Russia’s nostalgic generals
To promote their position, Russia's generals and diplomats adhere to the perception that the country remains besieged by enemies, the US and NATO most prominently
Generals everywhere are mocked for wanting to fight new wars the same way they fought the last one. Russia’s military leaders — indeed, much of its foreign policy elite — is stuck in a similar rut. Both generals and diplomats are finding it hard to move beyond Cold War thinking, and their retrograde posture is hindering President Putin’s efforts to push the country in a new direction.
Around the world, Vladimir Putin is viewed as a strong man whose word is sacred. But this is hardly the case. In the Iraq crisis, both the Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministries voiced opinions starkly at odds with Putin. Such divisions occur regularly.
Kremlin watchers, also stuck with Cold War mindsets, prefer to believe that President Putin and his ministers are playing a game of ‘good cop/bad cop’, in which, where the West is concerned, Mr Putin is good and everyone else is bad. If so, it’s a strange game with perverse effects. For any foreign policy needs clear goals. But what happened during the Iraq war demonstrated that no real practical goal — such as securing repayment of Iraq’s debts or preserving Russian interests in Iraqi oil — guided Russia’s foreign policy. Instead, the Kremlin placed at risk its hard-won warm relations with the US for no clear reason.
It is no secret that Russia’s diplomats and military leaders were unhappy with Putin’s decisive tilt toward the West after the war on terror began. Both the Foreign and Defence Ministries wanted a drawn-out fight over America’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and NATO enlargement. They were mightily disappointed when Putin stated that he did not want any ‘hysteria’ over these issues.
But without the support of these two ministries, Putin cannot institutionalise his new foreign policy course. In other words, his efforts to reorient Russia’s military to confront the most likely threats of the 21st century are being frustrated at the highest level.
Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov does not even bother to hide his scepticism about the necessity of such a reorientation. “In my view,” he proclaims, “it is still premature to speak of the specific content of changes to Russia’s defence priorities and to the functions and tasks of its armed forces in connection with the threat of international terrorism.” Underscoring his real agenda, he adds that, “No radical revision of the fundamental principles governing the operation of the armed forces is required.”
Yet it is facile to say that antagonism to Putin’s new course derives simply from adherence to Cold War stereotypes. Of course, Russia’s generals readily believe the most paranoid explanations of American motives (particularly now, when American foreign policy seems so arrogant). But stereotypes can survive so long and be so influential only insofar as they serve the real interests of real people and institutions.
The interest that Russia’s military and diplomatic elite is defending is something I call the ‘confrontation paradigm’, within which the role — and budgets! — of the Foreign and Defence Ministries receive priority in public spending. Today, however, President Putin recognises that economics will determine Russia’s future, and so the ‘power’ ministries must take a back seat to Russia’s modernisation and development.
To promote their position, Russia’s generals and diplomats adhere to the perception that the country remains besieged by enemies, the US and NATO most prominently. High-ranking diplomats understand that their way of thinking requires one sort of diplomacy, and that a foreign policy focused on realising Russia’s economic potential requires quite another. So confrontation with the West (even if only rhetorical) is a form of job protection by other means.
The military brass act as they do for essentially the same reason. They maintain that Russia needs a big standing army in order to defend the country in any potential war with the US. Indeed, this year’s annual session of the Academy of Military Sciences saw army commanders and military theorists try to prove that a future source of conflict will be America’s desire to control the world’s oil-rich regions.
Lt Gen Alexander Rukshin, chief of the General Staff’s main operative directorate, spoke of the need for modernisation of command and control systems in preparation for such a war. He complained that the existing system has limited capabilities against America’s precision weapons. Admiral Victor Kravchenko, the chief of the Navy staff, argued that the main threat to Russia is the US Navy.
Indeed, only the continuance of a vast global threat can justify the existence of Russia’s armed forces at their current size of 1.2 million personnel, as well as the current conscription system — deeply resented by ordinary Russians — and a reserve of many millions. Russian generals insist that conscription must be maintained so that, if necessary, a large-scale war can be waged.
Like post-Soviet Bourbons, Russia’s generals and diplomats have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They continue to think as they have always done, because it is in their direct self-interest to do all they can to preserve the militarised state of a decadent era. —DT-PS
Alexander Golts, a Russian Military analyst, is currently a Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University