On 22 September 2019, the Russian newspaper “Moskovskij Komsomolets” (MK) published an unprecedented interview with Sergei Shoigu in what was his first public discussion in the seven years since he became Russia’s Minister of Defence.
This interview clearly signified that the Kremlin needs to actively sell – both at home and abroad – the self-proclaimed success story of Russia’s military reforms and modernization efforts. By painting the picture of a state-of-the art military, the Kremlin is attempting to convince Russian taxpayers and pensioners that the country’s enormous defence (and security) budget is money well spent on cutting-edge military technology and weapons.
Moreover, Russia’s military industrial complex can be thought of as an engine in the Russian economy, creating jobs and bringing in revenue from defence exports. Russia’s armed forces (and other power structures) are above all else also understood as indispensable if Russia is to be made great again, both in terms of international recognition as a great power and in terms of territorial conquests and zones of influence. Furthermore, Russia believes it must also impress (if not outright intimidate) foreign countries, particularly Western ones, by displaying its military might. This, however, is just a part of the whole picture, as the Kremlin’s military strategy also holds implications for Russia’s domestic politics and power games. With this in mind, Shoigu’s “success story” does not look very convincing.
Minister Shoigu told the MK that, since 1992, he has participated in all Russian military “interventions” (more accurately described as occupations and aggressions) in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, etc. and therefore understood that Russian soldiers cannot be morally motivated in the 21stcentury without first meeting their most basic needs. Foot rags had to be swapped for fresh socks and decent uniforms. Tens of thousands of washing machines and vacuum cleaners were needed in place of buckets and mobs soaked in cold water. (It would be interesting to find out who exactly provided these more than likely imported appliances.) Shoigu also claimed that Russian soldiers now enjoy eating in buffet-style (Swedish table) cantinas. I find this difficult to believe, having served myself in the Soviet army in the mid-1980’s. Maintaining discipline and sufficiently feeding all soldiers (or even most of them) in this way would be hard to imagine. The minister nonetheless implied that this was the true starting point to build a modern fighting force out of a post-Soviet ragtag army. And yet, he “forgot” to address the dedovshchina sickness, the often-horrific bullying of junior conscripts. Dedovshchina sickness was imported from prisons and labour camps into the army in the Stalinist Soviet Union, and, by many accounts (desertions, suicides, murders), still plagues the Russian armed forces today.
Russia’s defence minister stressed that the most important transformations were actually related to the achievement of combat readiness in all units. This process entailed administrative and command and control reorganization, acquisition of new and modernized equipment (70% of all equipment by 2020 provided through the State Armaments Program), conduct of training close to Western/NATO standards (80 percent usage of the full capacity of training ranges, five times more ammunition used than a few years ago, etc.) and frequent combat control exercises at all levels (from battalions to armies and military districts). In addition, the number of kontraktniki (contract soldiers) now exceeds one-third of all personnel. In Shoigu’s opinion, that too reflects the fact that Russia’s armed forces are no longer the “sick man” of its society, but rather an institution that every Russian should be proud of.
Shoigu underlined to the MK that the military reforms under the direct supervision of President Putin have made Russia respected both by friends and foes once again. He also underscored that Russia’s military intervention and performance in Syria boosts its international prestige and influence while considerably supporting the development of Russia’s armed forces. Top commanders have almost exclusively rotated in Syria. Many contingents of ground and special forces, alongside air forces and navy ships have seen real combat experience. Shoigu also stated that Russia has tested about 300 different weapon systems in Syria, and some of them (12 to be exact) were consequently abandoned.
However, the Russian military analyst Alexander Goltz wrote three days later on the website, “Ekho Moskvy,” that Shoigu kept silent and was wrong on many aspects concerning the state of affairs in the Russian armed forces. Goltz concluded that Shoigu’s main message – that there are no problems in Russia’s military realm – is inadequate and serves to suggest that there is no need for further scrutiny, which also explains the increasing obscurity regarding defence matters and expenditures. Most importantly, Goltz points out that Shoigu presented like an exemplary and zealous Putinist chinovnik with he and his boss portrayed as the sole masters of the “success story” that rebuilt Russia’s armed forces from ashes. This may be seen as part of the preparations for a possible transition of power in/around 2024. The fact that Shoigu did not mention even once Dmitri Medveded, President of Russia between 2008 and 2012, and Anatolyi Sedyukov, Russia’s Minister of Defence between 2007 and 2012 who actually started Russia’s defence reforms, could suggest that Putin (and Shoigu) are relaying an open message to Medvedev. Namely, that he will not be a significant player in the upcoming game of power transition.
