The Military Face of “Militant Russia”
No. 1 2016 January/March
Julian Cooper

Professor of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, UK. He is also Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London.

A Return to Greatpoweredness: For the Long Haul?

There is no dispute that present-day Russia is a more assertive power than it was a few years ago. This assertiveness and willingness to stand firm in the face of Western criticism and sanctions has become especially evident since the onset of the crisis and conflict over Ukraine. However, it could be argued that this turn to a more assertive, indeed militant, stance began before 2014.  Perhaps the Ukraine crisis simply served to accentuate a trend of development that was already present. Here we explore this issue by looking in some detail at the military face of what can be termed ‘militant Russia.’

That Russia is back as a stronger military power has been shown in many ways but perhaps most prominently for the outside world by the quite frequent sight of Russian military aircraft and naval vessels far beyond the country’s boundaries. While normal in Soviet times, for almost twenty-five years this was a rare occurrence. Now there are concerns that this patrolling near continental Europe and the United States could lead to dangerous incidents, with proposals emerging for new international rules to minimize risks.  There is also awareness that Russia for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union possesses new advanced weapons. The 9th of May military parade made a big impression, in particular the Armata tank, the Kurganets and Bumerang armored vehicles, the S-400 air defense system, and the Yars ICBM. The Russian armed forces have been undertaking frequent exercises, some on a very large scale, often at very short notice. In the West this level of military activity tends to be linked directly to the Ukraine conflict and reactions to it in NATO and European Union member countries. However, a closer look suggests that this may be an oversimplified interpretation.

Russian Military Priority and Expenditure Over Time

It is first necessary to examine trends over time. As is well known, the resource commitment of the USSR to the military was extremely large and the country maintained sizeable armed forces and a vast defense industry. In the late 1980s approximately 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) was devoted to the military, and the defense industry in Russia alone employed more than six million people. With the collapse of communist rule the situation changed rapidly. Military spending shrank dramatically and the defense industry, starved of orders and funding, contracted sharply. By 1997 defense spending was just over 4 percent of a greatly reduced GDP and employment in arms production was 2.8 million and would have been less if not for some export contracts. The armed forces received hardly any new armaments, morale declined and the leadership’s sense of insecurity mounted as the conventional military capability steadily eroded, leaving the country increasingly dependent on nuclear weapons as the only sure means of defense. For a proud nation that only a decade before had been considered a superpower this state of affairs was a humiliation.

In the 2000s the situation began to change. With Vladimir Putin as President, rising prices of hydrocarbons, some pro-market reforms and greater political stability allowed the economy to revive strongly leading to a strengthening of state finances. Defense expenditure began to increase but not to an extent that enabled any meaningful re-equipment of the armed forces. With the economy growing at an annual average rate of almost 7 percent, spending on the MOD forces, the budget chapter “national defense” was held at approximately 2.5 percent of GDP. With a keen sense of military weakness, resentment of the weakened standing of Russia in global affairs mounted and found expression in Putin’s tough speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, a harbinger of “militant Russia.”

Russia Rearms

It was the brief war with Georgia in the following year that finally convinced Russia’s political and military leaders that reform and re-equipment of the armed forces could no longer be delayed. The new defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, pushed through a far-reaching, much needed, but controversial, set of reforms. As the global financial-economic crisis took hold, the government approved a ten-year forecast envisaging an average rate of growth of 6 percent. It was on this basis that a highly ambitious state program of armament to 2020 was drawn up and signed into action by President Medvedev on the last day of 2010. It called for funding of 20.7 trillion rubles ($680 billion at the exchange rate of the day) on new and modernized weapons and other military hardware, plus research and development for their creation.

Since 2011, notwithstanding many difficulties, the implementation of this program has been granted the highest priority. Driven by increased spending on the procurement of new armaments, military expenditure has grown rapidly. By 2014 the share of national defense in GDP had reached almost 3.5 percent. But there is military spending (according to the standard NATO and SIPRI definition) in other chapters of the budget. Total expenditure on the military reached 4.5 percent of GDP in 2014 and in 2015 will probably approach 5.5 percent, making Russia one of approximately ten countries of the world devoting more than 5 percent of GDP to defense. This is against the background of a troubled economy with a declining rate of growth.

While the implementation of the armaments program has encountered difficulties, there is no doubt that it has served to enhance Russia’s military capability to a quite significant degree. A key target of the armaments program is the achievement of a 30 percent share of modern weapons by the end of 2014; this will be exceeded to a modest degree, although the definition of ‘modern’ is highly opaque.

