What's Next for the Russian Military?

The Future of Russia's Military

By James Henderson for the Russia Project

Russia's military has lagged far behind the transition process Russia embarked upon in 1992. While political and economic reforms have gone forward with positive results for the most part, the effort to reform Russia's military has largely stagnated. However, the need for military reform is great. Financially, the Russian economy cannot support a military the size Russia has currently deployed. There is increasing political pressure from the government for the military to begin the reform process to alleviate financial burdens and begin the process of professionalizing itself. Finally, the military needs to reform because its Cold War posture does not adequately reflect the security threats it faces in a post-September 11 world.

Russia's Economic Realities
Military spending per soldier

One of the most critical factors behind the need for military reform is the economic situation in Russia. In the Soviet era, military spending was estimated to be a commanding 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, that percentage has fallen dramatically to 9.6 percent of GDP in 1994 and to 5.1 percent of GDP in 1999.1 This dramatic decrease in defense spending is welcome, but still far higher than the Russian economy can bear as it continues on its economic transition process. As an example, the United States in 1999 had roughly 1.3 million2 soldiers in its military and a GDP of about $9.3 trillion3, while Russia had over one million soldiers in 1999 with a GDP of $182 billion.5 Furthermore, the average Russian soldier is woefully underpaid, poorly equipped, and lives in substandard housing. This is most graphically illustrated in the attached graph that measures military spending per soldier based on 1999 data. The United States spends approximately $200,000 per soldier, and Germany spends roughly half of that amount at $98,000. Turkey is even further behind at $16,000 per soldier, and Russia spends $9,000 per soldier. The data in this chart questions the ability of the Russian economy to maintain the present size of its military and still have a viable fighting force. For Russia to increase spending per soldier to the parity of Turkey, much less Germany, it would have to massively increase defense spending—at the cost of other programs and the economic reform process—or drastically cut the number of soldiers in the armed forces, resulting in the possibility of greater unemployment. Clearly, either of these options could have negative economic and political consequences on Russia as a whole.

Political Pressures

In addition to economic pressures, the Russian military is also facing mounting political pressure to reform. President Vladimir Putin has called for a leaner modernized fighting force that could be rapidly deployed in the event of a security crisis. In addition, the Russian Duma is also calling for greater information from the military on its spending and is beginning to take a more active role in oversight of the military. However, there is much resistance within the Russian military to Putin's vision. This was most graphically demonstrated in the argument between Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev and the chief of the general staff, Army General Anatoly Kvashnin. Sergeyev, who spent most of his service career in the Strategic Rocket Forces, argued that Russia's military priority was to keep a large modern strategic nuclear capability to safeguard Russia and to maintain its world power status. Kvashnin, on the other hand, argued that a large army, centered on conventional forces, was essential to guard against the threat of NATO expansion and religious extremism on Russia's periphery. While these represent two different approaches toward two different perceptions of Russia's potential security threats, they are common in terms of still relying on a large military structure that would be economically untenable in present or even near-term Russia. Finally, the political will to force fundamental reform on the military may be only skin deep. A majority of the officer corps in the military would rather live in poor housing and receive late wages than face the uncertainty of leaving the military and entering the workforce. Thus, faced with potentially large numbers of unemployed military officers, both the military and the political leadership may be more content with the status quo.

New Security Threats

If the Russian military was unprepared to face the new security threats posed by the post-Cold War world, it is even more unprepared for the threats it now faces since September 11. The two wars in Chechnya demonstrated to the Russian military that its wars in the future will not be the wars it planned, prepared, and trained for during the Cold War. Furthermore, the post-September 11 world has convinced all but the most strident anti-Western political and military leaders that the most profound threats Russia faces are not from the United States or NATO. Rather, they lie in unstable regions that border Russia's periphery, primarily in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia's relations with the West, particularly with the United States, have fundamentally changed following September 11. The summit in Crawford, Texas, between Presidents Bush and Putin and the recent meeting between Putin and NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson are examples of Russia's new relationship with the West. Given these changes, Russia's military needs to reform accordingly in order to field a viable force to guarantee Russia's security against these new threats. In addition, given the strides the United States has undertaken in integrating high-tech communications, weaponry, and training into its military operations, Russia must take action quickly lest it continue to fall further behind the United States and the West. In order to have a twenty-first-century military, Russia desperately needs to undertake reforms to establish a smaller, better-trained force.

A Crucial Element to Russia's Successful Transition

Although reform of Russia's military will be painful, it is crucial both for the success of Russia's transition process as well as for the security of the United States. Russia is unable to afford its military at its present size. It needs to undertake fundamental restructuring that drastically reduces its size and makes it an effective, modernized fighting force. While the short-term costs of restructuring will be high, the long-term payoff as a result of reform will be greater. Furthermore, a smaller military will lessen the burden on the economy and will help push the economic transition process forward. Finally, reform of the Russian military is also important to the security of the United States. A smaller, better-trained, and better-equipped fighting force will more effectively ensure Russia's security and regional stability. Plus, a smaller professionalized force would enhance political stability, since officers who are better paid and trained will decrease the likelihood of political crisis.

1. "Defence Expenditure and Size of Armed Forces of NATO and Partner Countries," NATO Review, Autumn 2001, p. 34.
2. Ibid.
3. "Current-Dollar and Real Gross Domestic Product, 1929-2000," Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce.
4. "Defence Expenditure and Size of Armed Forces of Nato and Partner Countries," NATO Review, Autumn 2001, p. 34.
5. "Key Economic Indicators, April 2001," Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics and East European Economies.

For more information, visit these Web sites:
Program on New Approaches to Russian Security (PONARS)
CIA World Factbook 2001