Streetwise Professor

April 2, 2009

More Poses

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

Dale Herspring and Roger McDermott have a long new piece on the Potemkin Russian military (available on JRL).  It is quite extensive, and too long to quote in its entirety, but the intro and summary convey the essence:

In his March 17, 2009 speech to Russia’s top military brass, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev raised the specter of a strong and robust Russian military.  The fact is that while  Russia  is undergoing a major reform of its armed forces, and beginning to pump money into it, it will be several years, 2020, according to many Russian officers, before the Russian armed forces will be equipped with modern weapons.  The reality is that the Russian military is in no position to threaten anyone.  By their own admission, Russian generals view the war in Georgia as a “disaster.”  Russia won, but only by using outdated weapons and equipment and the kind of frontal military attack that was more reminiscent of World War II, than of the modern type of warfare.  In short, Medvedev’s effort to play the military card was nothing more than an effort to gain a diplomatic advantage by pulling the wool over the West’s eyes.

. . . .


We have no doubt that Serdyukov is serious about reforming the Russian military.  Furthermore, while we are aware of the unhappiness of Russian officers vis-a-vis many of his actions, there is no sign to date that there is much the officer corps can do to stop him from making changes.  Besides, it is clear to most outside observers, that while one many decry Serdyukov’s personality in dealing with military officers, the changes he is making are badly needed but will be years in making an impact on the army’s combat efficiency.

From a policy standpoint, the foregoing suggests that Medvedev’s references to a military build-up are a bluff, used to convince the West that it is in its interest to make a deal with the Russians.  While we take no position on policy, we think it is important to emphasize that the Russian military build-up should not be seen as a major factor in negotiating with the Russians.

In between, Herspring and McDermott discuss the colossal, enervating corruption that pervades the Russian defense establishment; Serdyukov’s efforts to fight it; and the uniformed military’s ferocious opposition.  They also examine the dilapidated, and still declining, state of Russian military manufacturing capability; the problems with weapon design; the poor performance in Georgia.  Overall, a very negative assessment on virtually every major dimension.  

In a recent Heritage Foundation report on Russia and Eurasia, Stephen Blank presents a more favorable appraisal of current Russian capabilities, and their prospects for improving them.  He argues that the Georgian War demonstrated the ability of the Russian General Staff to conduct combined arms operations, to achieve strategic surprise, and demonstrate strategic mobility.  He also warns of Russian cyberwar capabilities, the destablizing potential of the Iskander missile, and its overwhelming military advantages vis a vis the CIS countries.  Most importantly, he argues that the current Russian government “by its very structure” is prone to military adventurism, and is intent on stoking hostility with the West and attempting to intimidate Europe.  

Perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis is his statement that 40-50 percent of total Russian defense expenditure is lost to graft.  Professor Blank tells me that other estimates place the amount of theft north of 50 percent.  That is a truly impressive figure, and perhaps suggests reasons (in addition to delusions of imperial grandeur) why Medvedev and Putin are so intent on boosting military expenditure even in the face of a daunting economic and budgetary situation: namely (a) it’s one of the last places to make money the old fashioned way, given the erosion of other opportunities for graft and rent seeking given the decline in raw material prices, and (b) it’s necessary to keep the brass (a potentially serious threat to the regime) happy.  (That is, maybe the uniformed leadership is less interested in shiny new military hardware, than what they can skim while pretending to procure shiny new military hardware.)

Lastly, Paul Goble has an interesting piece on the failure of the military to make any real progress towards its stated goal of creating a professional, volunteer military, to replace its 19th-century/early 20th-century style mass conscription army:

 A  major reason that the Russian military is having to draft so many soldiers this spring is that the uniformed services are failing to meet their quotas for recruiting professional soldiers, a shortcoming that experts say reflects both the low salaries they are now offered and the low status of the profession Moscow would like to recruit them to.

The Moscow media have been full of stories about why the spring draft is so large, with most commentators pointing to the change in the length of military service for draftees, and why this round is so filled with problems, ranging from the declining size of the draft pool to the difficulties of the current economic situation.  

