Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform

Mark Galeotti

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed his own army’s limitations. He only had to look at the history books.
The Russian victory at Poltava in Ukraine, 1709
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Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform

Ever since he first ascended to power, as acting president in 1999 and then elected in 2000, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that building a powerful military was not only one of his personal priorities but also central to his vision of Russia as a great power. Back in 2004, he said “having combat-ready armed forces is a crucial part of our national security and a necessary condition for our country’s genuinely peaceful development… This is a fundamental condition for a peaceful and fruitful life for our people.”

To this end, he has sunk billions of roubles into his military machine, a process that was meant to be about modernisation and reform. In this, he was following a pattern familiar to Russia’s rulers for centuries. After all, this country has, even more than most, been defined by war and the dilemmas of security. The very notion of ‘Russia’ emerges from invasion and conquest, the ‘Varyagy’ – ‘Varangians’ – or Viking adventurers establishing principalities over native Slav tribes along the river routes they used to travel to distant Byzantium. Since then, with no natural boundaries, Russia both expanded outwards by the intertwined processes of conquest and colonisation and also faced the rising military powers of the age from west, south or east. Polovtsians and other nomad horsemen of the steppe were mere vanguards of the Mongols, who ruled over the Rus’ in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, although later it was Russian imperial expeditions that made their way into Central Asia and Mongolia. From the west, the Rus’ would successively face the crusading Teutonic Knights, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which would twice briefly take Moscow during the seventeenth century), the Swedes, Napoleon, then Hitler. To the south, Muscovy would from the sixteenth century find itself in contention with the Ottoman Empire, a rivalry that arguably is now reprised in Russian attempts to limit the spread of Turkish influence in the South Caucasus and Middle East. Through these conflicts, while Russia periodically formed and broke alliances but its view, as expressed by Tsar Alexander III was that in the final analysis, “Russia has but two allies: its army and its navy.”

Yet throughout this history, its rulers have had to grapple with the intractable challenge of how to defend this sprawling nation on the basis of a relatively weak economy. The short growing seasons (a result of the long winters) and thick and sticky soils precluded many of the innovations which drove the Agrarian Revolution in Europe which, in turn, would help unlock the Industrial Revolution. By the nineteenth century, agrarian productivity was still little better than in the Middle Ages, and thus encouraged the retention of serfdom, itself a brake on progress.

Russia would thus typically find itself facing rivals who were often economically more efficient and thus technologically more advanced. When facing the military superpowers of the age – Britain and France – during the Crimean War of 1853-56, British Enfield rifles outranged many Russian cannon, and their use of the telegraph meant orders from London or Paris could make it to the battlefield more quickly that those being brought by courier from Moscow.

In such circumstances, the Russian state was forced to sit all the more heavily on its own people to extract the maximum share of their available resources, sometimes as terrible cost. Finance Minister Ivan Vyshnegradskii’s 1891 invocation “let us starve, but let us export,” was no mere turn of phrase. When Russia finally did begin seriously to industrialise in the late nineteenth century, it was driven less by industrialists and investors but by state spending and the defence sector.

It would never be enough, though, as a humiliating defeat in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War would demonstrate. Although there was a widespread assumption amongst Russian generals and politicians that this would be, in the words of Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve, a “short, victorious little war,” the Japanese not only had the advantage of shorter supply lines but had been modernising with rather greater purpose and efficiency.

Thus, when Russia was dragged into the First World War, arguably the first truly industrial conflict, one defined not just by the machine gun and rapid-fire artillery, but by the capacity of states efficiently to mobilise mass armies and the industrial base to arm and supply them, it would be found painfully wanting. What was at best a nineteenth century army was fed into the meat grinder of this war and at peak was suffering perhaps 150,000 casualties a month.

This was not a lesson lost on Joseph Stalin, and his determination to build an industrial Soviet state was not just about control, it was also about security. In 1931, he memorably said that throughout Russia’s history, she had been beaten by a succession of enemies “because of her backwardness, military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness.“ He concluded, “we are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed.”

Ten years later, the USSR would be at war with the Axis powers. Yet Stalin, in his own monstrous way, had industrialised Russia. It had taken the horrors of collectivisation, in effect nationalising most farmland and forcing the peasantry back into a new form of serfdom, as collective farmers working for the state. Many resisted, and from 4-7 million died and millions more were sent to the Gulag labour camps, but ultimately the state was able to extract resources on a scale on which no tsar could have dreamt. While Soviets starved – especially, in a cruel irony, in Ukraine, the USSR’s breadbasket – grain flowed to the West in return for the capital and know-how to build a heavy industrial base.

The Red Army would remain relatively rough and ready, but it was able to combine sufficient mass and adequate technology with the intangible assets of grim determination and often inspired generalship. This would have taken a total mobilisation of society, backed with all the savagery of Stalin’s terror machine. Propaganda inspired, nationalism demanded, and if necessary the grim enforcers of the political police enforced. The flip side of the undoubted bravery and determination of the defenders of Stalingrad, Leningrad and Moscow were the penal battalions sent to soak up initial casualties in the attack, and the NKVD ‘blocking companies’, whose machine guns were ready to gun down those soldiers who broke and ran.

