STOLYPIN: Russia’s biggest security threat: its security forces

By bne IntelliNews August 12, 2015

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


Russia regards itself as under threat. Perhaps that is not surprising. Pew Global’s latest survey of attitudes towards Russia found only three countries – Vietnam, Ghana and, by just 1%, China – regarding it overall in positive rather than negative terms. Meanwhile, US military officers queue up to describe it (laughably) as their country’s number one security challenge, Nato is reinvigorated, and the very thing the ill-starred Donbas adventure was meant to forestall, closer Ukrainian alignment with the West, is becoming increasingly evident.

Even before the present storm of Russophobia and Russianoia, though, Vladimir Putin was pre-emptively arming with all the profligate enthusiasm he cold muster. The 2011-2020 State Armament Programme envisaged a massive overhaul of military equipment, while a reform process launched in 2008 saw organisational changes meant to take fullest advantage of new capacities. Indeed, just in August a new Aerospace Forces command was established to unite air, air defence and space forces.

Although this is a process still very much underway – the smooth occupation of Crimea by elite units should not be considered evidence that all Russian troops are as professional and capable – it does mean that Russia today has military capacities it lacked in 2008, let alone 1998.

So is Russia more secure? There’s the rub. The depressing irony is that despite an array of real challenges, from the prospect of a rising Islamic State (IS) presence in the unruly North Caucasus to the quagmire in the Donbas region of Ukraine, in many ways the greatest threat comes from the security apparatus itself.

By this I do not mean the prospect of a coup or the like. That is not at all likely: in the main they are loyal to the Putin regime, and in any case there is a complex balance of terror in place dating back to the Soviet times to prevent any such “Bonapartism”. (Even just consider the triangular disposition of forces in Moscow itself, where a division of Interior Troops responsible to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, three army brigades and the Kremlin Guard watch and counter each other.) Rather, the threats they pose are multiple.

Home grown

Russia today faces no external, existential threats. Nato is not waiting for the moment to roll its shrinking numbers of tanks eastwards. (Let’s be honest: it never even wanted Ukraine as a member.) China is happy to buy whatever it wants from a Russia desperate to sell; who knows what the medium- to long-term future may hold, but for now Moscow needs Beijing and Beijing, well, finds Moscow sometimes useful and otherwise no more than mildly irksome. The North Caucasus remains a bleeding wound, but even if IS finds a foothold there, it cannot bleed Russia enough to kill it, but at most leave the region a necrotic mess.

Why might IS be able to penetrate the North Caucasus? Because the region is ruinously under-developed, subject to crippling levels of corruption, lawlessness and youth unemployment, and as a result prone to the kind of legitimacy gap that leaves populations prey to all kinds of radical solutions. This is an extreme but useful metaphor for the real threats to Russia: they are home grown. Domestic failures of governance generate domestic challenges, which may be exacerbated by external pressures and translated into alien idiom – after all, historically the North Caucasus was Muslim, but by no means prone to the kind of jihadist excesses for which first Al-Qaeda and then IS stand – but which are essentially native.

In this context, the Kremlin’s concentration on the forms of military and security power in the name of presumed national defence and geopolitical status actually become problems, if only the regime were willing to see this.

Eating security

The first and most obvious is the sheer cost of Putin’s aspirations. The initial armament programme envisaged spending around RUB23 trillion over ten years. While assigning a dollar value to this is difficult and meaningless in today’s volatile days, that’s something like a sustained 3.0-3.5% of GDP over that decade, assuming no dramatic further economic decline. This is around the same level as the US spends on its military: but remember, this is not the total defence budget but just procurement, spending on stocking up the toy box. Actually maintaining the military, and fighting an undeclared war in the Donbas, all that is extra, bringing the total up to at least 4.5%

That is a great deal of money for a country also grappling with the need to modernise its infrastructure, diversify its economy, top up its pension pot, uplift Crimea, cope with massive regional inequalities (worsened by over $100bn in regional debt) and also absorb the levels of embezzlement and corruption necessary to keep the elite in the style to which they have become accustomed.

Despite upbeat claims, there is already evidence of some attempts to shave away at this procurement budget, with some projects being staged (the usual euphemism for put on the back burner) and others scaled down. However, ultimately these commitments are at least as much about placating a politically powerful defence-industrial complex than actually giving the generals what they think they need. Considering the plight of so much of Russian manufacturing these days, although logic might suggest less spent on tanks and more on subsidising cars, the usual result is that the defence industrialists leverage this to protect their order books.

So what? Every ruble spent on a tank or a missile unlikely to be used in anger and in any case hardly necessary for national security, is a ruble not spent on something else that might actually be more useful. If one accepts that the real challenges to the security of the current Russian state are domestic, then one has to look at such issues as poverty, under-development, radicalisation, the brain drain, health, crime and terrorism. Halving the overall defence spend would be very unlikely to change Russia’s external threat environment. On the other hand, it would leave money to spend on schools and hospitals, on police officers and social workers, on microfinance in Dagestan and grants to encourage resettlement in the Russian Far East. In other words, to address some of those real problems. At present, though, the military and above all the defence industries are eating the funds that might otherwise be used more productively.

(In)security states of mind

Meanwhile, the very scale of the military reform programme and the way it has allowed at least part of the military to brought to a far higher level of operational readiness means that it inclines a regime which, after all, is run by people who feel a close affinity to the military without ever having served in the ranks, to an overconfident assertiveness that causes its own problems.

The very ease with which Crimea was taken seems to have been a crucial factor in the hasty decision to move on to the Donbas. The outcome is a miserable conflict with no good outcomes for Moscow, which has seen its global standing plummet, its forces sucked into an unacknowledged but obvious proxy war, and a downed civilian airliner on its record, if not it seems on its conscience.

Furthermore, following the old cliché that every problem looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer, the Kremlin – watching its soft power and its economic leverage drain away – turns to military means in a desperate bid to exert influence. Bombers buzzing Nato airspace, warships in the Mediterranean and missiles being hawked to the global awkward squad do not represent a bid to create a neo-Soviet empire, just a desperate and ham-fisted attempt to become sufficiently worrying to the West that it seems better to make a deal with Moscow rather than maintain the present confrontation.

Yet here is the irony: Russia’s new military capacities, while actually quite moderate, and its “heavy metal diplomacy” have empowered every hawkish Russophobe in the West and precisely make Moscow look like a threat. Frankly, if ever there was a time for a statesmanlike willingness to step back from military postures and, by slashing defence expenditures address at once the country’s geopolitical and economic threats, it is now. No statesmen of that sort seem to be occupying the Kremlin, alas.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows ( and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.

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