With the media making such a big deal about Russian
posturing, from the nation’s recent polar explorations to the launch of new
missile submarines, fears have risen that Russian military action may again
threaten U.S. national interests. This apprehension has provided ample ground for policymakers to advance their own pet projects,
including the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).
an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University, considers the international race to explore the
arctic a substantial reason for America to ratify LOST. “The ideal way
to manage the Arctic would be to develop an
overarching treaty that guarantees an orderly and collective approach to
extracting the region’s wealth,” writes Borgerson in Foreign Affairs. The Council on Foreign Relations Fellow considers
LOST the first step toward such a treaty and writes that “The United States is
the only major country that has failed to ratify UNCLOS [United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea], and Washington is therefore left on the
outside looking in as a nonmember to various legal and technical bodies.”
argues that multilateral treaties will help America compete with Russia’s (and other nations’) arctic
claims by getting them to bring these nations to the bargaining table “and
possibly even submit a joint proposal to the U.N. for its blessing.”
But how big a threat is Russia to American national interests?
A recent panel by the Heritage Foundation on the state of Russian military
modernization provided a less than awe-inspiring portrait of the former world
power’s military strength.
According to Dr. Kim
Holmes of the Heritage Foundation, the Russians plan to “replace 45% of the
Soviet air equipment and Russia is also trying to develop strategic nuclear
submarines, aircraft carriers, supersonic bombers, advanced fighter jets and
advanced dual-use technologies.” He continued “In 2008 if we assume that Russia
spending 2.7% of its GDP on defense, it also plans to spend about, almost 2% on
its security and intelligence services, and these budgets include funds also
for military forces…so including those budgets would mean Russia is spending
something close to 4.7% of its GDP on Defense.”
Holmes believes that such an agenda “begs the whole
question, in my mind, [of] whether Russia feels it has…global
aspirations larger than territorial defense, which is the way it talks when it
talks about responding to NATO expansion.”
Others at the panel were more skeptical about Russia’s military capabilities.
“The problem is that this [modernization] program will never
be fulfilled,” said panelist Alexander Golts. Golts is a military expert and
the Deputy Executive Director of the Russian online magazine Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal.
Excluding Dr. Holmes, the panelists uniformly described an
understaffed, demoralized Russian military without the capacity to launch an
effective non-nuclear assault on its neighbors, much less its North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) “enemies.”
Russian military spending is increasing, argued Dr. Eugene
Rumer, a Senior Fellow at the National Defense University—but the majority of
expenditures are for personnel rather than procurement. This signifies an
attempt to upgrade an outdated, demoralized force of which
of conscripts have a high school education
of conscripts are not fit to serve in elite units
lack the technical expertise necessary to operate modern machinery
According to Professor Mikhail Tsypkin of the U.S. Naval
Postgraduate School, volunteer Russian soldiers earn between 6,000 and 8,000
Rubles ($254-339) monthly—far below the Russian average wage of 13,527R ($574).
Only officers, who are charged with the command of thousands of other soldiers,
earn the average Russian wage mentioned above. Yet 34% of officers live below
the official poverty line of 2005, said Tsypkin.
Russia’s ongoing low birth rates
(-0.474%) will likely spark a deficit in personnel by 2009, argues Golts. He
“As you know we need not…200,000 boys but something like
500,000 boys because armed forces will move to one year service. You can see
that…in year 2009 Medvedev will stand before very simple choice: What will he
want to destroy?—[the] system of education…or this draft system. The choice
is very clear.”
“I think, my own theory is that Russian armed forces will be
reduced in numbers without announcing, without saying so,” Golts continued.
While the majority of Russian expenditures may be spent on personnel,
Golts noted that even substantial increases in procurement spending are
unlikely to result in more planes, submarines, or other military equipment.
“The biggest problem of Russians in military industry is that old management.
These so-called ‘red directors’ cried ‘just give us money and we will give you
all amount of production of modern weapons’…but they never told our leaders
that whole chain of subcontractors that gives spare parts to the industry is
destroyed,” said Golts.
Rumer pointed to the recently launched ballistic missile
submarine, which took 12 years to manufacture. “The one ballistic missile
submarine that apparently was recently launched had been under construction for
12 years. Apparently two more are under construction but how long it’s going to
take is anybody’s guess, especially Russian analysts,” he said.
According to Golts, the Russian production cost of a T-90
tank rose by 25% in just three months, further raising equipment expenses.
Professor Steve Blank argued that Russians export their
weapons to countries such as China, India, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela because they cannot compete
with western production. “They are not
competitive with western models, for the most part, and their servicing record
is abysmal…,” said the U.S. Army War College Professor. With the Indian government
now turning to western markets—a result of Russia’s ineptitude in producing the “Admiral Gorshkov” carrier—Russia may lose 25% of its annual
weapons export market.
Dangerous Political Games
So what, then, is behind this aggressive Russian posturing?
The panelists offered two possibilities.
The hostile posturing may be a means by which the military
bureaucracy can demand more money from the Russian government to expand its
programs, argues Golts.
Conversely, the posturing could be the dangerous product of
a nation with grandiose memories of its time as a world power, a nation which
still views outsiders as enemies and presupposes hostile action. “But this
military in crisis is also gripped, as is its political leadership, by the idea
that Russia is surrounded by threats and by
a presupposition of enemies,” said Blank. And as such, this makes it a
dangerously unpredictable state with an ingrained tendency toward an
adversarial disposition,” he continued.
According to Blank, the official Russian “asymmetric
response route” to NATO’s expansion, American unilateralism, and the potential
war in space relies almost exclusively on nuclear retaliation (if not first
strike). “That asymmetric response consists first of the nuclear weapons and
the prospect of first strike by the Russians in case of a major conventional
threat to them, as was outlined in the 2000 doctrine, and has not been
repudiated ever since,” Blank said.
Either way, the Russian Bear needs watching.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.