Reinventing Russia

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Russian soldiers at the Kant airbase on October 23, when it was opened. - VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AP

The revised Putin Doctrine and the steps being initiated under it indicate that an all-out effort is on to revive the Russian state militarily, strategically and economically.

RECENT developments indicate that a concerted attempt is on to revive the Russian state militarily, strategically and economically. This effort, which has been on through the past two years, has gathered pace since August. Signs of this change are evident in statements issued by the Kremlin, the revised Russian defence policy, President Vladimir Putin's frequent interactions with former Soviet states, and the developments on the economic front.

One clear pointer of this `revival' plan is the recent decision to initiate militarisation at the school and college levels. According to the revised Russian military doctrine, compulsory military education at the school and college levels and periodic training of persons subject to the draft are to be effected on a priority basis. Follow-up on this issue has been fast. The Russian Federation State Duma recently approved the first reading of a Bill on compulsory military training in schools and professional colleges. Deputies adopted amendments to the law on "military service and military duty" and the "law on education". An amendment to the latter makes it clear that a new law favouring military service must be introduced. Moscow-based experts view this step as indicating that education is being militarised, as it was during the heyday of the Soviet Union.

If the militarisation of education is the curtain-raiser, statements given by Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov in early October have significance as they announced the revised Putin Doctrine (defence and strategic policy). Ivanov declared, in the presence of the visiting German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, that Russia reserved the right to intervene militarily in the member-countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in order to settle disputes that could not be settled otherwise. Backing Ivanov, Putin asserted traditional Russian rights over the Central Asian region by saying that pipelines carrying oil and natural gas to the West through the Central Asian and Russian hinterland were built by the Soviet Union and "it is Russia's prerogative to maintain them in order to protect its national interests, even in those parts of the system that are beyond Russia's borders". Ivanov went a step ahead and declared that the United States' bases in Central Asia, currently being used to conduct the "war on terror", will have to be dismantled after the "war" was over.

It goes without saying that despite Russia's studied silence on the issue, the growing U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) presence in the CIS states and the rest of Central Asia has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. In fact, it has been a source of growing concern for Russia's defence planners and policy-makers. However, the first signs of Moscow's fast-changing position on this subject are evident in the statements of Putin and Ivanov. In his revised doctrine, Putin reasserts Russia's traditional interest in the CIS and the rest of Central Asia. This, in turn, is stressed in Ivanov's statement. Putin also re-asserted Russia's right to interfere in the energy politics of the region. He clearly threw down the gauntlet to the West and challenged the U.S. in its bid to control the massive Caspian Sea oil reserves.

Interestingly, Ivanov's statements about nuclear weapons were even more ominous. Discussing the Putin Doctrine, Ivanov had declared on October 2 that the role of nuclear weapons remained a key feature of Russia's defence strategy and that Moscow did not preclude the possibility of pre-emptive strikes, if the need arose, to defend its interests or those of its allies. The original Putin doctrine of 2000 had mentioned the need to `restore the force of nuclear deterrence', but made no mention of pre-emptive strikes in the case of allies' interests.

(From right) Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and President Vladimir Putin with Kyrghizstan President Askar Akayev and Defence Minister Esen Topoyev at the opening of the airbase.-DMITRI ASTAKHOV/AFP

Visible evidence of this growing radicalisation of the Putin Doctrine abounds. On October 23, Putin opened Russia's first post-Soviet military outpost in Central Asia. The full-fledged airbase at Kant in Kyrghizstan is just 30 km away from a U.S. airbase and 250 km away from the Chinese border. Russian authorities claim that the base has been opened to serve as a launch-pad in anti-terrorism operations and to curb the spread of Islamic militancy into the region from turbulent states like Afghanistan. Putin declared at the opening of the base: "By building up an aviation shield here in Kyrghizstan, we aim to strengthen the security of this region, whose stability is an increasingly significant factor. We believe the base will become a deterrent for terrorists and extremists of all kinds." Observers view this move as a "symbolic reversal" of Moscow's 1991 military retreat after the demise of the Soviet Union. It also signals the adoption of a more proactive policy by the Kremlin vis-a-vis the Caucasian and Central Asian regions.

Another CIS state that desires close relations with Moscow is Belarus. Recent reports indicate that Belarus is favouring a re-union with Russia. Belarus has recommended that its army and the Russian armed forces be united to form a single army. Reports indicate that the burden of financing the united army will fall on Russia's shoulders. According to a report in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, though Russia and Belarus already have extensive military cooperation, the creation of a single armed force would entail the creation of coalition forces. Discussions are under way about the financial aspects of the project.

Russia's growing engagement with the CIS states is evident on the economic front too. In September, Russia helped to work out a Single Economic Space or EEP, including itself, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. This move is expected to result in the creation of a bloc in which Russia has the maximum vote and the other states have to relinquish a part of their sovereign rights to this supranational body. The Kremlin seems to be on its way back to its favourite games: games of power, politics and intrigue sans frontiere.

If the minor power games in the CIS and Central Asia are one indicator of Russia's attempts to reinvent itself, the changing nuclear policy under the revised Putin Doctrine is yet another. In the wake of Ivanov's statement in October, which was received with apprehension by Western analysts, Russia decided to begin production of a new missile. The general-director of the Almaz research and production group, Igor Ashurbeili, informed the press that the Triumf anti-aircraft missile system had been approved for service use and serial production. The Triumf system has a range of 400-km and can be used against high-flying strategic, ballistic and cruise missiles. Moreover, Moscow announced that it would consider the restricted use of `small nuclear weapons' in the case of `regional conflicts and international terrorism'. Observers believe that this announcement is a concurrent result of the U.S.' declared policy of deploying low-yield nuclear weapons in a restricted way targeted against terrorist operations.

Other prominent aspects of the revised Putin Doctrine include the beginning of a new stage in the reform of the Russian defence apparatus. Putin has christened it the stage of `military construction'. Details of this were disclosed by First Deputy Chief of General Staff Yuriy Nikolayevich Baluyevskiy in an interview given to the press recently. Baluyevskiy said that the first aspect of the reform process, the reduction of manning levels in the armed forces, was completed recently. Personnel levels have been streamlined from 3.5 million to a more manageable one million. Putin recently indicated that the period of downsizing in the Army is at an end and there would be no more cuts. According to reports, he told a Defence Ministry meeting on the reform process that the downsizing had been "a long and painful process".

Further, Baluyevskiy said that in the situation arising out of the post-October 2 hostage crisis in Moscow, the stress would be on the creation of "combat-effective units" into which a large number of contract servicemen could be recruited. He also stressed the importance of the creation of "permanent readiness units" in all the branches of the armed forces. He stated that contract servicemen would form at least half of all servicemen. However, this point is contested by experts. Baluyevskiy said that key areas of the revised doctrine included the building up of capacity to carry out "strategic deterrence", the channelling of funds into the development of new systems, and the extension of the service life of the missile stockpile.

It seems Putin means business with his doctrine. The important question is: Where is Russia heading today? On the defence side, there is slow reform with limited results, and also a return to old, established tactics. While on the strategic front Putin's policy has changed from one of quiet sufferance to low-key activism, diplomatically he has followed a rather dynamic proactive policy where the results are for all to see. Politically, the heyday of the oligarchs and state anarchy seems to be over, but economically, the situation seems to have stabilised to a certain extent. One clearly noticeable trend is a desire for the return of a "strong state" and, perhaps, this is what is happening. The iron curtain may never come back, but something else might replace it.

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