For the 14 years of the army's post-Soviet existence, discussions about strengthening Russia's military have always run into the same obstacle. The generals ask the politicians which threats they are supposed to defend against, knowing there is no danger that they will receive a clear answer. As a result, the generals have been able to maintain the Soviet model -- useless in today's conditions -- at one-third of its former size. The Russian brass continues to claim it is preparing to deal with American military aggression, whereas they are simply trying to maintain the only military machine they know how to run.
When North Korea recently carried out missile tests, however, it became clear that Russia was facing not a potential but a very real and direct threat. Japanese military sources say one missile came down in Russian waters near Nakhodka and another 250 kilometers from Vladivostok. The incident confirmed that North Korea, which shares a border with Russia, is willing to gamble recklessly. As soon as its food and oil reserves start to run out, Pyongyang will begin saber rattling with its missiles or making noise about planning to test a nuclear bomb. It is impossible to say how far Pyongyang is willing to go in upping the ante.
Immediately after the missile test, it became obvious that Russia was not prepared either politically or militarily to oppose this clear threat. On the diplomatic front, Moscow has tried fruitlessly for years to pacify Pyongyang -- it is enough to remember Kim Jong Il promising President Vladimir Putin six years ago to drop his missile program, only to say later that he had been joking. When Russia does censure North Korea, it is done in the softest possible way. In planning the missile tests, Kim may have counted on the major powers' inability to agree on a common position, which has proven to be the case. Sunday's UN Security Council resolution censures Pyongyang, but Moscow and Beijing made sure there would be no mention of military pressure.
Russia has proven even less able to deal with the threat by military means. When the United States pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and began to deploy strategic ABM interceptors in Alaska, Moscow insisted the action was directed against Russia, while Washington said it was meant to intercept missiles launched by rogue states. Now the United States has ABMs deployed and Russia does not.
Putin was apparently telling the truth when he said "our national tracking systems have not confirmed that any rocket debris or parts came down in our territorial waters or our economic zone." But this does not mean the rockets did not come down. Russia's Far East is covered by the early-warning station at Mishelevka -- the oldest such station in Russia's system -- and many experts say it is unable to track ballistic missiles flying at low trajectories. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry's modern Voronezh radiolocation station was built near St. Petersburg to track launches from Sweden and Norway, which the ministry apparently considers more important.
Even if the station did track the North Korean rocket, there is nowhere to send the information. Russia's defense strategy is based on deterrence, so an early-warning system should simply provide the necessary information to launch a nuclear counterstrike. But this only works if the potential enemy is rational and does not want to incur terrible losses himself.
The point, however, is not only that Russia currently has no means for countering a real military threat. The problem is that no one wants to recognize when one exists. Instead of preparing to counter an actual threat, half of the funding the army receives for purchasing hardware goes to new missile systems that can penetrate the U.S. ABM system. But these same systems are incapable of defending Russia from a North Korean missile that could be targeted at God only knows what.
When the North Korean missiles fell near Russian cities, large-scale military exercises were being run in Siberia by General Yury Baluyevsky, head of the General Staff. This counterterrorism operation involved the use of tanks, of all things. So the army is being trained to contain the United States and also to fight a guerilla war with some questionable tactics. As far as North Korean nuclear missile gamesmanship, however, we appear to be pretty much defenseless.
Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal