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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Army Fights Fantasy, Reality




This week President Vladimir Putin met his top brass to congratulate many of them with promotion to higher rank and once again vowed his love and support to the military and security services. "Today the factor of military strength is of great importance," said Putin. "This is even more important when efforts are being made to reshape the geopolitical map of the world, touching directly on Russian interests," he added.


Putin stressed that the nation is facing numerous internal and external threats that only the military and the security forces (the so-called "power ministries") are able to match. Putin assured the generals that the government will provide them with new weapons, will increase officers' pay and so on. The generals responded by hailing their commander-in-chief. The chief military commander in Chechnya, General Gennady Troshev, assured Putin that his troops will "fulfill the task that has been bestowed upon them."


At the recent G-7 summit in Okinawa, Japan, Putin spelled out to journalists some of the military threats we will face in the immediate future: "There is an arc of instability south of Russia and the main hot spot is more and more moving to Afghanistan."


Apparently Putin implies that war and instability in the Caucasus may be followed by trouble in Central Asia. Russian officials, including Putin, have for some time been loudly accusing the ultra-conservative Muslem Taliban movement that controls most of Afghanistan of supporting the Chechen rebels in cohesion with notorious Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden. Putin has in fact threatened preventive military strikes against the Taliban.


Ever since he emerged as national leader, Putin has been promoting the century-old paranoid idea of the country being constantly besieged by ferocious internal and external enemies. Putin has also timeand again stressed that only the "power ministries" are capable of saving Russia from those bloody conspirators. At the end of the 19th century, Tsar Alexander III was quoted as saying that Russia had only two true allies: Its army and its navy. Putin would, most likely, add to the two: the security services, the Interior Ministry police and the Prosecutor General's office.


As did many previous Russian rulers, Putin is using hyperbolic threats to enhance his personal powers under the pretext of his so-called "dictatorship of law." Singling out Afghanistan may be a Kremlin ploy to get serious Western aid.


Up to now Putin has been very emotional in stressing that in Chechnya Russia is fighting a common enemy and that the West should full-heartedly support the struggle. The Western response has been mutterings about "human rights abuses." But Afghanistan is seen in the West as a serious menace, so the Kremlin is hoping to see more Western aid and understanding if it also takes on the Taliban.


Putin's militaristic rhetoric and conceptions sound truly grand and imperial. But the genuine capabilities of the "power ministries" are severely limited and virtually good for nothing.


It would seem Putin is deliberately provoking a conflict on the Afghan border. Until now the Taliban answered Putin with belligerent rhetoric of their own. But if anytime soon the Muslem extremists decide its time to launch some real action out of Afghanistan, Russia will surely be in grave trouble.


Reports are coming in that Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border f facing the Taliban forces f do not have adequate supplies of food, water or fuel. The soldiers go on patrol only on foot, because there's no gas to run vehicles. All fighting units of the "power ministries" have been sucked into Chechnya and along with them, all fuel and food reserves. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has complained recently that 85 percent of Russia's war emergency hardware and supply stockpiles have been used up in the Chechen war and that there is no money to restock.


The conflict in Chechnya seems to have the potential to last for years to come. If there is other trouble while the Chechen fray is still on, if the Chechen rebels and, say, the Taliban in fact begin to coordinate military-terrorist action, Russia will surely be fighting a war on two fronts unable to win on either.


Putin's militaristic bark seems much worse than his bite. But that is, of course, also a century-old tradition. The Communist Soviet Union and before that f imperial Russia f always tried to impress the world and its own citizens with militaristic grandeur, while often acting as an invalid when it came to action.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.