Russia's Red Army Has Lost Its Roar
Defeat in Chechnya and a budget crisis have left Russia's soldiers poorly equipped, drained of morale
MOSCOW — From the plains of Poltava in central Ukraine, nearly 300 years ago, from the top of Berlin's bomb-gutted Reichstag in 1945, from the barren peaks of the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains a decade since: The Kremlin's battle standard has flown from many fields.
Whether they were burnishing the glory of their emperor, as did Peter the Great's troops at the battle of Poltava, or struggling to prop up communist puppets like the Soviet grunts in Afghanistan, Russian soldiers have always marched at the front lines of Moscow's widening reach.
Nowhere has Russia's retreat from empire been so abrupt, so chaotic, or so painful as it has for its armed forces. The mighty Red Army, whose menace held the world in thrall for nearly half a century, has been reduced to an underfed, poorly clothed, and half-trained multitude.
"I am not a minister of defense," lamented then Russian Minister of Defense Igor Rodionov on Army Day in February. "I am minister of a disintegrating Army and a dying Navy."
The numbers speak for themselves. The Soviet Army was nearly 5.5 million men strong; the Russian Army stands at 1.7 million and is shrinking.
The Russian defense budget has been slashed in half since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and combat-training funds are down by 90 percent, according to Yuri Baturin, President Boris Yeltsin's military affairs aide.
But behind the figures, at the heart of the crisis, is continuing confusion about what exactly is the role of the Russian Army five years after the implosion of the Soviet empire.
"The Russian military has no thought of making a global challenge to the West or to the East. We are not going to use our military force to introduce any ideology anywhere, that much is clear to everybody," says respected military analyst Alexander Golts. "But every other point is absolutely unclear - what challenges we face, what the risks are, and so on."
Dangerously underfunded, the Russian military has failed to adapt to its post-imperial role. What is left, after five years of neglect and decay, is a bizarrely skewed force that could not defeat the ragtag Chechen guerrilla army in nearly two years of combat, but which still commands a massive nuclear arsenal.
Those weapons, Russia's strategic rocket forces, are the most visible and dangerous remnants of Moscow's status as a military superpower. But there are more, say Western military observers.
For a start, points out one Western military attach here, "the entire general staff management capability remains unrestructured, and a huge section is still dealing with the problems they were dealing with during the cold war," preparing for a major war in the center of Europe.
At the same time, the bulk of the Soviet Union's massive military-industrial complex remains intact, along with the old research-and-development facilities. Defense plants and laboratories have been badly degraded by a shortage of funds, but they still exist.
Whether many of them will ever gear back up to full production, though, is doubtful. For in the top ranks of the military, attitudes and expectations are changing, according to both Russian and foreign observers.
Ten years ago, says the Western attach, "large numbers of Russian officers were confident they could meet and defeat Western forces on the field of battle. None of them believes that today. They recognize fully the weakness of their own armed forces."
"The top brass may be very conservative, but they are not mad," Mr. Golts adds. "They understand the situation in the world and in the country."
At the same time, the Russian military has done everything it could to keep a toehold in the republics that once made up the Soviet Union, despite their newly won independence.
Russian forces of one sort or another - border guards, regular infantry, sailors, or antiaircraft specialists - are stationed in 10 of Russia's 11 partner countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States; only Uzbekistan has resisted Moscow's pressure.
One hundred years ago and more, Russian forces pushed south and east to natural geographic boundaries, conquering lands to forge an empire that stretched far beyond traditionally Slav territory. Today, though natural boundaries are no longer of strategic consequence, Russian military strategists fear a "security vacuum" in neighboring states, and want to ensure that only Russian troops fill it.
Thus, several thousand Russian border guards and the 201st armored division are
guarding the Tajik government and border against Islamic insurgents, and Russian "peacekeepers" are stationed in the Abkhazia region of Georgia.
Worried by the possible consequences of strife in the South, Moscow has two options, suggests Dmitri Trenin, a military analyst with the Carnegie Endowment: "Exercise direct control or try to play a leading role. Russia's interests would suggest the latter, her traditions, the former."
Loss of empire meant loss of clout
But none of Russia's military deals with her neighbors adds up to anything like the kind of muscle that the Soviet Union could flex.
Half of the Soviet Army's conscripts came from the Central Asian republics, for example, and Moscow left a lot of high-technology military-production facilities behind in independent countries such as the Baltic republics, Moldova, and Belarus.
"If the CIS were an integrated military force, if it got the men and the money, in 10 years it could rival what the USSR was 15 years ago," the attach estimates. "But Russia alone could not replace all the capabilities it gave up."
"If a nationalist dictator could turn the country into a concentration camp, he would need 10 years to return the military to its old strength," Golts agrees. "But he would need slave labor ... he would need to use worse repression than Stalin."
Military planners do have a 10-year outlook to restore the Russian armed forces, but they have no detailed plan nor detailed vision of what the military will look like at the end of the process.
In general, they talk of a slimmed-down military, where the emphasis is on highly trained, highly mobile forces capable of dealing with the sort of local conflicts that are likely to pose the greatest threat to Russian security in the future.
In other words, they talk of troops having everything that the fiasco in Chechnya proved the Russian Army does not have now.
But even if Moscow were to turn its Army into a rapid-reaction force to deal with local flareups, it is by no means ready to give up its global punch. Nuclear weapons, say Russian security chiefs, are the country's ultimate deterrent against anyone taking advantage of its conventional weakness.
No funds, no equipment, low morale
That leaves the Russian military with the capability to launch police actions or a nuclear conflagration, but not much in between, foreign observers point out. This, for the foreseeable future, would appear to rule out any imperial adventures in Russia's "near abroad" even if the Kremlin developed an appetite for them.
Far from being a threat to Russia's neighbors, the military "can no longer defend national security against external threats," concluded a recent report by the Defense and Foreign Policy Council, an independent think tank with close ties to the armed forces.
Nor do Russian officers have much time for imperial dreams or geostrategic fantasies. They are hard pressed to keep body and soul together, and their units intact, as they cope month after month without wages, sufficient rations, money for fuel, or ammunition for training.
"There are still hopes for reintegration with Kazakstan and other republics," says Alexander Belkin, a former Army officer who is now deputy director of the Defense and Foreign Policy Council. "But I'm afraid most officers are not busy making strategic plans; they are thinking only about survival."
Morale in garrisons across the country has reached such a nadir, Mr. Belkin says, that a dramatic act of despair is more than likely. "How can you stop a hopeless, hungry, desperate man," he asks, if he has a tactical fighter and decides to crash it into the Kremlin?
"None of his colleagues would try" to stop him, he adds.
Similar scenarios worry Golts, who suggests that the situation may be entirely inside out. If the stories of military disintegration are accurate, he says, "the biggest threat to Russian security is the Russian Army itself."