Enhancing Readiness and Effectiveness

The authorities have been anxious not only to modernize the hardware of the armed forces but also to enhance their readiness for combat and the effectiveness of their management. This has been symbolized by the rapid building and equipping of a high-technology National Defense Management Center in Moscow and equivalents in each military district and in territorial units within them. This has clearly been a very high priority project at a very large, but unrevealed, cost. The aim is to give the possibility of coordinating in real time the activities of not only the MOD, but of all agencies involved in the country’s defense, and to improve decision-making by the use of supercomputers and advanced communications. This network of new management centers has been involved in enhancing the readiness of the forces though a series of military exercises, many at short notice. Some have been on a very large scale, such as Vostok-2014 and, as this is being written, Tsentr-2015, but most on a more modest regional and local scale.

Improved funding has also made possible a much more active training program for the troops and more extensive outreach beyond Russia’s boundaries, to an extent that has prompted concerns in the West, especially when strategic bombers have been involved. This activity would probably have increased regardless of the Ukraine crisis, but that crisis, plus the NATO response to it, has probably ratchetted up the scale and frequency of Russian demonstrations of a capable military presence, now clearly a manifestation of “militant Russia.”

Preparing for the Worst

There has been a less obvious dimension to this concern with improving Russia’s readiness to face military conflict. Behind the scenes there have been efforts to improve the country’s highly classified system of mobilization preparation, measures to ensure that, in the event of need, adaptation could be made to government and the economy to meet the challenge of a threatening international situation or actual war. In 2010 a new concept of improving mobilization preparation of the economy was adopted and this was followed by the elaboration of a new Mobilization Plan for 2014, an updating process undertaken every five years, as it was in the Soviet Union. Mobilization preparation is also part of the Plan for Defense, the first of which was adopted in 2013. The Plan sets out the tasks of 52 federal agencies in the field of the country’s defense in both peacetime and war. In a highly fluid and in Moscow’s eyes threatening international environment these activities indicate a determination to be well prepared for any eventuality.

The Impact of the Ukraine Crisis

The developments discussed were all underway before the onset of the Ukraine crisis. There is no doubt though that recent events have served to accentuate and accelerate processes already in train. Two aspects will be considered here, firstly the drive for greater self-sufficiency and reduced dependence on the USA, the European Union and other countries that have adopted sanctions against Russia; secondly, the “pivot to the East,” which has come to the fore as a central focus of “militant Russia.”

In response to Russian actions in Ukraine, the United States and other NATO member countries, plus the EU, imposed sanctions designed to strike at Russia’s current and future military capability. In addition to sanctions against named defense industry corporations, access to dual use technologies was restricted. But the Ukraine crisis also impacted on Russia’s defense sector from another direction: in June 2014 Kiev announced the cessation of all military-related deliveries to its eastern neighbor. These developments obliged Russia to find an appropriate policy response, which took the form of programs promoting import substitution, replacing inputs hitherto supplied by sanctioning countries and Ukraine by domestically manufactured alternatives or imports from friendlier powers, in particular Belarus and Asian economies. It is likely that import substitution for Ukrainian items will be largely complete by 2018.

With respect to Western sanctions, the situation is less clear cut. Apart from the high profile Mistral, before the Ukraine crisis Russia had only modest dependence on Western supplied armaments. More sensitive is access to dual use technologies, especially machine tools and other production equipment, and electronic components. In both fields Russia is highly depended on imports, in particular for the most modern, advanced, technologies, available mainly from leading Western economies. In this case import substitution represents a much larger challenge and will not be cheap. However, given the rapid advance of China and other Asian countries in recent years it should be possible to obtain from them a quite significant volume of electronic components and also some production equipment.

Turning to the East and the North

This brings us to the pivot to the East. This is an issue that goes far beyond the military dimension considered here. In recent years Russia has been cautious about supplying its latest modern armaments to China, not least because of a not ungrounded fear that they will be copied, in breach of intellectual copyright. However, prior to the Ukraine crisis talks began on the possible sale to China of two of Russia’s more advanced systems, the Su-35 fighter and the S-400 air defense system. It now looks likely that a contract will be concluded soon for the delivery of 24 of the former. Sale of the S-400 may be more difficult as there are capacity constraints limiting the volume of production and first priority will clearly be granted to meeting domestic needs under the armaments program. The new closeness of Russian-Chinese military relations was symbolized in May when President Xi Jinping was a guest of honor at the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, followed in September by Putin’s attendance at China’s equivalent event. There have also been joint naval exercises, first in the Mediterranean, later in the Far East. A full military alliance is not a serious possibility, but a pragmatic military partnership is already taking shape.

