Russia’s Arms Race

Sergey Karaganov

Sergey Karaganov wrote recently about Russia’s need for a military buildup.  His article appeared in Vedomosti, Russia in Global Affairs, and finally on the Valday discussion club’s site.

He sets out to explain why Russia needs a buildup, and why conventional military power is still relevant in today’s world.  He tries to square the buildup with a “record low” military threat to Russia.  But most of his text criticizes Kremlin intentions.

Down on Russia’s armaments plan, he’s high (probably too high) on the results of Serdyukov’s defense reforms.

It’s worth extracting and distilling some of Karaganov’s points into a stronger concentration.

He gives this as a general rule, but doesn’t (but should) emphasize how this applies to Russia:

“. . . nation states have lost much of their original strength.  Their ability to control information, financial, economic and political processes in their territories is wearing thin.  Also, they are becoming ever more dependent on the outside world.  There emerges another argument in favor of greater reliance on arms as the only tool of which the states almost entirely keep control.”

So Russia, like other states (perhaps to a greater degree), looks to its armed forces as the lone attribute of its sovereignty?

Russia, Karaganov contends, faces no external threat through the medium term.  A strong China is a problem, but not necessarily a military one.  Threats from the south are not like existential ones that shaped Russian history for centuries.  And the threat of a U.S. strike on Russian territory looks “ridiculous.”

Karaganov continues, saying the buildup is more about politics than anything else:

“I believe that in the eyes of the Russian leadership the need for gaining greater military strength will stem first and foremost from the factors of the country’s international positioning and the predetermined prospects of its political development.  Four years of sweet mumbling about modernization and practically no concrete action, except for Skolkovo, clearly demonstrates that neither society nor the elite is prepared for a modernization breakthrough.”

He describes why Russia’s ruler(s) opted for the buildup, then offers tepid support for it:

“It looks like the military buildup is expected to compensate for the relative weakness in other respects – economic, technological, ideological and psychological.”

“Criticizing this choice for being dissonant with the modern world is easy.  To a large extent this is really so.  But the modern world is changing so rapidly and unpredictably that quite possibly this choice is adequate.”

While lauding military reforms thus far, he admits:

“There are no well-considered re-armament plans behind them.”

“The process of rearmament is tough-going.  The defense-industrial complex has been bled white.  Still worse, it is not being reformed.  It is now a pale shadow of the Leviathan of the Soviet era. Just what the Russian army was only recently.”

Karaganov continues questioning the rationale for, and consequences of, the buildup:

“The military buildup policy is not only generally desirable for the ruling elite, and, possibly, for the country, but also inevitable.  The question is how and at what cost.  It will be important not to overspend, thereby ruining the development budgets.  In the meantime, it looks like a policy has been launched towards suicidal (for the country) cuts in spending on education, instead of its dramatic increase.  The reduction will upset even the beyond-horizon chances of making a modernization breakthrough.”

“It would be very silly to overspend and over-arm oneself beyond any measure only to breed more enemies, who would be looking at Russia with horror.”

“What makes the risk of mistakes still worse is that there are practically no institutional restrictions on the arms race.  Only two restraints exist at the moment.  The finance ministers – the current one and his predecessor – have been doing their utmost not to give as much as they were asked for.  And the defense minister has been trying to limit the appetite of what’s been left of the defense-industrial complex – thirsty for investment and, admittedly, corrupt as elsewhere.  In the current political system the national parliament is unable to play any tangible role in shaping a new military policy and in forming the budget.”

“No less alarming is the absence of an academic or public discussion of military policy priorities. In the meantime, there was such a discussion, although in a very limited form, even back in the last years of the USSR.  The academic think tanks created in those times are aging morally and physically.  From the right, liberal side the current military policy is criticized by a handful – literally two or three – of authors.  They surely deserve words of praise for being so bold.  But they lack knowledge and are politically engaged and biased.  In the center there is a group of experts close to the defense ministry, who are obliged to praise whatever it does and turn a blind eye on its mistakes.  And on the left side – in the mass media that are fortunately not quite available to the general reader – one can find publications by tens and even hundreds of specialists representing the remains of the financially and intellectually ruined academic part of the Soviet military-industrial complex.  I am not going to surprise the reader with the phantasmagoric threats these experts try to scare the country and themselves with.  Quite often their descriptions have no bearing on the reality and are nothing but caricature replicas of Soviet-era fantasies.”

“But to realize what is to be done, it is necessary to purposefully promote independent social, political and scientific analysis of the processes that are underway in the military sphere.  Or else there will be too many mistakes to be paid for too dearly.”

