Putin’s Vision and Plans for Modernizing the Russian Military: Counter-Terrorism and Power-Projection

Led by Pavel K. Baev

Jan 2005 – Dec 2005

This project was approved for funding by the FD in February 2005. According to the research plan, its main parameters are as following.


The Year 2004 marked a series of significant shifts in the Russian military posture and potentially even more significant changes in the views on functions and applications of military power. The Russian leadership issued many statements on ‘preventive’ strikes against terrorists and staged several large-scale military exercises seeking to demonstrate that sufficient military capabilities were available. The Ministry of Defence had prevailed in the traditional tug-of-war with the General Staff and consolidated its control over the forces, while also securing a new increase in financing from the state budget.

The scale of accumulated problems in the military is such, however, that additional funds for combat training merely increase risks of failures and accidents, while the intentions to increase the usability of military instruments for political purposes could entangle Russia in complicated international crises. It was the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia on 1-3 September 2004 that proved beyond doubt that Russia had not become any safer after five years of non-stop counter-terrorist operations. President Putin has failed to produce a convincing response to this challenge but insists on continuing his course on forceful suppression of separatist rebellion in Chechnya, while indicating recently his willingness to discuss assistance programmes with the EU. The interplay of these diverging factors could determine several crucial choices for Russia’s security during the Year 2005, and that underlines the need in sustained research attention to its military-security problems.

The research problem and the background

President Putin has recognized and emphasised the importance of modernizing the deteriorating military structures but remains unable to establish the priorities of the long-postponed military reform. In the absence of consistent plans aimed at reorganizing the over-bloated system of command, such hard-to-make steps as the replacement of Chief of the General Staff Kvashnin with his deputy General Baluevsky could have only a limited impact as far as the political control over the army is concerned (this problem is analysed in Pavel Baev, ‘The decline of the General Staff leaves reform in limbo’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 2004).
At the start of his second term in office, President Putin made the long-postponed choice against launching any fundamental military reform and opted for modernizing the existing Armed Forces. This decision essentially ignored the wide incompatibility between the political aims for applying military force and the existing military capabilities, while it was exactly that ‘demand-supply’ problem that was driving the debates on reforming the military structures inherited by Russia from the USSR (an updated analysis can be found in Steven Miller & Dmitri Trenin (eds), The Russian Military: Power and Policy, 2004).

Putin‘s choice was to a significant degree determined by the much-improved economic situation, since – as he emphasised at the end-of-the-year press conference on 23 December 2004 – Russia enjoyed a five-year period of dynamic growth and has accumulated significant financial reserves. This strong performance creates an opportunity to invest substantial resources in upgrading its military might and acquiring the capabilities necessary for achieving the ambitious political goals. The military budget for 2005 is indeed sharply increased comparing with the steady growth in 2001-2004. However, a closer look at the acquisition programme shows that the troops would receive only a limited number of modern weapons, while the most urgent needs in computer-age command-and-control systems remain unaddressed. The controversial question about abandoning the draft and shifting to a professional army is tackled with extreme caution and is effectively postponed till the end of the decade.

At the same time, Russia’s foreign and security policy shows a tendency towards increased reliance on the military instruments of power, first of all in the context of the struggle against terrorism. Autumn 2004 saw a stream of official statements about the readiness to deliver ‘preventive’ strikes on terrorist bases to the south of Russia’s borders. Sooner rather than later, a real strike may be seen as necessary to support the credibility of this strategic bluff – and this would inevitably raise serious questions about Russia’s capabilities for projecting power, first of all in the Caucasus and Central Asia. As the tensions in its relations with the West visibly grow, counter-terrorist cooperation with the US and NATO does not move into practical matters, so Moscow is setting on the track of strategic unilateralism.

Assessing the immediate and mid-term prospects, as well as risks, for build-up and application of the Russian military might is, therefore, a complex research problem, which could be structured as a two-fold task:
• to analyse the political demands for, and reservations against the development of robust strategic forces and combat-capable conventional forces;
• to evaluate the integrity of existing military structures and the possibilities for upgrading the usable capabilities.

For the first task, the key issue is the evolving views in the Russian leadership on the character and intensity of external security challenges to the country. From the very start of Putin’s presidency, terrorism was recognized as the central challenge, but the series of terrorist attacks in summer 2004, culminating with the massacre in Beslan, necessitate a revision of the pattern of dealing with this challenge. This project, with its focus on counter-terrorism, would provide an overview of options available for the Kremlin. Another aspect of this task involves the visible escalation of tensions in Russia’s relations with the West, particularly in the context of the elections in Ukraine. These tensions inevitably translate into strategic guidelines, and their analysis in this project would benefit from the analytical insights obtained through the implementation of the large-scale research project at PRIO on new paradigms of European security (supported by the Norwegian Research Council).

