Why Putin Is Less Dangerous Now

 

shutterstock_96507811Many commentators have expressed the belief that Russia is more dangerous now that their economy has collapsed because Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has his back against the wall and may react unpredictably. Perhaps. But I have one question for these prognosticators: with what soldiers will he react?

I ask this question because one of the great sources of Russia’s recent military revival has been the comprehensive military reforms begun in 2008, transforming the Russian military from a large and ponderous conscript army to a modern professional army, like those of the United States or United Kingdom. Because of these reforms, the number of soldiers in the Russian army has dropped to 300,000. For the first time ever, the Russian Army is smaller than its American counterpart.

Though smaller, it is much more capable than before. A large conscript army may be good for repelling a general invasion, but it a poor tool for fighting an expeditionary war such as an invasion of Ukraine. This is because long-serving professionals are more competent and motivated at warcraft than are two-year conscripts,  something the US discovered in Vietnam. The proportion of conscripts in the Russian military is at an all-time low. In addition, the period of conscription has been reduced to one year from the traditional two.

This was all made possible by high oil revenues that paid for — among other things — the vastly increased personnel budget. When the US Army went professional after the Vietnam War, soldiers’ pay soared. A large portion of the Reagan era defence increases went towards soldiers’ pay, to induce higher-quality recruits and to keep them in the service longer (something you rarely hear from critics of President Reagan). How will Putin pay for all these professional troops now that oil price and the Rouble has tanked?

The only other option he has is more conscription, either by calling up more recruits every year, or by increasing their service period back up to two years (a soldier only really becomes effective after the first year). The problem is that military conscription is enormously unpopular in Russia across the social strata. This attitude has little to do with either Putin or patriotism: it’s a based on the incredibly bad conditions Russian conscripts face, both from the actual physical conditions as well as brutal hazing. There is no analog in Western militaries, so Westerners have a hard time comprehending this.

I know a number of people who served in the Soviet military and their stories were hair-raising. As a result, privileged young men buy their way out of service. Others enter into phony masters programs designed to run out the clock making them too old to serve once they “graduate.” Young men without connections or money simply go into hiding. There is no other single action that Vladimir Putin could take to make himself less popular than to increase conscription, and widespread civil disobedience — i.e. even more than at present — would follow.

Even before its current difficulties, Russia did not have enough professional troops to go around, given all of Putin’s adventures. As a result, you kept seeing the same elite units (e.g. 76th Airborne Division, 5th Spetznaz Brigade) in every conflict: Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine.

With the collapse of the Russian economy, the Russian military will have no choice but to shrink. There is no way to pay the current numbers of professional soldiers, and that is a good thing. The alternative, calling in more conscripts, would be explosively unpopular.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer beady-eyed KGB goon.

Image Credit: Slavko Sereda / Shutterstock.com

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  1. Limestone Cowboy Coolidge
    Limestone Cowboy
    @LimestoneCowboy

    Canadian Cincinnatus: But I have one question for these prognosticators: with what soldiers will he react?

    I wish I shared your confidence, but I don’t.

    Putin does not need a lot of soldiers to create a lot of mischief in the region if he follows the Ukraine template and focuses on stirring up ethnic Russian populations in what Russians term the “near abroad” or former client republics of the USSR.

    With very short supply lines, he could create a sponsored civil war in weak neighboring states with significant ethnic Russian populations. I’m thinking here of Latvia and Estonia. No real soldiers necessary except in leadership and organizing roles, and probably not uniformed either.

    Actually I’m surprised he took on the Ukraine first. It’s a much bigger place with a very strong nationalist tradition.

    • #1
  2. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Limestone Cowboy: I’m thinking here of Latvia and Estonia

    NATO countries, with professional militaries, strong ties to nearby NATO and non-NATO members (Poland, Scandinavian countries etc.).

    If he stirred trouble there, the blowback he has received over Ukraine will be nothing in comparison.

    Limestone Cowboy: Actually I’m surprised he took on the Ukraine first. It’s a much bigger place with a very strong nationalist tradition.

    Ukraine was always a target for Russian nationalism, and it was always a weak target. Ukraine’s military, as was demonstrated, was completely unprepared for anything, and thoroughly infiltrated by pro-Kremlin agents. Majority of Ukrainians themselves had no stomach for this fight.

