Why Russia Should Build Up Its Military Might Even in a Favorable Foreign Environment
Sergei Karaganov is Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Dean of the School of World Economics and World Politics at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.
Resume With the global situation and Russia’s development vector as they are, the policy of military build-up is inevitable. The question is how and at what cost. It would be utterly wrong to spend lavishly, thereby ruining all development budgets.
Russia has embarked on a path of military enhancement. Programs for re-equipping and fundamentally reforming the armed forces are being adopted and implemented. Although foreign military threats are at an all-time low, this policy will be continued because it is consistent with emerging international realities and with the internal logic of Russia’s development. For these reasons, the topic at hand is not to change the general course of the policy, but rather to optimize it while avoiding crude mistakes and the senseless waste of money.
The ideas outlined in this article are designed to stimulate a discussion about defense policy – a discussion that is even less active today in Russia than it was in the Soviet Union. This is a dangerous situation. The question of military power, its role and influence in international relations, has become particularly acute, though it seems we do not know for what ends we now need military power and how much of it is needed.
IS MILITARY POWER LOSING SIGNIFICANCE?
There is a widely-held view that military power – the main tool for the expansion of state agendas since time immemorial – is progressively losing importance. This assertion is especially popular in Europe, which, having struggled through so many wars in its history, made the choice for pacifism in the second half of the 20th century.
Indeed, military power cannot resolve most of the contemporary world’s primary problems – climate change, demands for greater prosperity from increasingly active masses, the world financial crisis, a growing relative shortage of food. The changed political culture and structure of the economy have made the seizure of territories and their populations senseless from an economic standpoint. Attempts to keep such territories and people under control have proven futile. It is no longer possible to exploit a population to one’s benefit. All military victories of the past four decades have ended in political defeats (Iraq, Afghanistan) and/or massive spending to support the population in conquered or re-conquered territories (Iraq again or Russia’s Chechnya).
In an era of truly mass communications which hinder (although do not eliminate) the intentional manipulation of information, the moral and political costs of the use of military force tend to grow, particularly when used on a large scale and for a long period of time. To a certain extent, military force is being delegitimized. If, paraphrasing Clausewitz’s cliched expression, in the past war was a normal extension of politics; today, after two world wars and the emergence of nuclear weapons, the use of military force is often considered a failure of politics.
The decreasing effectiveness of military power and its delegitimization stem largely from a nuclear stalemate chiefly between Russia and the United States. The risk of the escalation of any major conflict to a nuclear and global level compels large states to reduce the use of force to far lower levels. The nuclear factor largely contributed to the peaceful resolution of the deepest political and ideological confrontation in history – the Cold War. But for this factor, the unprecedented, swift, and profound redistribution of power in the world from the traditional West to a rising Asia would not be as smooth. Historically, such shifts were almost always accompanied by wars, which either propelled or halted change. Thus, Russia and the U.S., remaining in a nuclear stalemate, and to a smaller extent other nuclear powers, may justly consider themselves godparents of the Asian economic miracle.
The experience of the past few years seems to confirm the idea that a country’s military potential will not have decisive significance as an instrument of politics or as an indicator of influence and power in the modern and future world. The strongest country in military terms – the United States – has essentially lost in succession the two wars it initiated (in Iraq and Afghanistan), thereby politically devaluing its multi-trillion dollar spending on the armed forces.
However, there is a different set of factors and arguments that contradict the view that the role of military power as a major instrument of government policy is diminishing in the modern world. After all, wars have been won, under different circumstances, but one may recall the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Libya, Chechnya, and Georgia, as well as the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Nuclear deterrence works as it prevents large-scale wars, and no country will reduce its nuclear arsenal in earnest, but, to the contrary, will keep perfecting it. Only romantics fight a losing battle with nuclear deterrence – both reactionary ones (U.S. advocates of missile defense) and progressive-liberal ones (dreamers eager to see a global zero and minimum deterrence at a level of 50-200 warheads on each side). The new world leaders, such as China and India, which would seem to benefit most from peaceful competition, are quickly arming themselves. The rivalry between the main competitors of the future – the U.S. and China – is being militarized before our very eyes. Discussions of future wars over natural resources and water have not stopped.
These and similar speculations can be considered remnants of a Cold War mentality. It is true that the discussion surrounding the problem of nuclear security is still largely determined by those old-timers who, consciously or subconsciously, try to return to past agendas. Some of them invent (sometimes even disinterestedly) endless phantom threats to their home countries and the world in general, while others call for a return to the good old days of arms control, which served as one of the engines, though modest, that prolonged the arms race. And if I were accounted one of those veterans, many of whom are my friends, though I by and large disagree with them, I would not be offended. In for a penny, in for a pound.
But one cannot deny there are objective reasons for the growing universal sense of danger in the modern world, and, as a consequence, for renewed reliance on military strength in the policies of many states, including Russia. Daydreams – the liberal’s dream of a world government, or the reactionary’s dream of a new concert of powerful nations that would rule the world – do not come true. The planet is moving towards chaos, but on a new, global level and in conditions of a qualitatively more profound and comprehensive interdependence. The old institutions of international governance – the United Nations, the IMF, the EU, NATO, and the G8 – are weakening. The newer institutions – the G20 or emerging regional structures – are not yet fully operational, and, apparently, they are unable to fill the vacuum of global governance.
Many ethical norms of international coexistence are being abandoned. Sometimes this is done intentionally, and occasionally this is caused by the natural development of the world system. Respect for state sovereignty and traditional rules of foreign policy conduct are imperfect principles, yet they served as some kind of support points. Whatever reasons led the instigators of the attacks on Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, the result was the same: all saw that the weak are attacked while no one comes to their aid. Those having at least some strength are not attacked. Non-nuclear Iraq was razed to the ground under false pretexts, while a successfully nuclear-capable North Korea, even less pleasant in a humanitarian sense, remains untouched. The old principle of political morality – “don’t betray your own” or “he may be son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” – is also sinking into oblivion. The Soviet Union was the first country to turn its back on cronies, but this could be explained by its bankruptcy and collapse. Now the West has begun to write off its own “Mubaraks.”
In this new world, establishing direct control of a territory and its resources no longer makes sense. But through the aid of military methods one can control access to them. It is no accident that naval forces are the main focus of the military augmentation of rising regional powers. Naval routes – both those that are operational today and those that are likely to open in the future (in the Arctic) – remain the focus of the great powers’ interest, just as it was in the era of classical geopolitics. So far there have been no major wars for the primary resource of the future – fresh water, but the indicative trend towards blocking the upper reaches of rivers (such practices will be particularly dangerous for Indochina and Hindustan) may bring about a situation in which this problem will entail the use of force.
Nuclear arms proliferation has contributed to the renaissance of military might. Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly Iran have put their neighbors in a vulnerable and politically inferior position. They, in turn, have been trying to compensate for this inferiority by acquiring nuclear arms of their own or by reinforcing their conventional armed forces and missile defenses. Or through attempts to weaken the stronger neighbor from within – precisely what the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf are doing now in a bid to overthrow the secular regime in Syria, which is friendly to Iran. The nuclear potential of North Korea and the comprehensive buildup of China will, in the long term, push Japan towards stepping over the nuclear threshold as well. And that country has territorial claims to Russia, South Korea, and China. Many territorial claims in East Asia are reciprocal. Thus, a security vacuum is emerging around an objectively strengthening China and revived old territorial disputes.
Structural changes in the international system also promote a shift towards greater reliance on military strength. Having encountered large-scale challenges at a time when the institutions of global governance have been losing strength, societies have rushed to seek protection from the customary institution – the state. The renationalization of world politics and, partially, the economy has begun. This trend has gained strength as Asia – a continent of traditional states – began to rise and emerged in the forefront of world politics. Old geopolitics, the concept of the balance of power, has staged an amazingly fast comeback, although in a new disguise. Although this old geopolitics continues to be criticized verbally (though all the more anemically), it is being translated into reality ever more outspokenly: through the destabilization of Iran’s ally, Syria, and creating counterbalances to China. Or through resisting the elimination of what is left of the military-political division of Europe. And, of course, it is impossible to believe the propaganda claims that such action is taken in support of democracy. Moreover, the principle of the balance of power is not only being revived with regard to Europe, where it emerged and caused so many wars, including two world wars, but it is beginning to dominate in Asia, despite a foreign policy culture of the past centuries that rejected such an approach in this region.
