Russia is under no illusion that its military is very capable. Low morale, poor training and living conditions, insufficient funding, and ageing equipment and infrastructure, among other problems, plague Russia’s armed forces. Much of these deficiencies, however, are largely attributable to Russia’s deficient manpower and the inability of its arms industry to furnish adequate military materiel. The 2008 Georgia-Russia War underscored the shortcomings of Russia’s deteriorating armed forces and recent calls by President Medvedev, leader of the world’s second largest arms exporter, to import weapons from abroad to ensure Russian forces are properly armed highlights the decrepit state of Russia’s arms industry.
The ambitious and long overdue military reform led by Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov aims to build a leaner Russian military that is more responsive to pressing threats, such as internal unrest and regional Islamic extremism. This reform, however, has placed great demand upon Russia’s already deficient arms industry to adequately supply Russia’s military reform. Recent criticisms of Russia’s arms industry, however, make clear that it struggles to support this reform effort and raises concerns as to whether Russia will be able to complete it. Indeed, at an international air show hosted outside Moscow last month, Russia's much anticipated new generation stealth fighter aborted takeoff because of mechanical failure.
At the same time, nuclear weapons play the predominant role in sustaining Russian international security and prestige, and remain the only military component that still makes Russia a global power. This is particularly so because Russia’s conventional armed forces are starkly inferior to the militaries of the United States, NATO and China. But the importance Russia affords its nuclear weapons places added demand upon its arms industry to maintain a sophisticated nuclear arsenal. This demand, however, comes into tension with Russia’s diminished ability to supply new nuclear systems, in great part because its arms industry, which suffers from deficient manpower and lacking technology, cannot keep up with the Kremlin’s demand to maintain a robust nuclear arsenal.
A reformed Russian military will likely increase the role nuclear weapons play in Russian security and foreign policy because while Russia’s military will be more effective at addressing pressing threats, such as regional terrorism, nuclear weapons will remain the ultimate deterrent to global powers with superior conventional forces. This reliance, however, will temper Russia’s enthusiasm for further arms control and place continued demand on its arms industry to maintain a robust nuclear arsenal.
Russia’s leadership must recognize that nuclear weapons are an inadequate response to the pressing conventional threats facing Russia. Russian military reform should thus instead focus on developing non-nuclear systems that offer a better deterrent and repellant to the more pressing and challenging conventional threats facing Russia which do not require expensive, high-tech destructive responses such as nuclear weapons. Unlike its strategic nuclear force, Russia’s decision to not modernize its tactical nuclear arsenal is an indication that Russian leaders have in part come to this realization. But Russia’s recent purchase of two Mistral class helicopter carriers from France are a far cry from the type of conventional military systems Russia needs.
In a vicious cycle, Russia’s military reform suffers from not only misplaced Russian demands for a robust nuclear arsenal and unnecessary conventional military systems, but also deficient supply from a derelict Russian arms industry that cannot provide adequate weaponry to meet reform demands or reduce Russia’s dependence on nuclear weapons. Reform will fail if Russia does not first improve its arms industry and curb the rampant corruption and overpricing that plagues it. But Russia’s arms industry has already lost ground at home and with time is likely to lose its pedestal as a top global supplier.
At the same time, Russia needs to further adjust its demand for military materiel. There is no longer a convincing security rationale for maintaining a robust, sophisticated Russian nuclear arsenal. Unlike during the Cold War, the likelihood of a nuclear war with the United States today is negligible. Russia should thus continue to actively participate in the process toward nuclear disarmament not because it necessarily supports its aims, but rather because it represents an opportunity to buttress Russia’s prestige by showcasing its role as a nuclear power and because disarmament is in line with Russia’s treaty obligations, military-industrial capacity and natural force obsolescence. Importantly, Russia’s security or prestige will not diminish with nuclear disarmament. China offers a vivid example: even with a smaller and relatively less sophisticated nuclear arsenal, Chinese interests receive attention and no country thinks about attacking it.
As Russia moves forward with its military reform it will need to balance an urgency to regain the relevance of its arms industry, modernize its military to confront pressing conventional threats, develop effective conventional weaponry to reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons, and measure its bellicose temptations as its armed forces become more effective. Doing so will test the patience of Russia’s arms industry and military brass, and as President Medvedev’s words evoke, requires much pressure from above. Whether Russia is up to the task is yet to be seen, but recent criticisms of its arms industry are not an encouraging sign.