Contents | May 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.

Russia Is Finished - Page 4
1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Humiliation in Uniform

ne of the most spectacular elements of the Soviet Union's collapse has been Russia's fall from military superpower No. 2 to a country whose army can be neutralized by bands of irregulars fighting with little more than the weapons on their backs. The decay of the military, resulting from decreased funding and the spread of corruption (both of which Yeltsin abetted: he had no interest in maintaining or strengthening an institution that was at best lukewarm toward his rule), was popularly perceived to have led to Russia's humiliating defeat during the first Chechen war, in 1994-1996. Putin promised that if he was elected to the presidency, he would champion the interests of the armed forces and the security services, and those groups overwhelmingly supported his candidacy. Widespread anger at the expansion of NATO—and most of all at NATO's war against (Orthodox Christian) Yugoslavia, in 1999—played a crucial role in Putin's popularity with the public, because superpower status is fundamental to the Russian national identity, which retains much of its messianic character. The notion that Russia's path will always remain separate from that of the West has survived the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years. To be a superpower—and, indeed, to maintain the integrity of the Russian Federation (an entity built, over the course of five centuries, through the conquest and annexation of non-Russian peoples)—a powerful military is indispensable. So what of Russia's armed forces today?

From the archives:

"A New Iron Curtain" (January 1996)
NATO is incautiously expanding eastward, which has thoughtful Russians worried about being fenced out of Europe—and worse. By Anatol Lieven

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Russia's Deteriorating Forces (, March 23, 2000)
"Soldiers beg, sell equipment to make ends meet." An online report by David Ruppe. Includes links to Nightline footage.
To understand the present condition of the Russian military, and the problems facing the Russian state as a whole, we must examine what lies behind the war in Chechnya. Although it has generated much criticism in human-rights circles (particularly in Western Europe), the war has given rise to relatively little public discontent in Russia, where the conflict is seen as a battle for the Russian Federation. Should the Chechens win independence, they would acquire a segment of the oil pipeline that runs from the Caspian Sea across their territory to Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea. Furthermore, other restive, partly Muslim regions of the federation, from republics in the Caucasus to oil-rich Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, might be tempted to secede.

Getting the lion's share of Caspian oil reserves ranks as one of the Kremlin's principal domestic and foreign-policy objectives. When Chechen guerrillas invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan, in 1999, they threatened not only Russia's position on the Caspian Sea but also its alliance with and military bases in Georgia and Armenia—bases Russia needs in order to stymie efforts by Turkey and the West to erode its hegemony in the region. In view of these international implications, it makes sense that Moscow has chosen to emphasize the role played by foreign (mostly Muslim) governments and mercenaries in the Chechen conflict.

Since federal forces reinvaded Chechnya and established a measure of control over its northern lowlands, capital, and main cities, Putin has asserted that the military is conducting not a war but a (largely successful) "anti-terrorist operation" against band-formirovaniya ("bandit units"). The result, he maintains, will be a political solution involving the reincorporation of Chechnya into Russia. Media coverage has for the most part been restricted to positive accounts of battles won and children saved, but state television also reports much that does not suggest a sunny return of Kremlin rule: frequent Chechen attacks on Russian forces all over the republic, some of them causing dozens of casualties; Chechen guerrillas' murdering with impunity compatriots who collaborate with Russian authorities; and savage incidents of banditry and kidnapping—not only by the rebels. Russian troops have kidnapped Chechens for ransom; Russian soldiers have sold their weapons to guerrillas in return for cash or narcotics; and the torture of detainees in federal detention centers is routine. All of this has prompted Putin to visit Chechnya and to scold military commanders, including the Minister of Defense, for their incompetence and unprofessionalism. But the war goes on, with no end in sight, and atrocities on both sides continue.

Putin has promised to improve the military through much publicized reforms. Last September the Ministry of Defense announced plans to cut its forces by almost a third, from 1.2 million men to 850,000—a measure that would purportedly allow for a leaner, meaner, and better-paid fighting force and would free up funds for the building of ten new Topol-M ICBMs, Russia's most lethal nuclear missiles. Yet within two weeks an official of the State Security Council announced that troop numbers were in fact still at Soviet-era levels, totaling more than two million servicemen, with another 966,000 in civilian support staff. This declaration exposed the sham of Russia's demilitarization during the Yeltsin years and made a cut of 350,000 men seem insignificant.

Thus it is unclear where the issue of military reform stands. But the blood, gore, and corruption in Chechnya are a reminder that no matter what the numbers are, a band of rebels has managed to tie down the army of what was once the world's second superpower.

Russia's superpower ambitions contrast with its abysmal domestic failures, both military and economic; Putin's promise to fulfill those ambitions bespeaks the same sort of crippling policy confusion that characterized the Yeltsin era. But no matter how much its army deteriorates, Russia is likely to maintain a nuclear arsenal sufficiently strong to keep nato from ever launching a "humanitarian" war on its soil. And the ruin that Russian forces have wrought on Chechnya has shown what Moscow is willing to do to keep Russia intact.

