The Missing Piece in The Saga Of Putin’s Return
The other night I had the opportunity to attend a discussion at the UK journalists’ “Frontline Club”, listening to several knowledgeable people discussing the return of Putin to power and the growing importance of the ‘democratic movement’ which has cast such a chill over the jubilant proceedings, We heard the tragic story of Sergei Magnitsky and the circumstances of his murder. It was an interesting discussion but seemed to suffer from the great liberal journalistic disease of ascribing virtue and inevitability to a cause which is, to them, self-evidently just and important. Like most journalistic enterprises it was Moscow-based and elevated the protest movement of the new middle-class into the prime forum for positive change in the country.
It was interesting in that they, and indeed much of the audience, firmly believed that this manifestation of protest and ‘people power’ would be an important lever for change in the new Putin term of office. They predicted that Putin wouldn’t last more than another few years as a result of the protests. This was accompanied by the risible belief that the passage of a Sergei Magnitsky Bill in the US Congress to replace Jackson-Vanik would be an additional powerful force in the ouster of Putin. This type of thinking can be found wherever there are commentators waxing lyrical about the changes soon to come in Russia. The fact that countries, especially countries like Russia, are not so simply dealt with by the introduction of free and fair elections did not puncture the euphoria. Most importantly, their fixation on protesting Muscovites did nothing to indicate that they have ever understood what power means in Russia; who wields it; and what are its aims. People who have power do not give it up because the powerless are not happy with their lot and aspire to a better life. Perhaps that is why they are powerless.
They were describing a Russia I didn’t recognise; a European Russia with European values that would be influenced by the opinions of Russia by countries like those in the EU or the US. There is much more to Russia than European Russia. European Russia is full of politicians and monuments. The resources are on the other side of the Urals. Russia’s business is not in Europe but, as has recently been recognised by the US as well, centred on Asia and the Pacific. Russia’s clients for its resources, save the gas monopoly they hold in Europe, are in Asia. The aluminium, oil, coal, copper, wood, gas and precious metals are bound for Asian markets. Do these Asian markets, countries like China, Korea, Indonesia and India, care if the middle class Muscovites are unhappy with the fairness of their elections? Do they care that Russia is led by corrupt oligarchs and siloviki? I would doubt it as their own countries are only marginally better, scoring slightly higher on the Transparency scale of corruption. If Russia stopped selling anything to Europe except for gas it would not make a major difference to its commerce. Europeans are their competitors, not their markets. However, if Russia stopped buying goods from Europe it would have a devastating effect on what is left of the European economies as they are cycling through their attritions. It is a rare optimist who considers that moral arguments trump export sales. International relations is about cash not principle and never has been a system of moral enlightenment.
When I was a boy my grandmother told me that Truth, Justice, Honour and ten cents would allow me to make a phone call. Without the ten cents I could talk to nobody. This doesn’t appear to have changed much except that you now need more than a dime to speak. To concentrate one’s hopes on an often goalless and disunited Muscovite protest movement as an agent of change in Russia is a form of mental self-abuse and delusion.
On the other hand they have willingly ignored a very powerful and increasingly active agent of change in Russia which is very likely to have a profound effect on the Putin presidency. I was struck by one of the speakers saying that the Soviet Union was dominated by the Communist Party and the KGB. The power struggle between them supposedly shaped the Soviet Union. I can only put this opinion down to the fact that, despite being of Russian origin, she never lived in the Soviet Union. Power in the Soviet Union was not competed for by the party and the KGB; it was a struggle between the Communist Party/KGB group, the civil administration and the military. I was shocked by her omission of the military in the analysis. The Soviet Armed Forces and the GRU were the third part of the troika that made up the Soviet Union. In the near future it is likely to be the most important factor in the changes in the Russian political system under Putin.
After the fall of the Soviet Union the military was kept in a state of dereliction and constraint. Russia had suffered greatly as a result of the Afghan War. By the time of Gorbachev’s accession to power the war in Afghanistan had deteriorated badly. Resources were draining from the USSR budget and military progress had stopped and containment was the policy. Gorbachev told the military that they had a year to sort things out. They embarked on a policy of creating an Afghan Army which would notionally take over from Soviet troops, who would then be free to return home. This did not work so, at the end of 1986, they prepared to bring their troops home. The first contingent returned to the USSR from May to August 1988 and the rest from November 1988 to February 1989. It was an expensive and humiliating experience. After the war ended, the Soviet Union published figures of dead Soviet soldiers: the initial total was 13,836 men, an average of 1,537 men a year. According to updated figures, the Soviet army lost 14,427, the KGB lost 576, with 28 people dead and missing. Material losses included: 118 aircraft; 333 helicopters; 147 tanks; 1,314 IFV/APCs; 433 artillery guns and mortars; 1,138 radio sets and command vehicles; 510 engineering vehicles; 11,369 trucks and petrol tankers. It was a very costly business. Not only was it costly, there was no budget to rebuild the armed forces.
