No, the title of this post is not a reference to Putin’s recent Village People audition pix. Instead, it is a reference to some other Macho-Macho Man performances, namely the resumption of Soviet–sorry–Russian strategic bomber sorties, overflights of Georgia, military exercises with China, boasts about new strategic weaponry, and announcements of dramatic increases in purchases of armaments for the Russian military.
My first reaction to these events is to recall Marx’s remark that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This analysis by Alexander Goltz, an independent military expert, hits very close to the mark:
“Now our military leaders have enough money to create a kind of caricature of the Soviet armed forces, and they want to do a lot of the same old things,” says Alexander Goltz, military expert with the independent online magazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal. “But their plans are a confused mixture of realistic goals and unworkable Soviet-style symbolism,” says Mr. Goltz.
Indeed, Mr. Goltz is too kind: there are many more parts Soviet-style symbolism in the mixture than realistic goals. What Talleyrand said of the Bourbons seems to fit the Russian military-industrial complex: they have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing. The world has moved very far since 1991, and few things have moved farther than military technology and doctrine. But Putin and his military coterie seem locked in the Disco Days of the 1970s.
There are many reasons to believe that there is much more Pose than Power in Putin’s recent moves. Although Putin is spending a good deal of the energy price windfall on the military, there is serious reason to doubt he is getting much bang for his buck–or should it be rumble for his ruble?
Take, for instance, the much touted Bulava SLBM program–the cornerstone of the revitalization of Russia’s strategic forces. This program has been plagued by test failures, which have been widely publicized despite concerted efforts to conceal them. The missile’s designer attributed these failures to “the progressive degradation of the Russian defense industry.”
Nor are the Bulava’s problems the only symptoms of this degradation. Russia has failed in its contract to refurbish one of the Soviet’s old aircraft carriers sold to India. The head of arms export monopolist Rosoboronexport concedes that the company “encountering colossal problems fulfilling existing export contracts and are withholding from signing some new ones, because we cannot figure how they may be fulfilled.” I have also read [desperately searching the link–will provide when I find it] that throwing money at the Russian defense establishment has not succeeded in leading to increases in output–just increases in prices. [This may well be the idea–more on this below.] That is, due to the decay in Russia’s capacity to produce advanced weapons (which is due, in part, to the fact that the Soviet defense establishment had pieces spread throughout the republics, and no single republic had a self-sufficient defense production establishment), massive investment is needed to make it possible to ramp up the output of new weapons. It should also be noted that even if Russia succeeds in cranking up output, it will be producing weapons that are at least a generation behind American ones. The MIG-29 and SU-30 are good aircraft–comparable to the F-15–but a generation behind the F-22 and F-35.
And to put things in perspective, only recently did Russian GDP return to 1991 levels. Moreover, in the 1980s the USSR spent a far larger fraction of its GDP on the military than Russia does now. (Just how much is a mystery. Guesses range from between 20 percent and 40 percent–or more.) In that time, US GDP has grown by over 60 percent. The burden of competing with the United States destroyed the Soviet economy, and Putin (and his would-be successors) have to know that an attempt to devote Soviet level fractions of the economy to the military would be similarly disastrous. So, no matter how much oil money Russia has, it cannot devote a similar fraction of GDP to the military as the Soviets did, and what’s more, Russia’s economy is much smaller relative to the US than it was in 1991. Thus, Russia’s fundamental situation with regards to military competition is substantially weaker than the Soviet situation was in the 1980s. And we know how well that worked out, don’t we Vlad? Any attempt to compete seriously is seriously deranged–which is another reason why I believe that a lot of the recent events are more bravado and posin’ than a serious attempt to close the military gap.
But wait. It gets better! (Or worse, depending on your perspective.) Russia’s main problem is not hardware–it is software. That is, as debilitating as Russia’s defense industry’s shortcomings are, its main military weakness is the quality of its people. As dazzling as American military technology is, it is widely understood that the quality and training of American soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen is what makes the US armed forces far and away the best in the world. It is also widely understood that the quality of Russian conscript soldiers is very poor, and that they are poorly trained and suffer from poor morale (except in some special units). The conditions that Russian conscripts face are truly horrific. Hazing by “grandfathers”–that is, by last years recruits, who were brutalized by the previous year’s recruits, who were brutalized . . .–is institutionalized. Any young Russian male who can escape conscription does so, by hook, or by crook. As a result, the Russian Army is disproportionately manned by misfits. Moreover, brutal treatment is hardly conducive to high morale, and a desire to stay in the service. Short term conscripts have little time, and less incentive, to master the demands of the modern battlefield. (This problem may become even worse, as Russia plans to reduce conscript terms from two years to one–or just enough time for unmotivated soldiers to learn how to put on their uniforms and point their weapons in the right direction.) The Russian Army is a conscript force rather than a professional one like the current US military. And professionalism matters. It matters a lot.
There have been numerous announcements of plans to replace the Russian conscript army with a professional, volunteer force, but these calls to improve the software have recently been drowned out by the chest-thumping announcements of purchases of new hardware. As an illustration, plans to create a professional cadre of non-commissioned officers along the lines of those in the US or British militaries have been pushed further and further into the future. Moreover, a volunteer military faces much opposition from within the Russian military establishment. And perhaps most importantly, the rapid rise in wages in Russia in recent years–a major reason for Putin’s popularity–has made an all volunteer force much more expensive. This increased cost makes it less likely that the transformation to a professional, volunteer force will occur any time soon. It took more than a decade for the US to build a volunteer military. It will take longer for Russia to do that–if it ever starts, which looks increasingly doubtful.
The preference for hardware over software is not uncommon in military establishments. Given the traditional Russian/Soviet officer corps’ view of its soldiery (which makes Wellington’s view of his troops as “the scum of the earth” look benign by comparison), this bias is likely even stronger in Moscow. Moreover, spending money on a volunteer military offers very few opportunities to direct large quantities of money to siloviki, but I imagine many of the rubles raining on Russian defense manufacturers magically make their way into well-connected pockets. (Hence my earlier suggestion that the inflation of prices for hardware is a feature, not a bug.)
In sum, I strongly suspect that the ramp-up of Russian military spending and the Russia’s increasingly aggressive military posture is more for show–a pose. If they are not, they are symptomatic of serious collective delusions in Russia’s military and foreign policy establishments. Objectively, even with the oil and gas windfall, Russia is in no position to compete seriously in the military sphere. Anyone who believes otherwise is deluded. And given Russia’s serious problems–notably in public health, health care, and demography–it is very sad that so many resources are being wasted on military baubles. Oh, the price that some will pay for appearances.