Yet nation states have become weaker qualitatively. They are increasingly unable to control the informational, financial, economic, and political processes within their own territories. They grow ever more dependent on the outside world. Eliminating this sort of dependence, insulating oneself from it, is practically impossible. Thus an extra incentive appears for the use of an instrument that nation states and governments still control almost entirely, i.e., military force.
In the medium term, the global economic crisis, which may well last for a decade, will contribute to the re-militarization of the world economy. On one hand, it restricts the appetite of military lobbies; on the other, it radicalizes politics, making the “hawks” stronger and increasing the temptation to start wars in order to distract people from internal despair and to blame an inability to cope with the economic crisis on foreign factors. Something of the sort can be seen in the attitude of most great powers towards the Middle East. Objections to the idea of an attack on Iran, and, consequently, a large-scale war – become ever weaker. Intervention in Libya appeared to be the classical “small victorious war.” The war was won, but jubilation died down in virtually no time as the crisis went on and Libya itself fell hopelessly apart.
There is yet one more circumstance behind the wish to rely on military strength. Whatever the political and economic grievances many countries have against the West, everyone proceeded from the assumption that its policy was rational and predictable. But in recent years Western policies have more frequently caused utter confusion.
The invasion of Iraq was doomed from the outset. There was no way to democratize the Middle East and develop the ideology that appeared to be victorious during the Cold War. The net effects were the de-facto fragmentation of Iraq and the consequent qualitative strengthening of Iran – the regional Western archrival. It is even harder to determine a rational explanation for the deployment of NATO forces to Afghanistan. The first phase of the operation, the elimination of Taliban and Al Qaeda bases from the air and support, with Russia’s assistance, of the anti-Taliban groups, was logical. But the ground invasion into this “graveyard of empires” – a land no great power could conquer over thousands of years and where the Soviet Union lost so much of its strength – is very hard to understand. Intervention in a pre-feudal society under the banner of spreading democracy was an idea so insane that conspiracy theorists were not alone in attempting to find some covert intentions behind it.
Things went from bad to worse. Using the excuse of supporting democracy, Western countries contributed to the collapse of authoritarian, yet secular, regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and now, in Syria, though they well know that these overthrows were instigated not only by the disgruntled masses, but also by the fundamentalist Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf, who are far more reactionary in terms of Western values than the regimes that have already fallen or are about to fall. As a result, a reverse movement away from modernity and a return to traditionalism has begun. In addition, the Islamic regimes that are coming to power by catering to public uproar inevitably become more anti-Western and anti-Israeli. Even the supporters of conspiracy theories are in amazement.
Having lost its strategic benchmarks, Western political behavior is inevitably radicalized amid the persisting crisis. This factor adds to the general picture of the chaotic and unpredictable world in which humanity is destined to live for the foreseeable future. It is also an additional argument for those, including those in Russia, who tend to rely on that which is easy to understand: sovereignty and military strength.
RUSSIA AND MILITARY MIGHT
Russia has also begun to augment its military capabilities. From the standpoint of military security, it is in a more favorable position today than ever before. In the course of a millennium, the pivotal idea of Russian statehood has been a national idea of protection from outside threats and the preservation of sovereignty. No major foreign power intentionally threatens Russia today, and none of them will pose a threat in the medium term. Russia’s status as a nuclear superpower makes the probability of a massive attack against it negligible. This has been the case since the 1960s-1970s, but recognizing that fact in those days was impossible both ideologically and politically. The Soviet Union paid a high price for its obsession with war – it abandoned the world stage.