It’s pretty clear the new defense minister won’t be a brake on the OPK any time soon, if ever.

And Karaganov’s right, the lack of legislative or expert debate on defense policy is alarming.  But where in Russia hasn’t outside input and influence on politicians and policymakers waned?  His criticism of the state of press commentary on defense issues is a bit dramatic.

Anatoliy Serdyukov’s strength was making changes instead of talking them to death.  This approach engendered lots of resistance.  But, in the end, an intra-elite squabble rather than opposition to his policies brought his resignation.

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2 responses to “Russia’s Arms Race

  1. Russia`s historic lack of public input and discussion continue to impact government policy. And the near complete alienation of the middle class hasn`t helped.

    While Western NGOs can legitimately assist Russia`s development, the government is highly suspicious of these organizations.

    It starting to look like Putin`s third term will be full of popular protest and mass discontent, and while Putin continues to show complete disinterest in sharing wealth and power with his people, I am hopeful that a slumbering Russian collective and individual consciousness is waking up. Unfortunately, increasingly radicalised nationalism is not ruled out.

  2. The above comment about Putin sharing Wealth and Power is only half correct. In reality he is the first leader they have ever had who has actively gone out to create wealth for the common good and share it with the people. The comment about sharing power is very simplistic also. The normal simplistic rantings of our Western Media – especially US media – basically a servant of US Government Propaganda in this area. While Putin by our standards may seem to be less than Democratic anybody who has been to Russia and mixed with average Russians would understand never having lived in a democracy they as people do not comprehend they have to make an effort also. Also there ideas on democracy are dominated by US style politics we all see endlessly on our TV screens. It promotes the belief held by Russians you need lots of money to get elected. [Signs that may be changing in the USA]. That is not the way of most other democracies in the world. Generally all there members of the Duma have money or are financed by someone with money. [That I am certain caused the big showdown with the Oil Barons in Russia]. They were warned to stop trying to run the Government but that warning by Putin was obviously not heeded by most of them. That certainly proved an unwise move for one of them in particular. All Western Media seems to forget that shortly after Putin was elected he put a Bill to the Duma to charge all the Oil Companies etc. a Royalty or Resource Tax. It was voted down by the Duma and caused a fist-fight in the Duma. Why?did they vote it down? Every other democracy in the World where minerals are not vested with the owner of the Land charges Royalties on the resources extracted. It was only after that he started his investigations into Tax evasion etc. They all had avoided Tax during the period of the “Family” in charge – Yeltsen and his sponsors and a Duma dominated by vested interests. The smart ones packed up and left for Britain before they could be charged for Tax evasion etc. If you were dumb and underestimated Putin you stayed.
    Until Russians understand the only way to have a true democracy is to take an active interest and put in some effort themselves Putin is as good as they will get. It has to start at the grass roots of society – then the Duma etc. will reflect there aspirations. Don’t believe all the crap on our TV’s about Russia – especially US media.
    The typical Russian attitude that still prevails – 2 hours waiting to Register my presence as a Foreigner along with other Russians moving to an area. When I finally got into the Office there was a pleasant Russian woman to fill out my forms and luckily for me she had reasonable English. As she massaged her hand after filling out mine I said to her – “In Australia we would have to fill these out and you would only give them a quick check and stamp them.” Her reply – ” Yes I know – I have been overseas – we have been trying to get Russians to do that also but they still believe we are paid to fill them out and more or less demand we do it – obviously they prefer to wait for hours.” That attitude is changing but it will not happen until the younger generations prevail and then we may see Russians exercise there right to a Government of there choice. It will not happen until they understand they have to do there bit – not just complain. In the meantime a few “ratbag” Political aspirants who most Russians know are basically idiots take every chance they get to feed half truths to biased or bent Western journalists only intent on creating a story. They are very lucky to have Putin and Medvedev at the top considering the average Russians attitude in this area. Most are still looking for someone else to do it for them. I also love the way our Western Media says he is undermining democracy by replacing Mayors etc. with appointed Officials. [They leave out the most important Fact - generally Mayors and Officials who have been proven to be corrupt.] Like many Western Journalists they don’t like to see Facts get in the way of a good story. If you ask the average Russian in those areas they welcome the fact they have been replaced. Putin and his Government in those cases has very little choice – if the average Russian’s in those cities and regions will not make the effort to elect good sound people then the Federal Government has to step in to try to stop the corruption and wastage of Federal money given to those areas and cities. Those are the facts – not the crap we continually see coming from US media and also British media at times. We all know just how bent many British newspapers had become. Anything for a story.

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