The armed forces were then forced to leave their bases in Eastern Europe to return home. Russia’s most immediate neighbours, those who had been part of the Warsaw Pact, were nervously testing their degrees of freedom from the Soviet embrace. The invasions by Soviet tanks of the East Germans in 1953, the Hungarians in 1956, the Czechs in 1968 and the long history of Polish – Soviet conflict were too recent for these countries to forget. The third largest army in the world, the East German, was out of business. Massive quantities of East German (e.g. ex-Russian) military supplies were being offered at cut prices to the world as the re-unifying German state moved to change over to NATO equipment. One of the Soviet Union’s major industries, the arms industry, had the bottom fall out of its market. This was coupled with the enforced withdrawal of Soviet forces stationed in bases across Eastern and Central Europe. The Warsaw Pact disappeared; the COMECON disappeared and there was not enough money in the reserves to keep paying, unilaterally, the costs of keeping Russian troops outside of Russia.
The soldiers were never paid much to begin with but the fall of the Soviet Union meant that they had very little indeed. These soldiers sold, with the connivance of their commanding officers, anything that wasn’t nailed down. They sold it for food and they sold it for trophies that they would carry home as they were demobilised. Most importantly there was no place in the physical Russian military establishment where these troops could be stationed. There were not enough bases inside Russia where the returning troops could be housed. There were no jobs for thousands of trained officers and NCOs. The offset costs for the Soviet Occupation paid by their former ‘satellites’ were no longer forthcoming. There were too many mouths to feed and too few bases in which they could be sheltered. No one was sure what to do but everyone recognised the danger of a disgruntled army full of people with grievances and with nothing to do.
What the Russian army didn’t want to do was to fight in Chechnya. It was unprepared, disorganised and had serious political inhibitions against killing Russian people, even Chechens. Yeltsin was determined to resist this independence movement and consulted with his military leaders. The military wanted no part of any war against the Chechens. As General Eduard Vorobyov stated as he handed in his resignation it was “a crime" to "send the army against its own people. Although the actual full-scale war against the Chechens didn’t start in earnest until 11 December 1994 there were numerous skirmishes and actions which ramped up the situation. This preparation for a war in Chechnya did not have the support of the Russian military. Yeltsin's adviser on nationality affairs, Emil Pain, and Russia's Deputy Minister of Defence, Boris Gromov, also resigned in protest of the invasion, as did Gen. Boris Poliakov. More than 800 professional soldiers and officers refused to take part in the operation; of these, 83 were convicted by military courts and the rest were discharged. Later Gen. Lev Rokhlin also refused to be decorated as a Hero of Russia for his part in the war. This is why the war in Chechnya was fought almost entirely by the military forces of the MVD, not the Army.
To a large extent the Chechen adventures broadened the gulf between the Russian military and the Yeltsin Family. One problem was that the military had very little money to do anything and had overcrowded barracks and dissatisfied officers and conscripts. The situation in the barracks was awful. In 1993 I had arranged to fly to the ports of Zarubina and Posyet, south of Vladivostok and near the Chinese/North Korean border. We hired a helicopter in Khabarovsk and set out for Zarubina. Normally this would be a three and a half or four hour flight. It took us almost nine hours. There was nothing wrong with the helicopter but we had very little fuel because supplies were limited. We flew from one small air base to another on the route south, having to negotiate to buy enough fuel to take us to the next base. We disembarked at each base and haggled over the fuel. We were shocked to see the conditions in which the soldiers lived. It was very primitive and unkempt. In each common room there was a big pan full of kasha (buckwheat groats) sitting on a low heat and a small bowl of some kind of brown sauce which had a skin on it. That was the rations for the people at the air base. As they got hungry they went in and got some food which was washed down with weak tea from a samovar. They told me that was all they had for over a week.
It wasn’t much better at higher levels. I was with some of the U.S. military officers when they came over for some meetings with their counterparts at Kubinka. The Soviet Navy was sending ships to South Africa for some naval display but needed the help of the US Navy to get sufficient fuel to get their vessels home. The US Navy was happy to assist. The Russian armed services were kept poor, underfunded, crowded and without much to do after Yeltsin took office. There were no jobs for all the returning officers and most of the ranks lived in squalor. Additionally the recruitment or conscription of new soldiers was most effective among many of the minorities. I was visiting the Northern Fleet when the admiral in charge of the large submarine fleet in Severomorsk told me that he was having nothing but trouble with many of the recruits he was being sent. He told me that they didn’t speak Russian very well (mainly Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc.) He said they couldn’t read the dials on the control displays on the nuclear subs so they had to put on stickers in their own languages to be sure they knew what they were doing. He said that if the tapes and the glue became dislodged then God only knows what button they would push.
