Few aspects of President Putin’s recent state of the nation address electrified international media attention as much as his commitment to augmenting defense spending and securing Russia’s prominence in world affairs. Putin’s statements reflected concerns somewhat similar to those of interwar Soviet strategists, who faced growing threats emanating from both east and west. Modern Russia likewise feels pressured on both flanks. To the west, persistent NATO efforts at establishing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe challenge Russian clout within its ‘near-abroad’—those territories Moscow believes to be intrinsically connected to Russia based on a common Soviet experience. Relentless NATO encroachment is compounded by the potential for Ukraine to align with the West, something that would demarcate the erosion of Russian influence in a region that has remained within Moscow’s orbit for centuries. Less acknowledged by Russian defense-planners is China’s rapid economic growth and how this might translate to increased military muscle along Russia’s Far-Eastern borders. This past summer in Siberia, wary of China’s growing military potential, Russia launched its largest military exercise in the post-Soviet era.
The majority of Russia’s strategists still view NATO as the primary threat for the Russian Federation, even though Russia faces the very real possibility of a future conflict erupting in the Caucasus or within its Central Asian neighbors. In the recent state of the nation address, President Putin committed an additional $120 billion to a previously established defense-modernization budget, totaling some $770 billion between 2014 and 2020. The objective of the spending hike is to modernize Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces and to relieve growing concerns of military inferiority. Given the enormous problems facing Russia’s military and defense industry—such as extensive corruption, technological stagnation, and growing inefficiency—it will take much more than an influx of funds to achieve any significant, lasting improvement.
The pervasive and deeply-rooted corruption of Russia’s military eclipses that of the country’s great-power peers. Though this is not lost on Russian government officials, military corruption has largely eluded reform and intermittently flourished since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the abrupt ouster of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov a year ago, corruption has risen 450% this past year alone. Interminable corruption has had a tremendously negative impact on military capabilities, affecting everything from procurement to day-care and forming an almost impenetrable wall that will prove difficult to change. The funneling of rubles to the slush funds of leaders at almost every level of command is not only corrosive to defense spending, but it also has consistently impeded attempts at military reform. Long-standing agenda-items such as conscription policy largely remain unresolved. Maintenance problems—involving everything from nuclear subs to armor—have become increasingly untenable, notably affecting the navy’s operational capacity.
Although overwhelming Russian strength achieved a swift victory in the 2008 war with Georgia, a closer investigation into the conflict reveals an altogether lackluster performance on the part of Russia’s ground forces. The Georgian War exposed myriad problems, ranging from poor unit readiness, to a flawed combat air support system, to an overreliance on a few elite units. A poor showing against a much weaker Georgian army sparked wide-ranging military reforms with mixed results, and a number of the improvements implemented in the wake of the Georgian War have since been reversed.
The dilemma facing Russia’s strategists and senior military commanders is not entirely unprecedented. In the mid-to-late 1930s, global geopolitical upheaval placed the Soviet Union in a difficult position, the workers’ paradise then sandwiched between a resurgent Germany and a rising Japan. The Red Army, despite its substantial post-Revolution modernization, was still inferior to its likely opponents. It was in this uncertain period that Soviet authorities produced a propaganda film entitled “If War Should Come Tomorrow,” released in 1938 and widely distributed throughout the Soviet Union. Replete with footage of daring paratroopers and intrepid tank crews, the film aimed to assuage any doubt on the part of Soviet citizens regarding ultimate victory in what was becoming an inevitable conflict with ‘imperialists.’ Though dissembling Soviet propaganda might have worked in 1938, the glaring problems affecting the modern Russian military are too great to remain unnoticed by domestic and international observers.
For today’s Russian military, a continuous population decline, rampant corruption, and economic malaise—as well as a host of other issues—indicate a downward trajectory. While large-scale, conventional conflict seems a highly unlikely prospect for modern Russia, at least to most outside the Kremlin, officials recognize military inferiority vis-à-vis Russia’s perceived chief competitors. Whether it is ‘siloviki’ influence, a move to distract attention from domestic issues, or a genuine attempt at allaying growing security concerns, the motivation behind Putin’s declaration for higher defense spending probably results from a number of these factors. With Russia’s looming economic troubles, the Putin administration’s increase in defense spending illustrates the high premium it places on securing a seat at the great-power table through Russia’s defense capabilities. Nevertheless, no matter the sum, simply hurling rubles into Russia’s decrepit and inefficient defense industry will certainly fail to modernize the military by 2020.