Zaire With Permafrost

hat does the future hold for Russia? It was Ivan the Terrible's reign that first made the Kremlin's power synonymous with the rapine and exploitation of the Russian people. Five centuries of pillaging by the state have meant that Russians expect repression, and only seek to lessen its impact or evade it through stealth. But since the Gorbachev years Russians have taken steps toward reassessing their history and government, have followed politics and voted in the most-open elections they have known, and have enjoyed newfound freedoms of expression, assembly, comportment, and travel. Nevertheless, history suggests that a powerful state, of the sort that Russians have built in the past, would put an end to all that and guarantee corruption, abuse of power, violence, curtailment of liberties, and instability. Now is not the time to resuscitate ideas that brought the country to near collapse in 1991. Putin's plans to strengthen the state (at least as he envisions it), if carried out, would amount to a national death sentence. Yet the weakened state that existed under Yeltsin left the population prey to the mafiya and corrupt bureaucrats. Given the logic and propensities of Russian history, there appears to be no end in sight to the country's decay.

Meanwhile, much of Moscow's political elite still views Russia as having a Great Power role to play vis-à-vis the United States—a role that, more than economic reform, seems to captivate the Kremlin. (Under both Yeltsin and Putin, Russia has striven to counter the United States by courting alliances with China and India, selling arms and nuclear technology to Iran, and supporting or at least dealing with Iraq, Serbia, North Korea, and Cuba.) Superpower ambitions are inevitable, because Russian civilization and identity are buttressed by a vast and isolating territory, abundant natural resources, and scientific and military capabilities that include nuclear weapons. In view of the ailing economy—Russia's gross national product today amounts to just four percent of the United States' GNP—these pretensions are fraught with danger, and Putin would do well to recall that high defense spending helped to bring about the demise of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Putin has declared that he will increase the military budget to "respond to new geopolitical realities, both external and internal threats." (The budget for last year included a seven percent increase, and Putin has pledged to raise it by 57 percent eventually.) As the state grows stronger, it will once again rob the people to pay the bills. Thus policies aimed at the revival of the state and the pursuance of Great Power ambitions promise only further suffering, exploitation, and decay.

From the archives:

"Street of Russian Goods Welcome!" (April 2001)
In a remote and still-sensitive border region Russians and Chinese are enjoying economic rapprochement. By Jeffrey Tayler
For those who remain. Over the past decade Russia's population has been shrinking by almost a million a year, owing to a plummeting birth rate and a rising number of deaths from alcoholism and violence. Predictions are astonishingly grave: the country could lose a third of its population (now 146 million) by the middle of the century. This does not factor in new scourges—tuberculosis and HIV, in particular, which have been spreading exponentially since 1998. As its population shrinks, Russia will find itself less and less able to face demographic challenges from China. Overpopulation is pushing the Chinese into the Russian Far East—a trend that at present benefits Russia by bringing it trade and small-scale investment but that could someday lead to ethnically based separatism.

From the archives:

"Zaire: An African Horror Story" (August 1993)
Observers search for a suitable analogy—the next Bosnia, another Somalia—to the shaky, predatory despotism of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga. By Bill Berkeley
Although the Kremlin's superpower pretensions may preclude it from becoming a loyal partner of the West, the country's economic failings, to say nothing of its shrinking population, will eventually prevent Russia from posing a significant threat abroad. Given that Russia is surviving on human, material, and military reserves accrued during the Soviet years, and that Putin has put forward plans that will only worsen his country's plight, we can draw but one conclusion: Russia is following the path of Mobutu's Zaire, becoming a sparsely populated yet gigantic land of natural resources exploited by an authoritarian elite as the citizenry sinks into poverty, disease, and despair.

What does this mean for the West? It is difficult to imagine the birth of an ideological conflict between Russia and the West similar to that which led to the Cold War—though Russian nationalist sentiments are likely to increase, and to find expression in ever-more-bellicose pronouncements from the Kremlin, especially if the West and NATO persist in humiliating Moscow with military adventures in its former spheres of influence. Otherwise, to the benefit of the Russian elite, Western businesses will continue to operate in the havens of Moscow and St. Petersburg, where investment, both Russian and foreign, will ensure a well-maintained infrastructure. As regions deteriorate, these two cities are likely to continue developing and growing: Moscow's population officially stands at nine million but may actually be as high as 12 million. Western governments will continue to buy cheap Russian oil and gas, and will quite possibly invest heavily in the upkeep of those industries. And as for superpower status, in contrast to the Turks under Kemal Atatürk, who voluntarily relinquished their empire in favor of an Anatolian homeland, or the Byzantine Greeks, who fell in battle defending their empire against the Turks, the Russians are likely to face a long, slow, relatively peaceful decline into obscurity—a process that is well under way.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2001; Russia Is Finished - 01.05; Volume 287, No. 5; page 35-52.