The turn is not only to the East, for some time it has also been towards the North. The Arctic has increasingly become a focus of efforts to enhance Russia’s military capability. This is evidently a long-term commitment. As global warming makes the northern route increasingly navigable and hydrocarbons extraction moves northward, Russia seems determined to defend its perceived territorial interests in the expectation that national rivalries in the region will become more acute. A new Sever northern joint command has been established, air bases are being built or upgraded, air defense capabilities enhanced, and the Arctic figures prominently in Russia’s recently updated maritime doctrine.

Economic Constraints Being Felt

Strengthening and revitalizing Russia’s military capability is not a cheap policy option, especially at a time when the country’s economic performance is faltering. Under the impact of declining prices for oil and gas, a depreciating currency, inflation, high interest rates, a declining rate of investment and underlying structural problems, not adequately addressed by the government over a number of years, GDP is declining and may do so for another two-three years before a recovery begins. The economy has also been experiencing difficulties arising from Western sanctions and the counter-sanctions banning agricultural imports from sanctioning countries. Budget revenues have been squeezed and expenditure cuts have become unavoidable. At the time of writing budget plans for 2016 were still unclear, but the preliminary indications from the Ministry of Finance are that military spending will be pegged or even reduced, leading to a reduced GDP share of expenditure on national defense, perhaps back to the 3.5 percent of 2014, compared with a peak of 4.3 percent in 2015. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that the military and defense industry will lobby successfully for more money. However, there is another consideration. It was originally the intention to approve a new armaments program to the year 2025 before the end of 2015. Uncertain economic prospects have led to a decision to postpone its start from 2016 to 2018. This probably means that over the next two years efforts will focus on urgent matters unresolved in the first five years of the program to 2020. These tasks require more time, not necessarily increased funding. Once completed, the fundamental re-equipment of the country’s armed forces will be on track for its successful completion.

And the Public View?

A central feature of “militant Russia” is the unity of views on basic issues of the country’s leadership and a sizeable proportion of the population. This certainly appears to be the case with respect to military and security policy. According to a July 2015 poll by the Levada Center, 53 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “We must spend more on defense even if it causes some problems for our economic development,” compared with 34 percent who disagreed. In May 1998 the balance of opinion was the reverse: 53 percent opposed, 35 percent agreed. Is there a perception that the country now has stronger, more capable, armed forces? A VTsIOM poll, also in July 2015, asked whether it was believed that Russia’s military would be capable of defending the country in the event of military threats from other countries. No less than 86 percent said “yes”, only 10 percent “no.” This compares with 67/27 percent in 2007 and 60/33 percent in 2005. There is more opinion poll evidence of a similar nature, leaving little doubt that there is broad public support for the policy of strengthening the armed forces and the government’s commitment to increased military spending. Indeed, that Russia is once again increasingly viewed as a Great Power is widely regarded as one of the most significant achievements of Putin’s presidency.

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There are clearly longer-term processes in play that help explain enhanced defense and security concerns in Russia from at least the mid-2000s. A perception in leadership circles that the country was being sidelined and contained by the United States and other Western powers steadily gained ground, leading to the evolution of “militant Russia.” However, the Ukraine crisis has served to accelerate and intensify the processes already underway. After a dramatic weakening of Russia’s economic and military might over 10-15 years from the collapse of communism and the USSR, and a consequential diminution of the former superpower’s role in world affairs, the country is back on track to becoming once again not only a strong regional power, but also a weighty actor on the global stage. With greater economic and military strength Russia’s leadership now feels able to be more assertive, but not necessarily more aggressive, expecting other major powers to acknowledge and respect the country’s interests and concerns.

The eventual settlement of the Ukraine crisis may cool the rhetoric and permit a rebuilding of relationships. But there can be no return to the status quo ante. “Militant Russia” is here to stay. The U.S., EU and other powers, including the UK, will have little choice, regardless of current attitudes towards Putin and the regime, but to work towards a new modus vivendi with a stronger, more self-assured and demanding Russia.