Putin’s Military, Humbled and Subsequent Transformation

‘. . . progress of the Empress Catherine to the Crimea, the façades of villages set up at spaced intervals along the way. The façades made of wood and painted canvas were placed a quarter of a league from the route to make the triumphant sovereign believe that the desert had been peopled under her reign. Russian minds are still presented by similar preoccupations. Everyone hides the bad and presents the good to the eyes of the master.’

Marquis de Custine, Journey for Our Time

The date was 12 August 2000. At 11.28 Central European Time seismographs at Western monitoring posts registered a major explosion in the Barents Sea, off the Murmansk coast, and a mere 135 seconds later another one, ten times stronger. It took the Russian naval staff more than two days to admit that the Kursk, Russia’s most modern submarine – Oscar II class in Nato code, put into service in 1994 and armed with twenty-two nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, the entire structure surrounded by a titanium-plus-rubber skin – had been lost at sea, together with all 118 of her crew.

It took days and weeks to uncover the true story of what had happened. Clumsiness, secretive habits and outright lies surrounded the catastrophe. First the admirals wanted to hide the terrible truth from the Kremlin, then from the families and general public, and finally from the world at large. The reasons given for the Kursk disaster varied, from running upon a Second World War German mine to collision with a Nato spy submarine thus turning it into a public relations breakdown and a serious test for the President Vladimir Putin. None of this contained any truth, but even a moderate and well-informed Duma member like Alexei Arbatov from Yabloko, member of the defence committee, thundered that Russia had to expect ‘growing tensions with the West’.

President Putin at first refused any help from other countries to lift the wreckage, which was of course full of sensitive military information but also implied human tragedy and political mismanagement. After a few days of humiliating ineffectiveness and failure, including official lies about the sailors still being alive and Russian rescue teams working their way close to them, a Norwegian offer was finally accepted and a salvage company from Norway brought in, but the divers were not allowed to go anywhere near where the Russian naval command knew the sensitive information was hidden. Putin did not at first find it necessary to interrupt his holiday at the Black Sea. After six days of handling the crisis from a distance, however, he realized that this indifference would not be forgiven by the man in the street, the sailors’ widows and the men in uniform, so he took action to avoid the impression that the political authorities were heartless and out of touch, that the naval command was only interested in saving its skin, and that, Soviet system or no, human lives did not count. It is to Putin’s credit that he finally decided to invite the Norwegians in, regardless of the admirals’ interest in letting the Kursk – and the truth – rest on the bottom of the sea. Of course, Putin also wanted Russian naval engineers to find out what had really sent the pride of the Russian navy to its early grave. Finally, he took the decision to allot substantial payments to the families of the dead men to help them rebuild their lives. It was late in the day when he preserved at least the appearance of competence and caring.

Beyond the world of conspiracy theories the Kursk prompted speculation that an ultra-modern torpedo with liquid fuel had been mishandled on loading, that the captain realized danger was looming and did not deem the submarine seaworthy, and that the few sailors who had survived the initial blast never had a chance to escape from the grave 120 metres below the stormy surface of the Barents Sea.

The loss of the monster submarine, twenty metres high, had many implications. It revealed not only the crew’s poor training, inadequate for handling such high-tech wizardry as the Kursk and its dangerous cargo. It also revealed dramatic failure on the part of the Kremlin to handle the sense of frustration, doubt and open unrest set in motion by the disaster. Above all, it forced the General Staff as well as the Ministry of Defence into some serious rethinking as to the future of nuclear deterrence. Any effective modernization of the navy, which would also involve refurbishing the satellite systems guiding the nuclear-tipped missiles, would by far exceed the modest USD 16 billion defence budget of the time. So the Kursk disaster not only tested the government, the admirals and the President, it put a question mark over Russia’s future nuclear strategy.

Moreover, ever since Peter the Great naval ambition had been Russia’s attempt to overcome the limitations of a landlocked power and develop a naval capability second to none. The Kursk would have been one of the vessels accompanying the aircraft carrier that Putin had intended to send into the Mediterranean in order to demonstrate a naval presence approaching that of the mighty US Sixth Fleet. It was the navy that seemed to promise the Russians a chance to keep up with Nato forces and the very ambitious naval programme of the Chinese. That dream had disappeared off the coast of Murmansk for a long time to come. The refusal to admit defeat in the high-tech race for naval supremacy was the reason for both the initial clumsiness of the response to the crisis and the long-term inability to come up with a coherent strategy for the future of the navy and, by implication, the fine-tuning of the nuclear balance.