    I agree completely with this Canadian Cincinnatus. What we see here the obvious: Russia’s military is little more than a handful of “professional” units which do all the mischief, but the majority is nothing more than shambles.

    This was obvious long before Ukraine or 2008. All you had to do was look at Russia’s military parades that they started holding in recent years. Only the Moscow parade featured any equipment which might be called “modern” (modern by Russian standards). The rest of the parades, even the St. Petersburg one, were mainly comprised of old junk left over from Soviet days. Nothing modern in sight.

    Journalists, of course, didn’t pay much attention to the St. Petersburg parade. Just the Moscow one.

    But Ukraine also demonstrated the weakness of Russia. Russia deployed almost exclusively its “elite” VDV units (airborne), “elite” ground forced (equipped with their newest model tanks, the T-72B3, which by NATO standards is antiquated) and their “elite” mercenary units of Chechens and Cossacks.

    While they were clearly better than the Ukrainian forces, which are obviously in shambles themselves, they didn’t show to be anything particularly impressive. Hundreds of them have been killed so far. Their “elite” tankers have lost considerably material, even abandoning their tanks on the battlefield in several occasions. Their Chechen mercenaries are all paid to fight, and when the money stops, they resort to infighting.

    But that’s the…entirety…of their “modern army”. Clearly, it’s “regular” military units weren’t seen fit to be deployed into Ukraine. And to think that all they were really facing in Ukraine were Ukrainian volunteer units, not even the regular Ukrainian military (which mostly stood back, with the exception of their own VDV troops).

    Russia is a gangster nation, but militarily it is not a threat, other than to weak small neighbours.

    • #2
  3. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Of course, even in Georgia they deployed mostly their “professional” units. Although they obviously overwhelmed the Georgians, who were themselves a terribly prepared military (run by a “minister of defense” of 30 years of age!)…they showed themselves to be really just a rag-tag group of mercenaries.

    They looted and stole at will.

    So the quality of the “professional” Russian soldier, isn’t exactly high.

    They are “professional” in the sense that they are paid for their service. Not “professional” in the sense that they train and think like professional soldiers, like in the US Army (or any NATO army)

    • #3
  4. Badderbrau Member
    Badderbrau
    @EKentGolding

    Does anyone really expect NATO to fulfill its treaty obligations to the newer nations  and go to war to defend them?   I suspect NATO  would do little or nothing until troops entered Germany…..

    Does anyone really expect the USA under Obama to fulfill its treaty obligations and to go to war to defend the NATO countries,  Japan, Tiawan, or Israel?   I don’t think Obama would respond to a Nuclear attack on a Red State,  much less the invasion of an ally.

    • #4
  5. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    On the personnel side, a failing economy means the private sector in Russia can’t compete with the public sector. That should help military recruiting.

    On the materiel side, unlike a typical Western country having to purchase most components for military hardware in an international market, most of what goes into a given piece of Russian hardware is from Russia and purchased in Rubles. What few things they might need, they can buy with their reduced oil money or barter for their own military technology.

    • #5
  6. user_1134414 Member
    user_1134414
    @Hugh

    Maybe Putin should test a couple of those nuclear bombs that he has lying around in large piles.  Just to make sure the things are not past their expiration date.

    You know….Rattle a few windows…

    • #6
  7. Limestone Cowboy Coolidge
    Limestone Cowboy
    @LimestoneCowboy

    AIG: I agree completely with this Canadian Cincinnatus. What we see here the obvious: Russia’s military is little more than a handful of “professional” units which do all the mischief,

    AIG, actually, you are exactly making my point rather than CCs. For physically small targets with large ethnic Russian populations all you need is “a handful of “professional” units which do all the mischief”.

    Re Estonia and Latvia:

    AIG: NATO countries, with professional militaries, strong ties to nearby NATO and non-NATO members (Poland, Scandinavian countries etc.).

    Take Estonia. The average size of the Estonian Regular Armed Forces  is about 3800 (Land 3300, Navy 300, Air Force 200) persons, of whom about 1500 are conscripts. This isn’t a military, it’s a police force and a small one at that.