But in comments this week, Sergey Krivenko, the coordinator of the Social Initiative ‘The Citizen and the Army,’ argues that an even more important explanation for the size of the draft is the military is the failure of the armed services to recruit and retain professional soldiers (

If the armed forces had done so, he says, the number of young men needed to be drafted this round would be 264,000 rather than the 305,000 the military now seeks. The military says there are now 207,000 contract soldiers, but Krivenko’s comments suggest that even if that is the case, it is less than the military planned for.

At the end of 2007, the military rights activist says, there were 125,000 slots for such professional soldiers, but only 99,000 of them were filled, a reflection of many things but particularly the relatively low salaries that the Russian military offers the group around which it hopes to build its future.

At present, according to the general staff, professional soldiers in the army receive from 11,300 to 16,000 rubles (300 to 450 US dollars) a month while professional sailors receive only slightly more, 16,000 to 18,000 (450 to 550 US dollars), amounts that are unlikely to attract many even during the current economic crisis.

In addition to the low salaries, Krivenko adds, “conditions of service are [so] poor” that “contract soldiers simply are running away. And as a result, units that had been scheduled to be staffed entirely by professional soldiers are now being shifted back to a mixture of professionals and draftees, a composition that can prove combustible.  

Add this to stories last month about the military’s decision to cease (or at least postpone) its efforts to train professional NCOs at several military schools due to the very low skill level of those who volunteered for the program (e.g., inability to do elementary school mathematics), and you have a very bleak picture of the prospects for the development of a professional, 21st century military force.  So, young Russian men can look forward to a continuing, and indeed increasing, reliance on conscription (increasing, due to the reduction in the length of service, and the declining population of healthy, mentally fit, military aged men), and the continuation of  dedovshchina  in the barracks.  Lord of the Flies,  military version.

There is a tension between the Blank view, and that of Herspring, McDermott, and Goble.  The latter are likely far less concerned about the Russian military than the former.  I would say that Blank is right about intentions.  Moreover, despite its evident dysfunctions and deficiencies, well described by Herspring, McDermott, Goble, and others, the Russian military is still dominant in the former Soviet space.   I therefore come away from reading these sources, and many others besides, with a mental picture of a shambolic military that is still sufficiently powerful to inflict rapid defeat on the small states that surround it (many of whom also have shambolic militaries), and which has the willingness to do just that.

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  1. I agree (with Dale Herspring, that is, good article).

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 2, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  2. Russia needs to get over itself as a former super power, don’t waste your wealth on trying to buy prestige that is unobtainable. Russia would achieve more international recognition by working with other countries rather than against them. They have underestimate their dependence on oil markets of the those countries they have alienated through their us first policies of the Putin era.

    I hope Russia realises one day it has more friends in Europe than Enemies who would be glad to have them as an ally. A country with allies does not need such an expensive military since it can achieve it’s aims through diplomacy.

    Comment by AlanE — April 3, 2009 @ 4:03 am

  3. DR–Uh, April Fools Day had ended by the time you posted that comment. Just kidding. Please expand on your thoughts for the class.

    AlanE–“Get over itself.” Exactly. The chasm separating self-regard and realities is Grand Canyon vast. Closing that gap would bode well not just for a more settled and peaceful “near abroad,” but a healthier and wealthier Russia.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 3, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  4. I agree in the sense that there’s little to disagree about there.

    It’s quite well known that much of the military stock today is heavily depreciated, morale and organization is poor, corruption is high and the VPK is facing difficulties with aging personnel and equipment, rising costs and competition for labor from the private sector.

    This is why (as Blank points out, and which I myself mentioned before) Russia is going to rely on tactical nukes in a hypethetical total war against NATO, and hence refusing to reduce them. I also suspect there’s secret ongoing research and manufacture into chemical and bio weapons (I certainly would in Putin’s place).

    So the main issue now that conventional quantitative military superiority over NATO is permanently ruled out, is to equal it in qualitative terms so that Russia could assert its hegemony across the former USSR and the Arctic, by making any NATO forays or interference there too costly and uncertain to be contemplated. Like China, the focus is now on quickly kicking the asses of regional thugs like Saakashvili and being able to hold up in a limited, hi-tech and mainly aero-naval confrontation with NATO.