The strategic implications of the disaster were far-ranging. The political shockwaves could be felt even behind the red-brick walls of the Kremlin, and crisis management was visibly inadequate and poor. The Kursk catastrophe left Russians as well as the rest of the world asking, once again: who is Putin? It took the shine off the carefully crafted appearance of strong and decisive leadership. A naval officer in Murmansk complained openly: ‘I thought I had a president. Now it turns out he is merely another state official.’ Meanwhile, by the time Putin was up for re-election in 2004, the miserable death of the 118 sailors had been all but forgotten.


In 2006-7 the armed forces of Russia, according to figures provided by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, comprised altogether 1,027,000 men and women (army 395,000, navy 142,000, air force 160,000, strategic deterrent force 80,000, command and support 250,000), plus paramilitary forces of 480,000. In theory, there is a reserve of twenty million, of whom only one out of ten has served during the last five years. Reserve status is mandatory until the age of fifty. The defence budget is minute compared with that of the US, and even taking into account real purchasing power it is small. Counted as a percentage of GDP, however, the two countries allow themselves about the same outlay for the military. Sergei Ivanov, while still defence minister under Putin, stated at a meeting with visitors from abroad that Russia would not repeat the fatal mistake of the Soviet Union: to arm itself to death.

In the army, ethnic Russians prevail by far. Only the Tatars at 4 per cent and Ukrainians at 3 per cent make a noticeable contribution; all other nationalities, like Bashkirs, Belarusians, and Moldovans, count for 1 per cent or less.

The deterrent forces, known to the West not only through strategic spying but even more so through various arms control agreements and a remarkable amount of cooperation in securing nuclear warheads against accidental use, are the one element of the military establishment that still allows Russia a claim to world power. There are, after the Kursk, fifteen nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed strategic submarines, some of them probably more dangerous to their own crew than to any enemy, and not seaworthy. Six of the Delta III class are stationed along the Pacific coast, five Delta IV are attached to the Northern Fleet. The land-based systems comprise three rocket armies operating silo and mobile missile-launchers. There are 506 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the long range aviation command called the 37th Air Army. Some aircraft, Nato code Blackjack and Bear, were put back into active service by Putin in the summer of 2007 to patrol the open seas and fly the flag. It was a gesture to remind the world that Russia still has a claim to world power, at least in military symbolism. There are about twenty-two anti-ballistic-missile radars, placed for 360-degree control of airspace and covering approaches from the west and south-west, north-east and south-east, and partially from the south. The space forces number altogether 40,000 personnel in various formations and units withdrawn from strategic missile and air defence forces to detect missile attacks on Russia and its allies, to implement ballistic missile defence and to conduct military and dual-use spacecraft launch and control.

The navy’s overall serviceability is generally seen as low. There are four major forces: the Northern fleet with air arm and naval infantry, the Pacific Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet and the Baltic Fleet plus the Caspian Sea Flotilla.

Deployment abroad is very limited. What is controversial for the West is the 3000 soldiers in Georgia’s disputed areas South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the so-called 14th Army with 1400 men (365 accepted as peacekeepers) in Moldova. Those troops are the ones Russia wants to keep where they are while the West is demanding their withdrawal. This has recently translated into Russia suspending the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty, which offered confidence and security-building measures to both sides. There are still 3500 Russian soldiers in Armenia, some anti-air units in Belarus, a small naval detachment in Syria, 500 soldiers in Kyrgyzstan, some more in Tajikistan. In Ukraine, where the Russian Fleet has leased berthing and port facilities on the Black Sea in Sebastopol, the Russians have deployed one regiment of marines and a small flotilla, a naval headquarters. The rest are small units under the blue helmets of the UN or, as in Lebanon, one batallion of engineers, placed there by bilateral agreement, parallel to the UNIFIL mission.