Goltz did not hesitate to highlight the dark side of the “success story” – e.g. the partial return to Soviet-style “cadre” divisions (which essentially lack soldiers and combat readiness) or the establishment of a useless and nonsensical Soviet-type political-military command structure (to fend off the West’s perceived threat to undermine Russia’s armed forces). He reminded readers that Serdyukov’s efforts allowed Shoigu to effectively deploy forces to Syria in 2015. Goltz also stated that the Russian armed forces under Medvedev and Serdyukov were primarily tasked with maintaining control over armed conflicts in the “post-Soviet sphere” (not including the Baltic states). Deterrence was then provided by nuclear arms. But because in 2014 Russia sparked a new Cold War, it had to bring back the Soviet general mobilization of millions of “mythical” reservists.
Finally, on 26 September 2019, Michael Kofman, an American analyst of Russian military affairs, and Maxim Trudolyubov, a Russian journalist who prints at home and abroad, published “Guns, Butter, and Russia’s Enduring Military Power” in The Moscow Times. In their discussion on the state of Russia’s military, Kofman and Trudolyubov consider whether Russia’s achievements in the military realm are really yet another “success story” of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. On one hand, they recognize Russia’s ability to significantly lower its public debt and raise the state’s budget surplus and foreign exchange reserves in spite of rather low oil prices, Western economic sanctions, and lack of domestic reforms. On the other, they also question whether these achievements are far-reaching and examine their impact on Russia’s world strategy both today and in comparison to the international posture of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Trudolyubov argues that Russia’s citizens are not doing very well (actually increasingly worse), in spite of their country’s “stellar macroeconomic performance.” It seems that in 2008 the Kremlin was forced to choose between butter and guns and chose guns. Kofman draws the conclusion that the military is in fact the only institution in Russia that has witnessed successful reforms over the past few years (actually in the 20 years of Putin’s reign). He adds that Russia is a political understudy of China and that China is a military understudy of Russia (at least for now). Kofman also points out that Russia is trying to avoid the fatal mistake made in the 1980s when the Soviet Union continued to spend massively on defence in times of economic decline. Kofman then gives a personal estimate between 150 and 180 million US dollars for the actual purchasing power of Russia’s defence budget (of which it spends about 50% on procurement and research and development).
Kofman reminds us that Russia spends about 4% of its GDP on defence (roughly one-third of its state budget is spent on military, internal security, special services and border guards), a huge burden for a country with a stagnating economy. He adds that Russia wants to impose strategic (and asymmetric) costs on the US in order to negotiate a favourable deal and perhaps achieve a renewed détente similar to that of the Cold War. (Personally, I also think that Russia is seeking a deal rather than expecting the West to surrender or collapse just before it does the same). This demonstration of resilience is Russia’s way of showing that it is ready to continue the confrontation with the West for a long time. Kofman explains that Russia actually emulates in principle the main aspects of Soviet policy during the Cold War; it engages the United States in indirect competition (where most of the action takes place compared to direct competition) and diffuses its resources relatively cheaply into Asia, Africa and Latin America, so the Kremlin can get the Americans out of Europe and reshape Europe’s security architecture in its own interest.
Last but not least, both Shoigu’s interview and Goltz and Kofman’s explanations neither resolve nor clarify Russia’s ambiguity, its secretive and conspiratorial spirit, and the real state of its armed forces. Today’s Russia is a ghost of the Soviet Union, not a clone, even if the “collective Putin” regime attempts to emulate it for self-aggrandizement and to intimidate the West. Currently, NATO finds itself in practically the same situation as in the 1980s. It cannot underestimate the Russian military capability, even if later it comes out (as it probably will) that the threat was exaggerated. Russia simply wants to be aggrandized and feared.