Russia's Defense Shuffle May Tarnish Its Military

The Russian military is plagued by problems: A top heavy senior officer corps and a defense industry that churns out obsolete equipment, to name just two. Analysts in Russia say the U.S. should be worried about a weaker Russia, which may be becoming a front line in the battle against Islamist extremism.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Russia is in the midst of a major reshuffling at the top of its defense establishment. We talked yesterday with NPR's Moscow bureau chief, Corey Flintoff, about a scandal that apparently forced President Vladimir Putin to sack his defense minister. Corey is back with us on the program this morning to talk about what that might mean for Russia's status as a major military power and also what it might mean for the president. Corey, welcome back.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So just to put all of this in perspective for our listeners, I mean, is it fair to say that Vladimir Putin firing his defense minister is about as, you know, big a blow for the president as say if hypothetically President Obama fired his defense secretary, Leon Panetta?

FLINTOFF: I think that is fair, David, because the firing of the Russian defense chief, his name is Anatoly Serdyukov, just basically underlined the fact that Russia's military and its defense industry are in a mess right now. Serdyukov was seen as someone who was taking a fairly tough line in trying to address the problems with Russia's defense establishment.

GREENE: What are some of these problems in the defense establishment right now?

FLINTOFF: Well, basically, they're the two things that matter most for any military, personnel and equipment. Russian defense analysts say the country doesn't have enough well-trained soldiers and that their weapons are out of date.

GREENE: And how has that happened? I mean, I think, you know, Russia's military was always seen as one of the strongest and really most feared in the world.

FLINTOFF: That's true, but a lot has changed in 20 years or so. Just to look at personnel, Russia uses conscription, it uses the draft to keep its military up to strength. This is an analyst I talked to, Dmitry Gorenburg. He's a senior analyst at the American defense policy think tank, CNA.

DMITRY GORENBURG: The problem with conscription is that demographics are against them. The number of children born in the early '90s who are now turning 18 dropped off quite rapidly, and so the draft cohorts are getting smaller and smaller and won't bottom out for several more years.

FLINTOFF: What he's referring to is what happened in the years just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Life was so uncertain and chaotic in those days, that many Russians put off having children. That means that there are a lot fewer young men now who are eligible for the draft. And then the draft is also politically unpopular, so the length the service for a draftee was shortened from two years to one.

And the trouble with that is that it takes them six months to a year to train a modern soldier, so by the time you've got them trained, they're ready to leave the service.

GREENE: Okay. So challenges with personnel. What about weapons? I mean, this is a country that used to be considered really right on par with the United States when it came to everything from nuclear missiles to, you know, rifles.

FLINTOFF: Well, that's also true, but experts say that Russia's defense industry is still turning out weaponry that hasn't changed much since Soviet times. And that's something that the defense minister, before he was fired, was really trying to change. This is Alexander Golts. He's a military analyst and an editor at Daily Journal based in Moscow. He took the example of the Kalashnikov rifle.

It's also known as the AK-47.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: All scandals begin when Serdyukov and his people said, OK, guys, do we need Kalashnikovs? Not at all. We have 17 million pieces of Kalashnikov on our stockpiles absolutely new, ready to use.

FLINTOFF: Golts's point is that Russia already has more of the old style weapons than it can ever use. There's just no point in ordering more of them. The Kalashnikov is one of the most effective infantry weapons that was ever invented. In fact, you see copies of it all over the world. But it hasn't changed much in 40 years and it's just not a match for these higher powered, more accurate rifles that modern armies need today.

I mean, the same is true for the whole range of weapons that Russia's defense industry can build. It's just not geared up to produce innovative new designs and there are a lot of entrenched interests that aren't ready to change.

GREENE: But I thought I remember President Putin, when he was running during the election campaign to return as president, that he made a lot of promises - that he'd invest, you know, whatever money was needed to modernize the defense industry. I mean, what has happened to those promises?

FLINTOFF: Well, Putin said that he would spend more than $760 billion between now and the end of 2020. And that money is apparently still on the table. But, you know, the one thing that this latest scandal and the defense ministry pointed out, is that Russia's defense establishment is rife with corruption. Russian officials themselves say that at least 20 percent of defense spending is simply stolen.

GREENE: So it sounds like, I mean, really one of the realities in Russia is that when you earmark more money, when there's' more money out there meant to solve a problem, it almost becomes part of the problem because of the corruption.

FLINTOFF: That's right. It's a magnet for potential corruption and then it becomes a prize for these different factions of the Kremlin to fight over.

GREENE: What, Corey, should Americans think of all this? There was obviously a time during the Cold War when Americans would be pretty happy to hear that, you know, that the Soviet Union or Russia's military was having a lot of problems.

FLINTOFF: Yeah, you know, I asked all the experts that I talked with why Americans should care, David, and they all mentioned basically two reasons. You know, one is the obvious one, the issue of nuclear weapons. During those chaotic years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. invested a lot of money in making sure that Russia's nuclear stockpiles remained secure. And even though Russia has now said that it doesn't want to renew that agreement, it's still very important that the Russian military be capable of securing those weapons and keeping them out of the hands of terrorists.

And secondly, Russia needs to be a strong force to maintain stability in central Asia, you know, especially after the United States and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan. The people I talked with say there's a real possibility of Arab Spring style revolts in some of the former Soviet Republics of central Asia and that could provide another opening for Islamist groups like the Taliban to establish themselves.

GREENE: NPR Moscow bureau chief, Corey Flintoff. Corey, thanks so much for talking to us.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, David.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Putin promised again to bring back Russia's military might in his State of the Nation speech today. He also promised to strengthen the economy and curb government fraud. Putin's return to the presidency nine months ago generated protests over ballot rigging and state corruption. His response, cracking down on dissenters with arrests, new punitive laws.

GREENE: And speaking of cracking down on defense, in that speech today, Putin made a veiled reference to a controversy that drew widespread condemnation several months ago. He said he will continue to support institutions that represent traditional spiritual values. Last summer, the government sentenced three members of a punk rock band to prison after they performed a song in Moscow's main cathedral protesting the church's backing of Putin.

MONTAGNE: Those arrests provoked an international outcry against Russia's intolerance of dissent and Putin's efforts to get even tougher. In his State of the Nation address today, Putin warned against foreign meddling in Russian politics, calling it unacceptable.

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