Russia's Wounded Military

Benjamin S Lambeth. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 2. March 1995.

The Chechnya misadventure unmasked what Russia's armed forces have known for some time—that the heir to the once-vaunted Soviet military is in shambles. Years of cutbacks in Russia's military budgets, worsened by rapid inflation, have crippled morale, the development of new weapons, maintenance, and training. At the upper echelons, there is now an exodus of talented and experienced officers; in the lower ranks, desertion and draft evasion are widespread. Nevertheless, the Russian military has largely remained above politics and helped to stabilize the nation amid reform. The US could do well to press for an honest and open military-to-military relationship with Russia. One day, a grave nuclear threat may require it.

Nostalgia for Checkpoint Charlie


Russia's armed forces, only a few years ago the vaunted Soviet juggernaut, are now in shambles. The failure of Soviet communism and the collapse of the Soviet state have left the Russian high command with immense problems. Strategically, the forces that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union were poorly configured and deployed for the new security landscape. Internally, the economic disintegration of the Soviet Union has radically reduced military spending, leaving the armed forces impoverished with little prospect of near-term relief. Continued deterioration within the ranks has added further humiliation to the bitter memory of the U.S.S.R.'s loss of empire, raising hard questions about whether the resultant disaffection might lead to a military backlash that could end Russia's struggle toward democracy and market reform. Even before the escalation of its misadventure in Chechnya, signs of privation were rampant enough to warrant a characterization of Russia's army as a crumbling giant. This impression has since become widespread among Western observers who, over the past two months, have watched with dismay the ineptitude of Russia's brutal attempt to suppress the Chechen uprising.

The military nonetheless remains a responsible and stabilizing force in Russian society, despite these internal strains and the aggravating factor of Chechnya. It has struggled to stay above politics, with commendable success. It has refused to support power-seekers from within its ranks. In the 1991 and 1993 coup attempts and in Georgia and Latvia during the last two years of Soviet rule, the military bridled at being ordered to use violence against civilians. It is not even remotely enthusiastic about the sordid assignment in Chechnya it was handed by President Boris Yeltsin. Nevertheless, despite repeated past professions of "never again" after such onerous missions, it has been following its orders—so far.

The United States should show full appreciation and empathy for the Russian military's predicament whenever possible, while making clear what conduct we cannot accept. Despite disarray at all levels, the military remains a pivotal player, for better or worse, in the Russian reform process. Because of its arms monopoly, it also is the one institution that can make or break a cooperative security relationship with the West.

Busted Flat and Waiting for the Train


The collapse OF the Warsaw Pact, the end of the Cold War, and the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. were body blows for the Russian military. They prompted an instant loss of its familiar roles and missions and deprived it of a clear challenge to help guide the equipping and training of its forces. The changes also brought a loss of alliance, an end to superpower status except in nuclear weapons capability, and a new western border uncomfortably closer to Moscow. Because the U.S.S.R. had been strategically oriented toward the west, most of Russia's best military equipment was deployed beyond the westernmost borders of the Russian Federation. Although its hardware in central Europe, the Baltic states, and Moldova was eventually returned, Moscow forfeited its prized assets in Ukraine and Belarus when the union fell apart. Little more than half the combat aircraft of the Soviet air force remained within the boundaries of post-Cold War Russia. Russia also lost four of every five Soviet repair facilities for armored fighting vehicles. As a result, only 20 percent of the tanks inherited by the Russian army remained serviceable by early 1994.

Such strategic degradation has been compounded by the military's internal problems. In grappling with Russia's economic crisis, the government has reduced spending for defense procurement dramatically. Its effects have been painfully felt in all quarters. A conspicuous embarrassment to the military in the summer of 1993 was the decision by the civilian airline, Aeroflot, to cease honoring military transportation requests because of the unpaid bills the Defense Ministry had piled up. Only half the bare-bones appropriation to the military in 1994 was ultimately released by the Finance Ministry. The draft budget for 1995 granted even less to defense, considering that inflation will have drained much of the appropriation's purchasing power by the time the funds are received. In testimony to the State Duma in late 1994, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev declared flatly that no army in the world is in as wretched a state as Russia's. He warned that if only half the proposed 1995 defense allocation is released for expenditure, as was the case in 1994, "the army will simply collapse."

