28 January 2008

The truth about Russia's military "resurgence"

Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

A physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works on the Russian nuclear arsenal, US-Russian relations, and nonproliferation. In 1995, he headed the Russian...


By all indications, the Russian military has enjoyed a revival of sorts in recent years. 2007
was an especially notable year in this respect. In April, Russia completed construction of a
strategic submarine of a new class, the first since the Soviet Union's dissolution. Despite a
string of unsuccessful flight tests, the military has continued to develop a new sea-launched
missile for these submarines. In May
and December, the Rocket Forces tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
equipped with multiple warheads. In August, President Vladimir Putin made a point to personally
announce that he ordered strategic bombers to return to the Cold-War practice of conducting regular
long-range patrol flights. The list goes on--Russia has been upgrading its network of early warning
radars, plans to resume producing strategic bombers, and is considering developing another new
ICBM. In October, Putin called Russia's plans to modernize its strategic forces no less than

Because it serves as a vestige of superpower status, many Russians look at such a "resurgence"
with pride. Naturally, the buildup concerns the West, which also views it in Cold War terms, even
though the scale is nowhere near that of Soviet deployments. Whatever the reaction, there seems to
be consensus that the credit for this mini-renaissance belongs to the current Russian leadership
and to Putin personally. This partly explains Putin's high-approval ratings in Russia and his
recent selection as
Time magazine's "Person of the Year."

But upon closer inspection, a different story emerges. It's a story of
weak leadership, not one of strength. Instead of leading a resurgence, the current Russian
leadership has given the military and defense industry a free hand in setting national security
policy and uncritically accepted their narrow view of the world and its problems. Just like the
Soviet Union during the Cold War, today's Russia has little control over its military-industrial
complex. And since the military-industrial complex can only build missiles, submarines, and
bombers, it's not surprising that Russia's security threats are now defined to require missiles,
submarines, and bombers. The result is that the discussion of security issues in Russia is
dominated by paranoid scenarios involving the United States destroying Russian missiles in a
surprise attack and alarmist projections of how U.S. missile defense will affect Moscow's
"strategic balance."

It's hardly surprising that the military-industrial complex is pushing the "resurgence"
agenda--generals always fight the last war. There's little doubt that they will convince the
government to keep its number of missiles and submarines at a "respectable" level. Or that the
military will be able to maintain these missiles at a reasonable degree of readiness. With a strong
economy, Russia can certainly afford strategic forces that would be considered impressive by
Cold-War standards. But these standards are irrelevant today and the strategic forces designed to
fight the Cold War are useless when it comes to the security threats that exist today. Therefore,
this "grandiose resurgence" will eventually prove unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous.