In Georgia, Russia saw its Army's shortcomings

Decades of neglect, outdated technology, and an ineffective conscript system reduced the capabilities of the Russian Army.

Seiron Baroian/AFP/Getty Images
Military giant? A Russian soldier works on his truck.

The global perception of the Russia-Georgia war this summer is that an armored juggernaut of old Soviet military proportions rolled over its puny rival after a five-day conflict.

But the view from Moscow is different. Many Russian military experts are still shaking their heads in dismay over a catalog of delays and mistakes that plagued the Russian Army's thrust into South Ossetia.

"The war made it clear that we have all kinds of shortcomings in equipment, training, battlefield coordination, and intelligence," says Alexei Arbatov, a military expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

The Russian Army's questionable performance has prompted urgent debate here over Russia's need for a modern, mobile, professional army capable of rapidly responding to challenges that might erupt along Russia's long borders with its unstable post-Soviet neighbors. In fact, the August conflict is giving fresh impetus for a 30 percent jump in defense spending, and a military modernization plan.

It comes on top of years of accumulated oil revenues, and an increasingly patriotic public mood.

"Russia has changed a lot lately, and the spirit in the country is different from what it used to be," says Lt. Gen. (Ret) Gennady Yevstasyev, a senior adviser to the PIR Center, an independent security think tank in Moscow. "The public will now support major military reform, even if it entails financial hardship. Many things that were stalemated for years will now move forward."

Already, Russian defense budgets are set to leap next year to a post-Soviet record of over $50 billion. Similar jumps are projected for coming years as well.

The fresh increases, announced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in late September, are in addition to a special $200-billion procurement program aimed at restoring the country's degraded strategic forces.

Mr. Arbatov argues that Russia's military problems run deeper than just two decades of neglect. "There is no political leadership over military organization. Nor is there any democratic control. The system needs to be changed," he says.

Russian forces entering South Ossetia lacked even basic intelligence regarding Georgian artillery positions and troop deployments, which led several of their leading units into costly ambushes. In one surprise attack, the 58th Army's senior commander, Gen. Anatoly Khrulyev, was badly wounded and had to be evacuated.

In a desperate effort to get information, the Russians sent an electronic reconnaissance version of the Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bomber over the battlefield and it got shot down. In all, Russia lost four planes, including three Sukhoi Su-25 attack fighters to unexpectedly effective Georgian air defenses. Some Russian commanders reported using cellphones to communicate with their units when their own radios failed.

Additionally, the tanks deployed by the Russian Army did not have night sights for their guns, and the reactive armor designed to protect them from Georgian antitank weapons proved unreliable.

President Dmitry Medvedev spoke about the Georgia war as a wake-up call for the Kremlin. "A war can flare up suddenly and can be absolutely real," he said to military leaders late last month. "Local smouldering conflicts ... can turn into a real conflagration."

Russia's 2003 military doctrine calls for its armed forces to be able to fight a major war in the West or the Far East, and handle two simultaneous local conflicts or insurgencies. Moscow has relied on its fraying Soviet-era missile forces to deter big enemies, while its conventional army has struggled for over a decade in ultimately successful attempts to quell the separatist rebellion in Chechnya, its only active conflict until Georgia.

"Modernization of the armed forces must go ahead, regardless of any crisis," Medvedev said last week, in apparent reference to global financial turmoil. "We have a sustainable economy. We have enough material and intellectual resources not to depend on anyone."

Moscow does not feel any immediate threat from the West, say military analysts, despite increased tensions over US missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe and the projected expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union.

"We regard NATO as a dangerous organization, but right now it's not so strong," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "The problem is that NATO will become more dangerous if it includes countries like Georgia and Ukraine. In the cold war, when only the US and Western countries were in NATO, it was stable and predictable. We have enough resources to defend ourselves at present, but in the future we will need to think about this."

The military now hopes to get a new generation of conventional weapons, including attack helicopters, strike fighters, and multipurpose troop carriers similar to the US Army's Bradley fighting vehicles. "Russia doesn't even have some of the equipment that Georgia deployed, such as unmanned reconnaissance drones," says Vladimir Yevseyev, an analyst at the independent Center for International Security in Moscow.

Russia's controversial system of military conscription could also prove a casualty of the war. Professional soldiers bore the brunt of the fighting while ill-trained recruits, who serve only one year, were mostly kept off the battlefield. "The recruit soldier is fading away. We need professional soldiers, with serious training," says General Yevstasyev.

Under a $200-billion long-term program initiated last year, Russia will renew its land-based arsenal of intercontinental missiles, build a fleet of nuclear submarines designed to fire advanced Bulava-3 underwater-launched missiles, add to its force of strategic bombers, and build many new warships, including up to six aircraft carriers. President Medvedev has pledged to finalize plans for a full makeover of the strategic forces by December.

Whether Russia's depleted defense industries have maintained the capacity to fill the military's ambitious shopping list without much larger infusions of capital and new managerial expertise, remains a serious question.

"The wish is there on the part of our generals, but where will they get the gadgets?" says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister who now works as a civilian adviser to the Defense Ministry. "The military-industrial complex has been declining for the past 20 years, and nowadays all our best managers are working in oil and gas. The climate may be favorable for pumping in money nowadays, but without fundamental reform it will all remain just talk."

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