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31 March, 2013  ▪  Maksym Bugriy

Russia is Arming Itself, but Against Whom?

Vladimir Putin has announced military reforms involving a large-scale rearmament of Russia. Success is not guaranteed, but Moscow will be able to do even more sabre-rattling before its neighbours and the West

Russia’s growing foreign policy ambitions are increasingly tied to the success of its new military reforms. Vladimir Putin is serious about fulfilling his pre-election promises published in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta article “Being strong: Guarantees of national security for Russia”. The article urged for a swifter rearmament of Russia’s military. Experts attribute this act of militarization to geopolitical factors, and a report by the US Director of National Intelligence warns of possible threats to Russia’s neighbours.


The intensification of military reforms was an ideological cornerstone of Putin’s 2012 presidential campaign. In a programmatic article, he wrote about a new global trend: increasingly frequent attempts to resolve economic issues and obtain access to resources through force. Thus, his claim is that Russia should not “lead anyone into temptation by being weak”. As he was preparing his return to the presidency, Putin announced “unprecedented programmes to develop the Armed Forces and modernize the defence industrial complex”, declaring that some 23 trillion roubles (US $750 bn) would be allocated to this end in the next decade.

Tellingly, the key programmatic theses in the article begin with stressing the need to reform strategic analysis for national defence. The goal is to have foresight, an ability to estimate threats 30-50 years in advance. As far as a security strategy is concerned, the Kremlin has embraced the classical theory of nuclear containment as its main mechanism. At the same time, Russia will be following a contemporary worldwide trend of producing high-precision long-range conventional weapons that can also later be used for strategic containment purposes.

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Moscow’s emphasis on nuclear containment forces it to follow the classical geopolitical conceptions of “air force” and “naval force”. Hence, strategic bombers, joined by drones and fifth-generation fighter aircraft, will form the core of its Air Force. The Navy will be modernized with an emphasis on long-range submarines and securing an “oceanic fleet” with a strategic presence in regions of interest. In March 2012, Vice-Admiral Viktor Churikov, Russia’s Air Force Commander, confirmed the decision to have a permanent operational unit of five to six ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet stationed in the Mediterranean and said that similar units may be formed to navigate the Pacific and Indian Oceans. According to other sources, Russia was in negotiations with Vietnam this winter about opening military bases there.

Putin is critical of modernization in the form of “spot purchases” of Western equipment (such as the acquisition of French Mistral aircraft carriers) and supports the modernization of Russia’s own military industrial sector. High-priority weaponry and combat equipment for Russia’s Armed Forces include modern nuclear arms (many of the existing missiles have been in service for over 20 years and must be upgraded) and air and space defence systems, complete with new anti-aircraft armaments; high-tech communications, reconnaissance and control systems; unmanned drones; personal combat protection systems; high-precision weapons and the means to counteract them. Russia’s Armed Forces are to focus on nuclear containment and conventional high-precision weapons, developing oceanic naval forces, the Air Force and space defence. The goal is to create a common national system of air and space defence. Together with nuclear containment forces, it will counter the antiaircraft systems of, above all, the USA and NATO. Geographically, Russia will be “a guarantor of stability” in Eurasia: an collective security system for the “Eurasian space” based on the Collective Security Treaty Organization is in the works, and the North (primarily the resource-rich Arctic) and the Asian-Pacific region will be high-priority regions for the Kremlin.

As part of the military modernization effort, Putin announced significant improvements in the financial provision of military personnel and law enforcement officers. The army will gradually transition to a contractual basis: 700,000 out of the one million servicemen will be professionals by 2017, and the number of conscripts will drop to a mere 145,000 by 2020.

Putin views the defence industry as a way to modernize the country’s economy. The plan is to upgrade at least 70% of the armaments and military equipment by 2020. Military modernization is expected to boost a number of sectors, both basic and specialized, such as the electronics industry, IT, telecommunications, science and technology, etc.

The reforms aim to implement the foundational principles of building a modern mobile army centred on nuclear containment as opposed to a high-maintenance Soviet-style army aimed at territorial warfare. (Soviet defence spending reached 15%  of the GDP by the late 1980s). Military reform principles were developed under President Boris Yeltsin and modified in light of two conflicts in Chechnya and the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. It was this war and the world economic crisis that forced the Russian leadership to rapidly implement the “Serdyukov reform” in 2008-2011, which produced some positive results but eventually appeared to be inglorious to its mastermind, Russia’s first civilian minister of defence. Based on these achievements and relative economic stability, Putin launched his ambitious reform that involves much higher public spending on the military.


Federal spending on defence in Russia has gone up by nearly 15% (to 2.1 trillion roubles) in 2013, even though the initial plan was a 20% increase (in comparison, Russia spent 3.26 trillion on its economy in 2012). However, actual spending may be lower. The projected figures would be a reality only in conditions of economic growth, but economists increasingly doubt the government’s optimistic scenarios. Under the 2018 economic development programme presented by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s GDP is expected to grow by five per cent annually. However, representatives of the Ministry for Economic Development estimate that, for example, the real GDP will grow by 3-3.6% in 2013, and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin believes it will not exceed growth of three per cent. Statistics showed the first significant slump in Russia’s GDP growth in January – it grew by a mere 1.5%, and fell by 2.3% in the mining industry, year to year. Russian business circles are also concerned about a slowdown in bank crediting: double-digit interest rates are too high for small and medium businesses and, at the same time, reflect the high risks to which financial institutions are exposed.