    To do that it effectively it needs to solve the problems identified in Dale’s article.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 3, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  5. DR. We all know who the #1 regional thug is. And it ain’t Saakashvili. And boy, what a low bar to set. Beating up on Georgia. Population 4.6 million. Military expenditure, .59 percent–point five nine percent–of a GDP of about $21 billion. An army of about 19K personnel. Very impressive.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 3, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  6. Which is why I said the Russian military should try to, and presumably is, converge with NATO in qualitative terms. By measures of combat readiness, age of hardware / modernization, professionalism and morale it is far behind the US and the more military-attentive members of NATO. Beating Georgia is pretty easy but there were too many casualties because of the above disorganization. But if NATO were to intervene to support Georgia, or similar scenarios in the Baltic or Arctic regions, Russia would probably be very hard pressed to defend its interests without escalating to much more drastic measures as things stand now.

    Thugs imply small, unjust and petty. And Russia’s salvation of Ossetians from Georgian ethnic cleansing was the opposite of that.

    “.59 percent–point five nine percent–of a GDP of about $21 billion.”

    What?? Georgian military expenditures were running at over 10% of GDP in 2008.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 3, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  7. Re qualitative parity. Never going to happen. Never. Indeed, it cuts against the entire Russian military tradition, which has eschewed quality in favor of mass, and simple, easily manufactured hardware readily operated by conscripts with little training. Even during the late-Soviet period, arms were designed in the anticipation that there would be high rates of loss–so why build something complex and durable? (Hence one reason for the chronic reliability and durability problems with MiG aircraft.) Completely reversing a longstanding military tradition, and completely restructuring military industry built in conformity with that tradition, is an unrealistic, not to say impossible, task. Especially (a) in the face of fierce resistance from within the military, and (b) given the severe financial constraints in the country.

    Re Georgia military:

    From CIA Factbook

    Military Georgia
    Military branches:
    Georgian Armed Forces: Land Forces, Air and Air Defense Forces
    note: naval forces have been incorporated into the coast guard (2009)
    Military service age and obligation:
    18 to 34 years of age for compulsory and voluntary active duty military service; conscript service obligation – 18 months (2005)
    Manpower available for military service:
    males age 16-49: 1,113,251
    females age 16-49: 1,168,021 (2008 est.)
    Manpower fit for military service:
    males age 16-49: 908,282
    females age 16-49: 959,290 (2009 est.)
    Manpower reaching militarily significant age annually:
    male: 32,355
    female: 30,809 (2009 est.)
    Military expenditures:
    0.59% of GDP (2005 est.)
    Military – note:
    a CIS peacekeeping force of Russian troops is deployed in the Abkhazia region of Georgia together with a UN military observer group; a Russian peacekeeping battalion is deployed in South Ossetia

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 4, 2009 @ 8:30 am

  8. Oh, and I would reconsider using ethnic cleansing as the basis for your justification, lest you damn those whom you intend to defend.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 4, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  9. And another thing 😉 “Small, unjust and petty.” Best three word description of Putin I’ve seen.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 4, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  10. Re-quantity/quality. You’re thinking in linear terms. Historically Russia has had a larger manpower pool to draw from than its potential adversaries, and did not have access to many key manufacturing and later info technologies. Today, 1) demography no longer favors it, 2) technological diffusion is much quicker now, and 3) in any case there is little point in having huge conventional forces with it shifting to an expeditionary model. All this frees up resources for investment into quality and asymmetrical systems.

    Speaking of which, according to some analyses the view that its current production fighters are technologically inferior is already becoming rapidly dated (, and the same would apply to air defense, subs and missile technology – i.e. the key spheres in which it (and China, Iran, Venezuela, etc) are looking to neutralize Western forces on the cheap in a hypothetical war. AAP and DefPro have some interesting material on this.

