Medvedev Is Reinventing the Red Army

On a chilly day earlier this fall in a forest near the Lithuanian border, Dmitry Medvedev strode out to inspect one of Russia's latest tactical missiles as it was trundled into launch position. The president wore a green officer's jacket with commander-in-chief decals and used a pair of outsize binoculars to watch the rocket soar toward its target.

Not long ago, such atmospherics would have been left to Vladimir Putin, Medvedev's old boss. But Russia's young, reformist president has become very invested in the country's military, and not just, like his predecessor, to bulwark a tough-guy image. While Putin quadrupled defense spending without making much headway on reform, Medvedev has embarked on a bold campaign to transform the Red Army, trying to turn a creaking Cold War–era institution plagued with a corrupt officer corps, outdated equipment, endemic bullying, suicide, and alcoholism into a modern fighting force able to effectively project power abroad for the first time in a generation. In his state-of-the-empire speech on Nov. 12, Medvedev told the Duma that Russia's "old economic model doesn't work anymore" and said that "our nation's survival will depend on modernization." The same goes for the military. It's an enormous project: to succeed, Medvedev will have to make the Russian Army smaller, better equipped, and more professional. This will mean painful cuts and dismantling deep vested interests that have thrived on the rotting, subsidy-soaked body of Russia's military-industrial complex.

If it works, however, the payoff could be just as great: a military that might actually live up to the Kremlin's ambitions. Those don't include threatening the West. Medvedev wants to stop preparing for the conventional European war the old Soviet Army was designed to fight and to focus instead on the kind of regional missions Russia may actually face in the years ahead. This will take rapid-reaction forces capable of fighting brushfire wars and clobbering smaller neighbors. Russia's not getting out of the great-power game entirely: Medvedev is also investing heavily in the country's still-gigantic strategic nuclear arsenal in order to preserve Moscow's place at the top table of nations. But even as he builds next-generation nukes, he has made a point of reassuring Washington by agreeing to cutbacks in Russia's aging nuclear stockpile.

Medvedev embarked on his reform campaign last year, shortly after Russia's dismal performance in the August war against Georgia, according to Pavel Zolotarev of Russia's Academy of Sciences. It was the first time Russia's Army had been tested against a foreign enemy since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the results weren't pretty. The campaign exposed what independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer calls "embarrassing failings" in Russia's fighting ability. At least 11 Russian aircraft and several drones were shot down, and there were reports of extensive burning and looting of abandoned Georgian villages by undisciplined troops. Many Russian soldiers were spotted going to battle in running shoes and polyester sweatpants instead of boots and camouflage uniforms, and one junior officer even asked NEWSWEEK reporters to lend him a Georgian SIM card to call his superiors after radios failed. A line of broken-down Russian armored personnel carriers was also seen on the main road from Tskhinvali to Gori. The ultimate end to the conflict was never in doubt—Georgia has 4.6 million citizens versus Russia's 140 million—but the tiny nation's spiffy U.S.-supplied military vehicles and uniforms made the Russians look as if they'd just stepped out of a World War II documentary.

Medvedev started to clean house in the days that followed. Nikolai Makarov, a top general he'd appointed just before the Georgia campaign, commissioned a root-and-branch review of the state of the military. It turned out that the troops deployed in Georgia were actually better than average. The review found, among other things, that only 17 percent of Russia's military units had a full complement of men and equipment. "All the other units either had faulty ammunition and weapons or did not have enough people," says Zolotarev. The Army was also seriously top-heavy, with more than 900 generals (the U.S. Army has about 300) and one officer for every 2.5 men, compared with the 1–15 ratio favored by Western armies. Meanwhile, up to a third of conscripts were "mentally un-fit, drug addicts, or imbeciles," according to a public statement last year by Col. Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov, the Air Force commander in chief. As for the Army's practices, these weren't stuck in the Cold War—they were downright medieval, with NGOs reporting hair-raising tales of officers hiring out their own men as slave laborers and male prostitutes.

With these exposés came a recognition that, while Russia may have managed to roll over Georgia, it won't always be so lucky. "If, God forgive us, we start a war with a highly technological nation like the United States, we have no chance of survival," says Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military analyst. "Now, finally, the Russian government has accepted the gravity of the problem."

Medvedev's hatchet man is Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, appointed by Putin in 2007 and, like Putin and Medvedev, a graduate in law from St. Petersburg State University. The reform plan he helped draft, which was finalized in the fall of 2008, is impressively ambitious. Nearly 200,000 officers—more than a third of the total—are to be fired, while some of those remaining will get pay raises (up to a total of $5,000 a month, more than five times the current level) in order to improve quality. Compulsory service has been cut from two years to less than one, and the Army is to be organized into modern fast-reacting brigades of 2,000 rather than the old lumbering divisions of 5,000 and more. The overall size of the armed forces is to be cut by a quarter, largely by getting rid of many nonfighting units. And if Serdyukov has his way, resources will be concentrated on elite fighting battalions that will form the core of a new rapid-reaction force.

