Roger N. McDermott’s “The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces”
The review of the book was prepared by Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at Kansas State University, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of numerous books and articles on the Russian and Soviet armed forces.
At last! A book on Russia’s conventional forces that does not suggest that “the Russians are coming,” as some in West maintain, nor is it one that portrays Moscow’s military as feckless and totally incompetent. Instead, for the first time in many years, McDermott provides the reader with a factual analysis of the situation inside the Kremlin’s military.
No one can hope to understand changes in the Russian military without first looking at the major players in this effort to revamp the military. Both Putin and Medvedev have long realized the importance of a strong military (as Henry Kissinger once put it, “a foreign policy not backed up by a strong military is a weak foreign policy). The problem, of course, is the age old battle between guns and butter. There is no doubt that Moscow’s conventional forces have been starved for funds – and in desperate need of reform. This was evident to the country’s leaders, both civilian and military in the War in Georgia. Now, however, the Putin-Medvedev team has decided to devote 20 trillion rubles between now and 2020 to modernizing the armed forces.
In addition to the desperate need for modern military equipment, there are other problems that, as McDermott points out, have not been addressed. To begin with, while efforts to reform the military come under the title, “new look,” there is no plan. Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov appears to make decisions as he goes along. The problem with that approach is that many of his actions appear to be uncoordinated with other actions taken in the armed forces. The clearest example is the officer corps. First, it was announced that the Russian military would have 150,000 officers (primarily because that would give the military an officer - enlisted ratio of 1:15 as is normal in NATO). Then, when it became clear that Russia did not have enough non-commissioned officers, the Defense Ministry suddenly announced that 70,000 officers would be added, thereby brining the total to 220,000; an action certain to create all kinds of confusion inside the military. As McDermott notes, a plan, even one that is impressionistic, would be better than the confusion, if not chaos, present inside the Russian military at present.
Another very serious problem addressed by McDermott is the Kremlin’s effort to develop non-commissioned officers (NCOs). The military seems to go back and forth between trying to develop its own NCOs, either by sending them to a special school, or by signing 450,000 kontraktniki. The best of the latter would become NCOs. The problem is that Russia has never had a tradition of a volunteer military. Putin is clearly trying to overcome this problem by offering a major increase in salaries – in the hope of attracting better quality volunteers.
The other problem that haunts the Russian military, like the rest of society, is corruption. Some observers claim that up to 40% of the budget is siphoned off. Getting this situation under control will be a challenge for Putin as he resumes his position as president.
Finally, how successful Putin and Medvedev will be in rebuilding and modernizing the military, while attracting the “best and the brightest” to use an American military phrase, remains to be seen. In the meantime, those interested in understanding the kind of military the Kremlin is dealing with would be well advised to read McDermott’s book.