has been restored, and too the state, but not the military.
The Russians stopped buying new military hardware nearly 20 years ago. So the Russians now are increasingly keen to find enemies and threats everywhere [Georgia, Poland, etc] to justify a major increase in procurement of military hardware. The Russian problem is four-fold:
- If Russia does not undertake a massive increase in military spending soon, their military will be about as capable as the Pope's Switzers - nice to look at, but no threat to anyone. This the Party of Power does not like to contemplate. The armored forces are equipped with a large number of tanks of various kinds, but very few meet modern standards. The average Russian tank is over 20 years old, and a significant number are 40 years and older. Much the same can be said of Russian combat aircraft, which were for the most part designed in the 1970s and built in the 1980s.
- Since the end of the Cold War, Russian defense industry has largely relied on international sales to stay in business. During the Cold War it was said that American military hardware was 10 years ahead of the Soviets and 25 years ahead of the Chinese. Now the Chinese have pulled just ahead of the Russians [the Chinese seem to have more Flankers than the Russians], the latest CHICOM guided missile destroyer has RCS reduction features like the US Arleigh Burke, but more extensive than anything on a Russian major surface combatant, and the CHICOM ASAT test in Jan 2007 was a more sophisticated technology than anything the Soviets ever tested, etc etc. Having sold the Chinese the store and the factory, Russian industry is losing their best customers. By 2004, India had become the owner of a larger number of modern Russian tanks than the Russian army itself. India had 310 modern T-90s, while Russia had no more than 150 T-90s at that time. By 2008 Russia had 321 Su-27 Flankers, and plan to buy no more. The Chinese had 420 Su-27 Flankers, and planned to buy hundreds more. Russia's arms exports grew from less than $3 billion in 2000 to $6.1 billion in 2007. At that time Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms exporter, had around $20 billion worth of contracts, which would ensure the operation of defense-industry enterprises for another five to seven years. But the end of Russian reliance on international sales to sustain the industrial base is in sight. A total of 237 billion rubles (US$ 8.8 billion) was set aside for military arms and equipment in 2006, as compared with 183 billion rubles (US$ 6.7 billion) the previous year.
- The longer the erosion of the Russian defense industrial base is allowed to continued, the more difficult it will be to halt and reverse the decay. A substantial fraction of the workforce drifted away some time ago, in search of better career opportunities, and those who remain are generally older workers contemplating retirement. Increasingly elderly design and production facilities are suited for legacy weapons, rather than world standard designs. Oil and natural gas exports have had the perverse effect of encouraging the imports of European manufactured goods, leading to the de-industralization of the Russian economy. The emerging Russian Rust Belt cannot sustain a world class machine tool industry, which would be the foundation on which a Russian arms industry might be revived.
- Oil and natural gas revenues will not solve this problem. Petroleum revenues to the Russian state budget total about $100 billion annually, with no substantial increase in prospect, and decline forecast by some. The Russian military budget has doubled in recent years, from $25 billion in 2006 to $50 billion in 2009. But this compares to a US military budget of over $600 billion annually. In 2006 2006 a new state armaments program, which will span 2007-2015, was agreed upon for an estimated 4.9 trillion rubles (US$186 billion). OF that total, 63% [$117 B] was to be allocated over nine years for the procurement of modern weapons and euipment and 27% [[$69 B]] towards defense research and development. In Fiscal Year 2007, the US defense budget for that year alone was $134 Billion for procurement and $77 Billion for research and development.
- A little money will not solve this problem, only a lot more money will have much impact. Today's Russia is saddled with the Cold War defense industrial base of the Soviet era. The vast majority of enterprises that were designing and producing weapons when the Cold War ended have continued in this line of work, only at a vastly reduced [and thus extremely inefficient] pace. The military contest with the West was a great burden on the Soviet economy in no small measure due to the extreme inefficiency of Soviet defense industry. In retrospect, the debate over the magnitude of the Soviet defense effort must be seen as an argument over the efficiency of Soviet defense industry. It was not a debate over outputs [tanks, planes, etc], but rather over the efficiency with which economic inputs were translated into these outputs. The "hawks" who argued that the Soviets were spending a substantially greater fraction of their GDP on their military were contending, in essence, that Soviet defense industry was extremely in-efficient, while the "doves" assumed that Soviet defense industry was extremely efficient. The hawks were right, and Russian defense industry is extremly in-efficient compared to that of the Soviet Union.
Russia's efforts to transform its Soviet-legacy military into a smaller, lighter and more mobile force continue to be hampered by an ossified military leadership, discipline problems, limited funding and demographics. Some steps by the Government of Russia suggested a desire to reform. There has been an increased emphasis on practical training, such as the Mobility 2004 Exercises, and the government is introducing bills to improve the organization of the military.
Despite increases in the budget, however, defense spending remains entirely inadequate to sustain Russia's oversized military. Current troop strength, estimated at one million, is large in comparison to Russia's GDP and military budget, which continues to make the process of transformation to a professional army difficult. This was in part the result of the Soviet legacy and military thinking that has changed little since the Cold War. Senior Russian leaders continue to emphasize a reliance on a large strategic nuclear force capable of deterring a massive nuclear attack.
In 2002, a conscript's salary was only 100 rubles a month, or roughly $3.50. Theoretically, the army provides all necessities, however, housing and food shortages continue to plague the armed forces. Problems with both discipline and brutal hazing are common as well. HIV infection rates in the Russian army are estimated to be between two to five times higher than in the general population, and tuberculosis is a persistent problem.
Such conditions and the poor combat performance of the Russian Armed Forces in the Chechen conflict encouraged draft evasion and efforts to delay their military service. Although the available manpower (males 15-49) for the Russian Armed Forces was projected at 39.1 million in 2004, only a tenth of eligible males did military service. Moreover, military officials complained that new recruit cohorts are plagued by increasingly incidences of poor education, communicable diseases and criminality. That is to say, when only a tenth of the draft eligible cohort reports for duty, this is the bottom tenth of the cohort that lacked the mental acuity to evade military service.
The Russian government has stated a desire to convert to a professional army. However, implementation has been delayed repeatedly. Current plans envision a transition to a mixed force, in which professional soldiers fill the ranks of select units and conscription is gradually phased out. Some officials have talked of developing a non-commissioned officer corps to lead the professional army, but the military has yet to make any concrete investments in training or facilities that would begin this process.
While the weakness of the 1990s is gone and forgotten, Russia cannot regain the status of great power.
Besides interfering in Ukrainian political affairs, Russia exerted pressure on pro-Western Georgia, supporting separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By refusing to withdraw Russian troop, Russia also encouraged separatism in Moldova's Transdniester region. And Russia has directed threatening rhetoric at the new-NATO Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.)
The challenge is trying to understand the sources of Russian conduct [as Kennan might have termed the matter].
If recent Russian behavior is just symptomatic of tit-for-tat escalation, what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called the Russians " throwing their food on the floor", then the Americans can avoid provocations, continue business as usual, reconsider BMD in central Europe, and "getting Russia right" as some Europeans have suggested.
If recent Russian behavior is symptomatic of Russian imperial nostalgia, and a belief on their part that they need a much stronger military establishment in order to assert their natural sphere of influence within the boundaries of the empire circa 1914, then their hostility is almost entirely self-generated, and is beyond the capacity of external actors to placate.
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