Sergei Karaganov is Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Dean of the School of World Economics and World Politics at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.
Resume: Russia has embarked on a military buildup path. The external military threat is record low. But this policy will be continued in this or other form.
Russia has embarked on a military buildup path. The external military threat is record low. But this policy will be continued in this or other form. It fits in with the new international realities and agrees with the internal logic of the country’s development. The question is how to optimize it.
We, the country’s people and (it looks like) its leaders, too, do not take the trouble to explain to ourselves and, possibly, we do not even know why we need military strength for, or how much of it we need.
Is military power losing significance?
Many argue military power is loosing importance. This belief is especially popular in Europe, brimming with history of brutal, suicidal wars.
Indeed, most of the contemporary world’s greatest problems – climate change, the demands by increasingly active masses of people to improve well-being, the unstable condition of world finances and the growing relative shortage of raw materials and food – are not soluble by military force. The changed political culture and the economic structure make the seizure and control of territories and their populations economically senseless.
In a sense, the use of military force is being delegitimized. Whereas before a war was – to paraphrase Clausewitz’s classical formula – a normal extension of politics by other means, these days, after two world wars and the emergence of nuclear arms, the ethical standards have changed. An attempt to use military power is considered as failure of policy.
The events of the past few years provide fresh proof that military strength as a measure of a state’s power and influence in the world is becoming inefficient nowadays and has no prospects for the future. The country that is the strongest in military terms – the United States – has suffered defeat in two instigated wars on end (in Iraq and Afghanistan).
However, the idea about the diminishing role of military strength in the world and of the loss of its value as a main instrument of state policies runs against a wall of other factors and arguments.
A renaissance of military power?
Some wars have been won, though. The West gained the upper hand in Yugoslavia and, with a very dubious outcome, in Libya. Russia attained victory in Chechnya, for which it paid a monstrous price, and – most certainly – in Georgia.
Nuclear deterrence does work. It leaves no chance for big wars to break out. And no country reduces nuclear arms in earnest. All countries tend to upgrade them and build them up. The new world leaders, like China or India, which might seem to benefit a great deal from peaceful competition, are quickly arming themselves.
Future wars for resources and energy are on everybody’s tongue.
One may say such speculations are rudiments of outdated mentality. And this is really true. Security-related state agencies and academic quarters are overstaffed with respectable-looking gentlemen whose careers are past their prime and who are both reluctant and unable to think in any other way than using the categories of the time they were young. They are pulling us backwards. Some are inventing infinite threats. Others call for getting back to the good old days of arms control, which was one of the engines (although a rather decent one) for going ahead with the arms race.
Should any reader of this article say I am one of such gentlemen, I won’t get offended (although I cannot agree with them by and large). In for a penny, in for a pound.
Apparently, all this talk about threats does have an objective reason behind it.
The liberal dreams (about a world government) and reactionary ones (of a new concert of powerful nations that would govern the world) show no signs of ever coming true. The world is sliding to plain chaos exacerbated by growing interdependence.
Quite a few ethical norms of international coexistence are being ditched. Many have put forward humanitarian reasons to excuse the attacks on Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. But the end result is the only thing that counts. All countries have been able to see for themselves that only the weak get beaten. More or less strong ones are safe enough. Non-nuclear Iraq was razed to the ground on false pretexts. In the meantime, North Korea, which is still less pleasant from the humanitarian point of view but which has managed to acquire a nuclear capability, feels secure.
The old principles of political morality – “he may be son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch” are sinking into oblivion. The Soviet Union was the first one to turn its back on its cronies. Now the West has begun to write off Mubarak and his likes.
In the new world, seizure of a territory and its resources does not work. But military power can well be used to close or open access to them. It is not accidental that in their arms buildup policies the newcomers are focused on naval forces. If countries go ahead with the trend of contesting control of the upper reaches of rivers, which poses a particular threat to countries in Indochina and Indostan, the problem may begin to be addressed from the position of military force.
Nuclear arms non-proliferation has long contributed to the renaissance of military power in international relations. The existing nuclear powers and the countries that may go nuclear put their neighbors in a very vulnerable position. They have been trying to find counterbalances and they will keep doing so.
Structural changes in the international system offer another argument for greater reliance on military strength, too. Faced with global changes against a backdrop of weaker institutions of global governance, societies have hurried for protection under the good old umbrella – the state. The world politics and economy (to a certain extent) have begun to be re-nationalized.