This funding crisis has also brought Russia's force development to a near halt. The air and air defense forces, for example, typically bought about 450 new fighter aircraft a year during the mid-1980s. By contrast, they acquired only 23 in 1993 and 1994 combined, not enough even to replace aircraft lost in routine accidents. The outlook for force modernization is no better. Russia's air force has a declared requirement for a new fighter to replace the MiG-29 and Su-27. It may even fly a hand-built prototype of such a fighter soon, as its industry executives have been promising since last summer. But with the scarcity of funds for the improvement of existing combat aircraft, wholesale development and production of a Russian counterpart to the U.S. Air Force's F-22 fighter, at least in the near term, is probably a pipe dream. Even the manufacture of helmets and flight suits has been cut off.

Training has also been hit hard. Since 1992, the Finance Ministry has repeatedly failed to fund even the minimum fuel quotas for the armed services. As a result, Russia's fighter pilots are now logging on average no more than 25 flying hours a year, a dismal contrast to the training norms of Western powers, which range from 180 to 220 hours. As one might expect, pilot proficiency has declined and the accident rate has climbed. Deputy Defense Minister Boris Gromov recently said that some 20 aircraft accidents occurred in 1994, a disturbingly high figure for the low number of hours flown by the Russian air force. A lack of spare parts has further diminished Russia's military readiness and maintenance. The air force now routinely cannibalizes some aircraft to keep others flying, even though that violates long-standing safety rules.

Other Russian services have been similarly affected. There have been no ground force exercises at the divisional level or above since 1992. Not even the best army divisions are fully manned and equipped. The surface navy rarely puts to sea because of insufficient funds for fuel. The few exercises conducted and reviewed during the 1993 training year, complained Colonel General Mikhail Kolesnikov, the chief of the general staff, revealed poor command preparation, deficient knowledge of operational procedures, and an alarming buildup of unserviceable equipment.

The failure of the conscription system, which once provided the lion's share of Soviet maintenance manpower, has aggravated equipment problems. More than 75 percent of eligible Russian youths now routinely evade the draft. Desertion is also rampant, with as many as 120 cases reported each week. Partly this stems from an abusive initiation practice called dedovshchina, or the bullying of new conscripts by second-year servicemen. In 1993, 169 Russian conscripts reportedly died in hazing incidents. The abnormally high suicide rate among draftees is also largely attributable to these abuses. In decades past, the military high command and government officials kept dedovshchina and its excesses relatively quiet. But with the collapse of Soviet censorship and tight bureaucratic control, it simply scares the best and brightest of Russia's eligible draftees away.

Because of the failed conscription system, a lopsided proportion of the Russian military is manned by officers, many of whom perform menial tasks—like standing guard and stoking furnaces—once assigned to raw conscripts. The proportion of noncommissioned manning in the air and air defense forces has dropped to 50 percent or below in many units; the Soviet high command had stipulated that units at 70 percent or below were incapable of military operations. At today's levels, the general staff is hard put even to assemble small peacekeeping forces for deployment to embattled spots, like Chechnya, along Russia's southern periphery. Russian air force analysts have reported that it now takes all of Russia's military airlift capability just to move one airborne division in two sorties. Today it is unlikely that Russia, with its decimated and poorly supported conventional forces, could mount a large-scale cross-border operation against a well-equipped opponent. Its logistics system has been stretched to the breaking point just to sustain some 40,000 troops bogged down in Chechnya.

Proud Professionals Hoeing for Pittances


These disruptions have made for an appalling quality of life within the military. The massive withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics over the past three years has left at least 155,000 officers and their families without adequate housing. The Defense Ministry's chief controller has warned that this number could reach 400,000 by the end of this year. None of this has been helped by the Chechnya operation, which by some accounts has diverted as much as $4 billion in defense funds away from more needy accounts like housing, social services for officers and their families, and routine operations and maintenance.

Officers at all levels are paid pittances by civilian standards, a problem exacerbated by the skyrocketing inflation since Yeltsin's removal of price controls in January 1992. Some cadets at the air force's flight schools use parachutes as blankets during wintertime. Moscow bus drivers now earn more than trained fighter pilots. Russia's economy has deteriorated to the point where officers have to work off-duty as farmhands to make ends meet. Even at the Kubinka military base on the southwestern outskirts of Moscow, which has traditionally been a prestigious showcase for the air force, pilots spend their spring and summer weekends weeding and hoeing. Russian soldiers in and around Chechnya lack adequate clothing, rations, and shelter. It is scarcely surprising that Grachev has characterized his military as "hungry, barefoot, and underfinanced."