It worked, but at terrible human and social cost. It won at the cost of some 27 million lives, but also by building a crudely functional heavy industrial base on the back of forced exports and Gulag slave labour that would be unable properly to modernise in the post-war era. It was an economy geared for a metal-bashing age that would find it increasingly difficult to evolve to one defined by electronics, microchips and software.

Nonetheless, the Soviets had nuclear weapons to deter major conflicts and instead confined themselves to what seemed smaller ones, largely reimposing their rule over turbulent satellite states (East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968) and projecting their power into proxy wars in the Global South. The only full-scale war onto which they stumbled, Afghanistan in 1979, was expected to be a brief intervention to cow some troublesome rebels rather than the ten-year counter-insurgency it became. Even so, while a painful experience, it was always a managed one, with the Soviets always keen to keep their commitment and thus their casualties as limited as possible. At peak, the 5-million strong Red Army deployed just some 125,000 troops (to whom can be added around 25,000 civilian advisors, specialists and the like) – which is not that different from the size of the force Putin deployed to Ukraine, from armed forces of fewer than 1 million. Stalin’s successors never truly tested their army in war, though – and in the main, wanted to keep it that way. Even during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviet High Command was painfully aware that they were in no fit state to take on NATO. A veteran of the time who later served as an instructor in the General Staff Academy framed their dilemma starkly: “we could have ended the world through nuclear war, or ended our system through conventional war.”

By the 1980s, the technological gap had only widened, and contingency plans for war with NATO rested on mass, speed (striking before European forces and mobilised and US reinforcements deployed), ruthlessness (including the use of special forces to wipe out European political leaders and chemical weapons) and ultimately biting off what they could quickly and then trying to use threats of nuclear strikes to freeze the conflict and consolidate their gains. Even so, contrary to many Western assumptions, the Soviet posture was essentially defensive. They envisaged striking first if they had to – but only if they believed that they faced an imminent existential threat from the West.

The Soviets spent ruinously on their military, but are still lagging. To have tried to catch up might have been possible, but it would have again required the complete subordination of every national effort to the programme, potentially including mass terror to cow a population that had become used to a relatively easier and more comfortable life. An ageing leadership were unwilling to take such a risk and even the KGB, the modernised incarnation of Stalin’s political police, had evolved from a strategy of indiscriminate murder and imprisonment to a subtler one of information control and targeted repression. When former KGB head Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982, he actually presided over a reduction in the defence budget and some abortive but nonetheless sincere early moves to explore the scope for mutual arms reductions with the United States. He was no dove, but he was a pragmatist.

The story of Russian military reform is thus that it has always been hard and painful, and it depended on the country developing an adequate economic base. Managed properly, this could create a military force able to handle local threats and limited interventions abroad, to be sure. It could also mobilise effectively for national defence, as invaders from Napoleon to Hitler discovered to their cost. However, major foreign adventures, especially against more technologically proficient powers, demanded a massive and ruthless concentration of national effort. What was striking about Putin’s efforts was how far, despite his evident commitment to rearmament, he was trying to do it on the cheap. Especially during the 2000s, ordinary Russians’ standards of living rose to unprecedented levels, and even since then the tax burden remained very moderate. The length of national service was reduced from 18 to 12 months, a period most professional soldiers consider inadequate (take out basic and unit training and the last ‘demob-happy’ month and they are really only usable and effective for perhaps 3-4 months).

That is not to say the military did not reform and modernise, despite the perennial problems of corruption and inefficiency. It was able to humble tiny Georgia in five days in 2008, seize Crimea almost bloodlessly in 2014 and stage an intervention in the Syrian Civil War from 2015 that surprised Western observers and turned around the bloody conflict. These were, however, all limited engagements. When Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, he did not even follow his own military doctrine, which would have seen reservists mobilised before the attack, meaning that although Russia has 144 million people to Ukraine’s 44 million, the fully mobilised defenders actually outnumbered the invaders.

In the Great Northern War of 1700-21, Peter the Great said that “the Swedes will go on beating us for a long time, but eventually they will teach us how to beat them.” He ultimately won that war, on points, but Sweden was fighting on many fronts, and the long-term cost to Russia was immense. Had Putin read his histories properly, he would have understood that truly to build the kind of military machine able to fight a major land war demands Russia be willing to learn from successive defeats but above all, be willing to bend all its efforts to that goal. Especially as Ukraine’s forces are rearmed by the West, granting them a qualitative technological edge to add to their quantitative one, and as the Kremlin continues to try to adopt heals-measures and limit the domestic impact of the war, this is clearly a lesson he missed.

Mark Galeotti is political analyst and writer and the author of A Short History of Russia: How to Understand the World’s Most Complex Nation, and his latest book: Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, published by Osprey.

Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform

Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform Putin and the Old-Age Dilemmas of Russian Military Reform