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The Lack of Russian Military Reform Helped US Forces to CA

The January 22 visit to Tashkent by Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the US anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, has Moscow strategists fretting. Franks’ talks with Uzbek leaders comes at a time of great debate in Russia over the United States’ intentions in Central Asia. Central Asia watchers in Moscow feel the latest indicators point to a permanent US presence in the region.

Recent actions and statements support the notion that the US is planning for an extended stay in Central Asia - a region that has been within Russia’s sphere of influence for over a century. A Pentagon spokesman recently suggested that US military forces might remain beyond the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the US air force began deployment at Manas International airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Some experts in Moscow and Beijing believe that Washington’s intention in Central Asia is to encircle China. Others, especially in the human rights community, are concerned that American troops may inadvertently protect authoritarian regimes of the post-Soviet Central Asian states.

The US entry into Central Asia is clearly a source of vexation for Moscow. But if Russia’s political and military leaders are dissatisfied by the recent geopolitical turn of events, they ought to acknowledge that they themselves share responsibility for the new US military presence in the region.

As the dust settles after the fighting in Afghanistan, regardless of what American goals in the region are, it is clear that the Russian military, in its current shape, failed to give adequate answers to the global and regional security threats of the Taliban regime. The Ministry of Defense and the Russian General Staff did little to counter the drug trafficking and Islamic fundamentalist threats in Central Asia. The inability to respond to these major security challenges over the past decade was a contributing factor in sparking the chain of events that resulted in the US-led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan.

Granted, deployment of the Russian 201st Division on the Tajik-Afghan border, as well as Russian support for the Northern Alliance, likely helped prevent an expansion of radical Islamic influence into Central Asia. Nevertheless, the Russian defense establishment’s inability to confront key reform needs limited Moscow’s ability to deploy in the past, and is likely to hamper security operations in Central Asia in the future.

Several factors underlie the Russian military reform dilemma:

First, it is the Russia’s economic decline and the resulting overall poverty of the Russian military. After three years of growth, Russia’s GDP of $308 billion is less than the US annual military budget - around $320 billion. Russian military budget figures are a state secret, but estimates range between the official figure of $10 billion and the London-based Institute for International Strategic Studies (IISS) assessment of $50 billion. Even if the real figure falls in the higher end of the estimate range, it would seem insufficient to accomplish all of Russian military’s strategic aims. Those tasks now include: projecting Moscow’s influence into Central Asia, especially along the Tajik-Afghan border; maintaining a nuclear arsenal almost equal to that of the United States; and the continuation of a low-intensity war in Chechnya.

Secondly, the quality and motivation of the Russian troops leaves much to be desired. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, a large percentage of recruits are chronically ill or mentally unstable; suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse problems; have been incarcerated for criminal offenses; or have a lower than average level of secondary education. Many among officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) lack permanent housing, leaving them demoralized.

Conscripts are paid 1 ruble a day (about 3 cents US), while the contract servicemen, about $167 a month. Their level of motivation remains low, and they are prone to involvement in local criminal operations, including arms trafficking networks, some of which are controlled by corrupt military commanders. It is hardly a secret that many conscripts are used as cheap labor farmed out by their superior officers for construction projects and even factory and agricultural work.

Thirdly, the Russian military remains to a great degree a product of the first half of the twentieth century. It is not a high tech army on a par with the US military. Russia’s military doctrine, which is still taught in officer schools and military academies, was formulated in the 1940s, and updated by Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky in the 1960s in order to fight World War III against the United States. It calls for "usage of large masses of soldiers" and fails to address high-tech approaches developed in the Gulf War, in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a split in military establishment thinking has widened between the traditional strategic missile commanders, such as Marshal Igor Sergeev, whose goal was to fight a global nuclear war, and "generalists" such as Anatoly Kvashnin, the current Chief of Staff. Kvashnin promised Putin that the Russian military would be successful in the second war in Chechnya. Yet, the army now finds itself bogged down again, fighting a messy guerrilla war against highly motivated Chechen separatists.

It is no longer feasible to support a bloated military establishment. To respond to looming security challenges in Central Asia and elsewhere, Russia needs a highly mobile, high-tech military force. Such a force will have to be able to fight in a broad variety of terrain, including cities, mountains and deserts, and be able to deploy at short notice. It is also clear that a wholly professional army is required, with well-trained troops ready to take on radical Islamist guerillas and drug traffickers. This is exactly what President Putin has committed to do in November 2001, to the great chagrin of his generals.

Russia also lacks forces to provide a conventional defense against a hypothetical Chinese attack in the Far East-a scenario that was rejected outright until very recently by the Moscow military planners. However, with military technology transfer from Russia to China in high gear, some in Moscow, such as Alexander Sharavin, Director of the Institute for Political and Strategic Analysis, warn that the People’s Liberation Army is rapidly becoming more battle-worthy than the cash-starved Russian Army.

Russian media sources have reported large increases in military procurement since the year 2000 - a 25 percent increase in 2000 compared with 1999; a 20 percent increase in 2001 over 2000; and whopping 40 percent increase in 2002 compared to 2001, according to Vice Premier Ilya Klebanov, who is in charge of the military-industrial complex. However, Russia is still lacking a clear vision of the threats and the structure of the armed forces. The current program, endorsed by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov talks about a 10-year implementation framework.

Boris Nemtsov, a reformist leader of the Union of Right Forces, a center-right party, who participated in consultations with Putin on the future of the military, says that the Russian generals deceived the president. "They peddled a scheme that will not be finalized until the year 2004, and not be implemented in full until the year 2010, a year when Putin will no longer be in power," Nemtsov says.

If past attempts at military reform provide any indication, the current efforts will bog down due to institutional resistance in the Defense Ministry, General Staff and among the generals. And this means that Russia may not be ready to effectively challenge the United States in Central Asia in the years to come.



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