U.S. Not a Threat After All

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Every year, the Defense Ministry holds one of its most important conferences. At this annual event, in which all the generals are present and the president gives the key address, we usually learn details about new military reforms and weapons programs.

This year's meeting, which took place on Nov. 11, was unlike any of the previous ones. First, President Dmitry Medvedev did not attend. Second, there was conspicuously little information released from the meeting. The only thing we know from a short, terse document that the Defense Ministry released after the meeting is that the number of officers will be reduced from 355,000 to 150,000 and the number of military educational institutions will be cut by 80 percent. In addition, the ministry announced that the elite Tamanskaya and Kantemirovskaya divisions as well as the 98th and 106th Airborne Divisions are scheduled to be disbanded in 2009.

The cardinal changes that are planned over the next three years are causing several hundred thousand military personnel to shake in their army boots. Back in Soviet times, the top brass would certainly have used its own media outlets to "explain" their strategy to the public. Of course, 80 percent of those plans consisted of little more than senseless jabber, but at least in this way rank and file soldiers had some idea of what awaited them in the near future.

It is not surprising that the military's top brass has resisted the plan to institute huge cutbacks to the armed forces. And it will take some time before they can be sure that the would-be reformers have adequate political support to implement their planned changes. While that internal struggle plays out, the defense minister and president apparently prefer to remain quiet.

But there is a more important reason for their silence. The proposed cuts and reorganization are so significant that they will cause dramatic changes to not only the quantity but also the quality of the armed forces. I have already written in previous columns that the large reduction in the officer corps and the creation of a professional army effectively means the end of the mass mobilization army.

The head of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, and lawmakers from the State Duma and Federation Council have only recently learned of the reduction figures. There should now be only 1.7 million military personnel during wartime. In the event of a war, only 700,000 soldiers will be called to service instead of mobilizing several million reservists.

This means that the country no longer requires a huge pool of reservists. It also eliminates the need for conscription.

The authorities have apparently decided that they will either make drastic cutbacks to the conscription numbers in 2012 or eliminate conscription altogether. Which way will it go? Makarov gave us a clue when he recently said on television: "In 2012, 2013 and 2014 there will be a significant drop in demographics. ... Our conscription pool is now only one-half of what it was in 2001. But we hope to double or triple the salaries of professional military personnel by that time to attract contract soldiers on that preferential basis and to put an end to that question."

I suspect that the authorities would win the support of the people if they were to implement such a revolutionary reform. The fact that the leaders remain silent does little to mask the enormous commotion caused by these changes. As soon as the authorities begin to speak openly about a new military strategy and reorganization, it will be clear that it does not jibe with the aggressive rhetoric that we have heard so much from so many generals, as well as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Medvedev.

The rejection of a mass mobilization army would essentially mean that the country's leaders for all intents and purposes have acknowledged that Russia is fundamentally unable to counter NATO and "the U.S. aggressors."

This also means that the only deterrent left for the country is its nuclear forces. As a result, the bar has been lowered for when nuclear weapons might be used. But this issue is largely academic since no one seriously believes that the Kremlin is ready or willing to launch a nuclear strike.

Judging by the planned military reforms, it is clear that the top brass in their heart of hearts do not consider the United States and NATO as serious threats to Russia's security. But the leaders in the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry are not ready to admit it publicly, and that is why they remain silent about the reforms.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.