Of course, grand plans for reforming the Army have been coming out of the Kremlin for centuries, and most have foundered on institutional resistance and corruption. But there are good reasons to think Medvedev may succeed. The most promising sign is the way he's taken on some very sacred cows. One is procurement. The very idea of buying defense systems abroad would have been considered treason in the Soviet era. In September, however, Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin told the bosses of Russia's weapons industries that he would not hesitate to source matériel from overseas if they couldn't provide it. Sure enough, that month Moscow announced it would buy $50 million in unmanned drones from Israel rather than go with a clunky, overbudget Russian-made drone that had failed to perform in Georgia. This year Russia also bought sniper rifles from the U.K. and pistols from Austria for its elite units. "Acknowledging that Russia cannot produce everything is the first step toward modernizing the system," says Golts.

Perhaps, but updating the military-industrial complex will be as hard as modernizing the rest of Russia's moribund technology sector. Thanks to injections of cash—Russia's military budget hit $50 billion in 2008, and Putin recently pledged to raise it to $125 billion by 2011—old giants like the aircraft makers MiG and Sukhoi are now cranking out new planes. But the latest generation of Russian hardware—the Su-34 and Su-35 fighter-bombers, the MiG-35 fighter, the S-400 air-defense system, and the Iskander short-range missile—is in fact little more than upgraded versions of projects designed 30 years ago. "As soon as these design bureaus got money, they just dusted off their old projects that were a generation old," says Felgenhauer. Medvedev seems to recognize this problem, and during a visit last month to the Mashinostroyenia factory in Reutov, he blasted the industry and called for a "fundamental modernization." (Article continued below…)

In other areas, there are small signs of progress. New units—effectively, a new Army within the old one—have been set up and shown off by Medvedev to the presidents of neighboring countries as part of a new 5,000-man, post-Soviet regional rapid-reaction force that Russia will lead. The new units will be "just as good as NATO forces," Medvedev promised earlier this year, and will have kit standard in Western armies (but previously unheard of in Russia): individual radios and night-vision equipment for every man and vehicle, for instance, and uniforms and boots made of breathable modern materials rather than wool and leather. The units' brief will be "to repulse military aggression, conduct antiterrorist operations, fight transnational crime and drug trafficking, and disaster relief." The force will be permanently based in Russia, but special units will be manned by members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Russia has also done a good job upgrading what is perhaps the key element of its strategic military power—its nuclear arsenal. In October, the new Dmitry Donskoi missile submarine successfully test-fired the Bulava, Russia's newest sea-launched ballistic missile, after failing on its first eight attempts. The Bulava is a 30-ton Death Star capable of circling the earth and launching 10 targeted nuclear warheads from orbit. Two more submarine missile cruisers, which will pack 16 Bulavas each, are also under construction. Such weapons are more suited to the Cold War than to a modern, agile, tactical army—but even the reforming Medvedev knows that an outsize nuclear capability is one of the keys to keeping Russia's place among the great powers. He also knows that big impressive rockets are crowd pleasers—which is why he ordered Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles paraded in Red Square on Victory Day last year for the first time since Soviet days.

Such displays and the new spending are being enthusiastically cheered in some parts of the country, especially the archipelago of closed military cities. "Our hearts filled up with joy when we saw the rockets we test here on the Red Square," says Alexander Likh, mayor of Znamensk, a closed city in central Russia where missiles are designed and tested. "Finally, after almost a decade of degradation and poverty, our range is important again."

But not everyone is so enthusiastic, especially Russia's neighbors. Last week Poland's Defense Minister Radek Sikorski sounded the alarm in a letter to NATO, complaining about maneuvers involving 12,000 Russian and Belarussian troops in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. "This disturbs us," he told Polish state radio. "We demand that NATO take this into account." Sikorski and others were also upset last month when Medvedev made the quick deployment of Russian forces abroad easier by signing a new law allowing them to be dispatched outside the country "to repel an attack on Russian military units or prevent an armed attack on another state asking Russia for military assistance, [or] to defend Russian citizens abroad from an armed attack." That sounds a lot like a mandate for Moscow to "defend" Russian minorities in former Soviet neighbors such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, should it perceive the need—or want the pretext.

Medvedev's reform campaign may also create other dangers at home. Earlier this year, the Kremlin slowed its planned troop reductions and officer firings, apparently nervous that disgruntled soldiers might cause trouble if they were discharged without proper accommodation and benefits. Still, Medvedev has made his determination to remake Russia's Army clear, refusing to cut budgets even as the rest of the country tightens its belt in the wake of economic crisis. That doesn't necessarily mean that his ambitions are aggressive (though Washington is worried enough about its regional allies that it has offered to build up Georgia's defensive capabilities). But it certainly shows that the Kremlin is serious about establishing its military as a credible deterrent to further NATO expansion—as well as a powerful incentive for neighbors to accept Russia's leadership in the region.

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