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Russia’s New Model Army - The Bear is Back!

Trevor Royle, Diplomatic Editor

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THE BEAR is back and this time the bellicose beast means business. In one of the most decisive foreign policy initiatives of his presidency, Russia’s leader, Dmitry Medvedev, took off his gloves last week and announced a comprehensive plan to modernise and rearm his country’s armed forces and reclaim its position as a global power.Stung by Nato’s enlargement eastwards towards Russia’s borders and angered by the US decision to site missile defences in eastern Europe, Medvedev has retaliated by announcing a budget equivalent to £30 billion for weapons purchases this year, including the creation of a new strategic nuclear fleet, and a top-to bottom restructuring of the country’s armed forces.


“Let me mention the top priorities,” said Medvedev in his annual address to staff at the defence ministry. “The main one is a qualitative increase in the troops’ readiness, primarily of nuclear forces. They must guarantee the fulfilment of ensuring Russia’s security.”

At the same time the Russians have taken steps to project their power in regions where they have strategic interests. For the first time since the cold war, Russia is placing weapons systems in countries which are considered to be important allies and extending its overseas bases in friendly countries.

Coinciding with the announcement to revitalise the armed forces, the Kremlin announced that it will supply modern S-300 air defence missiles to Iran to allow it to guard its nuclear facilities at Natanz and Bushehr from the threat of aerial attack by the US or Israel. Although the deal was initially denied by the Kremlin it later transpired that it had been signed two years ago and is now being activated.

In a second move, Russia’s air force chief of staff Anatoly Zhikharev announced that long-range Tu-160 strategic bombers would be allowed to use the La Orchila military base off the coast of Venezuela.

Although bombers of that class have been regular visitors to the island to take part in training exercises, Zhikharev claimed that he would now regard La Orchila as “a whole island with an aerodrome which we can use as a temporary base for strategic bombers”. He also opened up the possibility that Cuba might offer similar facilities to the Russian air force - both Venezuela and Cuba have important political and energy relations with Russia and a military partnership could follow in the near future.

In a symbolic move which typifies the new bullish mood in Moscow, Russian military aircraft overflew a joint US-South Korean naval exercise in the Sea of Japan. For the first time in many years two long-range Tu-95 “Bear” maritime bombers flew sorties over the flagship USS Blue Ridge last week before being intercepted and escorted from the area by US F/A-18 fighters.

A White House official dismissed the Russian moves as being purely for “domestic consumption” but at the same time it was also announced that President Barack Obama is fine-tuning his response in a new document entitled Proper Direction Of US Policy Towards Russia. It will be published ahead of his first meeting with Medvedev at the G20 summit: by then the extent of Russia’s ambitions will be beyond doubt.

Russia’s New Model Army

In addition to modernising its nuclear forces, Russia’s defence ministry is initiating a major restructure of its armed forces, particularly its army. The major innovation is the scaling down of conscription, now considered to be wasteful and inefficient, and the introduction of the voluntary principle, a move which will bring the army into line with the world’s leading nations by making it smaller and more professional. The new force will be cut from 1.13 million to one million but it will be more mobile and better equipped in order to fight the kind of low-intensity wars which proliferate today.

Stung by criticism that its forces were in disarray during last August’s invasion of Georgia, Russian commanders demanded a complete overhaul. While the Russian troops were able to take ground quickly and efficiently after Georgian forces moved into South Ossetia, their cold war vintage equipment, especially obsolescent troop carriers, were prone to breakdown and frequently left units stranded. Weapons, from individual weapons to supporting artillery, also proved to be unreliable and as a result morale plummeted, even though the Georgians proved to be no match for Russian units in field operations.

As a result of the changes the brigade battle group will become the focus of command and control with the formation of 20 new mechanised brigades which will be created during the next two to three years. The first brigades have already been formed and are training in the Kemerovo region under the command of General Vladimir Boldyrev, commander of ground forces, who announced that he was testing their “operational control, mobility and fire power”. Co-ordination between ground and air forces will also be improved.

Other innovations include the development of RS-24 multi-warhead ballistic missiles, the upgrading of the navy’s submarine delivery systems capability and an increase in the number of strategic Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers, which were introduced in 2000.

Russia and the Near Abroad In addition to the poor performance of the Russian armed forces in recent conflicts such as Georgia and, earlier, Chechnya, the post-communist leadership has also become increasingly irked by Nato’s enlargement, which has seen previous allies such as the Baltic states of Poland and Hungary join the transatlantic alliance. Not only does Russia resent the Nato presence on its borders but it also believes that it is a strategic danger to its own mineral resources.