Gone are the ideological confrontation and the political controversies that could lead Moscow towards a direct military confrontation with the West. The theoretical possibility had existed before 2008, as long as NATO threatened an alliance with Ukraine. That alliance would have created an utterly unacceptable situation for Russia from the standpoint of military security. It could also be complicated by the origin in Ukraine of a schism and conflict, into which all of Europe probably would have become embroiled.
Such a threat has not become a reality, for which Moscow and Europe should be grateful to the current Georgian leadership and to those who encouraged Georgia to attack South Ossetia. Russia’s victory in the Five-Day War prevented a far riskier scenario. Even if the claim, as asserted by many of its critics, that the Russian leadership provoked Georgia’s attack in order to later easily defeat it, is true, then it was a remarkable diplomatic victory, greatly strengthening Russia’s geopolitical position and relieving Europe of the possibility of a grave crisis. The topic of NATO’s expansion into Ukraine was in fact closed several days after the events in Tskhinvali.
Ultra-reactionary forces in Washington may again attempt to bring the issue of the alliance’s relations in the post-Soviet space to the forefront. However, it can be reasonably assumed that in the foreseeable future the U.S. will be focused not on the post-Soviet space, but on consolidating its shaky position in the Greater Middle East. A confrontation with Russia would merely exacerbate these problems. The Europeans have no need for a confrontation for which they have neither the desire nor the strength.
Those in Russia who continually bring up an external threat point to the formal supremacy of NATO in the realm of conventional weapons. But they cunningly ignore the fact that conventional weapons and the expenditures for them in Europe have been steadily reduced for two decades now and, to put it frankly, in the majority of countries are inexorably approaching a token amount. (That is, of course, if nothing out of the ordinary occurs, such as Kim Il-Sung’s attack on South Korea with Stalin’s support in 1950, which reversed the unilateral disarmament of Europe and the U.S. after World War II.)
The experience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars revealed the level of NATO’s capability – that it was in fact extremely low. True, this is no guarantee against aggressive behavior. Until the 1990s the alliance was purely defensive. But the perception of triumphalism and impunity, developed after what appeared to be victory in the Cold War, and the loss by a crisis-stricken Russia in the last decade of the past century of its potential for political deterrence, triggered euphoria and a series of interventions. But NATO is in no condition to threaten Russia, and indeed the raptures over its own successes are waning.
China, anticipating an escalation in its competition with the U.S., including the military-political sphere, is doing everything it can not to arouse Russia’s concerns. After bewildered questions from Moscow, NATO curtailed the exercises it had been holding a few years ago to practice troop redeployments at long distances. The modernization of Chinese nuclear power is not aimed, to the extent that such is possible, at Russia. Beijing has pursued explicitly friendly policies. Contrary to oft-repeated claims, China is not conducting a demographic or investment expansion. There are fewer Chinese in Russia than Germans. There are far fewer Chinese now than in pre-revolutionary Russia. China’s investment in Russia is ridiculously small.
While strengthening its relations with China, Moscow adheres to a policy of retaining its overwhelming nuclear supremacy at both the strategic and tactical levels. This can be observed in the renewed modernization of Russian forces and the actual refusal to conduct further talks on their reduction.
It is evident that China’s growing economic and political power is a problem, which, in a situation where there is no highly-active policy for the further development of Siberia and the Trans-Baikal region, may result in the “Finlandization” of Russia. But this is not a military threat; it is a direct result of the pace and quality of Russia’s internal development.
The risk of conflicts has been increasing along the southern border of Russia. The Iranian situation, which threatens an armed conflict, an almost inevitable large-scale war, or a series of smaller wars in the Middle East and the aggressive expansion of part of the Islamic world – all would inevitably launch the metastases of armed conflicts onto the territory of Russia and its neighbors. These conflicts will have to be prevented or neutralized, including through the use of force. But this threat is fundamentally different from the existential one that determined the whole of Russian national history.
The threat of these metastases, as well as the ideological and political offensiveness of part of the Islamic world, which is attempting to compensate (with the help of oil money) for its losses in international economic and socio-political competition, has arisen as the most probable along the spectrum of challenges to Russia’s military security.