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Meanwhile, long-term factors that may significantly affect Putin’s military reforms include the structural disproportionality of Russia’s economy, which remains largely oriented toward raw materials. Another negative factor is the demographic situation. According to official forecasts, the number of working-age Russians (87 million today) will decrease by 8-9% by 2020, and this crisis is unlikely to be overcome by fine-tuning the migration policy. (It includes, among other things, luring “fellow countrymen” to Russia from abroad and handing out Russian passports to citizens in neighbouring countries, including Ukraine). Other detrimental factors include the low level of institutional development and systemic corruption that is eroding Putin’s regime from within. Therefore, some Russian military experts have assessed the prospects of successful military reform as slim. In particular, Mikhail Barabanov, editor in chief of Moscow Defense Brief, believes that the militarization programme is based on a utopian expectation that Russia’s GDP will double between 2014 and 2020. He predicts that real appropriations for the military reform will fall short of the declared target by one-third. Excessively optimistic assumptions regarding prices and unrealistic terms for the manufacture of new weaponry have also been incorporated into Russia’s military modernization plan.


Putin’s military reform has ideological parallels in Russia’s new Foreign Policy Conception. Unlike the previously declared amorphous “multipolarity”, Russia will now be focused on a “policentric” world order that essentially justifies the concept of “spheres of influence”. In fact, there are three such regions on the Kremlin’s map: Atlantic Europe, Eurasia and the Pacific. Russia is the centre of Eurasia, but the role of a regional leader is not enough, and the Kremlin is aiming for a new conception of the Atlantic European space which, it says, must be based on a partnership between Russia, the EU and the USA. This project was one of the key topics in the presentation of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov at the latest Munich Security Conference.

Thus, by blocking the NATO aspirations of its post-Soviet neighbours, the Kremlin is now promoting its own conception of integration with the West. However, not long ago, Russia declared modernization through cooperation with the West as a key priority; why then is the country militarizing itself today? Leon Aaron, Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that Putin is acting on the belief that the strategy of “a besieged fortress”, i.e., defence against “external threats”, can legitimize his authoritarian regime. Another dimension of Putin’s philosophy is geopolitical leadership, many aspects of which Russia has now lost: mainstream foreign experts do not consider it a major power. Russian political scientist Sergey Karaganov believes that “the current model of Russia’s development” does not offer any other means of securing a leadership position.

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Strategic forecasts regarding the Kremlin may soon become a complicated thing to make. On the one hand, Russian authoritarianism is strongly personified and rests on Putin’s authority. Public opinion surveys offer interesting comparisons in terms of people’s trust for him personally and confidence in the Russian government and parliament. Putin’s personal popularity rating, even after plummeting to its lowest level since January 2011, is still fairly high, while confidence in the government, and especially parliament, is not increasing. With its weak institutions, Russia is reminiscent of the USSR at the time of its stagnation, so foreign analysts, just like American Sovietologists back then, are forced to resort to crystal-ball gazing in order to predict changes in the country’s course.


Russian experts are increasingly concerned about the future of their country. Lilia Shevtsova, a prominent policy expert, recently made a dramatic statement by saying that the Russian system is beginning to fall apart. Even though the regime and a faction of the liberals that legitimize it still have the strength to regroup, the throes of death are inevitable, she believes. Shevtsova boldly calls militarism a survival tool of the Russian system and stresses that it has now moved beyond rhetoric: “Today, neo-imperialist and militarist rhetoric is starting to be implemented in a doctrine, but some forces in the establishment may attempt practical implementation.” She believes that, next to the formal conception, there is a consensus among the ruling elite that Russia should dominate the post-Soviet space using soft power or direct military intervention to depose undesirable regimes in neighbouring countries and limiting Western influences.

Russia’s militarization is a source of concern for some East European countries that are NATO members, above all Poland and the Baltic states. At the same time, it is attracting the close attention of the United States. The Washington Times reported that the Pentagon took notice of Russia’s nuclear training exercise in late February 2012, its largest in 20 years. However, mainstream experts do not perceive any threats to the West or NATO emanating from Russia.

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Ukraine’s prospects appear quite dim in these circumstances. There is no reason to speak about a real Russian threat to the Ukrainian state. Any Russian military intervention or even a military provocation would inevitably spark strong anti-Russian sentiments inside Ukraine, and the Kremlin would have a much harder time trying to involve it in its neo-imperialist integration projects. Moscow finds it more convenient to continue to deal with Kyiv as before: putting pressure on it, essentially having it on the ropes and using its fifth column to destabilize the domestic situation. At the same time, the risk of instability in Ukraine is much higher now. There have been several examples of crises in the past. The two neighbouring states were on the verge of a military conflict, and essentially resorted to skirmishes, as they divided the Soviet Black Sea Fleet in 1992-94. Animosity also spiked during the Island of Tuzla crisis in 2003 and the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008. The borderline running through the Strait of Kerch is yet to be agreed upon due to a dispute over the rights to exploiting the gas-bearing Pallas field. The persistence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea is not properly regulated – Viktor Yanukovych is resisting its modernization, trying to force Russia to use the services of local factories.

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