Russia's New Militarism

Last week, events in Moscow were orchestrated Soviet style. On Wednesday, inside the Grand Kremlin Palace, Vladimir Putin surrendered the Russian presidency to his handpicked subordinate, Dmitri Medvedev, who then turned to Putin to ask him to become prime minister. Putin accepted and Medvedev promised to “do everything to ensure” the security of Russia. Afterward, the duo stepped into Cathedral Square to review the goose-stepping Presidential Regiment.

Two days later, Medvedev and Putin stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Red Square to review a massive military parade — the first significant arms display since the end of the Cold War. Medvedev used the occasion to take a shot at the United States when he said, “We must not allow contempt for the norms of international law," a veiled criticism of America’s aggressive foreign policy such as in Iraq.

These events, the speeches and the new power couple send a clear message: Russia is ready to regain its “great power” status and Moscow’s new militarism is the means to that end.

Former president Putin initiated Russia’s move to regain “great power” status by consolidating Soviet-style control over resources, infrastructure, the economy, and security. He used the Kremlin’s full powers to quash all serious political opposition by recreating a virtual one-party state. He tapped national nostalgia by restoring former communist symbols such as the Soviet anthem and the red banner as Russia’s official military flag.

In his inaugural address, Medvedev embraced Putin’s agenda by assuring Russians that what Putin began — Soviet style control with a new militarism — will continue under his presidency. He reminded the nation that the former president’s goals for the country’s development through 2020 are his goals and promised "as cabinet chairman, [Putin] will play a key role in their realization."

Medvedev then hawkishly boasted that "Our army and navy are getting stronger. Just as Russia itself, they are gaining strength." That’s a political statement rather than a military readiness reality.

It’s true that Putin increased military spending to an annual $40 billion — 4.6 percent of gross domestic product — during his eight years but according to retired general Vladimir Dvorkin, “Our armed forces are merely a bad copy of the Soviet Army."

Russia’s military suffers from rampant corruption and mismanagement. Its generals don’t allocate funds where they are most needed, says a Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov and this "is leaving Russia’s rapid-reaction armed forces in particularly bad shape."

The armed forces lack modern communications and control systems and a Russian equivalent of America’s satellite navigation system. These shortfalls limit Moscow’s strategic operational capability.

Russia has tried to reclaim the appearance of “great power” status by resuming long-range bomber patrols but its strategic aircraft are old and poorly maintained. It will be years before Russia can completely resurrect its Cold War patrols if ever.

Moscow has grand plans to increase its navy with new aircraft carriers and frigates but at best these vessels are a decade away. Today, it can’t maintain a continuous sea-based deterrent patrol posture as America does. Even its new ballistic submarine, the Yury Dolgoruky, is pier-bound because its missile, the Bulava, supposedly failed its trials.

Russia’s most reliable weapon is a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile fleet armed with nuclear warheads. Although the fleet is aging, Moscow recently and successfully tested a new mobile missile system — the RS-24. The Kremlin is slowly replacing older missiles and warheads which suggest fiscal constraints and perhaps a different view of strategic deterrence.

The bottom line is that "The Russian military forces are in a bad state, and the situation is getting worse," according to Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Institute of Military and Political Analysis.

This creates a serious problem for the West because the Kremlin is relying on militarism as a means to achieve “great power.” The weaker Russia’s conventional forces, the quicker she might resort to nuclear weapons in a crisis, which is “…a very destabilizing concept,” said Alexander Pikayev from Moscow’s Institute for World Economy and International Relations.

Relying primarily on nuclear deterrence makes Putin’s confrontational militarist style especially dangerous. Last year, for example, he accused the US of fueling another arms race by proposing a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He threatened to retarget Russia’s nuclear missiles on European cities if the deal went ahead.

Moscow has been especially troubled by the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which included membership invitations to Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics. Putin responded to NATO’s membership offer by withdrawing Russia from the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe which had established ceilings for most combat systems. Now, Russia is free to rebuild its military without external constraint and to create its own “NATO.”

Last summer, as a warning to NATO and to intimidate its former satellite states, Russia hosted war games in the Ural Mountains for old allies. The war games involved Central Asian allies and included Iran. Russia has also increased bilateral exercises with China and is very cozy with rogues like Libya, Syria and Venezuela.

In February, Kosovo declared its independence from Russia’s client state Serbia. Moscow was incensed that its opposition to Kosovo’s independence was ignored by the West which quickly recognized the break-away province and NATO troops were on the ground to protect that transition. In response, the Kremlin threatened to send troops to Serbia to oppose NATO in Kosovo but held back its anger until this month.

Recently, Moscow struck back when it used the precedent set by the Kosovo-breakaway in an area important to NATO: the Republic of Georgia. Putin used his military in Georgia’s semi-autonomous region of Abkhazia to respond to the Kosovo snub. Specifically, the Kremlin doubled its troops in Abkhazia, violated Georgia’s air space with fighters and shot down a Georgian remotely piloted aerial vehicle. This demonstrates that Russia will militarily defend its foreign interests but only when it has the upper hand.

Crises such as these will be inevitable if Moscow continues to consolidate power, rebuild its military and sustain its confrontational militaristic ways. So far, these crises have not flared into significant shooting but that remains a real possibility.

President Bush, and his soon-to-be successor, will have to come to terms with the authoritarian, militarizing Russia and not the democratic Russia everyone hoped would take root after the Cold War. It’s clear that President Medvedev will continue the course set by Putin: push to regain “great power” status by relying primarily on Russia’s new militarism.