Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Role for the Armed Forces?

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

If anyone doubted that change is afoot in Russian military policy, the major training exercises that concluded in the Far East last week, dubbed Vostok 2003, provided some convincing evidence. The Defense Ministry brass emphasized the unprecedented scale of the exercises: more than 70,000 soldiers along with dozens of warships and aircraft. But to my mind, the real change was geographical. For the second year running, Russia conducted training exercises in an area where it faces a real threat to its national security.

In 2002, Russia held training exercises in the Caspian Sea after negotiations on dividing up the resource-rich sea floor broke down. The exercises sent a clear signal to all of the Caspian nations that Russia was prepared to defend its stake in the region's rich oil fields. This year's massive exercises in the Far East got under way on the eve of a six-nation summit devoted to the North Korean nuclear threat. So long as Kim Jong Il carries on blackmailing the entire world community, the possibility of armed conflict in this densely populated region cannot be ruled out.

Though the organizers of the exercises wouldn't say so publicly, their main goal was to prepare for a possible military conflict on the Korean peninsula. Yet only one-fourth of the exercises were strictly military in nature, as noted by President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Far East, Konstantin Pulikovsky. The rest consisted of training for humanitarian missions, such as a series of joint exercises for responding to natural disasters and other emergency situations that involved the armed forces and special units from the Interior Ministry and Emergency Situations Ministry, among others.

At the same time, local authorities were instructed in how to cope with a sudden influx of refugees. According to participants in the exercises, the Russian Far East could absorb some 100,000 refugees. Even the strictly military exercises, such as a tactical deployment of paratroopers to block a terrorist incursion into Russian territory, fit easily into the list of possible situations that could arise as a result of war in Korea. The participation of Japanese and South Korean warships and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the exercises makes their foreign policy implications more than clear.

The comparison between Vostok 2003 and another major series of military training exercises, Zapad 1999, is heartening. Four years ago, the armed forces were still preparing to repel a massive airborne assault followed by a prolonged land war against NATO forces.

Although Vostok 2003 signals a shift in military planning toward realistic training aimed at dealing with real threats, it also revealed a basic and very serious contradiction at the heart of Russian military policy.

Russia's most advanced and powerful weapons are no longer suited to the country's real defense needs. Long-range bombers are designed primarily to strike targets on enemy territory with nuclear weapons. Cruisers and destroyers are designed to take on aircraft carrier battle groups. This placed the organizers of Vostok 2003 in a quandary. On the one hand, it would have been unthinkable to conduct Russia's largest training exercises in 15 years without including its more powerful and effective weapons. On the other hand, these weapons are obviously designed for global war against a specific opponent, not for use in regional conflicts. Going after smugglers with cruise missiles makes about as much sense as duck hunting with a Howitzer. The only time when strategic bombers didn't seem out of place during Vostok 2003 was when Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov flew in on one from central Russia.

When you look at Russia's defense situation rationally, it becomes clear that some of our most imposing weapons systems are simply not all that useful. They are expensive to maintain, and their mere presence can spark confrontation. After all, simulated strategic missile attacks on the United States, which were conducted from 1999 to 2002, only heighten suspicion about Russia's real intentions.

The Kremlin must decide where its priorities lie. Even if the price of oil remains at today's high levels, Russia will not be able to match Soviet-era production across the full range of weapons. Judging by navy chief Admiral Viktor Kuroyedov's recent remarks, the hard choices have not yet been made. Kuroyedov told reporters that Russia needs a navy capable of policing the country's coastline as well as carrying out missions around the globe. In this regard it's worth remembering that a squadron of Russian warships recently conducted joint exercises in the Indian Ocean with the Indian navy. Only God and a few Russian admirals can imagine a scenario in which the Russian and Indian navies would need to join forces. Among the more off-the-wall explanations for the maneuvers was that Russian marines were preparing a lightning strike to seize Iraqi oil fields out from under the Americans' noses.

Russia's leaders have to decide what the primary function of the armed forces will be in the future. In the absence of a real threat of global war, the armed forces could be revamped to eliminate regional threats to national security and to wage war on terrorism. In that case, scarce funds for weapons procurement would be better spent on modernizing the country's aging helicopter fleet than on multimission nuclear submarines.

Or the Kremlin could decide that the armed forces are more important as a symbol of Russia's superpower status.

In that case, we should carry on spending millions on strategic bombers and mammoth warships capable of projecting Russian military might and transporting the defense minister around the world.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.