Russia’s choice between a nuclear arsenal and a modernized infantry

In a world of limited resources where oil prices have plummeted, Russia’s military is ever more stretched. Yesterday, I highlighted the implosion in the Russian economy, suggesting that many in Washington see Russia as a potential problem due to its aggressive foreign policy and its declining economic fortunes.

In response, a friend who I know from my foreign service days sent me an article from the BBC suggesting that this confluence of events has increased (the article was written in 2000) a nuclear bias in the Russian military — with obvious negative consequences for U.S.-Russian relations. The country simply cannot afford to have strong technological capabilities and provide for its large infantry that is serving on the front lines of Russia’s increasingly unstable borders. It is choosing the nuclear option.

President Putin has given the go-ahead for major military reform in what is being seen as a bid to assert his authority over the armed forces. But Russia is facing a financial crisis, as BBC News Online’s Stephen Mulvey explains.

The acrimony between Russia’s top generals is an unfortunate but inevitable result of the shortage of money in the country’s military budget.

The former superpower simply cannot afford to maintain a powerful nuclear arsenal and to modernise its infantry to fight effectively in local conflicts.

For Moscow, even a decision to divide expenditure equally between both priorities would involve painful compromises.

On the one hand, its nuclear arsenal is the backbone of its fast-declining military might, and the guarantee of its status as a world power.

On the other, the threat Russia faces from local conflicts is obvious. Thousands of its troops have died in the North Caucasus since 1994 – and according to Russian analysts many of these deaths could have been avoided if the army had been better equipped.

Nuclear bias

Russia’s Defence Minister since 1997, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, is a former commander of the country’s Strategic Missile Forces – and it is not surprising that he has spent the lion’s share of Russia’s limited procurement budget replacing ageing missiles with modern ones.

But this was not simply a case of loyalty to his own service.

Russia’s military doctrine has been steadily revised in recent years to put greater emphasis on nuclear deterrence, in recognition of the fact that the rest of the once-powerful Soviet armed forces have been wasting away.

If truth be told, the Strategic Missile Forces have been wasting away too – and the country’s present arsenal of 6,000 warheads will continue to shrink rapidly regardless of any further disarmament treaties, such as the proposed Start-3 pact, that may one day be agreed with the United States.

Eyeless in Chechnya

But Marshal Sergeyev’s new purchases mean that they now have at least some reliable, modern hardware.

Generals fighting the war in Chechnya, however, have a different perspective of spending priorities.

The respected Russian defence analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, says the army entered the latest war in Chechnya without helicopters capable of flying at night or in fog, and without modern body armour or communication equipment.

“Today in Chechnya, federal troops often go into battle without body armour and wearing bandanas instead of steel helmets,” he says.

“This is not only because they are undisciplined, but because out-of-date army flak jackets and steel helmets only impede soldier’s movements, while offering almost no protection.”

Upper Volta with rockets

In March, he says, a company of almost 100 paratroopers was wiped out in the Chechen mountains, because fog made air support impossible.

In its dying days the Soviet Union was described as “Upper Volta with rockets”, and the phrase is partially true of Russia today.

The biggest difference is that Russia’s periphery is far more unstable than the Soviet Union’s ever was.

The current debate over spending priorities illustrates once again how tough it is to be a dirt-poor former superpower threatened by further disintegration.

Russia may have made many bad choices over the last few years, but choices like this one are hard to make.

These are many of the same choices that will face the American military in response to economic downturn in an unstable world. About two weeks ago, I attended a reception at Fort Myers military base for the launch of a new book “America’s Defense Meltdown” released by the Center for Defense Information that compiles the recommendations of a number of top U.S. military officers regarding the decline in U.S. military capabilities.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in geopolitics and its intersection with economics.  Don Vandergriff, one of the authors summarizes the themes in a link at the bottom of this article. The CDI says about the book:

  • After decades of mismanagement by both Democrats and Republicans, our military forces have reached new lows in size, age and readiness to fight, while defense spending has reached historic highs.
  • Thirteen highly qualified, independent-thinking critics – retired military officers, Pentagon insiders and civilian defense specialists – carefully describe the rot in each major facet of our defenses and, more importantly, propose solutions.

This is very much an issue as the global economy becomes fragile because the use of force becomes more inviting in a poor economic climate.

Analysis: Russia’s rocket row – BBC News
Commentary on President-elect Obama by Douglas MacGregor, Contributor to “America’s Defense Meltdown,” Featured in the Latest Edition of Defense News
America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for the New President and Congress – Don Vandergriff

  1. john haskell says

    Sergeev retired in 2001 and died in 2006. This article was written in August of 2000. However, it does describe Russia in a negative context so you might as well keep re-printing it.

    By the way the Czarist regime is not fighting effectively against the German Empire. Our observers at the front say the Czarist regime needs to open up and become more democratic if it is to succeed.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      @john haskell, written in 2000, the article is still applicable today – even more so perhaps.

      However, it is not about the Russia bogeyman. We shouldn’t always see Russia in a negative light. Yes, they have been very aggressive of late. But, in my view, they were provoked in Georgia and then the U.S. media jumped on the anti-Russian bandwagon. Frankly, I was stunned at how biased the reporting was. See some of the related posts for a more nuanced view.

      So, I would not say describing Russia in a negative way is actually a good thing. It shows bias and can only increase tensions.

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