In a discussion with some Air Force generals at the banya built by Stalin’s son the air base north of Moscow in 1995 the generals said that the average flying time per month for a Russian fighter pilot was forty-five minutes as they had no fuel to provide them to enable them to fly. When the Soviet Union dissolved, its submarines which remained in active service faced two dangerous challenges. First, when the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union declared independence from Moscow, many of these vessels lost their home ports and other related facilities in the Black and the Baltic Seas. The remaining naval bases within Russia could not handle such a large number of operational vessels, particularly when combined with additional Soviet-era diesel submarines and surface ships moved, en masse, to the Russian bases. Second, and more ominously, the Russian defence budget could no longer afford to keep many of the nuclear-powered submarines adequately and safely maintained—much less in active service. Without the capacity to dismantle these vessels, decommissioned submarines began to pile up around Russia's naval bases; especially around Severomorsk in the North and Sovetskaya Gavan and Bolshoi Kamen in the Far East. Unfortunately things have not improved much.
When Putin came into office he cut the military budget even more. What little there was, was devoted to Putin’s new thrust into Chechnya which used up a substantial part of the military budget. Since then Putin has been promising new funds for the military but these funds haven’t arrived. One reason they haven’t arrived is that Russian military prosecutors have found that about 20 per cent of Russian defence spending is stolen by corrupt officers and officials. This should surprise no one as the only way that the officers could maintain their lifestyles was to steal money to do so. This was widely tolerated and encouraged by the navy, in particular, as the politicians were unable to replenish the military funds. They saw what the politicians were stealing so felt little inhibitions. The anti-corruption campaign in the military has been going on for several years. A large part of the effort is directed at firms that manufacture weapons whose prices to the government are disparate with the market.. Last year, this led to a curious confrontation which resulted in Russian shipyards refusing to build submarines for the Russian Navy. The Russian shipyards are in such bad shape that the government recently allowed the purchase of a new Mistral class amphibious ship from France, as well as the purchase of the manufacturing technology so more Mistrals could be built in Russia. Recently Medvedev allocated more money to the navy, about twenty-five per cent of the military budget and asked the new Russian defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov to jettison the aged ships and make way for new ones.
Efforts to purge the forces of over 100,000 unneeded (and not very effective) officers ran into stiff resistance. The senior generals and admirals wanted to at least let these men remain until they reach retirement age, and leave with dignity, rather than being, in effect, fired. Last year the world’s seas were almost entirely free of Russian submarines as only ten patrols were sent out; patrols that lasted for only days or hours. Most of the submarine fleet is scrap and unusable. Tanks are no better. Currently, the most modern tank Russia has is the T-90, which entered service in the early 1990s. Most of the 20,000 tanks (72 present of them in storage) in the Russian army are T-72s and T-80s. Russia planned to replace most of those T-72s and T-80s with T-90s and a new design, the T-95, by 2025 but the money ran out. On March 25, 2012 Major-General Alexander Shevchenko announced the massive scrapping of Russia’s tanks, APC and trucks, including T-80, T-64, T-55, tanks as well as a number of army trucks. Similar schemes are scheduled for the Russian air force.
The air force is not much better. Another Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber crashed on February 13th, and the next day all Russian Su-24s were grounded until the cause of the crash could be determined. In the last 12 years Russia has lost sixteen Su-24s to accidents. Many more have been retired because of old age. This is one of the reasons Russia is hustling to replace the Su-24s with Su-34s. It was only four years ago that Russia began building the first Su-34 fighter-bombers (20 of them). These are now replacing the Su-24s. Most of the Su-24s built are over 25 years old and many have been grounded several times recently because of age related problems.
In an article in RIA Novosti on 15 March 2012, Ground Forces Chief Col. Gen. Alexander Postnikov said that the most advanced weapon systems manufactured for Russia's ground forces are below NATO and even Chinese standards and are expensive; "The weapon models that are manufactured by our industry, including armour, artillery and small arms and light weapons, fail to meet the standards that exist in NATO and even China," He said that Russia's most advanced tank, the T-90, is in fact a modification of the Soviet-era T-72 tank [entered production in 1971] but costs 118 million rubbles (over $4 million) per unit. "It would be easier for us to buy three Leopards [Germany's main battle tanks] with this money," Postnikov said.
The fact that there is severe, if muted, unhappiness within the military will come as no surprise to anyone who has contact with the military or the GRU. Putin has promised more funds to rejuvenate the Russian military to resume its place as a world leader. However, no one believes him. They believe that a former KGB officer has very little interest in rebuilding the third section of the Power Troika in Russia. Putin has always been an advocate of the Power Vertical in which there is no place for an independent and strong military. The siloviki share Putin’s view.
How far this unrest will spread has yet to manifest itself but resistance is growing. If nothing else the Russian military is an intensely patriotic organisation. How far Putin is willing to push them is unknown. However it is much more likely that change in Russia will happen because of the military than the combined might of Muscovite protestors. The fate of Russia is more likely to be sealed in the mess and barracks of Boris Gleb, Zapadnaya Litsa, Mongochkta, Bolshoi Kamen and Posyet, Unlike the protestors the military has guns.