For the second task, the major problem is the sufficiency of Russian military capabilities, upgraded according to the existing plans, for meeting the perceived security challenges, first of all in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia’s policies in these regions lack consistency and shift from ambitious designs and threatening gestures to the fears of losing influence and being forced to retreate from key strongholds. The analysis of this issue will be linked with the research on the role of energy interests in shaping Russia’s security policy in the Caspian area (supported by the Petropolitics programme of the Research Council).

In order to substantiate the analysis of these two key tasks, the project would focus on two specific cases, which have particular impact on Russia’s military posture. The first one is the deadlocked low-intensity war in Chechnya, which has seriously affected the political climate in the country as well as the professional culture and morale in the army. This problem will be addressed in connection with more fundamental research on the interplay between terrorism and local wars undertaken in PRIO’s Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW). The second specific issue is the strategic trajectory of the Russian Navy, which is now required to perform a high-profile political role while too many of its accumulated problems remain unresolved. Political attention to the Navy remains superficial, the quality of the leadership is in decline, while the risks of nuclear accidents are often neglected or even denied.

Addressing these tasks, the research project will build on the findings of seven previous projects: ‘Russian Army as a Political Instrument and Policy-Maker’ (1994-1995); ‘The Russian Army and Russia’s Evolving Security Posture’ (1995-1997); ‘Regionalism in Russia and the Transformation of the Russian Army’ (1998-2000); ‘Russia’s Foreign Policy, Military Reform and Regionalism’ (2001); ‘Russia in the Global War Against Terrorism: Limits of Partnership With the West, Internal Challenges and Military Reform’ (2002); ‘Transforming the Russian Military: A Fresh Effort or More of the Same?’ (2003); and ‘Could the Russian military be a partner to NATO in counter-terrorist operations?’ (2004). These projects are presented at http://www.prio.no/page/Project_detail/CSCW_Staff_alpha_ALL/9244/44920.html and their general output was the book The Russian Army in a Time of Troubles (London: SAGE, 1996), 11 book chapters in edited volumes and 21 articles in academic and policy-oriented journals (for the goals and the output in 2004, see the updated presentation of the project at http://www.prio.no/page/Project_detail//9244/45100.html as well as the forthcoming report). The research planned for 2005 will take this analysis further and – by importing findings from research projects focussed on Russia-Europe relations – provide for examining new trends and perspectives. It will also contribute to further competence building in one of the traditional priority areas as identified by the Defence Ministry.

The aim and goals

The projects targets the problem that lies on the intersection of several research avenues and seeks to tie together findings and conclusions related to economic, political and military matters. There is a considerable body of analysis (both theoretical and applied) that focuses on Russia’s economic performance and the possibilities for channelling additional resources towards strengthening its security structures. There is also a variety of analyses on the trajectory of Putin’s leadership, from the character of decision-making to the nature of the system of power. The impact of internal factors on Russia’s foreign policy as well as the pattern of the transformation of the Russian military are examined in every significant aspect; there is also much serious research on the future of Russia’s relations with the West and, more specifically, on the prospects for and obstacles in its interactions with NATO. More recently, there has emerged a fast-growing stream of analysis and risk assessment focused on the counter-terrorist warfare, including pre-emptive operations. However, there is a lack of solid academic research that would link the internal political trends in Russia with its economic prospects and, more specifically, with the plans for modernizing its military structures. In particular, the complex interplay between Russian political ambitions, energy interests and military capabilities in the Caspian area remains under-researched.

The aim of the proposed project is to examine the opportunities and risks associated with the renewed efforts at modernizing the Russian military capabilities for conducting counter-terrorist operations and projecting power. This aim includes four major goals:

• to analyse the perceived need in projecting military power for securing Russia’s vital interests beyond its borders, including combating terrorism, and the translation of this political demand in strategic guidelines;
• to examine the discrepancy between the strategic requirements and real capabilities of the armed forces and the expected impact of the current programmes on reducing this discrepancy;
• to assess the burden of the on-going war in Chechnya;
• to evaluate and compare the political role and the strategic profile of the Russian Navy.

