Streetwise Professor

December 1, 2008

More Delusions

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:02 pm

Reuben Johnson writes a rather dismissive appraisal of Russia’s military “renaissance” in the Weekly Standard:

All signs suggest that the waste and neglect that made Belenko so disdainful of the political commissars were never dealt with. So, be on the lookout for more armed men in tennis shoes carrying stolen toilets in carjacked Humvees the next time Russia decides to make mischief beyond its borders. And don’t be surprised if the average Russian serviceman continues to risk being needlessly sent to an early grave.

Most of what Johnson says is familiar to SWP readers, but he does provide some very colorful details:

This is all just so much chest-thumping. The immense sums required to support these lavish promises will not materialize. You can’t get there from here, as the old aphorism goes. The price of oil (which Russia depends on for a great deal of its state revenues) has dropped to less than half its value from this past summer, the Russian stock market is in free fall, and foreign investment has fled Russia.

President Medvedev has announced an increase in military spending, but total outlays are still far less than the U.S. defense budget, and much of what has been allocated will have to go towards undoing the years of neglect and decay during the Boris Yeltsin presidency.

The performance of the Russian armed forces during the invasion of Georgia in August showed the dismal state of Moscow’s military machine. Some Russian soldiers went into battle wearing athletic shoes because there were not enough boots to go around. Russian troops stole everything they could lay hands on–particularly from the Georgian army facilities they overran. Uniforms, beds, U.S.-supplied Humvees, and toilets were even pulled off the walls by Russian forces. “They had everything; the most amazing f–ing beds, amazing f–ing barracks with sealed windows,” one Russian soldier was recorded saying in a short mobile phone video that was later broadcast–awestruck like Goldilocks when she stumbled upon Baby Bear’s boudoir. Apparently living conditions for soldiers have improved little in the decades since Belenko’s defection.

Russian forces were able to overcome Georgian forces because of sheer numbers, but in air operations the Russians had their proverbial head handed to them. A total of 12 Russian aircraft were lost to Georgian air defense units, including one Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bomber. By the time hostilities ceased Russian pilots were being offered lavish bonus payments if they were willing to fly missions over Georgia, and still some of them turned the offers down, preferring to stay on the ground where it was safe.

The loss of the Tu-22M is symptomatic of the deep and pervasive ills of Russia’s military machine. There were no operational pilots with enough hours to fly the mission, so instructor pilots had to be press-ganged into service–only two of whom were able to eject safely. The fact that the aircraft–a medium-range strategic bomber that was originally designed to carry nuclear weapons–was misused for a reconnaissance mission is another source of embarrassment.

Think about that last statement–having to bribe Russian pilots to fly combat missions against a pipsqueak military force, and having many of the pilots respond “Nyet!”

The “chest thumping” that Johnson refers to is also quite familiar to those following Russian military developments (and economic developments, for that matter).   This brings to mind a story from the Economist, which ran a series on Russia that echoes many SWP themes (but of course, the Economist is just the house organ for Bourgeois Reactionaries;-).   Here’s the story:

One of the biggest pop hits in Russia a few years ago was a song called “I Was Made in the USSR”, first performed in 2005 in the Kremlin, in front of Mr Putin. “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova—it is my country…Kazakhstan and the Caucasus as well as the Baltics—it is my country…I was born in the Soviet Union; made in the USSR,” its lyrics go. As the audience rose to applaud, it was perhaps unaware that the tune was the same as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”.

(And I bet that Springsteen didn’t see any royalties either.)

Reading Johnson’s article, along with the many other articles on the Russian military and imperial pretensions, makes me think that another Springsteen composition is far more apt: “Glory Days,” a song about how some people pathetically fixate on past glories (real or imagined) and ignore a far less glorious current reality.

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  1. Makes you wonder what the Russian army and air force would have done if the United States had provided the Georgians with the latest Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and decent anti-tank missiles.

    Comment by Michel — December 1, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

  2. Yup. Anti-tank weapons in particular would have made a big difference. Russian-supplied Kornet missiles caused the Israelis a lot of headaches in Lebanon in 2006. In one of my first post-invasion posts, I suggested that turnabout is fair play, and that the US should supply some Javelins to Georgia.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 1, 2008 @ 10:17 pm

  3. +++ Some Russian soldiers went into battle wearing athletic shoes because there were not enough boots to go around. +++

    I am afraid Mr. Johnson is missing a big one here. For all the problems the Russian military has, I highly doubt there is not enough of those cheap-quality “kirza” high-boots.

    It has been discovered by Russian troops in Afghanistan, more than twenty years ago, that wearing sneakers in a mountainous area gives a soldier a distinct advantage – certainly comparing to the above-mentioned boots. Now, I’ve read recently that the Russian military had finally decided to phase out the “kirza” and switch to a standard military boot – but that might take a while.

    So a good commander would let his men to wear sneakers when they have to climb mountains, although there are no official provisions in the military regulations for that.

    Comment by LL — December 2, 2008 @ 12:39 am

  4. I had to laugh at the implausible last sentence, this was in today’s Kommersant, another self-censoring rag:

    Corruption Up in Russian Army

    Losses from corruption in the Russian Army this year have topped 2 billion rubles, Interfax reported on Monday, citing an interview with Alexander Sorochkin, head of the military investigations department of the prosecutor’s investigative committee, which will be published on Tuesday in Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper. Sorochkin said that charges were pressed against 21 officers in the Russian Army this year. Eighteen of them involved corruption. Eight of them have already reached the courts.
    Sorochkin’s department has determined that the number of corruption-related crimes in the military has increased by a third this year to 1400, causing 2.2 billion rubles in damages. Sorochkin noted that almost three-quarters of the corruption-related crimes in the military took place in the Army. About another 12 percent took place in the Emergencies Ministry, 8 percent in the internal forces and about 4 percent in the FSB border service. “Abuse of authority is the clear leader,” Sorochkin said. “That accusation is made against practically every third figure in the investigations.” He added that there was very little corruption in the staff of generals.

    Comment by penny — December 2, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

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