Why have Russian generals acquired an important political position since the Soviet Union's collapse while at the same time the effectiveness of their forces has deteriorated? Why have there been no radical defense reforms in Russia since the end of the cold war, even though they were high on the agenda of the country's new president in 2000? Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military explains these puzzles as it paints a comprehensive portrait of Russian military politics.
Zoltan Barany identifies three formative moments that gave rise to the Russian dilemma. The first was Gorbachev's decision to invite military participation in Soviet politics. The second was when Yeltsin acquiesced to a new political system that gave generals a legitimate political presence. The third was when Putin not only failed to press for needed military reforms but elevated numerous high-ranking officers to prominent positions in the federal administration. Included here are Barany's insightful analysis of crisis management following the sinking of the Kursk submarine, a systematic comparison of the Soviet/Russian armed forces in 1985 and the present, and compelling accounts of the army's political role, the elusive defense reform, and the relationship between politicians and generals.
Barany offers a rare look at the world of contemporary military politics in an increasingly authoritarian state. Destined to become a classic in post-Soviet studies, this book reminds us of the importance of the separation of powers as a means to safeguard democracy.
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Princeton University Press
July 15, 2007
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Excerpt from Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military by Zoltan Barany
The fifteen years since the founding of the new, post-Communist Russian Army have been marked by the unprecedented deterioration of the once-proud Soviet military. Unprecedented, that is, because there is no similar case in world history of a dominant armed force so rapidly and so thoroughly deteriorating without being defeated in battle. As a perceptive 2001 article noted, "Russia's fall from military superpower Number Two to a country whose army can be neutralized by bands of irregulars fighting with little more than the weapons on their backs" was one of the most spectacular elements of the Soviet Union's collapse.1 The army's decline had actually begun during the late-Brezhnev era in the early 1980s and then had gathered momentum in the late 1980s under President Mikhail Gorbachev. The rule of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, however, was synonymous with a virtual free-fall of the military's effectiveness and overall standards.
A plethora of articles and books published in Russia and abroad have depicted the shocking conditions in the armed forces brought about by the years of neglect, financial constraints, and competing priorities for state attention. In the 1990s officers left the service in droves to escape poor pay, lack of adequate housing, insufficient training, and plummeting social prestige. Soldiers were often compelled to feed themselves by foraging in forests and fields, their commanders rented them out as laborers, and the physical abuse they were subjected to by fellow conscripts and commanders alike frequently drove them to desertion or suicide. In the meantime, a seemingly endless string of major accidents and defeat at the hands of a ragtag guerrilla force added to the army's public humiliation.
In some respects--particularly regarding the armed forces' material conditions--matters have improved since the ascension of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000. Most important, defense expenditures have been steadily and significantly boosted under his tenure for two reasons. First, the president apparently recognized the magnitude of the army's problems, particularly after the tragedy of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000. Second, owing to the substantial and long-term increases in the world market price of Russia's main sources of export, crude oil and natural gas, more money has become available for defense spending. Nonetheless, many of the underlying causes of the armed forces' predicament have not been seriously addressed let alone eliminated, and the military has not undergone the fundamental reforms it needs. To be sure, radically transforming a huge organization like the Soviet military establishment is anything but easy. Still, I contend, little has been done and much of whatever has been done has been often ill-conceived and in many ways seemingly directed at re-creating the Soviet Army. That fighting force was appropriate to counter the challenges of the 1970s and even 1980s but not those of the early twenty-first century.
Why has meaningful defense reform been absent in Russia fifteen years after the USSR's demise? After all, the Kremlin--particularly since the emergence of Putin--has clamored for a leadership role in world affairs, it has been the beneficiary of a financial boon owing to increasing world commodity prices, and it has a long and proud military tradition upheld by millions of veterans who demand a rapid reversal of their army's fading fortunes. Pursuing this puzzle points to the very essence of Russia's increasingly authoritarian political system, and it can be largely explained by two major and closely interrelated factors.
First, since the mid 1980s Soviet-Russian military elites have gradually acquired a political presence that is unacceptable even by the most generous definition of democratic civil-military relations, which is, in itself, an important indicator of the degree of democratization. In recent years, as Michael McFaul and his colleagues note in a fresh appraisal of the contemporary Russian polity, the "military's influence on political decisions has grown significantly."2 This is all the more surprising because the increasing political role of Russian generals has occurred simultaneously with the remarkable decline of the strength and effectiveness of their forces. The most detrimental way in which the top brass have exploited their political clout has been their steadfast and successful opposition to substantive defense reform, which they view as a threat to their own interests. Although efforts to transform the military in line with shifting political and strategic realities originated in the mid 1980s, other than a significant reduction of manpower in the 1990s and the introduction of contract service in recent years, no radical changes have taken place. As a result, the Russian army remains out of tune with the times and, if current reform concepts survive, will remain so in the foreseeable future. Its standards in practically all important respects have fallen far behind those of even middle-rank European military powers, not to mention those of the United States or Great Britain.