While each of these goals constitutes a separate research task, every effort will be made to achieve synergy from bringing their conclusions closer together, paying particular attention to Moscow’s responses to new security issues emerging on the course of conflict management in the Caspian area.


Political demand for projecting power and strategic guidelines for modernizing the Russian armed forces

At the start of 2005, Russia appeared trapped in a series political defeats and security setbacks: The ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine was obviously the most serious failure, but there were also the crisis in Ajariya in May (resulting in the removal of Aslan Abashidze’s ‘Russia-friendly’ regime), the escalation of hostilities in South Ossetia in July-August, and, most importantly, the massacre in Beslan in the end of the hostage drama. While some of these defeats had no direct military-security angles (sending Russian troops to ‘orange’ Kiev was incomprehensible, and military instruments were not applicable for reversing the pro-Western reorientation of Moldova as well as the elections in Abkhazia), others (and Beslan first of all) revealed the lack of usable power in Moscow’s policies. The swift collapse of Askar Akayev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan in February-March 2006 (sometimes called the ‘tulip revolution’) seemed to continue the same chain of failures but in fact it marked the end of annus horribilis for Russia. Events have taken a more favourable turn – without any significant effort from the Putin’s government; in retrospect, the brutal suppression of the May 2005 revolt in Andijan, Uzbekistan was the turning point of the revolutionary tide, at least for the near term.

This fortunate shift of paradigm has visibly reduced the concerns in Moscow (which was nearly paralyzed by panic at the start of 2005) and relaxed the demand for urgently building up projectable power. The emphasis in security policy has been placed more on developing and upgrading various inter-state organizational structures that are expected to consolidate ‘solidarity’ against the common threat of destabilization. In the dominant political discourse, the goals of deterring opposition to the ruling regimes have been deliberately mixed with the aims of combating extremism and terrorism, so that the strategies of counter-revolution and counter-terrorism have been blended together. This political-PR exercise has been translated into ‘real life’ and materialized in a series of joint military exercises, of which the first ever Russian-Chinese exercises received the highest publicity. Clearly insufficient efforts at developing own power-projection capabilities have been accompanied by the strong desire to weaken the US military presence in Central Asia, which was first voiced in several statements and then implemented in the Uzbekistan’s decision to deny the US access to the Kharshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase. The withdrawal of this base was trumpeted as a decisive strategic success in the mainstream Russian political commentary.

In the framework of this project, attention was focused on the gradual shifts in political risks assessments in Moscow and their translation into strategic guidelines. The convergence and blending of the counter-terrorist and counter-revolutionary strategies was examined in the paper ‘Putin’s Counter-Terrorism: Parameters of the Strategic Dead-End’, presented at the annual convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (Columbia University, NY, 14-16 April 2005; see http://www.nationalities.org/ASN_2005_final_program.pdf) and at a Silk Road program Uppsala University conference (Stockholm, 19-20 May; see http://www.silkroadstudies.org/May%20Conference%202005.htm) and then submitted and accepted for publication in Small Wars & Insurgencies (forthcoming in vol. 18, no. 1, spring 2006). It was also reflected upon in the chapter ‘Counter-terrorism as a building block for Putin’s regime’ pp. 323-344 in Jakob Hedenskog, Vilhelm Konnander, Bertil Nygren, Ingmar Oldberg and Christer Pursiainen (eds) Russia as a Great Power: Dimensions of Security Under Putin (London & New York: Routledge, 2005).

Russia’s increased emphasis on building institutional structures and bi-lateral ‘alliances’ with post-Soviet regimes was analyzed in the article ‘Russia evolves its commonwealth policy’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 2005, pp. 44-45 and the article ‘The Commonwealth of Independent States’ for the Encyclopaedia of Europe 1914-2004 (forthcoming in 2006). The report ‘Russia’s counterrevolutionary offensive in Central Asia’ was presented at the CSIS conference (Washington, 9 December 2005; PONARS Memo 399, available at http://www.csis.org/ruseura/ponars/pm/).

Several articles on relevant topics were published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, produced by Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC (http://www.jamestown.org/edm/):

  • ‘Putin’s agenda prevails at the G8 summit: It is terrorism, comrades!’ (11.07.2005);
  • ‘Lacking substance, Moscow prefers to talk terrorism’ (19.09.2005);
  • ‘Will Putin pull the plug on the CIS?’, 14 March 2005;
  • ‘Sergei Ivanov challenges the new political generation’, 13 June 2005;
  • ‘The silence of siloviki: Have they lost Putin’s trust?’, 18 July 2005;
  • ‘Nobel committee sends a warning to the Russian military’, 11 October 2005;
  • ‘Sergei Ivanov’s PR campaign rolls over one journalist’, 28 November 2005.