No traditional large-scale military threats are envisioned in the long term. True, it is possible to frighten oneself with scary stories about the
U.S. building up a capability to deliver a massive strike against Russia with conventional high-accuracy missiles. Most likely, that is a bluff. But even if one assumes that such missiles make an appearance, it is clear that Russia’s response can be only nuclear. Hardly anyone is prepared to take such a risk. Most important in this context is for Russia to avoid becoming involved in an arms race along this invariably disadvantageous course. Although there are some in Russia who have been very active in proposing amassing such a potential, i.e., to begin playing sniper games, while having multiple rocket launchers at one’s back.
There is another way to scare oneself – fanning tensions over the European missile defense system and beginning to squander money by the example of Soviet “hawks,” who in their time obtained and spent huge budgets to combat U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s fictitious “Star Wars” plan. I hope that those who are waging the current campaign against the European missile defense pursue some more rational goals: politically tying America’s hands, restricting maneuvering room in this area, gaining a useful and plausible excuse to refuse any further steps towards negotiated nuclear weapons reduction. And possibly – you never know – to create conditions for joint, de-facto allied, relations in this sphere, if the U.S. ever abandons its faith in the possibility of strategic invulnerability.
Although there are no threats in sight, the continuation of Russia’s policy of strengthening its military potential is certain, not least because of a need for modern armed forces capable of containing or actively preventing immediate threats to security. After nearly twenty years of unilateral disarmament due to the systemic crisis that began in the late 1980s, creating such forces anew is obligatory. I believe that in the eyes of Russia’s current leadership (although no open statements have been made), the policy of military reinforcement is primarily driven by Russia’s positioning itself in the international arena as a major power and by the understanding that the current model of Russia’s development does not provide another means of guaranteeing a leading position.
No breakthrough in modernization has yet appeared. Neither society nor the elite is prepared for one. Society is relaxing after 80 years of Communist hardships and the post-Communist turmoil of the 1990s. The ruling class is enjoying the rent redistribution. The unsatisfied, and those who are too energetic or too efficient, emigrate or live here and there. The de-modernization of the economy follows its due course, while feeble attempts to counter this process invariably involve imported technologies. Life is becoming more comfortable, but no development prospects are emerging.
If this general vector continues, no stroke of luck or diplomatic skill would allow Russia to remain in its third place on the list of great powers (after the United States and China). The drive for “greatness” is inherent not only in Russian leaders, but also in the majority of its citizens. Furthermore, Russians, like the British, are not broken by history, in contrast to practically all other formerly great European powers.
Economic weakness is threatening and eroding sovereignty, as Russians ascertained in the 1980s and the 1990s. Society seems prepared almost at the genetic level to safeguard that sovereignty, as it has done with a rapturously audacious courage in the course of its history – returning then and there to poverty, or even to slavery. Russians, by and large, are unable and reluctant to be a “normal country,” “to live like all the rest,” basking exclusively in the quiet joys of consumption. This upsets some and gladdens others. But whatever the attitude to this type of national psychology, there are no reasons visible on the horizon that would make it change. It is possible that decades of peaceful evolution could influence this psychology, but that is just a theory.
The military buildup is expected to compensate for the relative weakness in other elements of power – economic, technological, ideological, and psychological. Russia possesses amazingly little allure for the outside world. It is respected solely as a strong player. (Why the nation of Pushkin, Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Shostakovich, and Solzhenitsyn has such a shortage of soft power and appeal is a separate story.)
It is easy to criticize this stance as not relevant to modern global realties. But the world is changing so rapidly and unpredictably today that this venture may prove the appropriate one. Of course, it is far better to be strong in all spheres – economic, technological, cultural, and spiritual. This has not yet happened. Only military reform is in progress.
The most remarkable thing about ongoing military reform is that it has been rather successful, despite endless obstacles, mixed reaction to it and the scandalous dismissal of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The abuse of authority by Defense Ministry officials does not negate the essence of the reforms. All other reforms talked about for many years – pensions, the housing and utilities sector, the judiciary, education, and politics – are either stalled, moving at a snail’s pace, or simply fell through. But military reform continues. The promised mammoth defense spending of 18, 20, 23 and again 20 trillion rubles is not the only thing. The figures as such mean little as there is no well-conceived plan for rearmament behind them, and they will be adjusted as appropriate. Yet the figures indicate a political commitment to spend more on the army.