All of this goes far toward explaining the poor performance of Russia's troops in Chechnya. These are not the sons of the Soviet leviathan that confronted NATO across the Fulda gap in Germany for two generations. NATO's military posture was configured on the reasonable assumption that if war came, Western forces would have to fight badly outnumbered and from a defensive and reactive posture against a massive, combined-arms military machine that retained full control over the nuclear weapons option and was prepared, as a matter of doctrinal principle, to trade high casualty rates for victory. The clash in Chechnya revealed a military of a sadly different sort: a ragtag band of hastily assembled conscripts who were not resourceful enough to evade the draft, led by underequipped, undertrained, and demoralized officers who freely admitted that they did not understand why they were there.

These misfortunes have yielded bleak political and career outlooks within the ranks. As many as half of the army's conscripts may have voted for the arch-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the watershed 1993 parliamentary election, according to political observers in Moscow. As for the officer corps, a recent poll of students attending the air force's Gagarin and Zhukovsky academies for mid-career officers found 80 percent of the respondents pessimistic about the future and 87 percent concerned about the decline in the prestige of military service. A majority of respondents were ambivalent about further military service, and 40 percent wanted to get out. Only three percent indicated a strong desire to remain in the service.

The ongoing exodus of experienced and talented officers is both a cause and an effect of these gloomy sentiments. With poor career prospects for most, junior and mid-ranking officers are leaving by the thousands to pursue more promising opportunities in the civilian sector. Recruitment of new candidates has hit rock bottom. This outflow of seasoned personnel from the military's core has raised increasingly pressing questions about where and how the high command will find and nurture its successor generation.

Among those staying the course, attitudes have begun to harden, according to an extensive survey of senior Russian officers recently commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which used a Munich-based polling group in cooperation with sociologists at a Russian military academy. The sample comprised 615 officers above the rank of major, including 60 generals and admirals. The survey portrays an officer corps disenchanted with its place in Russian society and Russia's place in the world. While those polled did not endorse the extreme views of Zhirinovsky, whose approval and disapproval ratings were 10 percent and 60 percent respectively, they showed a pronounced preference for a national leadership with a firm hand and tended to believe that little short of authoritarian rule could bring an end to the chaos in Russia. Few evinced much belief in the promise of economic reform or cooperation with NATO. A majority believed that the nation's main foreign policy goal should be to reestablish Russia as an internationally respected great power.

An erosion of order within the ranks has led to a rampant increase in corruption, with many vices inherited from the Soviet era now overlaid with new ones. Officers with easy access to military property have been selling all types of it for personal gain. By some accounts, Russian generals have pocketed as much as $65 million due the Defense Ministry over the past two years from officially authorized military property sales held to help pay for military housing.

Grachev has objected strenuously to allegations that he and his most senior deputies have profited from military property sales or other shady schemes. He went so far as to file a defamation suit against Moskovsky Komsomolets, one of the newspapers aggressively pursuing evidence to substantiate the charges. The murder (by an exploding briefcase) of an investigative journalist for Moskovsky Komsomolets is widely viewed in Moscow as a preemptive strike to limit or silence damning revelations against the military. The charges prompted parliamentary hearings on military corruption. Even before Chechnya made matters worse, they also fueled speculation that Grachev could eventually be forced to step aside. The head of the State Duma's Defense Committee, Sergei Yushenkov, publicly demanded Grachev's resignation to protect "the honor and dignity of the armed forces."

All this has left Grachev embattled and vilified, on the right by chauvinists who blame him for presiding over the army's destruction, and on the left by reformist democrats who fault him for tolerating corruption and the crawling pace of military reform. Many of his contemporaries, to say nothing of the more senior generals over whom he was advanced, view him as a man of scant qualifications for the responsibilities of his job and one who rose on Yeltsin's coattails and has retained his post solely because of loyalty to the president. Grachev may yet be offered up by Yeltsin as the scapegoat for the military's embarrassing ineptitude against the Chechen irregulars.