    Re-Georgia. That is just crudely uninformed or propaganda. By its own budget statistics Georgia was planning to spend 5.6% of GDP on its military in 2008 back in June, according to as Russophobic an outfit as you want i.e. RFERL ( Also questions about the needs for its record ramp up of spending were being asked well before ( Other estimates put it at over 10% (real military spending is very hard to gauge, since the dividing line between military and civil can be blurred, and some spending is covert). In any case, now we know the reason for this expansion.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 4, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

  11. didn’t someone say russia is never as weak as she looks.
    didn’t someone else (montgomery) say that rule number 1 of warfare is not to march on moscow.

    Comment by lisa — April 4, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  12. Lisa–

    Talleyrand (or Metternich, or Churchill, or anon–no definitive attribution): “Russia is never as strong as she looks; Russia is never as weak as she looks.”

    What is so bizarre, and what I have pointed out frequently in the past, that (a) the Western military has internalized Montgomery’s dictum, (b) it has no capability to do so if it wanted, yet (c) Russia continues to justify its bellicosity, belligerence, rearmament, and antagonism to NATO by indulging in paranoid fantasies of a NATO military threat to Russia.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 5, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  13. I think the amusing thing Prof. is how your piece got treated and how mine got trashed by a certain anonymous blog you have in your blogroll, simply for saying the same thing from different sources (you cited the Army War College’s Stephen Blank, and I quoted Austin TX’s own Col. Austin Bay). I must say that Anatoly is pretty sharp, and the statistics he cites make a fairly compelling case that the Georgians were not so overwhelmed by superior Russian numbers or defense spending. The harsh reality is that the Georgians were thoroughly beaten on their home soil, where they had as much manpower and tanks (at least initially) as the Russians, even though they had the benefits of training by U.S. Marines, GPS, night vision equipment, Soviet (really Ukrainian) hardware with foreign upgrades, etc. The Israelis had supplied some equipment but they adruptly stopped about six months before the attack on South Ossetia, either because they anticipated the offensive or simply cut a deal with Russia that delayed the delivery of the S-300 to Iran indefinitely.

    I don’t think the Prof likes admitting that perhaps the Russian side was simply more motivated than the Georgians, because the Georgians understood very early on that the Russian army was not going to march on Tblisi and therefore they had little desire to fight and die for South Ossetia. The whole attempt to puff up Georgia as a statelet that is somehow the antithesis of Russia is amusing, considering that something like one out of five of every Georgians is living and working abroad, the majority in Russia itself. There is a huge Georgian community in Moscow. All these games are just as fantastic and futile as trying to detach Mexico from U.S. influence.

    Comment by Charles Ganske — April 5, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

  14. lisa, turning your comment on its head, when the USSR fell with a thud and with no resistance it was the common assumption just prior that Russia was much stronger than the reality. And, why would anyone send a ground force to Moscow?

    If you have been paying attention to military events such as US ground forces are voluntary and not disgruntled conscripts, are very high tech and require much less human fodder translating into a historically minimum death toll contrasted with Russia right now it’s a no brainer they are miles behind us in spite of their bluster. Their bumpkins were stripping bath fixtures to take home in Georgia. Catch up would require not just funding which they don’t have, but, a huge cultural shift.

    Maybe you were implying something different. Russians have been such pathological liars that there is a need for them to do it.

    Comment by penny — April 5, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

  15. DR. You are right re the unsustainability of the traditional Russian military approach. Demography in particular makes it completely impractical. (I think I’ve mentioned before that it is highly ironic that historically western Europeans viewed Russia as the land of the horde, with unlimited pools of manpower with which to overrun its neighbors. It is interesting to note, though, that for a variety of reasons political, social, and economic, Russia never fully exploited this resource. In WWI, for instance, whereas 80 percent of French and German men capable of military duty served, in Russia only about 40 percent did.)

    But, I disagree about the implications going forward. First, the mindset of the Russian military is hardly progressive. The officer corps is fighting the move to expeditionary, professional forces tooth and nail. It is still wedded to the obsolete, conscript-based system that you and I and pretty much anybody with two eyes and a shred of objectivity recognize is a relic of a bygone era. The attempts to increase the professional component of the armed forces are in serious trouble. The Herspring-McDermott article mentions that some of the expeditionary-type units intended to be fully professional/contract manned are instead relying on short-term draftees to meet their manning complements. The NCO training program is being cut back dramatically due to the inability to attract minimally qualified candidates.