The reform of the armed forces is truly revolutionary. An immense, mobilization-based, traditional Russian and Soviet army, designed primarily for major ground wars against a potential threat from the West (long absent) is being replaced by a compact, more professional, and permanently combat-ready army, capable of providing an adequate response to low- and medium-intensity conflicts. For the prevention of large-scale conflicts, reform increasingly relies on nuclear weapons, which are also being upgraded. New-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles have finally begun to go operational, and their capability to penetrate any missile defense system has made the deployment of such systems a pointless waste of money.
Powerful nuclear arms, essentially not intended for use, are still necessary in order to render absurd any attempts to put pressure on Russia on the basis of superior conventional forces. In addition, a nuclear sword of Damocles is crucial for “civilizing” hotheads, particularly now that fundamental changes in the world, unprecedented in depth and pace, are leading to the loss of strategic benchmarks and common sense.
In essence, the ongoing modernization of the armed forces is reasonably expected not only to ward off security challenges and reinforce Russia’s international political status, but also to close many channels of the global arms race that can harm international military and strategic stability. By guaranteeing its security and status, Russia simultaneously regains the role of a key safeguard of international security and peace.
In the Ground Forces, divisions, armies, and corps have been abolished in favor of a more comprehensible and simpler brigade-based structure. Similar changes are underway in the Air Force and Air Defense. The military administrative apparatus is being radically reduced; generals and officers are to be cut by half. The overall numbers of the armed forces are being optimized on an advancing timetable. It appears that the reformers, much criticized in the 1990s for claiming the optimal strength of the armed forces should be about 800,000, were right. In those days reduction was undesired, and conscription was supported in order to somehow bolster the old military structure, thereby squandering resources in a poor country.
It is clear that the army is rapidly professionalizing, and the time is not far off when the army will be reduced drastically and eventually made voluntary. The humanization of military service has begun, although unevenly, slowly, and inconsistently. Troops are being relieved of their self-maintenance. Ever more efforts concentrate on the main task of enhancing their combat readiness and skills. But most important is that the armed forces, despite wild resistance, are being reformatted to meet the real challenges of today and tomorrow. A decisive departure has begun away from Soviet-style armed forces designed to counter the long-absent threat of a massive attack by the West. Such an army was good only for a country capable of spending heavily on its military and, in fact, serving as its attendant.
Although difficult, active rearmament is in progress. The defense-industrial (formerly military-industrial) complex has in many ways been bled dry and, in contrast to the armed forces, has undergone little reform, remaining a shadow of the Soviet Leviathan, as, not long ago, the Russian army was a pale shadow of the Soviet.
Numerous problems and mistakes stand alongside the achievements. Reform has deliberately not been a subject of discussions or research. Apparently, the military and political leadership came to the opinion that any discussion would produce such strong opposition that it would once again halt reform. Even the foundational documents – the 2009 National Security Strategy and the 2010 Military Doctrine – in no way reflect the processes underway in the armed forces. They simply lie in different, little intersecting, dimensions. Nevertheless, Russia is moving along a path of transforming itself into a contemporary, strong military power. What benefits it will derive from this transformation is an open question, as are, admittedly, the majority of other questions in today’s world.
I am personally very pleased to write about the progress of reform, because it nearly coincides with the proposals and ideas that the working group for military reform in the Foreign and Defense Policy Council proposed in the 1990s and the early 2000s. At that time, the Defense Ministry rejected these ideas angrily and even with indignation, but in the end they were accepted because they corresponded with current trends, and with the requirements and capabilities of the country. The working group was led by a remarkable person – Vitaly Shlykov, a man of great erudition and an excellent theorist, who regrettably died recently. Yet he lived long enough to see the ideas for which he had long struggled begin to be translated into reality.