“US aspirations have been aimed at getting access to raw materials, energy and other resources of ex-Soviet nations,” says defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov. “Active support was given to the processes aimed at pushing Russia out of the sphere of its traditional interests.”

Seen from the Russian perspective, this is the “near abroad”, the countries abutting the national boundaries and the preserve of Russia’s power. Just as the US introduced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to discourage further European expansionism in the western hemisphere, so has Russia become alarmed by the presence of Nato members on its western frontier and the creation of the US missile shield in countries including Poland and the Czech Republic.

“Russia is essentially friendless; no great power wants a strong Russia, which would be a formidable competitor, and many want a weak Russia that they could exploit and manipulate,” argued former Soviet army officer Dmitry Trenin, now of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an essay published ahead of last year’s G8 summit in St Petersburg. “Accordingly, Russia has a choice between accepting subservience and reasserting its status as a great power, thereby claiming its rightful place in the world alongside the United States and China rather than settling for the company of Brazil and India.”

One immediate result of Russia’s determination to secure its own borders has been the move to force the closure of the key US air force base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, in central Asia, by providing a financial package of loans and aid worth $2 billion.

Russia and Power Projection

Defence is not the only responsibility of a country’s armed forces. In addition to securing its own borders, Russia is also keen to become a player in other parts of the globe where Moscow has strategic interests. In addition to the countries of the “near abroad” Russia has a network of security concerns in Africa, the Middle East, southeast Asia and Latin America. Many of these hark back to the days of the Soviet empire but others are more recent and based on the claims of realpolitik.

Iran falls into this category. Ever since the first Gulf war of 1991 and the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has been concerned about the growing US presence in the Eurasian geo-strategic region to the south of the Caspian Sea and in the old Soviet central Asian republics.

Energy supplies and their safe maintenance are the main trigger for this concern but Russia is also determined to create a “sphere of privileged” interests with Iran to counter the US presence in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. Against Washington’s wishes, Russian scientists and engineers have assisted with the growth of Iran’s nuclear facilities and last month Moscow signed a deal with Tehran by which nuclear fuel will be supplied to the Bushehr facilities for the next 10 years.

During the Bush years the US countered the threat with sabre-rattling against the president’s “axis of evil” but a new mood was struck by Obama on Friday when he unexpectedly offered the hand of friendship to Iran ahead of the Nowruz new year holiday. Although his change of heart - by way of a video - received a cool response in Tehran it was welcomed in Moscow, where diplomats said that they were keen to “reset” Russia’s relationship with the US.

“Once more the carrot and stick approach seems to be working,” said a US diplomatic source. “Russia wants to be seen as an equal partner in any discussions and their relationship with the Iranians could give them the necessary leverage.”

Nato and Russia

During the cold war years any increase in Soviet defence spending would have triggered a tit-for-tat response in the west, but Medvedev’s announcement met with a low-key response in Washington. “As long as we have a good dialogue and a good understanding of what we are both developing our militaries for, I don’t see that it poses a problem or a threat that we should be concerned with,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

In the short term, Russian re-armament will not effectively alter the balance of power and Nato commanders argue that the move towards a volunteer mobile army is simply bringing Russian into line with other first world nations.

From the strategic point of view there are no apparent pressure points and officials at the US State Department believe that it is still too early to make a firm judgment on the Russian move. Both Obama and Medvedev are novices on the international scene and they are not due to meet until April’s G20 summit.

However, the US-Russian strategic arms reduction treaty is due to be renegotiated in December and that is one reason why Russia is so keen to revamp its fleet of ballistic missiles.

Already it is clear the new RS-24 missiles, with their multiple warheads, will violate the terms of the current agreement. Last year, when Russia invaded Georgia, many analysts believed the action presaged a future test of Nato’s solidity and the need to protect its eastern borders.

“As much as diplomacy is pictured to prevail after the sound of cannons recedes,” said Alastair Cameron, head of European Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute, “Russia has demonstrated itself to be at best an unreliable partner, and at worst an impending concern.”

Also See:

Russia plans military upgrade to match NATO

Russian Air Force chief eyes base that could strike U.S. targets

Russia orders major S-400 deployment

Russia signs deal to supply Iran with air-defense missiles

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