Russia's Military: Threatening Enough To Avoid Using Force?

Russia is in the middle of a planned upgrade and expansion of its military forces, but global affairs professor Mark Galeotti tells NPR's Arun Rath that Russia's military has its limits.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The tension in Eastern Ukraine is heightened by the large presence of Russian troops along the border. The Russian government had claimed they were there for a training exercise but today, Vladimir Putin's spokesman said they are there because of the instability in Ukraine. Russia is in the middle of a planned upgrade and expansion of its military forces. But Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU says Russia's military has its limits and Putin would not be quick to start an open war.

MARK GALEOTTI: Instead, it's about using Russian military as a fierce engine of threat. I mean, at the moment we know that Kiev has been limited in actually how it feels it can deal with the paramilitaries in the east of the country because precisely Russia warned that if they unleashed the military then Russia might regard that as something that it needs to respond to.

So from Putin's point of view, he needs enough of a force that it actually is a credible threat, but he hopes never to actually have to test that in open war.

RATH: Can you give us a sense of how capable is Russia's military?

GALEOTTI: In terms of comparisons with the U.S. military, let alone NATO as a whole, it's still very, very weak, Which is one reason why they've been using the tactics they have, of deniable operations using sort of local agents and so forth rather than just simply rolling in straight forwardly.

RATH: Well, is there a stark difference between what we see in the evening news and the rest of the country's military?

GALEOTTI: Yes. I think nobody realizes Russia is still trying to maintain an army that is frankly too large for its budget. It's trying to maintain an army of 820,000 soldiers, in many ways a relic of the Soviet times. They've spent a lot of money. What that has meant is, in effect, it's got two armies. There are the relatively elite forces, the naval infantry, the marines, whom we saw in Crimea, as well as the airborne and the Spetsnaz special forces, you know, who are good.

I mean, they're not to the absolute top level of NATO standards but they are very good. The rest are still, despite the amount of money that has been spent, and a lot of it has been embezzled, still really quite reminiscent of the Soviet military. They're largely constricts. They're not terribly well trained. They're only on one-year contracts. Their equipment is at best so-so. There are all kinds of problems within discipline, even just a very, very, sort of bullying culture, which leads actually people to desert and die every year. There's still that large and underdeveloped force behind them.

RATH: So you mentioned Russia's massive military budget and how it seemed out of scale to you to the Russian economy. At the same time, Vladimir Putin says this is just the beginning. It's been reported the defense spending in Russia reached $60 billion in 2013. And this year that could increase by 18 percent. Is maintaining a massive military even feasible for Russia at that scale?

GALEOTTI: It's hard to say it is sustainable. Even before we started looking at a world with sanctions and so forth, it was clear that there were problems ahead for the Russian economy, which is still entirely dependent on oil and gas exports. There's a whole variety of economic problems beginning to come over the horizon. Even by the Russian's own admissions, a large amount of money that they're spending is either wasted through embezzlement or just simply inefficiency, or else it just simply goes on up heap for this over large army rather than on new technology, new training and so forth.

RATH: Well, you have to ask, what about the civilians? Are typical Russians on the street concerned about this massive defense budget?

GALEOTTI: People don't have a problem with high defense spending. You know, Russia historically has always had sort of an importance of security, in generally sort of public discourse about politics. What people do and will worry about though is actually when the money's not available for things that are actually closer to their hearts; when the pensions can't keep up with inflation, when the roads aren't being repaired, when the railways fall further into disarray.

At present, people aren't drawing the connection between military spending and these problems. In due course though the risk for Putin is that they will.

RATH: Mark Galeotti is a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. Mark, thank you.

GALEOTTI: My pleasure.

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