Iraqi defeat jolts Russian military

Defense and policy experts said last week that modernizing the Army is a top priority.

In the US's easy defeat of Saddam Hussein's army, Russia sees a lesson for its own conventional forces.

The Iraqi Army - which was cloned from the Red Army in the final decades of the Soviet Union - mounted only a feeble defense before falling apart.

"The key conclusion we must draw from the latest Gulf war is that the obsolete structure of the Russian armed forces has to be urgently changed," says Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's official think tank on strategic nuclear policy. "The gap between our capabilities and those of the Americans has been revealed, and it is vast. We are very lucky that Russia has no major enemies at the moment, but the future is impossible to predict, and we must be ready."

The swift victory by mobile, high-tech American forces over heavily armored Iraqi troops dug in to defend large cities like Baghdad has jolted many Russian military planners. "The Iraqi Army was a replica of the Russian Army, and its defeat was not predicted by our generals," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister of Russia.

Like its Soviet prototype, Iraq's Army was huge but made up mainly of young, poorly trained conscripts. Its battle tactics called for broad frontal warfare, with massed armor and artillery, and a highly centralized command structure. But those forces were trounced in a few days by relatively small numbers of US and British forces, who punched holes in the Iraqi front using precision weapons and seized the country's power centers more rapidly than traditional military thinkers could have imagined. "The military paradigm has changed, and luckily we didn't have to learn that lesson firsthand," says Yevgeny Pashentsev, author of a book on Russian military reform. "The Americans have rewritten the textbook, and every country had better take note."

Last week, the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy - a group of top Russian military experts and former policymakers, including Mr. Shlykov - met to assess the implications of the US triumph in Iraq for Russia. Their conclusion: The Kremlin must drop all post-Soviet pretense that Russia remains a superpower, and make rebuilding and redesigning the nation's military forces a top priority. "We cannot afford to postpone this any longer," Boris Nemtsov, head of the liberal Union of Right Forces, told the meeting.

Twelve years after the USSR's collapse, the most unreformed branch of Russian society remains its armed forces. Though its numbers have been halved to about 1.2 million personnel, and its annual budget has dropped to a mere $10 billion, the structure, weaponry, and doctrines of today's Russian military remain those of its Soviet predecessor. Each Russian defense minister since 1991 has pledged sweeping reform, yet more than half of the Army's combat forces remain ill-trained conscripts required to serve for two years for just 100 rubles ($3) a month. Aside from the strategic nuclear forces, no branch of the Russian military has acquired significant quantities of modern weaponry in more than a decade.

According to a Defense Ministry survey in early 2003, cited in the daily Izvestia, more than a third of Russian officers and their families live below the poverty line, and fewer than half of the officers want to remain in the service.

Critics say that military manpower must be at least halved again, and the draft abolished in order to make reform feasible. "We can afford an army comparable to those of France or Britain, but hard decisions must be made," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense expert. Adequate spending for equipment, training, and payment of professional troops is key, he says.

Others say that Russia also must define a clear post-Soviet security doctrine. "How can we reform our Army when we have not defined the threats it must deal with?" says Mr. Dvorkin. "We must first identify our national interests, then we'll know who our enemies might be."

As the US prepared to invade Iraq, many Russian military experts warned that American forces would come to grief in the streets of Iraqi cities. Some predicted the battle of Baghdad would resemble the Russian Army's two assaults on the Chechen capital of Grozny - in 1995 and again in 2000 - each of which lasted more than a month and cost hundreds of Russian casualties.

Early in the Iraq war, the Russian online newspaper reported that two retired Soviet generals may have played a key role in designing Iraq's defenses. The paper published photos of Vladimir Achalov, an expert in urban warfare, and Igor Maltsev, a specialist in air defenses, receiving medals from Iraq's defense minister two weeks before the war began. Russian TV later quoted General Maltsev as saying "the American invaders will be buried in the streets of Baghdad."

Some in Russia's military establishment still appear reluctant to accept the sweeping military verdict in Iraq. "I think American dollars won the war, it was not a military victory," says Gen. Makhmut Gareyev, president of the official Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow. "The Americans bought the Iraqi military leadership with dollars. One can only envy a state that is so rich."

But others are obviously shaken. "Thank God our public has finally begun to discuss the state of the Army," General Vladimir Shamanov, who commanded Russian troops in two Chechnya wars, told a Moscow radio station after the extent of the US-led triumph in Iraq became clear last week. "Maybe our strategic nuclear forces will protect the country for another decade, but then what? A strong Russia is impossible without a strong army."

One bright note for Moscow, however, is a report that Iraqi forces used Russian-made, laser-guided antitank missiles to destroy several Abrams tanks during the US attack. This could boost profits for Russian armsmakers, who are already receiving inquiries from Syria and Iran, according to Shlykov.

The US has complained that Russia supplied Iraq with defense equipment in violation of UN sanctions. "As a result of the Iraq war and accusations of illegal Russian arms deliveries, applications for Russian weapons have soared," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said last week.

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