Now that President Putin has a new term of office, it could have been expected that this would provide a great opportunity for fundamental change to put right what has gone wrong over the past decade and a half. Yet the old guard remains – Lavrov at the Foreign Ministry and Shoigu at Defence. The only light shining through the perpetual darkness is the elevation of former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s protégés to positions that, with Putin’s backing, could clean up the bureaucracy and bring on a new wave of economic reform. “Could” is the operative word. “Will” is entirely another matter.
The failure to reform substantially during Putin’s previous periods in office has, among other things, left the armed forces in an unenviable position. Short term increases in the military budget, rather like instant injections of steroids for those frequenting the gym, have recently bulked up the chest and arm muscles, but they have left the supporting legs as skinny as before. And what have the injections done for the mind? They just seem to have encouraged “roid” rage.
To the extent that modern warfare depends upon the state of the art in technology, the armed forces have not had significantly enhanced improvements in the civilian sector to draw upon, as the economy has been held back by sloth and deeply embedded corruption. De-industrialisation of rust bucket heavy industries and the loss of highly skilled manpower were not followed in the 1990s by substantial and wholesale re-industrialisation at new levels of technology. When Stalin faced acute economic backwardness in the late 1920s and his Commissar for War, Voroshilov, declared that one could not win battles with straw, they embarked upon intensive industrialisation and refused all requests from chief of staff Tukhachevsky to increase military budgets until the economy stood on a more advanced footing. Tukhachevsky paid the price and was sacked for pushing “red imperialism” in 1928 (he was executed only much later after military modernisation had come through.) But Shoigu is still there.
He faces the same dilemma, defending short term requirements as Kudrin and his protégés call for cuts in military expenditure. The embarrassing losses of Russian military aircraft in Syria compared to the non-existent losses of the Americans, in confronting an enemy composed of irregulars, are cause for anxiety as it seems to be a problem of the mind as much as equipment. The poor showing of Russian air defences in the face of brazen Israeli bombing of Iranian positions raises more troublesome questions. It cannot be attributed merely to the usual incompetence of the Syrians; it is also directly attributable to the backwardness of the Russian systems themselves. So how would the Russian armed forces fair against regular armies? This is the awkward question Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie raises with some force (“Kachestvo rossiiskogo oruzhiya postavleno pod somnenie”, 18 May 2018.) The subtitle of the article says it all: “Why in the West they consider Moscow does not have a chance creating a contemporary army.”