Russia needs to launch a major military buildup to prepare for life in a dangerous world where international law is breaking down, the West feels free to intervene in sovereign countries, and rivals could invade Russia to seize its rich trove of natural resources, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has warned.
In his fifth programmatic article detailing what he will do if he wins a new six-year presidential term in elections that are now less than two weeks off, Mr. Putin pledged, among other things, the biggest rearmament program in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Over the next decade, Putin writes, $772 billion to be spent on 400 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, 2,300 late-generation tanks, 600 modern combat aircraft – including at least 100 military-purpose space planes – eight nuclear ballistic missile submarines, 50 surface warships as well as a whole new inventory of artillery, air defense systems, and about 17,000 new military vehicles.
"The processes of global transformation currently underway may carry all sorts of risks with them, many of them unpredictable," Putin wrote Monday in the government-owned Rossiskaya Gazeta. "In a situation of global economic and other kinds of hardships, it may be very tempting for some to resolve their problems at others’ expense, through pressure and coercion…. It is no wonder that we already hear some voices saying that it is 'only natural' that resources of global significance should soon be declared as being above national sovereignty.… We must exclude any such possibility, even a hypothetical one, with respect to Russia. This means that we should not tempt anybody with our weakness."
He also warns that US plans to build a globe-spanning missile defense shield will have to be countered with new generations of weapons designed to keep Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent effective.
"We are forced to take decisive steps to bolster our national aerospace defense system to counter the US and NATO efforts in the deployment of missile defense," Putin writes. "One cannot be 'too patriotic' about this issue. Russia’s military response to the global US missile shield, including its European part, will be effective and asymmetrical, a match for US missile defense policy."
Russians doubt feasibility of Putin's plans
In previous articles, Putin has pledged to reform Russia's troubled political system, deal with the rising threat of nationalism to the country's political stability, and resolve the demographic crisis that could see Russia's population shrink by nearly a quarter in the next four decades.
This is not the first time Putin has promised to upgrade Russia's chronically underfunded and over-structured armed forces, whose shortcomings were clearly displayed during the brief 2008 summer war with neighboring Georgia. Many of the new weapons have been in the pipeline for some time, but bottlenecks in Russia's severely degraded Soviet-era military industry have led to breakdowns, lengthy delays, and complaints of substandard products.
"Unfortunately all that Putin says about making our military industry capable of delivering all these new weapons remains little more than slogans," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "While Putin has a lot of good things to say about the course of [structural] military reform, he has simply not taken on board the need for sweeping reform of Russian military industry. Every year our military procurement program fails to meet its targets, and there is no sign this is going to change anytime soon."
Russia's armed forces have been dramatically transformed over the past five years by a sweeping restructuring that has eliminated the gargantuan Soviet "mobilization army," with its hundreds of "phantom" divisions that are meant to be filled out by reservists in times of war. Tens of thousands of top-level officers have been cashiered, the length of mandatory male military service has been reduced from three years to one, and about 100 mobile combat brigades – largely staffed by professional soldiers – have taken the place of hundreds of unwieldy World War II-era armored divisions as the core of Russia's army.
"There's a lot of good sense in this article, including the projection that military conscripts will make up just 15 percent of the armed forces by 2020," says Mr. Golts. "For the first time he has stated that the goal is, effectively, to create a modern all-volunteer force. That is to be applauded."
But many experts warn that even if the massive rearmament program Putin is advocating is desirable and affordable for Russia, it may be simply not feasible. The Soviet-era military-industrial complex, with its vast webs of subcontractors, has shriveled and the skilled workers and engineers that once populated it have long since disappeared.
According to Viktor Baranets, a former Defense Ministry spokesman who writes a military column for the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, barely half of the more than 2,200 key Soviet-era military factories are still operating, and many of them are on the verge of bankruptcy today.
"This is the first time Putin has spoken about this in such a tough way," says Mr. Baranets. "But in order for this plan to come to life, we need to see our military industries restored and many new plants built. Putin has yet to prove that he's got both feet on the ground with these promises, and that he's not just making fools of people."
Preparing for war with the West
The political subtext in Putin's article is the scary suggestion that the world is drifting into a dangerous phase in which international institutions like the United Nations no longer work and Western countries feel free to intervene militarily in sovereign states, as they did last year in Libya.
Moscow has firmly opposed any kind of international action on the current crisis in Syria, and is actually preparing to stage war games in southern Russia this summer to prepare for possible fallout from a feared US military strike against Iran.
"Today, we see how new regional and local wars break out one after another," Putin wrote. "We see zones of instability and artificially maintained, managed chaos emerging. Furthermore, we see how some are purposefully provoking such conflicts in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders.… We see the fundamental principles of international law being devalued and eroded."
A few experts argue that debates about the feasibility of Putin's rearmament plans are beside the point, and that his insistence on getting Russia ready for war with the West ought to be the focus of public scrutiny.
"This is the vision of a very disturbed person, who openly declares that the world is against him and Russia, and we need to build defenses against everyone," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military columnist for the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta.
"Putin's plan calls for spending enormous amounts of money to prepare for war with America, to be a superpower player again and surpass the West in the quality of our weaponry. This is not merely unachievable, it's paranoid. The USSR, which was much bigger and more powerful than Russia, was bankrupted by engaging in this sort of arms race. It's the wrong direction entirely," Mr. Felgenhauer says