But nation states have lost much of their original strength. Their ability to control information, financial, economic and political processes in their territories is wearing thin. Also, they are becoming ever more dependent on the outside world. There emerges another argument in favor of greater reliance on arms as the only tool of which the states almost entirely keep control.
The world economic crisis, which is likely to last for a whole decade, may contribute to partial re-militarization of world politics in the medium term. It restricts the appetite of military lobbies. But at the same time it makes the radicals inside individual countries stronger, and gives a powerful impetus to instigating wars as a means of diverting attention from the desperate situation at home. The war in Libya – however respected Gaddafi’s opponents and critics may be – looked like a classical purposefully launched small victorious war.
Russia and military might
Russia has begun to build up military muscle, too. From the standpoint of military security it is in a situation that is unprecedented in its history. The country that for a thousand years has been building around the fundamental national idea – defense from outside threats and protection of its physical sovereignty – is no longer under threat and will have no risk of coming under threat in the medium term.
The last threat of a military standoff existed before 2008, while the NATO’s expansion was fraught with the risk of taking over Ukraine. This could make Russia inadmissibly vulnerable from the standpoint of military security and could spark a split and a conflict inside Ukraine, in which the whole of Europe would join in with a high degree of probability.
NATO’s expansion was stopped, alas, not by persuasion or calls for common sense. The show of Russia’s military muscle in Georgia did it. Moscow should be “thankful” to the incumbent Georgian leadership and those who had instigated it to attack South Ossetia: with its war and defeat Georgia prevented a far more dangerous scenario.
Those in Russia who cry about the menacing foreign threat often point to NATO’s formal advantage in conventional forces and military hardware. But at the same time they pretend they do not see that these forces and spending on them in Europe have been steady on the decline for the past two decades, and there seems to be no end of it.
China, aware of its growing competition with the United States, including in the military-political sphere, is doing its utmost not to threaten Russia. True, there exists the problem of China’s gaining too much strength, which in a situation where there is no energetic policy for development of the Trans-Baikal region may result in “Finlandization” of Russia, so to speak. But this risk is not a military one.
Real threats of conflicts keep multiplying along Russia’s southern borders. These conflicts will have to be prevented or neutralized in various ways, including the use of armed force. But these threats are is fundamentally different from the existential ones that had shaped Russia’s history for centuries.
Even in the long term no obvious traditional large-scale military threats are in sight – if, of course, one does not indulge in self-scaring with horror stories about the United States acquiring a capability for a massive attack on Russia with smart conventional missiles. Even if such missiles are ever created, the threat of a strike against Russian territory looks ridiculous as the retaliatory blow can be only a nuclear one. This is of course if Russia does not let itself be drawn in the arms race along this definitely disadvantageous course.
It is possible to scare oneself with a European missile defense, the way the Soviet Union did, when confronted with Reagan’s Star Wars hoax. It is to be hoped that those who are campaigning against the European missile defense pursue far more rational political objectives: tying the Americans’ hands politically, getting a plausible and convincing excuse for refusal to take further negotiated steps to reduce any nuclear weapons.
But even though there is no war threat, the military buildup policy will be inevitable. Not just because of the need for having up-to-date armed forces to deter potential challenges.
I believe that in the eyes of the Russian leadership the need for gaining greater military strength will stem first and foremost from the factors of the country’s international positioning and the predetermined prospects of its political development. Four years of sweet mumbling about modernization and practically no concrete action, except for Skolkovo, clearly demonstrates that neither society nor the elite is prepared for a modernization breakthrough.
This vector of internal development will leave no chance for Russia to retain third place on the list of great powers, however fortunate it may be and however skillful its diplomats are. However, the drive for “greatness” is not only an inherent ambition of the nation’s leaders, but an inborn trait of most Russians.
Economic weakness is a threat to Russia’s sovereignty. Not only Vladimir Putin, but many other Russians, too, were able to see for themselves in the 1990s that the weak are doomed to get beaten. And society seems to be determined at the gene level to safeguard its sovereignty at whatever price, which it did with exceptionally desperate courage throughout its history – only to plunge back into poverty or even slavery. One may regret most of Russians are unable and reluctant to “live the way everybody else does,” to be a “normal” country. And I can see no changes on the horizon that might alter this mode of behavior.
It looks like the military buildup is expected to compensate for the relative weakness in other respects – economic, technological, ideological and psychological.
