Remaking Russia's Military: Big Plans, Few Results

Mar 6, 2012
Originally published on March 7, 2012 3:23 am

Every May, Russia displays its military might in a parade on Victory Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis to the Soviet Union in World War II.

The marching men and rolling tanks put on an impressive show, but Russia's military, and especially its defense industry, has fallen on hard times.

"The industry, much like other parts of the economy, hasn't seen proper investment for over a decade, if not more," says Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst for the defense industry consultant IHS Jane's.

During his campaign for president, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised to modernize Russia's army and equip it with new missiles and warplanes.

Putin's campaign also came with strong doses of anti-Western rhetoric.

But analysts like Gevorgyan say that although Putin has been talking about military reform since he came to power in 2000, the results — so far — have been limited.

Gevorgyan says that's partly because of a lack of investment, and partly because of a lack of transparency that enables corruption and mismanagement.

Lagging In Recruits, Research

Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior analyst at the defense industry think tank CNA, says Russia has made progress in reorganizing some of its military brigades, in some cases making them more like an American command structure.

"The part that hasn't gone as well is the manpower side, in terms of this goal of gradually shifting to a professional military that is based on contract soldiers rather than conscripts," Gorenburg says.

That's a goal that Putin repeated in an article he published in February, promising that by 2017, more than two-thirds of Russia's million-person army would be volunteers.

Gorenburg points out that so far, the Russian army has had trouble recruiting volunteers, a problem that is likely to worsen due to Russia's declining population.

Still, says Boris Makarenko, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, there has been some improvement, and a more professional army drives the need for better military hardware.

He notes that the problem with modernization is that before Russia can build new hardware, it needs to develop the capacity to innovate and invent.

"But it's the investment in modern weaponry which starts, not with metal, not with nuclear warheads," says Makarenko. "It starts with R and D, with research and development."

Long Way To Go

The analysts were a bit mystified by Putin's claim that Russia would be developing missiles that could penetrate the proposed U.S.-led anti-missile shield.

The U.S. says the system would be designed to protect Europe from attacks by Iran. Putin says it's really aimed at weakening Russia.

Gevorgyan says the issue has more to do with Russian electoral politics than security.

"From the security point of view, the deployment of the missile defense shield doesn't have an immediate bearing on Russian national security, and it's still unclear whether this will be effective or not," she says.

Rhetoric aside, though, Gorenburg says the plan shouldn't be a reason for alarm in the West.

"I think Putin is being honest when he says this is catching up to the West, and by the West, I mean really the United States, obviously the main competitor for Russia here," says Gorenburg. "They're not looking for any kind of parity with the United States, much less with NATO as a whole, so I don't think it's going to really affect that balance."

Putin says the modernization will cost the equivalent of about $770 billion over the next 10 years.

The analysts say the success of the plan will depend on whether Russia can afford that kind of money and spend it effectively, without the corruption that hobbles many government projects.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Unhappy though his critics may be, Vladimir Putin has won Russia's presidency again. And he did that after a campaign in which he promised to modernize the country's army and equip it with new missiles and warplanes. Putin also delivered anti-Western rhetoric. So how much should we worry? Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Every year in May, Russia displays its military might in a parade on Victory Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis to the Soviet Union in World War II.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING)

FLINTOFF: The marching men and rolling tanks put on an impressive show, but Russia's military, and especially its defense industry, has fallen on hard times.

LILIT GEVORGYAN: The industry, much like other parts of the economy, hasn't seen proper investment for over a decade, if not more.

FLINTOFF: That's Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst for the defense industry consultants IHS Jane's. She says that although Putin's been talking about military reform since he came to power in 2000, the results have been limited. Gevorgyan says that's partly because of a lack of investment and partly because of a lack of transparency that enables corruption and mismanagement.

Dmitry Gorenburg at the CNA think tank says Russia has made progress in reorganizing some of its military brigades, in some cases giving them more of an American-style command structure.

DMITRY GORENBURG: The part that hasn't gone as well is the manpower side, in terms of this goal of gradually shifting to a professional military that is based on contract soldiers rather than conscripts.

FLINTOFF: That's a goal that Putin repeated in a position paper he published last month. He promised that by 2017 more than two-thirds of Russia's million-person army would be volunteers. Gorenburg points out that so far the Russian army has had trouble recruiting volunteers, a problem that's likely to get worse because of Russia's declining population.

Still, says Boris Makarenko, it's becoming an army for the 21st century, and that's driving the need for 21st century military hardware. Makarenko is the chairman of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. Before Russia can build new hardware, he says, it needs to develop the capacity to innovate and invent.

BORIS MAKARENKO: It's the investment in modern weaponry which starts, not with metal, not with nuclear warheads. It starts with R and D, with research and development.

FLINTOFF: The analysts were a bit mystified by Putin's claim that Russia would be developing missiles that could penetrate the proposed U.S.-led anti-missile shield. The U.S. says the system would be designed to protect Europe from attacks by Iran. Putin says it's really aimed at threatening Russia. Gevorgyan says the issue has more to do with Russian electoral politics than security.

GEVORGYAN: From the security point of view, the deployment of the U.S.-led missile defense shield doesn't have an immediate bearing on Russian national security. And it's still unclear whether it will be truly effective or not.

FLINTOFF: Rhetoric aside, though, Dmitry Gorenburg says Putin's plan to modernize Russia's military shouldn't be a reason for alarm in the West.

GORENBURG: They're not looking for any kind of parity with the United States, much less with NATO as a whole, so I don't think it's going to really affect that balance.

FLINTOFF: Putin says the modernization will cost the equivalent of about $770 billion over the next 10 years. The analysts say the success of the plan will depend on whether Russia can afford that kind of money and spend it effectively, without the corruption that hobbles many Kremlin projects.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.