Second, in the final analysis, the blame for the absence of major defense reform and the growing political presence of the military should be laid at the doorstep of the Russian president. Since 1993 Russia has become a state characterized by "superpresidentialism," a term that depicts inordinately extensive executive powers. A parallel development has been the declining importance of the Russian legislature and judiciary as independent institutions. By definition, democratic civilian control over the armed forces is balanced between the executive and legislative branches of the state. In Russia--as in many other authoritarian states--however, civilian oversight has become synonymous with presidential domination. In essence, as long as the president does not feel compelled to rein in the armed forces, the latter will be able to promote their corporate interests though they may counteract those of the nation.
The Russian armed forces and their relationship to the post-Communist state and society is an important subject for several reasons. First, Russia remains a pivotal state, a major player in contemporary world politics keenly interested in the restoration of its great power status even if the United States alone can claim to be a superpower or, as former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine would have it, "hyperpower." Second, Russia does control massive stockpiles of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The security of those weapons--which depends primarily on the military--is an important concern to both Russians and others in the world around them. Third, in Washington, at least, Moscow is viewed as America's partner in the fight against international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, it has been the recipient of substantial Western security-strategic aid, and its military bases are located in some instances only miles away from U.S. installations in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The evolution of Russia's army is, therefore, something U.S. policy makers, defense professionals, and the American public should be concerned with. Finally, as I noted above, because the state of civil-military relations is a gauge of democratization, Russian military politics ought to provide a telling commentary about the country's fifteen-year-long post-Communist path.
THE THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
The main purpose of this book is to explain three related phenomena and their causes in the post-Communist Russian context: the elusive nature of major defense reform, the political role of generals and senior officers, and the institutional arrangements of civilian control over the armed forces. I will make three interrelated arguments:
The fundamental reason for the absence of substantial defense reform is the military elites' opposition to it. The armed forces leadership is against the sort of reform Russia needs--the army's transformation to a more mobile, flexible, and smaller force with a higher proportion of professional soldiers rather than draftees--because it directly contradicts its interests in several respects. Cuts in manpower would require reducing the bloated Russian officer corps. Decreasing the ratio of conscripts--let alone abolishing the draft--would rob officers of the easily intimidated labor force they have been able to exploit for their own purposes. Moreover, many generals continue to believe that the army should prepare for a large-scale war and, therefore, it must be capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands or even millions of soldiers, which would necessitate the retention--and given Russia's demographic predicament, even extension--of the conscription system.
Russian military elites have acquired a political role that is incompatible with democratic politics. Although the army was politically influential in the Communist period, its independent political role was very limited. This has changed in the past fifteen years. Hundreds of active-duty officers have run for political office because there are no legal regulations that forbid it. During the Yeltsin era leading generals often publicly criticized the state and its policies, thwarted policy implementation, and refused to carry out orders, more or less with impunity. Under Putin the frequency of such behavior has drastically declined, owing to increasing state strength and more direct executive supervision--principally through Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Still, although the political participation of the armed forces leadership has appreciably diminished, Putin has actually reinforced the notion of the military's legitimate political presence by appointing generals--along with many more security services personnel--to influential political positions.
The ultimate explanation for the military's political role and the absence of meaningful defense reform points to the Russian polity, in which, since 1993, power has gradually shifted toward the executive branch, more precisely, to the president. As a result, in contemporary Russia the legislature is nearly as powerless as it was in late-Soviet times. Civilian control over the armed forces, far from a balance of oversight responsibilities between the legislature and the executive, has come to mean, in practice, presidential authority. It would be irrational for the president to prohibit the political activities of military personnel or to aggressively push defense reform. In fact, he has a stake in appointing more officers to powerful political posts because they--and, more generally, the military-security establishment--have comprised an unwavering support base for him. There are a number of other equally important and rational grounds for Putin's reluctance to consider defense reform a top priority: political consensus about the nature of reform is lacking, there are several competing and arguably more pressing items on his agenda, financial resources remain finite, and many in the political establishment still think of defense spending as a "non-productive expenditure" particularly when the country's nuclear arsenal provides a sturdy deterrent to large-scale foreign aggression.