    BTW, Sweden is strictly neutral. Poland and Norway are NATO members, but  given Norway’s limited capabilities, Poland is the only local NATO member with any significant muscle to deter Russian mischief. The Polish military has 120,000 active duty and 515,000 active reserve personnel.

    Badderbrau: Does anyone really expect NATO to fulfill its treaty obligations to the newer nations  and go to war to defend them?   I suspect NATO  would do little or nothing until troops entered Germany….. Does anyone really expect the USA under Obama to fulfill its treaty obligations and to go to war to defend the NATO countries

    I think Badderbrau’s comment get right to the heart of the immediate risks. We simply don’t know, but Obama’s dithering  and passivity don’t lead to much confidence that Obama is really committed to NATO. Obama is a gift to our adversaries, and if Putin want to test NATO’s resolution, he needs to do it before the end of Obama’s term.

    AIG: Ukraine was always a target for Russian nationalism, and it was always a weak target. Ukraine’s military, as was demonstrated, was completely unprepared for anything

    In  2005, Putin declared that “”The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

    I think increasingly he’s nostalgic for that world, and will attempt to recreate it as opportunities present themselves. He’s nibbled away at Georgia, and created mini-client states in Moldova, Dagestan and elsewhere. And of course he’s annexed Crimea. However, he has focused on areas where there are significant ethnic Russian populations. I don’t think he wants to try to reintegrate non-Russians such as the Azeris or Armenians. Yet.

    So, I’m surprised that that Putin went after the Ukraine as a first major target. I don’t think that is was well thought out from a strategic point of view. It seems to be an emotional rather than strategic priority. He refers in emotional terms to the founding of the ancient Russian state in Kiev, the so called Kievan Rus.

    Ukraine was and is a relatively weak military target but it has a seething historic resentment of Russian domination and a strong sense of nationalism. In fact nearly 80000 Ukrainians fought with the Germans against the Russians during WW2.

    Physically Ukraine is much larger than the Baltic states and which would take significant numbers of Russian soldiers to subdue completely. And, unless they do subdue it completely it may become a running sore for the Russian military.

    • #7
  8. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Badderbrau: Does anyone really expect NATO to fulfill its treaty obligations to the newer nations  and go to war to defend them?

    Yes.

    Badderbrau: Does anyone really expect the USA under Obama to fulfill its treaty obligations and to go to war to defend the NATO countries,  Japan, Tiawan, or Israel?

    Yes.

    ctlaw: That should help military recruiting.

    Help in what? Sending drunk thieves who can’t find a job into the Russian military? Yes. Help in that.

    ctlaw: On the materiel side, unlike a typical Western country having to purchase most components for military hardware in an international market, most of what goes into a given piece of Russian hardware is from Russia and purchased in Rubles.

    Most components for military hardware are not purchased in “international markets” for any military that makes their own equipment. Certainly not for the US.

    Limestone Cowboy: For physically small targets with large ethnic Russian populations all you need is “a handful of “professional” units which do all the mischief”.

    Which means that Putin isn’t a threat. It’s a gangster nation with the abilities of a gangster army, to operate only in places which are very favorable to them, like in Donbas in Ukraine.

    So why are people on here fantasizing about WW3?

    Limestone Cowboy: Take Estonia. The average size of the Estonian Regular Armed Forces  is about 3800 (Land 3300, Navy 300, Air Force 200) persons, of whom about 1500 are conscripts. This isn’t a military, it’s a police force and a small one at that. BTW, Sweden is strictly neutral. Poland and Norway are NATO members, but  given Norway’s limited capabilities, Poland is the only local NATO member with any significant muscle to deter Russian mischief. The Polish military has 120,000 active duty and 515,000 active reserve personnel.

    Estonia’s military is 16,000 men, with 30,000 in war-time scenarios. These countries cooperate with each other for their mutual defense. They are highly-trained and well-equipped soldiers. There are numerous NATO deployments in these countries, and numerous joint-exercises held every year. As well as joint task-forces with these other NATO and non-NATO members.

    Maybe you guys haven’t been paying attention recently, but there are numerous US military deployments in these countries in the last few months.

    Limestone Cowboy: He’s nibbled away at Georgia, and created mini-client states in Moldova, Dagestan and elsewhere.

    All things that happened in 1990-1992, in fact.

