No Results, Just Promises

President Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000, in the midst of a bloody military campaign to suppress separatists in Chechnya. Many times since then, Putin has publicly mourned the decay of Russia's armed forces during the 1990s and promised to right this wrong.

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In August 2000, speaking to the relatives of seamen of the nuclear submarine Kursk that sank during exercises in the Barents Sea, Putin announced: "You surely know that our country is in a difficult position and that our armed forces are as well, but I never imagined that they were in such bad shape. We must live within our means. We must have a smaller, better equipped, technically perfect military."

Last month, Putin again stated that in the mid-'90s our military, security and intelligence services were demoralized. In his previous annual addresses to joint sessions of the parliament, Putin had stressed that military modernization was a national priority. But his address this year did not mention military or defense policy priorities, and this omission perplexed observers. However, last Tuesday during a nationally televised call-in show, Putin reinstated his defense priorities.

In Soviet times, Putin, a lieutenant colonel of the KGB's First Directorate, was posted in East Germany as a spy recruiter. He was bypassed for promotion and was generally considered not terribly bright or able. Yet in 2000, this once obscure low-ranking spook became the darling of the nation and was elected to the Kremlin by initiating a revenge war in Chechnya and by promising to restore the Soviet greatness of the Navy, the Army and the country. Now, the Kremlin is clearly working on a plan to make Putin the lifelong leader of Russia, who will hand over the post of president to an insignificant successor while retaining all real power. To make this happen, the regime needs the support and loyalty of the military and security services.

Under Putin, spending on defense, national security and law enforcement has been growing manifoldly. The defense budget for 2006 that has been presented to the parliament allocates 667.3 billion rubles ($23.42 billion) to the Defense Ministry. In 2001, the Defense Ministry was allocated just 214.687 billion rubles.

Last week during the call-in, Putin once again promised that by 2008, all airborne, marine and other so-called permanent readiness units would be fully staffed with contract volunteer soldiers and sergeants. Conscripts would not be sent to "hot spots," like Chechnya. Pay for officers would be increased. New weapons would be procured. Putin stressed that last year the Defense Ministry spent more money on weapons procurement than foreign nations did on buying Russian arms.

Indeed, in 2003, the arms procurement budget was 118 billion rubles. In 2004, it was 146 billion rubles; and in 2005, it was 188 billion rubles. For 2006, the government has asked for 225 billion rubles for procurement and research and development of new weapons. For comparison, in 2004 foreign buyers of Russian arms procured $5.6 billion worth of weapons -- slightly more than the entire arms procurement budget for that year.

During the national phone-in Putin sounded confident, and his arguments were clear-cut. However, Deputy Defense Minister General Alexander Belousov recently told journalists that 70 percent of contract solders recruited are in fact conscripts who sign up after a half-year of service. The Defense Ministry does not have and does not plan to create a professional recruiting service. Instead, conscripts are forced to sign contracts after several months of miserable service, lured by promises of higher pay and better conditions.

The forced redressing of conscripts into volunteer contract soldiers and sergeants is a typical Putinite Potemkin village-style reform that will cost the budget billions, while not solving any real problems. Increased procurement spending is another hoax. Funds are frequently misappropriated and few new weapons are acquired: several new SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missiles, tanks and armored personnel carriers, but no new jets or helicopters. The cost of the items procured is a state secret in Russia, unlike in other countries. But unofficial sources say that increases in costs match the growth in allocations.

Last week, Putin unloaded the same pile of promises as before. During Putin's first term, increases in military spending did not provide new modern weapons, did not substantially increase the professionalism of the rank and file or remove poverty and social stress within the Russian officer corps. To regain confidence in the ranks, the Kremlin must begin to accompany words with actions.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.