Not Spoiling for a Fight


Since the first days of the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, Russia's military leaders have been unwavering in their insistence that their sole mission is to defend against external aggression, not to influence political maneuvering or police domestic unrest. This bears witness to their underlying and persistent professionalism, a quality that will be crucial to the growth of a stable democracy in Russia. The latest sign of its end endurance has been the vocal reluctance of senior Russian officers and commanders to fire on unarmed civilians in Chechnya.

At bottom Russia's defense leaders want to be accepted into the world community as a normal power, albeit one commanding the full respect due any country of Russia's geostrategic weight and nuclear strength. Toward that end, they have engaged in a massive force drawdown and other moves intended to tailor Russian military capabilities to legitimate security needs. They have eliminated the despised Main Political Administration, a network of Communist Party political officers that pervaded the Soviet armed forces. Free expression is now encouraged throughout the officer corps. Defense leaders have repudiated the oppressive, top-down culture of administrative control that long stifled innovation and initiative under the Soviet system.

In world affairs, the Russian military has acceded to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact as well as the reunification of Germany and its incorporation into NATO. It also has recently completed one of the most extensive and least appreciated force withdrawals in modern times, namely its voluntary and, in the view of many officers, humiliating return home from three generations of forward deployment in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

Similarly, the high command has downplayed its confrontation with Ukraine over the Crimea, the Black Sea fleet, strategic bombers appropriated by Ukraine, and other issues. It agreed to join the United States and Great Britain in detargeting its ballistic missiles—a largely symbolic but important first step toward ending an awkward situation in which the United States and Russia are no longer declared adversaries yet still confront one another with nuclear weapons.

With respect to Bosnia, the Russian high command has not sought to go head-to-head with the United States and NATO. Nor has it viewed Western military involvement in the Yugoslav tragedy as a threat to Russian security. Rather, it has mainly sought respect for Russia as a power with legitimate interests in the region. In short, Russian military leaders are not eager to throw their weight around, even in their own trouble back yard. They have fresh memories of Afghanistan and do not want to be drawn into bloody wars of attrition against militant ethnic groups or religious fundamentalists. Seen in this light, even the military's opposition to an expansion of NATO eastward that excludes Russia is not a return to Soviet assertiveness. Rather, it is a defense-minded concern about having that much closer to its borders a military alliance of which it is not a member.

Russia's posture toward its "near abroad" involves more complex considerations. It has economic and security reasons for playing a stabilizing role in the disparate, fractious countries along its lengthy southern border. Together with partial economic reintegration, Russia is seeking some sort of military reintegration with selected former Soviet republics, particularly with respect to the air defense that fell apart with the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Russia's challenge will be to avoid forcing political integration or otherwise treading on the sovereignty of the newly independent states. The high command genuinely seems to want Washington to perceive its "near abroad" peacekeeping activities as legitimate actions for the defense of Russian security and not as a pretext for rebuilding an empire.

This holds, moreover, despite Russia's troubling intervention in Chechnya, which, for all its overkill in concept and ineptitude in execution, was not a manifestation of imperial inclinations but rather a costly and bumbling effort to head off a dangerous precedent that could eventually trigger a disintegration of the Russian Federation.

Keeping a Balance with the Bear


Despite Chechnya and calls for Washington to do something about what could become a grave threat to the prospects for Russian democratic reform, the United States should continue pursuing a cooperative relationship with the Russian armed forces. With patience from the United States, Russia's military has every chance of finding the perseverance and calm to get by the Chechnya debacle and to endure the decade or so that, according to Grachev, will be required for the full reconstitution of the Russian armed forces and state.

Why does the military connection between the United States and Russia warrant special attention? A strong and composed Russian military is far more likely to be a constructive player in its country's difficult reform process than a frustrated, demoralized, and angry one. Moreover, a healthy military will be more inclined to focus on its legitimate regional security concerns than to mimic the familiar Soviet pattern of engaging in far-flung adventures.

Fortunately, without fanfare, much has been accomplished in the military dialogue. The most pioneering advances have been between the air forces of the United States and Russia. Military leaders have designated sister bases in both countries, and American and Russian fighter and bomber units have made several exchange visits, with more to come. The air forces participated in two joint Arctic search-and-rescue training exercises in 1993 that received high marks from both sides. Numerous flight exchanges between Russian and American military pilots have taken place during which both sides gained firsthand exposure to the other's equipment and training. The Russian air force commander even flew a USAF B-1 bomber in the aircraft commander's seat during a visit to the United States in 1992.