Except in the nuclear dimension, Russia is no longer the military giant of 5 million men at arms that the Soviet Union was even in the days when it had passed its apogee. On 10 May 2006 Putin, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, spoke about the state of the military. He maintained that in spite of many economic weaknesses, the army would still be able to fulfil its mission and guarantee the defence and security of the country. Looking back at 1999-2000 – the time of Nato’s Kosovo war and Russia’s Chechen war – he said that the country had not been able to field a minimum of 65,000 well-trained and combat-ready soldiers and send them to fight the rebels in Chechnya. At that time, according to the President, Russia had altogether no more than 55,000 soldiers ready to go, and they were dispersed all over Russia. Putin sounded like Nato’s Secretary General at the time, Lord George Robertson, when he complained that out of 1.4 million Russian men and women in uniform no more than a few were ready for active combat.

Back in business

In 2006, in his state-of-the-army speech Putin went on to present a much improved picture. Modernized and high-tech weaponry had been introduced into the forces, but chiefly in the strategic dimension and patently useless for deployment against Chechen rebels hiding in the northern slopes of the Caucasus. Putin praised the introduction of two intercontinental missile complexes, Topol-M and Bulawa-30, and the building of two new nuclear submarines – the first since 1990. As far as conventional arms were concerned, Putin had little to offer. He praised improved training, a better fighting spirit among soldiers and officers, and the high morale of the troops. But not much hardware would be coming their way though Putin asked for high-class performance: ‘We must have forces capable of taking up the fight in global, regional and, if necessary, several local conflicts, and at the same time.’ In this, Putin echoed the Pentagon in the mid-1990s, which had boasted that two and a half wars could be fought simultaneously, and be won. Time and again, the US is the mirror image that sets the standards for the Russians.

In particular, Putin singled out six objectives for the next decade, some hard, some soft, some strictly military, some much broader – and altogether probably overambitious:

  • The Russian forces should study and understand the planning and development of competing forces abroad and find superior responses. One wonders to what extent the Chinese armed forces on their way to Asian dominance are silently included in this threat assessment.
  • Two-thirds of the armed forces should be transformed into an all-volunteer army, and military conscription reduced to twelve months – revealing a strategy based much more on high-tech weaponry than on the traditional Russian mass army.
  • Adressing a problem unsolved since the withdrawal of the Red Army from much of Central Europe and Central Asia, housing for officers and soldiers should be of a much higher standard.
  • Half of military expenditure should be invested in better training, more effective weaponry and technical development.
  • Discipline among the troops should be enhanced, but no recipe was offered for how to transform the disciplinary code and rough customs throughout the army into behaviour consonant with a modern high-tech establishment.
  • The prestige of those serving in the army should be restored. Somebody defending the motherland, Putin put it, should have a high social and financial status. But how to achieve this lofty goal, except by fiat, the soldiers were not told. One wonders what the reaction may have been among the rank and file, most probably the traditional Russian philosophy of ‘The God is high, and the tsar is far away’.

The Kremlin is acutely aware of the shortcomings, and Putin’s announcements in 2006 could also be read as an overall, and not too favourable, evaluation of what the five-year plan announced in the year 2000 had achieved – or failed to achieve. That plan, originally handed over to Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, formerly of the KGB and not a military man, had been a roadmap for reform. But where did the road lead? First of all, and inevitably, into serious confrontation with the generals as no fewer than 300 general officers’ posts would be scrapped, traditional arms programmes discontinued and the giant military establishment of the Cold War cut down.

In due course, Ivanov’s first step had been to reduce the overall size of the army to its present numbers of just over 1.1 million personnel. He then proceeded to change budget allocations and, by implication, the composition of the army. Before, 70 per cent of the budget had gone towards manpower and maintenance, and only 30 per cent into research and development. Official figures for 2006 indicate a much improved ratio of 60:40. This should continue until in 2010 a 50:50 ratio will be achieved.

In addition, between 2010 and 2015 the armed forces will no longer be administered through military districts but organized according to territorial integration on land, at sea and in the air. The Far Eastern Command will include the Far East, Siberia, the Volga-Urals district and the Pacific Fleet; the Central Asian Command will comprise the Northern Caucasus and the Black Sea Fleet; and the West European Command will include the military districts of St Petersburg and Moscow as well as the Northern Fleet and the Baltic Fleet.