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Russia's August curse
By Stephen Blank

For Russia in the past decade, August has been the cruelest month. And this year proved to be no exception.

This time a second nuclear-powered submarine went down with its crew of nine in the Barents Sea. The K-159-class submarine tipped over and sank in the Arctic waters as its floats broke loose while it was being towed to a shipyard for decommissioning. Unlike the first time such a disaster occurred, when the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine sank in August 2000, this time the authorities reacted promptly. President Vladimir Putin called for a through investigation and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denounced the Russian military's lack of competence and reliance "on mere chance" to overcome problems. And, of course, the search for scapegoats has begun, as the captain of the ship towing the submarine has evidently been arrested.

However, the problems far transcend the actions of one unfortunate officer. Ivanov blames an institutional culture, but he and Putin cannot get out of it so easily. While the institutional culture of the armed forces is undoubtedly at fault here, in fact both the military leadership and its political leaders are to blame for this and the many other cases of equipment breakdown. In the past few years there have been numerous helicopter and plane crashes of military personnel, very likely due to aging equipment and incompetence. And since the military insists on maintaining a force larger than it needs in order to perpetuate the old Russian custom of having the means to mobilize the population under central control while the government cannot afford to procure new weapons, equipment is used until it collapses. This has happened repeatedly, particularly in regard to the aging helicopter fleet.

When one recalls that by all accounts the caliber of men being drafted is far below the Soviet standard (or anyone else's, for that matter), and that the officer corps that has survived the Soviet regime until the present is composed of a great many self-seeking and corrupt officers, it is hardly surprising that soldiers do not train, desert in droves, are subjected, as the Russian press overtly states, to increased brutality in the form of hazing, and are liable to commit violence against one another and innocent civilians. The reports from Chechnya provide graphic evidence of the utter demoralization of the armed forces there and of their officers, many of whom have made and continue to make a tidy profit out of the war. Likewise it is hardly surprising that technical competence within the armed forces also seems to have declined dramatically.

Moreover, the military leadership has steadfastly refused to reform itself and successfully stonewalled the government on a host of issues. In an earlier article I referred to this stonewalling regarding chemical and biological weapons (see War chemicals, from Russia with love, August 29). But this stonewalling is also quite visible with regard to doctrine and strategy. It is not for nothing that many of the accidents, crashes, etc that have plagued the Russian military occur during exercises.

Exercises reveal the qualities and defects of the armed forces, and Russia is no exception to that rule. Most of these exercises are costly, vast undertakings designed first of all to impress the political leadership and second to reaffirm the Russian military's abiding belief that the United States is enemy No 1. This is in spite of the explicit guidance form Putin that the new national-security concept - scheduled for this year - should emphasize the threat from terrorism. Thus this year the Russian navy conducted exercises with the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean, the purpose of which was to attack US carrier battle groups. The exercises in the Far East that took place last month, and which involved the largest agglomeration of Russian forces in years, were ostensibly directed against terrorism. But more and more these exercises look like a cover for the rehearsal of operations intended to defend against a US or US-allied amphibious landing in the Russian Far East.

The refusal to transform the military into a force designed to deal with current rather than ancient threats reflects both a breakdown of institutional leadership and a dogged refusal by the military leadership to accept reality. Its comments on the Iraq war and the US-led war in Afghanistan in 2001 give rise to serious speculation that many of its leaders and leading military commentators simply do not understand modern warfare, or at least cannot conceive of the consequences of the various revolutions in military and strategic affairs of the past decade. And if that be the case, it is clear they cannot lead troops into battle effectively.

But it is not only the generals' fault. Putin and, before him, Boris Yeltsin have refused to surrender personal control of Russia's multiple militaries to democratic institutions and processes and have thus encouraged the continuing illegalities that pervade the army, including internal violence and hazing. But it is tolerated because as in any despotism, there is insufficient accountability. This despotism stands in the way of an effective reform that would give the military popular support, firm democratic leadership and the means to raise troops who possess both technical competence and high morale. Whatever accountability there is stems instead from police penetration of the officer corps, one of Putin's first measures, and from publicity when disasters occur.

The fact is that nowhere does the lack of democracy entail greater dangers for Russia than in regard to the military and police forces who are similarly unconstrained by legality and democratic controls. This is because the lack of democratic control represents a standing temptation to adventurism, as in Chechnya, and to corruption, brutality and repression at home. The absence of such controls is an essential precondition for both domestic coups d'etat, of which there have been several since 1991, and to wars that cannot be won despite the promises of the generals. They also lead to wars undertaken for cynical domestic purposes, not strategic ones, wherein increased repression is necessary to cover up the faulty decisions that led to the crisis in the first place.

Therefore this latest August crisis should again direct our attention and that of the Russian government to the difficult problem of defense reform, for without it Russia cannot have security, prosperity, or democracy. Putin and Ivanov may claim that there is no need for it any longer because of their "successful" policies, but if they maintain this posture, then it is clear that there will be more such disasters, and probably not only in August 2004.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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