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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Military Not Fit for Battle




The surprise march of Russian paratroopers into Kosovo on June 12 created an acute but short-lived crisis. The problem of Russian participation in Kosovo peacekeeping was soon resolved and the actual deployment of Russian troops is proceeding without major hitches.


However, the unexpected Russian move has forced Western observers to question Russia's long-term intentions and military capabilities. Will the Russian military alter the passive, purely defensive posture it has maintained for the past decade and begin to pursue a more active policy internally and abroad? What real capabilities to project force does the Russian military have and can it actually impede the West seriously?


The Russian armed forces are underpaid, badly supplied, unhappy and disillusioned. Since the disastrous Chechen campaign the military has been treated with contempt by most Westerners and many Russians as well. Western policy-makers are increasingly acting in a way that suggests they believe Russia is no longer a power of any significance. So much the bigger was the surprise in the West when, after an absence of almost a decade, several Russian long-range strategic bombers were sent to probe NATO defenses around Iceland and Norway during the recent West 99 military exercises.


Obviously, despite all its ills, the military still has some force to project. Russia still has a vast arsenal of nuclear and conventional weapons. It also still has officers and enlisted men capable of using these missiles, and warplanes and ships to attack any point on the globe. Russia can blow the lights out in London and Washington and yet has failed time and again to contain relatively small bands of Chechen fighters on its own territory.


The same paratroopers who alarmed the West with a move into Kosovo again surprised British officers, who told reporters that the Russians had been seen consuming alcohol, sometimes with local Serbs. Kosovo Albanian traders also complain that Russian solders are selling fuel from their armored cars, thereby deflating local prices.


By Western standards this is evidence of very low discipline. In Russia, of course, drinking during battlefield deployment is not considered as big a crime as in the West. However, in recent years the old Russian habit of drinking and stealing anything of value at one's workplace has turned into a critical problem for the country's military.


During the Chechen war major battles were lost, together with hundreds of lives, simply because soldiers, officers and even generals were drunk and incoherent. Russian troops and arms traders sold the Chechen fighters arms and munitions. The Russian peacekeepers deployed today in Kosovo are indeed the cream of the Russian army, and all are volunteers who are being paid more than $1,000 a month. But the underlying problem of bad discipline and poor unit cohesion is still evident.


In 1995 and 1996, the Russian military attempted to fight the war in Chechnya with makeshift battalions that were assembled and train-loaded into battle, with almost no time taken or even attempts made to achieve some unit coherence. Russian peacekeeping battalions that are today deployed in Kosovo are also makeshift units. Some of the solders and officers are reservists who were hurriedly called up and sent to form units with active service personnel without any additional training or rehearsals.


Many Russian generals believe the cheapest way to perfect unit coherence is to send men into action to train on the job. Russia today has no well-prepared, fully manned and fully trained divisions in its army or in its airborne corps. In 1997, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev announced a plan to create 10 fully battle-ready divisions, but little has happened since. Any unit the Defense Ministry sends today into battle or into a peacekeeping operation can only be makeshift.


Russia's conventional forces are not fit for any major offensive actions, but in facing the West this is not critical. The Cold War tables simply have been turned: Russia will in the future exercise "forward defense" of its Western borders and "flexible" nuclear response, as demonstrated during the West 99 military exercises. As long as Russia has its nuclear missiles, long-range bombers and demonstrates the will to use them, it can expect Western appeasement.


The reality test for the Russian military is coming not in the West, but again in Chechnya. Russia may be facing a new humiliation in the Caucasus if it is forced to go to war without a single battalion ready for action.


Pavel Felgenhauer is chief defense correspondent for Segodnya.