With the global situation and Russia’s development vector as they are, the policy of military build-up is inevitable. The question is how and at what cost. It would be utterly wrong to spend lavishly, thereby ruining all development budgets. Regimes, like the one in Russia today, as a rule refrain from curtailing social benefits. Yet it seems that a policy has been launched towards suicidal cuts in education spending instead of drastic increases. This eliminates even the most remote chances for a modernization breakthrough, whether liberal or anti-liberal.
It is foolish to wantonly spend money on superfluous weapons or unnecessary development programs for the armed forces. It is foolish to over-arm oneself to the net result of creating more enemies scared of Russia. The risk is great. The Soviet Union was not the only country of unrestrained militarization, developing and maintaining for armaments more tanks than the rest of the world. Other countries, far more democratic and advanced, were doing the same. There are practically no institutional restrictions on the arms race, and this merely exacerbates the risk of mistakes.
The Finance Ministry has been trying to avoid giving the military as much funding as they demand, and the defense minister is doing everything he can to restrict the appetite of the hungry and, apparently, corrupt (like almost everyone else) leaders of the military-industrial complex. But in the current political system the parliament is unable to play any significant role in shaping military policy or forming the budget. There has been no expert or public discussion of military policy priorities. Even in the last years of the Soviet Union, the Central Committee of the Communist Party created at some academic institutions a number of think tanks not subordinate either to the Defense Ministry or to the Military-Industrial Commission of the same Central Committee. They played a significant role in the attempt to use the arms control process to steer the country out of a situation in which it was actually at economic war with the whole world. It is not known how much was spent then on defense and related industries, but I believe the sum ranged from 20-25 percent of the gross domestic product, not of the national budget. In practice, the Soviet Union never ended World War II, and it collapsed not only as a result of the economic ineffectiveness of socialism, but also under the burden of insane military spending. To a great extent that back-breaking yoke had been assumed voluntarily, without any particular need, due to ideology and the idiocy that it breeds, the unrestricted appetite of the military-industrial lobby and absolutely inadequate understanding of the foreign threat. The echo of those stereotypes is still heard today.
The academic think tanks created then are aging physically and morally; they are reluctant and unable to engage in active polemics any more. There are practically no experts on the military economy. On the liberal side, current military polices are criticized by a handful of – literally two or three – journalists from second or third-rate mass media. They deserve honor and praise for their boldness, but they lack adequate knowledge and are politically biased. In the center, there is a group of specialists close to the defense ministry, who are obliged to praise its actions and turn a blind eye to mistakes. On the left, in the third- and fourth-rate mass media – fortunately not available to mass readership – one can read tens, if not hundreds of writers, representing the financially and intellectually bankrupt academic part of the Soviet military-industrial complex. They tell phantasmagoric scare stories and demand money from the Defense Ministry. More often than not their writings have nothing to do with reality and appear as bad caricatures of Soviet fantasies. They have no audience, but they are many and cannot help but influence public opinion in the millions-strong defense industry-related community. Some of these specialists view the President and the Defense Minister as traitors, as they try to restrict insane financial expectations and introduce competition and modern forms of economic management.
In order to understand what needs to be done, it is necessary to create independent, public, and academic expertise of the processes underway in the military sphere. Such expertise from above – by “blue ribbon committees” – is organized in other countries when the armed forces undergo reform. And it has proven effective. Reform is already in progress; the opposition will not be able to stop it. The question is how to rationalize the reform in order to avoid costly mistakes that might upset the opportunities that the current geopolitical situation offers Russia today. Mistakes may hinder the prevention of threats and even generate new ones.
Finally, the strengthening of the military can compensate for weaknesses in other elements of power only to a certain extent. In order to remain a great and sovereign power in the future, Russia will have to modernize and diversify its economy. Otherwise it will have no basis for strengthening its military potential. It is necessary to restore and enhance soft power – the country’s appeal to the world and to its own citizens – through the revival and creation of a new Russian identity based on a great culture and a glorious history of military victories. Otherwise the caustic joke, by the brilliant wit and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, describing the Soviet Union as “the Upper Volta with missiles,” may prove true of Russia as well.