Criticizing this choice for being dissonant with the modern world is easy. To a large extent this is really so. But the modern world is changing so rapidly and unpredictably that quite possibly this choice is adequate.
The most remarkable thing of the ongoing military reform is its success. All other proclaimed reforms are stalled, slow-going or abortive. It is not just the declared spending on defense that really matters. There are no well-considered re-armament plans behind them.
The ongoing reform of the armed forces is revolutionary, indeed. The large, traditionally mobilization-based Russian and Soviet army, meant for a major ground war with the West, is being replaced with a smaller, more professional and permanently combat-ready army, capable of providing an adequate response to low- and medium-intensive conflicts. The reform suggests and is already implementing increased reliance on nuclear weapons in preventing large conflicts, and these weapons are being upgraded, too.
Powerful nuclear weapons, although hard to use, are still necessary to ensure nobody should every try to attain supremacy in conventional weapons. Besides, this nuclear sword of Damocles is necessary to keep the “hotheads” at bay, especially now that the changes in the world, unprecedented in depth and scale, are leading to the loss of strategic benchmarks and common sense.
It is already clear that the Russian army is becoming professional very quickly, and pretty soon conscription may be canceled, reduced drastically, or made voluntary.
The military service is being humanized, albeit slowly and unevenly. The main thing is that the armed forces, despite wild resistance, are being re-configured to meet the real challenges of today and tomorrow.
The process of rearmament is tough-going. The defense-industrial complex has been bled white. Still worse, it is not being reformed. It is now a pale shadow of the Leviathan of the Soviet era. Just what the Russian army was only recently.
I will not enumerate all achievements. They are many. The list of problems and mistakes is no shorter, either. The more so since there has been no special discussion of or research into how best to go about the reform. Apparently, the country’s military - political leadership decided that any discussion would cause a strong opposition that would upset the reform once again. Even the fundamental documents – the 2009 National security strategy and the 2010 Military doctrine – in no way reflected the processes underway in the armed forces. They just exist in different dimensions.
How and at what cost?
The military buildup policy is not only generally desirable for the ruling elite, and, possibly, for the country, but also inevitable. The question is how and at what cost. It will be important not to overspend, thereby ruining the development budgets. In the meantime, it looks like a policy has been launched towards suicidal (for the country) cuts in spending on education, instead of its dramatic increase. The reduction will upset even the beyond-horizon chances of making a modernization breakthrough.
It would be very silly to overspend and over-arm oneself beyond any measure only to breed more enemies, who would be looking at Russia with horror.
What makes the risk of mistakes still worse is that there are practically no institutional restrictions on the arms race. Only two restraints exist at the moment. The finance ministers – the current one and his predecessor – have been doing their utmost not to give as much as they were asked for. And the defense minister has been trying to limit the appetite of what’s been left of the defense-industrial complex – thirsty for investment and, admittedly, corrupt as elsewhere. In the current political system the national parliament is unable to play any tangible role in shaping a new military policy and in forming the budget.
No less alarming is the absence of an academic or public discussion of military policy priorities. In the meantime, there was such a discussion, although in a very limited form, even back in the last years of the USSR. The academic think tanks created in those times are aging morally and physically. From the right, liberal side the current military policy is criticized by a handful – literally two or three – of authors. They surely deserve words of praise for being so bold. But they lack knowledge and are politically engaged and biased. In the center there is a group of experts close to the defense ministry, who are obliged to praise whatever it does and turn a blind eye on its mistakes. And on the left side – in the mass media that are fortunately not quite available to the general reader – one can find publications by tens and even hundreds of specialists representing the remains of the financially and intellectually ruined academic part of the Soviet military-industrial complex. I am not going to surprise the reader with the phantasmagoric threats these experts try to scare the country and themselves with. Quite often their descriptions have no bearing on the reality and are nothing but caricature replicas of Soviet-era fantasies. They don’t seem to be listened to. But they are many and they cannot but shape a certain public opinion among defense-related multi-million quarters of people. Some of these specialists see Serdyukov and Putin, who stands behind him, as traitors, although both try to restrict insane financial expectations and press for competition and more or less modern forms of economic management.
This article is not a memo for decision-makers to read. I am not giving any recommendations. Many of them are quite obvious, I believe. Others are not so obvious to anyone, including myself. But to realize what is to be done, it is necessary to purposefully promote independent social, political and scientific analysis of the processes that are underway in the military sphere. Or else there will be too many mistakes to be paid for too dearly.