Russia’s military is the largest in the region, but it isn’t the same force as in Soviet times


A Russian serviceman stands guard aboard a Russian Navy ship in Sevastopol, Ukraine. (Zurab Kurtsikidze/European Pressphoto Agency)
Walter Pincus
Reporter March 10

The military forces that Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use “as a last resort” in eastern Ukraine are in the early stages of a major, seven-year modernization program that is not expected to be completed before 2020.

Starved for funds in the 1990s and early 2000s, Moscow’s “troop readiness, training, morale, and discipline suffered, and most arms industries became antiquated,” according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released Wednesday.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed many operational weaknesses and triggered Putin’s major investment in defense spending and armed forces restructuring.

The effort, however, has been dogged by “mismanagement, changes in plans, corruption, manning issues,” the CRS reported.

Considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, it is worth noting how Russians see their immediate military threats.

The conflicts that top their threat list are “both in Russia itself (in the form of separatist uprisings and attempts to secede) and similar conflicts with the neighboring former Soviet republics,” said Ruslan Pukhov, a former Russian Defense Ministry official and now director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a leading Russian defense industry and arms trade think tank.

“Most of these republics regard Russia as the main threat to their sovereignty and are, therefore, interested in weakening Russian influence on their territory and internationally by all possible means,” Pukhov wrote in August in an article on Russian defense strategy.

“The West underestimates the importance of the Ukrainian issue for Russia and the role of Ukraine as a colossal destabilizing factor in Western-Russian relations in the immediate term,” Pukhov wrote.

Another purpose for building Russian forces is to deter the United States and NATO countries from “meddling in conflicts in the former Soviet republics or Western attempts to forestall possible Russian actions with regard to these republics,” he wrote.

Personnel is a major problem for the Russian military. Efforts to move from a conscription army to “contract-employed” soldiers (such as the U.S. volunteer force) have not been successful.

Under Russia’s 10-year reform program of 2009, its military forces (army, navy and air force) should have been at 1 million last year. But a Swedish Defence Research Agency study released in December had the figure below 800,000. The CRS put it at 700,000.

Still, it remains the region’s largest force. The Russian army is at about 285,000, including conscripts, but units are being manned at 40 to 60 percent, according to the Swedish study.

Hundreds gathered in Moscow to show their support for the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, calling for both peace and the annexation of Crimea. (Reuters)

Contract soldiers, who must serve three years, have not been reenlisting at expected rates, and the dropouts run from 35 percent to 80 percent, the Swedish study said.

Conscripts serve one year, and the constant movement makes the introduction and training on complex weapons difficult.

Also, a sharp decline in the Russian birth rate and health disqualification of 52 percent of the potential service pool have forced the military to consider increasing the length of service or accepting a smaller force.

Plans for spending more than $700 billion over 10 years on weapon modernization began in 2011 and included $89 billion for rebuilding “the largely obsolete defense industrial complex,” along with importing weapons and technologies, the CRS report said.

In addition to purchasing two French helicopter carriers for $1.6 billion, the Russians turned to the German firm Rheinmetall Defence to build a $132 million modern army training center — Mulino — near Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga.

Logistics have always been a problem for the Russian military because they were put in the hands of a state corporation called Oboronservis. The corporation contracted out modernization and maintenance services for weapons, construction and canteens. It became “a breeding ground for embezzlement, corruption and neglect of tasks,” the Swedish study noted.

In recent years, as money became available, “expenditure on logistics and rear service doubled or tripled at the same time as quality deteriorated,” the Swedish study said. This led to the dismissal in November 2012 of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a onetime chairman of Oboronservis.

More recently, logistics and maintenance battalions have been introduced to carry out those functions at the brigade level. However, there is a shortage of specialists and contract soldiers who can handle those jobs.

The Russian Defense Ministry in July projected that by the end of this year only 26 percent of planned armament modernization will have taken place, according Dmitry Gorenburg, a research analyst with CNA Strategic Studies, which runs the Center for Naval Analyses.

The number of combat-capable aircraft dropped from 1,600 in 2010 to 1,460 in 2012, according to the Swedish study. The new Russian defense minister, Sergey Shoygu, has said that the air force was concentrated in too few locations and required more bases.

He also spoke publicly about increasing the number of rounds that artillery and tank crews fire in exercises. “Our colleagues in other countries shoot 160 shells a year per crew. We have to increase our indicator at least five times,” he said in a January article on the Russian Defense Policy Web site.

This is not the Russia of the Cold War, and it has few allies who would join it should Putin try to move into eastern Ukraine.

As Gorenburg put it Sunday, any such move would lead “to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict,” and “even though Russia would win such a war, the result would be long-term instability on Russia’s immediate border, with guerrilla warfare likely for some time.”

Given the current state of the Russian military, there is good reason to believe that Putin will never take that step.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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