Leadership: Russia And The Rotten Middle


March 4, 2012: Russia has been trying to reform its armed forces for over a decade now, and one result has been a silent rebellion among many of the officers. Actually, those at the very top and the bottom of the officer ranks favor reform, but most of the generals and colonels in the middle do not or at least disagree with how to go about it. There is also a problem with the many officers who are corrupt. This includes a lot of generals and colonels. Military prosecutors have no problem finding many of these thieves, but many more continue stealing, apparently believing in safety in numbers.

The most senior generals got their jobs, in part, because they agreed with the senior political leaders that radical reform was necessary. This handful of senior generals actually understands the military revolution the Americans are leading and appreciate the need to learn from their former Cold War foes. The Internet is not just something your kids spend too much time with, but a key tool in military operations. The lower ranking officers came of age after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and have no emotional investment in that lost empire and grew up with modern tech. The young officers see what their counterparts in the West are doing, and want that for Russia. But in the middle, you have a lot of officers who do remember the Soviet era, and a time when the Russian military was a superpower. These officers are less enthusiastic about the new gear and new ideas. Worse, these guys are more tolerant of shabby Russian made weapons, while the reformers are doing the unthinkable, and buying Western weapons and equipment.

All this causes some strange problems. For most of last year Russian president Dmitry Medvedev publicly criticized the Defense Ministry for delays in spending money for new weapons and equipment. This set off all sorts of finger pointing and accusations. For example, one of the leading ballistic missile designers (Yuri Solomonov, who created the Topol M and Bulava) told a reporter that missiles could not be built as fast as the government wanted, because the Defense Ministry would not sign purchase orders on time. Solomonov explained to the procurement bureaucrats that some missile components took longer to manufacture, and had to be ordered earlier in order to assemble finished missiles on schedule. But the bureaucrats either didn't comprehend that, or didn't care. Solomonov is sticking his neck out going public with this sort of thing, but that's what president Medvedev has been calling for. When Medvedev heard of Solomonov's accusations, he ordered an investigation. But the Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov responded that the purchase orders had not been signed because the prices had gone up sharply, and the suppliers would not explain why. Serdyukov had been ordered to root out corruption in the Defense Ministry, and was confronted with a perfect storm of incompetence, corruption and pressure from above to "make things happen." This is not the first time Medvedev has had problems with the Defense Ministry leadership, and the senior officers who came up during the Soviet days. The message does not appear to be getting through.

Russia's attempts to revive, reform and rebuild its armed forces keeps running into problems. There has been progress, but new problems keep appearing. Russia has cut its armed forces twelve percent (to about a million troops) in the last few years, and received billions of dollars for new equipment. But a lot of that money has still not been spent. Military bases are being refurbished, with special attention paid to housing for the families of career troops. Yet there are still reports that the housing is often shoddy, and Defense Ministry corruption is blamed. The government is trying to make good on its pledge to rebuild the armed forces. All this is part of an effort to save the Russian armed forces, especially the glorious, Soviet era "Red Army." But things aren't going so well.

The senior political leadership is finding out that some problems are not getting fixed simply by applying more money. Efforts to purge the forces of over 100,000 unneeded (and not very effective) officers ran into stiff resistance. The senior generals and admirals wanted to at least let these men remain until they reach retirement age, and leave with dignity, rather than being, in effect, fired. Technically, the politicians could push this purge through. But this would make a lot of senior officers, including bright ones that the country really needs, very angry. So there's something of a standoff, despite the corruption that still persists among officers, especially those the government wants to get rid of. Medvedev now proposes using force, and prosecution, to move things along.

Attempts to improve the quality of the lower ranking troops are running into one problem after another. Soviet era habits and customs leave the troops surly, unresponsive and not very effective in combat. This is overcome by having some elite units (with higher pay and better leadership). But this still leaves most of the troops wallowing in the past. The government is upgrading training and pay for NCOs and officers, but this will take a decade to have any meaningful effect, and might even fail. Despite all that, the reform efforts press on.

Three years ago, the government announced that, despite the current recession, and low oil prices, Russia would continue the big spending begun two years earlier, to rebuild the armed forces. This was a popular move, and considered necessary for "restoring Russia's place in the world" (becoming a superpower again), and making the "Red Army" a feared force once more. But the effort often doesn't get past the press releases.

Russia can't become a superpower again, because, while all those nuclear weapons are great for defending the country, you need non-nuclear forces to throw your weight around. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia has lost over 90 percent of its non-nuclear (troops, ships, aircraft) combat power. It was disarmament by starvation (massive cuts in the defense budget) and neglect (the military leadership tried to hold on to more equipment than they could afford to maintain or operate, making the situation worse.) Digging out of the hole is going to cost over half a trillion dollars and over a decade of effort. To that end, the government increased the annual defense budget to $38 billion four years ago, and is spending over $25 billion a year (through most of this decade) to rebuild the conventional forces. It takes time to rebuild fleets and armies.

The Russian government has tallied up the costs of modernizing their aging military forces equipment and concluded that it will total about $700 billion. To pay for this, the military wants another 1.5 percent of GDP, meaning 5 percent of GDP will be devoted to defense. The military may get it, if Medvedev can figure out how to make them spend it.

This modernization plan has been underway for most of the last decade, as the government realized it had to do something about rapidly aging military equipment. In many cases, these purchases are essential, because buying new gear basically halted (with a few exceptions, like ballistic missiles) during the 1990s. As a result, most of the armed forces are still using Cold War era gear manufactured in the 1970s and 80s. Fortunately, even older (50s and 60s era) equipment was junked as the armed forces shrank 80 percent in the 1990s.

According to the new government plan, in the next decade, at least a third of current gear will be replaced, and in some categories (usually high tech), over 80 percent. If the government does not deliver, morale will take a big hit. This will happen quickly in the navy, for they have been told that more ships will spend more time at sea, and very soon. Existing ships can't handle that kind of workload. Thus there are some grounds for optimism in the fleet, for in the last six years the air force has resumed long range air patrols over areas off the Russian coast, which have not seen Russian navy or air force activity in over a decade. Since 1991, Russian warships have spent most of their time tied up at dock, meaning an entire generation of sailors has little experience at sea. This spells defeat in wartime, and the sailors, especially the senior commanders, know it. The government is threatening to fire some high level people, in part, to maintain morale among the long-suffering troops and to change attitudes towards training.

Back during the Cold War (1947-91), the armed forces had five times as many troops (over five million) and dibs on over ten percent of the national GNP (no one is sure of the exact amount, as the communists were not big fans of accountants and accurate financial reporting.) Currently, Russia is playing by West European rules when it comes to military spending, meaning no more than 3-4 percent of GDP going to the military. With a $1.7 trillion dollar economy, growing at 7 percent a year, the generals can expect a lot more cash to work with. But most of this money is going to replace Cold War era weapons, which are now considered out-of-date and of limited usefulness. Mental reforms are less of a sure thing, because that's the sort of change you can't simply buy.




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