    Limestone Cowboy: Ukraine was and is a relatively weak military target but it has a seething historic resentment of Russian domination and a strong sense of nationalism.

    Not really. Most Ukrainians have no sense of nationalism at all. Which is why the majority of Ukrainians, when polled, don’t want to fight to save their territorial integrity in Dobas.

    Limestone Cowboy: Physically Ukraine is much larger than the Baltic states and which would take significant numbers of Russian soldiers to subdue completely.

    Which isn’t at all what he wants to do, or can do.

    • #8
  9. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Putin has no intention, or ability, to threaten NATO countries. Even the Baltics. (certainly not the Baltics, in fact, given the heavy presence of numerous NATO militaries in their territories).

    His target are failed states around him. His next target is likely to be Kazakhstan, or some other country far away from NATO and the US’s area of interest.

    He is weaker now precisely because the blowback on Ukraine was so harsh. His economy is collapsed, he solidified NATO’s and US’s commitment to establish themselves in Eastern Europe even more aggressively, and he got the message that if the West wants to, they can crush Russia’s economy at a whim.

    • #9
  10. Limestone Cowboy Coolidge
    Limestone Cowboy
    @LimestoneCowboy

    1)

    AIG: Estonia’s military is 16,000 men, with 30,000 in war-time scenarios. These countries cooperate with each other for their mutual defense. They are highly-trained and well-equipped soldiers. There are numerous NATO deployments in these countries, and numerous joint-exercises held every year. As well as joint task-forces with these other NATO and non-NATO members.

    WOW! Your insights into the Estonian military are even better than… well, the Estonian military’s. From the Estonian military official website.

    http://www.mil.ee/en/defence-forces

    The average size of the Estonian Regular Armed Forces in peacetime is about 3800 (Land Forces 3300, Navy 300, Air Force 200) persons, of whom about 1500 are conscripts. Voluntary Defence League has also about 13 000 members. The planned size of the operational (wartime) structure is 16 000 personnel. 

    That’s 3800 regulars,  as I said previously, plus 13000 militia who are unlikely to be highly trained and well equipped. I’d like to know where you got your 30,000 number from.

    PS.. ooh.. just re-read.  Sorry for the sarc.

    2)

    AIG: Limestone Cowboy: He’s nibbled away at Georgia, and created mini-client states in Moldova, Dagestan and elsewhere.

    All things that happened in 1990-1992, in fact.

    Actually, Russian intervention in Dagestan was in 1999, admittedly  in response to provocation by Chechen rebels.

    3)

    AIG: His target are failed states around him. His next target is likely to be Kazakhstan, or some other country far away from NATO and the US’s area of interest.

    In his own words, Putin wants to “protect” ethnic Russians in the near-abroad back to the Russian motherland. I’m doubt that he wants to re-incorporate ethnically and religiously hostile Kazakhs, Azeris, Turkmens etc.

    Oct  2014.

    Putin provided his—and Russia’s—most sweeping definition yet of population groups deemed to belong to the “Russian World” outside that country itself. By implication (see below), Russia is entitled to protect such population groups in countries beyond Russia’s own borders. As objects of such entitlement abroad, 

    “Our compatriots [sootechestvenniki], Russian people [russkiie lyudi], people of other ethnicities, their language, history, culture, their legitimate rights. When I say Russian people and Russian-speaking [russkoyazychnyie) citizens, I mean people who sense that they are a part of the broad Russian World, not necessarily of Russian ethnicity, but everyone who feels to be a Russian person [russkiy chelovek].”

    4)

    AIG: Putin has no intention, or ability, to threaten NATO countries. Even the Baltics. (certainly not the Baltics, in fact, given the heavy presence of numerous NATO militaries in their territories).

    I agree, with the qualification that he won’t threaten core NATO members like Poland.  The Baltic states are uniquely vulnerable because of the presence of the aforementioned russkiie lyudi.  It’s eerily reminiscent of the Sudetenland gambit  in 1938.

    The NATO presence is less of a capable force than a very important  symbolic tripwire and will provide some level of deterrence. If Russia uses the Ukraine model, they may engineer a civil war,  in which case NATO is less likely to intervene.

    5)  I see you’re in Houston, as am I. We should continue this over a beer. Send me a PM if you’d like to get together.

    • #10

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