    Second, there is no doubt that Russia has been able to produce some impressive looking designs for aircraft, subs, etc., but it remains to be seen whether performance matches the looks. Sukhoi aircraft are arguably a quantum step beyond previous Russian/Soviet designs, but MiG is plagued by problems. Moreover, it is one thing to produce a small number of prototype systems; it is another altogether to produce them in quantity, and man them with capable crews. With the self-admitted hollowing out of its military industry, and the rampant corruption in the procurement process, it would be miraculous if Russia could produce any of these new designs in numbers sufficient to make a difference. And if it could, given the manpower issues discussed above, whether it could find the qualified personnel to operate them effectively. It is well known that human capital is typically the decisive factor even in high tech warfare, or should I say especially in high tech warfare. EG, the better pilot usually prevails, even when flying the less capable aircraft. Sub operations are similarly extremely demanding, and Russia has had especially serious problems in this area, as I am sure you know.

    When you consider that the erosion of the Russian military that has taken place over 20+ years has devastated every component of the armed forces, and that armor, aircraft, and ships are all in need of mass replacement, it is a huge leap of faith to believe that Russia will achieve a quality parity in any area any time soon.

    Lastly, even if it gets these weapons, the doctrinal changes necessary to utilize them properly would be a long time in coming, given the hidebound Russian military hierarchy. US doctrine has been evolving since the early-80s, and has been the subject of trial by combat. Officers and men at every rank have the experience and institutional memory necessary to make this doctrine, and the new technology, work, and to recognize when changes are necessary and make them. As the darkest days of Iraq 2004-2006 demonstrate, however, even a relatively progressive American military facing an existential crisis was resistant to change. Only an exceptional figure, Petraeus, with the support of Bush in the face of fierce political opposition, and intense opposition within the military establishment, was able to wrest the possibility of victory from the jaws of defeat. Such change is hard enough in the American military. It would be miraculous–beyond miraculous–in the Russian.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 6, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

  16. It looks like RIA Novosti answered your questions as to how they can manage to build the next generation fighter plane in Russia. They won’t:

    “Russia may allow Brazil to produce its fifth-generation fighters under a license in the future, a senior Russian government official said in an interview with RIA Novosti.

    “We are discussing with the well-known Brazilian company Embraer the transfer of technology and the construction of facilities for the future licensed production of the aircraft, including the fifth-generation fighter,” said Alexander Fomin, deputy director of the Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation.”


    Perhaps the Brazilians have learned that the best way to ensure the quality of Russian planes that you buy is to build them yourself 😉

    Comment by Michel — April 7, 2009 @ 8:56 am

  17. Embraer builds nice little commuter jets–but it has no experience building modern jet fighters, let alone a 5th generation aircraft.

    I recall reading (on Strategy Page, I believe) that Russia was planning on building its 5gen fighter in conjunction with India. That’s a match made in hell. India has had horrific problems building modern weapons. Its tank program was a disaster, and it has had all sorts of problems with AA missile systems, etc. It has a corrupt and inefficient defense bureaucracy and manufacturing sector. So maybe from that perspective the Russians have a special affinity.

    Perhaps too the complete cock up of the rebuild of the aircraft carrier Gorshkov, years late and billions over budget, has soured the appetite of India to do a major joint effort with Russia.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 7, 2009 @ 10:29 pm

  18. IIRC there are two main versions of the PAK FA, with Russia cooperating with India only on the 2-seat one which is more optimized for India’s specific requirements.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 9, 2009 @ 12:20 am

  19. […] about Putin as of 24/04/2010 More Poses – 04/03/2009 Dale Herspring and Roger McDermott have a long new piece on […]

    Pingback by ???????.Net » Blog Archive » Posts about Putin as of 24/04/2010 — April 24, 2010 @ 2:45 am

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