Mark Geleotti
October 1, 2012

What is the army for?

[Mark Galeotti (Twitter: @markgaleotti) is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/.]

Kavkaz-2012, a major military exercise held in the Caucasus region late last month, saw naval landings, air attacks, long-range missile strikes, and all the other games generals love to play. The official read-out was predictably upbeat (every military expresses delight at the outcomes of their war games), even though not everything went as well as hoped. Some units were under strength, and new automated command-and control systems seem not to have worked entirely as they should.

However, the real lesson is that the Kremlin intends to maintain its drive for military renewal. The recent 2013-15 budget demonstrated that. Although Finance Minister Anton Siluanov had reportedly hoped to cut the defense budget by 20 percent, 2013 will see a 30 percent jump in security and law enforcement spending. While no increase has been built into following years’ budgets, the expectation among many is that this will be added later, perhaps after Medvedev has been replaced as prime minister.

After all, those associated with the military are riding high. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov seems in bullish mood. In June, he faced Medvedev down, effectively challenging his notional boss to sack him, presumably secure in the knowledge that President Putin would veto any such move.

Likewise, the jovially politically incorrect Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, responsible for the defense sector, has praised Putin’s determination to build an “iron fist,” saying that the West only respects hard power.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, what is the Russian military for? It is hard to sustain the notion that the country faces any credible external threat to its statehood. Such challenges that do exist, like insurgency in the North Caucasus and criminal gangs undermining its borders, can best be dealt with by other means.

Rogozin, while denying that Moscow has any “global military expeditionary plans,” has implied that its forces might see action closer to home. According to Chief of General Staff Makarov, Kavkaz-2012 involved “using troops to resolve an internal conflict, while at the same time repulse an external conflict.” A similar theme underlay the parallel Vzaimodeistviye-2012 exercises held in Armenia under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

In other words, wargaming intervention into a disputed region or adjacent country. Georgia, Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors have no doubt taken note. Of course, this does not mean that Moscow actively intends any such interventions, despite the current alarmist talk in some quarters in Tbilisi. Often, the whole point about such exercises is to demonstrate capacity so as not to have actually to use it.

That said, it is hard to see what practical benefit Russia gets from being the biggest bully in Eurasia.

Putin promised to create 25 million new high-tech jobs, and Rogozin claims as many as 17 million of them will be in the defense sector. Yet it is questionable whether this is plausible or cost-effective. Just as Russian security would probably be better served by providing hope and jobs in the North Caucasus, so too money spent on education and infrastructure would do more for the economy.

A political dimension? Putin likes to keep the military on side, but it is not that the generals would be joining Navalny and Udaltsov at the next March of Millions otherwise.

There is no doubt that the Russian military needed to be rescued from its atrocious state of the 1990s. Not only did it not provide adequate security, it was actually a source of instability, as soldiers drifted into organized crime and weapons hemorrhaged from arsenals.

But it is hard to see this continued emphasis on military rearmament does beyond pamper an over-large and under-performing defense-industrial sector and make Putin and his cohorts feel manly. Even cushioned by its oil and gas revenues, Moscow will ultimately have to choose between guns and butter.