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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lesson Hasn't Been Learned

In his annual state of the nation address to parliament last week, President Vladimir Putin outlined a program of liberal economic reforms that the Kremlin hopes will accelerate Russia's development.

Putin used the right words: "protection of ownership rights," "the development of economic freedoms" and so on. If the Kremlin actually does what it says, Russia may be on the right track. However, on military reform and the situation in Chechnya Putin did not say anything new and this places in doubt the credibility of all the rest of his address.

For 10 years officials have been talking about military reform, but virtually nothing has been accomplished. The armed forces and defense industry have deteriorated, while generals and arms producers waited for what they believed was a temporary cut in budget financing to end with the inevitable restoration of Soviet-era military might.

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Today, many officers in the armed forces are bitter that Putin is not doing enough to renationalize and spend the country's wealth that was stolen by the oligarchs in the 1990s on defense. Most of our military chiefs also believe that true "military reform" can begin only when defense spending is quadrupled. While this dream is not yet becoming reality, Russian generals are desperately trying to keep alive what remains of Soviet global military power.

Putin announced that instead of meaningful reform, the Defense Ministry will be running "experiments at selected military units" to evaluate the plausibility of building an army from volunteers. But the generals want these "experiments" only in order to buy time and will surely conduct them in such a way that the result is negative.

Russian generals truly believe the Soviet military system was the best. They also need to keep alive the threat from the West, since without it there is no reason to maintain a massive Soviet-style military machine.

In Chechnya inept, undisciplined, badly trained and badly armed Russian units from all of the country's many armies (Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, border guards and so on) have failed to keep the peace and eradicate the separatist guerrillas. Some of the units in Chechnya are in fact all-volunteer, but they are no better than the rest.

Last week Putin stated that the "military phase of the conflict may be considered closed." But military victory in Chechnya has already been claimed many times before. Since the capture of Grozny in 2000, the Kremlin has several times announced plans to partially withdraw its troops from Chechnya, but they have never materialized.

Putin also announced: "Now we're not bothered about how many [rebels] there are. What we need to know is where they are." Well, if Putin and his generals are genuinely at a loss, the enemy is in Chechnya, a relatively small republic that is 160 kilometers in length and 80 kilometers in breadth.

The actual fighting is taking place in an even smaller strip (some 30 kilometers wide and 60 kilometers long) from Samashki in the west to Kurchaloi in the east, and centered on Grozny. This war zone is densely populated agricultural land -- not like the desert steppes north of the Terek River, or the barren Caucasus Mountains in the south, where there is virtually no action.

Most of the 80,000-strong occupying force is grouped in this area; it is there that the zachistki and the revenge guerrilla attacks take place. The rebels are heavily outnumbered and outgunned, but survive as a fighting force because of the support and cover given by the population. To sever the link between the resistance and the people, the Kremlin has been spending some $500 million a year on reconstruction and on encouraging Chechen refugees to return. This program of "return to normality" has been successful in part: New jobs have been created despite massive misappropriation of reconstruction money.

However, even a partial return of refugees has only boosted the rebels' recruitment base. Russia has got itself into a vicious circle of violence in Chechnya: If the security forces keep a low profile, the rebels grow in numbers and influence; and if the undisciplined units begin house-to-house searches, their actions in turn increase rebel support.

Russia will never take its due place in the international community nor will it have a truly "attractive business climate" while the brutal and costly war in Chechnya continues, and the nation's military is unreformed and anti-Western in character. But Putin, judging by his address, has not learned this lesson yet.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.