Strategic requirements and real capabilities: Have the military begun closing the gap?

As the threat of ‘colour revolution’ has grown to the level of a major the security challenge, the demand for power instrument that could secure an effective deterrence of this challenge has been growing. The main element of that demand has been related to the loyal and sufficiently numerous police as well as to efficient special services, while the military have not been under increased pressure to enhance their power-projection capabilities. The military command has managed to avoid any serious reorganization in their domain and to secure more budget funding for maintaining the forces in about the same posture. Counter-terrorist operations have also been defined as prime responsibility of the Ministry of Interior, while the Armed Forces have secured a particular niche for themselves with the concept of ‘prevention/pre-emption’, which includes specifically strikes on the terrorist bases and camps outside Russia’s territory.

That concept required the upgrading of long-range strike capabilities, and the Air Force Command took a calculated risk in mid-August 2005 arranging for President Putin a trip in a Tu-160 strategic bomber with the test-launch of a new cruise missile. It worked perfectly smooth (unlike the crash of a Su-27 fighter in Lithuania a few weeks later) and the availability of ‘preventive strike’ capabilities was therefore confirmed. In a peculiar way, this ‘anti-terrorist’ emphasis in developing combat capabilities has become intertwined with the sustained efforts at developing strategic offensive capabilities that would, as President Putin maintains, be able to penetrate into any possible system of strategic defence. This rhetoric and the chain of partially-successful tests do not appear to have much of an impact on the implementation of US programs in developing a ‘strategic shield’, particularly since many other elements of Russia’s strategic arsenal continue to decay.

The main effect may be in psychological self-reassurance against the hypothetical threat of Western support for a ‘colour revolution’ in Russia, described by Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov as ‘interference in Russia’s internal affairs by foreign states, either directly or through structures they support’. This ‘major threat’ is clearly perceived as more urgent than the prospect of Iran getting access to nuclear weapons, so during the whole year the disagreements concerning Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran and Russian export of conventional weapons to the Middle East have remained a permanent irritant in Russia’s relations with the US and the EU.

The issues in checking further dislocation in Russia’s military structures without reforming them were addressed in the chapter Pavel Baev, ‘Military reform and regional politics’ in Stephen L. Webber & Jennifer G. Mathers, Military and Society in Post-Soviet Russia. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). The report ‘Putin’s European project: Derailed or set backing reformatting?’ was presented at the CSIS conference (Washington, 4 February 2005; PONARS Memo 331, available at http://www.csis.org/ruseura/ponars/pm/). A presentation on ‘The role of military power in promoting security: A Russian perspective’ was made at the Militærmaktseminaret 2005 (Oslo, 17 November 2005).

Several articles on relevant topics were published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, produced by Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC (http://www.jamestown.org/edm/):

  • ‘Missiles for sale: Moscow finds no problem with Syria’, 17 January 2005;
  • ‘Moscow insists on seeing no evil in Iran’, 3 March 2005;
  • ‘Nuclear proliferation meets administrative corruption in Russia’, 11 May 2005;
  • ‘Moscow dodges Iran’s nuclear offensive’, 15 August 2005;
  • ‘Was it mostly Iran that Rice discussed with Lavrov and Putin in Moscow?’, 17 October 2005.


The war in Chechnya transforms into the violent instability across the North Caucasus

During 2004, the war in Chechnya generated so many outbursts and terrorist attacks, including in Moscow, that it was possible to expect a further escalation in 2005. In reality, however, the intensity of combat and counter-terrorist operations inside Chechnya has visibly declined. The relative stability has been achieved on the background of continuing low-intensity violence but it was, nevertheless, possible for Moscow to organize the parliamentary elections in the republic in September 2005 without major incidents. In order to achieve this de-escalation of hostilities, Moscow had to grant more power to the para-military units under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov, who is responsible for many kidnappings and other crimes and presents in fact a major problem for any real peace-building.

In contrast with the diminishing (perhaps, temporarily) intensity of clashes in Chechnya, the situation in the wider North Caucasus region, from Dagestan to Karachaevo-Cherkessia, has been rapidly deteriorating. There have been few direct spill-over from Chechnya (like the attack on Nazran, Ingushetia on 22 June 2004 or indeed on Beslan, North Ossetia on 1 September 2004) and most of the violence has been generated by internal tensions and conflicts, for which Chechnya has produced triggers. The culmination of this destabilization was the October 13 attack on Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, which was carefully planned but surprisingly poorly executed. Moscow was eager to present this clash as a ‘clear victory’ over ‘Islamic extremists’ but showed much less eagerness in learning the lessons from this crisis.

