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Russia's Armed Forces on the Brink of Reform

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | March 1998

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The Russian armed forces, by all accounts, are fast approaching a point of no return. The crisis in the armed forces is directly traceable to the policies of the Yeltsin government which have alternated among politicization, fragmentation of those forces into multiple, contending militaries, and the creation of a quasi-authoritarian political process where military policy is decided by irregular institutions that account to and answer to nobody other than President Yeltsin. Similar problems plague the defense economy which is probably still too large and at the same time misdirected, while being unable to support the forces presently under arms. In any case, nobody knows how many men are under arms or the cost of maintaining them, or where defense allocations go.

Not surprisingly, military policy and the so-called current military reform more resemble bureaucratic exercises in turf-grabbing or the court politics of the Tsars then they do real reform. While efforts are underway to downsi ze the armed forces, spend less on them, and revamp the force structure, these moves seem driven by concerns other than strategic rationality. Moreover, they threaten to bring about a further devolution of central power to the regions and heightened possibilities for state fragmentation.

At the same time, Russian writing on both nuclear and information war (IW) continues to manifest the same kinds of inability to think rationally and coherently about strategy and could lead the government to adopt military policies that will lead to disaster and which are misapplied to the real threats that Russia faces. Russian nuclear policy and much, but not all, thinking about information warfare could either lead to a military catastrophe or, in the case of IW, to an internal civil war. In either case, the only answer to the crisis of the armed forces and of the state is more, not less, democracy, and a truly stable defense establishment tailored to the real economic needs and capacities of the country. Unhappily, neither of these possibilities seems likely to be realized anytime soon.


While this is not the whole story of Russian writing on IW, when taken in tandem with the other developments outlined here, it is only one of all too many grounds for alarm about Russia today and tomorrow. Russia is not a democratic state, and arguably is not moving further towards democracy. Neither is it stable or predictable. Its strategic mechanisms are flimsy and ephemeral. Its armed forces cannot defend against threats to Russia but may be quite useful for internal coups or insurgencies. Its doctrine and strategy place an inordinate stress on nuclear scenarios without the means to control them. And the opportunitiespresented by IW are beyond Russia due to socio-economic constraints and the failure of military reform. Or else they open up radical and terrifying prospects for mass domestic warfare of a new type having terrifying vistas for future conflicts.

Meanwhile, Russian national security is endangered by this haphazard effort at reform and Yeltsin's merely sporadic interest in military issues except when there is a threat to his authority or a grave crisis. But such reform needs continual leadership. Russia faces block obsolescence of its technology and weapons unless the economy and the state's leadership of it are rejuvenated and military affairs are funded rationally, not by irrational fiat. It is also clear that the enormous bureaucratic infighting and obstacles to a coherent and rational national security policy and the mentality of elites who still wish for defense on all azimuths must be overcome. The continuation of the Soviet mentality is breeding yet another nightmare for the army and the country. Soviet propaganda used to say the army and the people are one. Is it not true then that their crises are also one?