The other armed services of the two countries have been involved in similar exchanges. In March 1994, a Russian frigate joined the air and naval forces of the United States, Britain, and Norway in a NATO exercise to simulate a U.N.-sponsored naval blockade and search-and-rescue operation. In June, Russian and American sailors and marines, some 1,500 altogether, participated in a mock amphibious operation with Americans and Russians coming ashore northeast of Vladivostok to help victims of a hypothetical natural disaster. Another joint exercise, initially delayed because of political opposition in Russia, was held in September at Totskoye, in a region close to the Russian heartland. The exercise was hailed by Grachev as a "vivid example" of the emerging military relationship between the Cold War era rivals. Afterwards, Grachev announced plans for a follow-on exercise that will bring 500 Russian servicemen to the United States in 1995. These and other contacts testify to a pragmatic link between the uniformed services of the two countries that has remained largely unbuffeted by political ups and downs.

The Shadow of Chechnya


Military-to-military ties recently have become more strained. Even before the Chechnya debacle reached full boil this past December, the enthusiasm of many Russian military leaders for joint activities with the United States had begun to falter. Partly this stems from the Russian military's embarrassment at lacking the funds to keep up its end of the military-to-military dialogue. Partly it stems from renewal of old suspicions, ones derived from a consuming preoccupation with its internal crises, now aggravated profoundly by Chechnya. Many officers increasingly resent what they perceive to be a hidden American agenda to relegate Russia to permanent second-class status while the United States secures its place as the sole surviving superpower. As long as these suspicions persist, no Russian military leaders will be inclined to stick their necks out, least of all by going far beyond polite listening on the issue of more normalized dealings with the Pentagon.

Turbulence in the upper reaches of the high command has made it easier for Russia's security services to revert to deplorable habits. For example, the head of Russian military intelligence, Colonel General Fyodor Ladygin, has never been an enthusiast for closer ties between the United States and Russia, let alone between military establishments. After the joint peacekeeping exercise in Totskoye last September, he grumbled darkly that a third of the 250 American troops involved were in the pay of U.S. intelligence and that the 27 U.S. aircraft flown to Russia for the exercise had been packed with electronic equipment for covert surveillance. Those transparent fabrications cast a wet blanket on the mutual goodwill and education that had been generated and sustained throughout the exercise.

Under today's conditions, the initial post-Cold War calls for a "strategic partnership" appear at best premature. But circumstances do not justify or require shifting to the opposite extreme. It behooves the United States to continue pressing for an honest and open relationship with the Russian military. If the United States expects Russia's defense officials to be on the right side when the time comes to enlist their support in containing grave threats to regional peace and security—such as the prospect of cataclysmic nuclear misbehavior by North Korea or another undeterrable Third World pariah state—we must make unambiguous efforts to build such a relationship.

There is a particular need for both militaries to advance beyond perfunctory goodwill exchanges for education or other intangible goals (which some Russian generals now dismiss as "military tourism") toward interactions that can address real problems and concerns facing the two institutions. It will take time to overcome residual feelings of distrust on both sides. Grachev acknowledged this in a speech to American and Russian officers after the Totskoye exercise when he remarked that "there will continue to be people who view the other side not as the enemy but as an unfriendly power. This is natural. What was molded in steel in the consciousness of the nation cannot be overcome overnight."

The U.S. government can acknowledge frankly that Russia is preeminent among the former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact states without in any way being guilty of a crassly preferential "Russia first" policy. Russia has a long-term military and strategic potential that no other country in the world besides the United States comes close to matching. America's relationship with Russia is pivotal for future international security. Our relations with other remnants of the former Soviet empire will never be pivotal, only important to varying degrees.

In working with the Russian military, the United States needs to keep its expectations from swinging from excessive hope to what strategist Herman Kahn once called preemptive surrender. At best, if the United States gives up now, it will mean a major post-Cold War opportunity lost. At worst, it will mean a self-fulfilling prophecy that might make one yearn for the simpler days of the Cold War. As stressful as the Soviet-American competition was to American attention, energy, and resources, it was at least relatively stable and predictable. That would not be the case with a fragmented and xenophobic Russia with some 27,000 nuclear weapons and an attitude.