Moscow’s strategy for deterring this destabilization emphasized the application of prevailing force that should be organized and directed in every region by the ‘operational control group’ (GrOU). Such groups led by colonels from the Ministry of Interior were formed in late 2004 after the Beslan tragedy and throughout 2005 they have been staging large-scale combined operations with active participation of the military, often against very small group of rebels (like the operation in Dagestan in the first days of 2006 with artillery and air strikes – and with few results to show). The Federal Security Service (FSB) has shown readiness to put the main responsibility for combating terrorism and other proliferating challenges on these groups limiting its role to monitoring the loyalty of the ruling elites.

The burden for the Russian military from the war in Chechnya and the escalating instabilities in the North Caucasus was examined in the chapter Pavel Baev, ‘Chechnya and the Russian Military: A War Too Far?’ in Richard Sakwa (ed.) Chechnya: From Past to Future (London: Anthem press, 2005). A report ‘Putin’s war in Chechnya: Who steers the course?’ (PONARS Memo 345, see http://www.csis.org/ruseura/ponars/pm/) was presented at the CSIS conference (Washington, 4 February 2005). One article ‘As Chechnya braces for new violence Putin retreats into denial’ was published in Chechnya Weekly (6 April 2005; see http://jamestown.org/publications_details.php?volume_id=409&issue_id=3291&article_id=2369560); two other were published in Eurasia Daily Monitor: ‘The North Caucasus slips out of control’ (4 April 2005) and ‘Putin protects Islam and praises democracy in Grozny’ (14 December 2005), available at (http://jamestown.org/edm/).


The Russian Navy: Old problems for the new command

The Russian Navy faced a two-fold challenge in 2005: It had to prove its strategic value as a crucial component of the ‘triad’ and to develop further the pattern of cooperation with NATO. The first goal was particularly important due to the embarrassing failures with missile launches at the ‘presidential’ exercises in 2004. The second task was no less difficult as the Navy became the only branch of the Armed Forces where meaningful programs of contacts and joint exercises with NATO were implemented. Meeting the challenge was so more difficult that the Navy received practically nothing from the increases in the military budget (except for its share in the raised salaries), so its infrastructure continued to decay. That assessment was presented in the article ‘Vladimir Putin’s Naval Rehabilitation Challenge’, which was published in Jane’s Intelligence Review, January 2005, pp. 46-47.

Nevertheless, the Navy generally performed better than could have been expected, having its share of accidents and setbacks but avoiding any major disaster. The event that focused much attention, international as well as internal, on the posture of the Navy was the incident with mini-sub AS-28 ‘Prize’ that got stuck in the radar antennas and fishing nets close to the shore of the Kamchatka Peninsula in early August 2005. The unsuccessful rescue efforts quickly revealed that the Pacific Fleet had no capacity for dealing with the problems of this kind but the tragedy comparable to the Kursk disaster in August 2000 was prevented at the last minute by the British rescue team that managed to deploy the Scorpion unmanned vehicle on a very short notice. In the wake of this incident, Admiral Kuroedov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, was quietly retired (he had been able to retain his position beyond the normal retirement age despite many accidents and catastrophes in the Navy). There are few signs, however, that Admiral Vladimir Masorin, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, who rose in the ranks very quickly (he had been appointed the Chief of the Naval Staff in early 2005, after two-and-a-half years in command of the Black Sea Fleet) is able to make much of a difference in checking the decline of naval forces and the degradation of naval infrastructure. The issue of the Kamchatka rescue operation was addressed in the article 'Putin's Sinking Presidency: What Efficiency?', Eurasia Daily Monitor, 8 August 2005.

Another incident, smaller scale and in a way even bizarre, that attracted attention to the capabilities and deficiencies of the Russian Navy was the three-days long pursuit of Russian trawler Elektron by Norwegian coast guard ships in the Barents Sea. Despite the loud ‘patriotic’ campaign in the Russian media, the Northern Fleet refrained from any show of force except for escorting the trawler, which had two Norwegian inspectors on board, in the Russian territorial waters. This incident was addressed in the article ‘The runaway trawler and Russia’s wounded pride’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 27 October 2005.

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