By Gustavo Coronel l September 4, 2009
A seminar on the Russian Military conducted August 24th at the Washington-based Hudson Institute with panelists such as Stephen Blank, from the U.S. Army War College; Dale Herspring, Kansas State University; Joshua Spero, Fitchburg State University; and, Richard Weitz, of the Hudson Institute, conveyed a picture of the Russian military being in poor shape, badly organized and burdened with obsolete weapons. Morale is reported as low and corruption so prevalent that up to 50 percent of the defense budget finds its way into the wrong hands. Some of the information presented by the panelists leads me to believe that Russia could be considering the establishment of military bases in Latin America.
An official Russian document on military doctrine produced in May 2009 reveals a struggle between the aspirations of the military to modernize and the deteriorating economic realities of the country. Russia fears Western military encroachment in the form of NATO expansion along its borders and feels threatened by the Kremlin’s belief the U.S. has established a policy of pre-emptive military strikes, a reference to the post-9/11 U.S. National Security Strategy, otherwise known as the Bush Doctrine – one of preemption and military primacy. Blank says this ostensible fear is further projected to represent the actual intentions of the enemy – in this case, the United States – which has led a sector of the Russian military to promote massive mobilization, Soviet Union style, as a defensive move.
The prevailing trend in today’s Russian military, however, is downsizing; the armed forces are at the one-million-man level, including some 360,000 officers (1,100 Generals) and the plan is to cut this number of officers to 150,000. These plans, announced in 2008, have produced much protest among the military and many officers are being demobilized and left in dire financial conditions. The poor quality of conventional equipment has led to reliance on tactical nuclear weapons as the military option of choice.
According to Blank, the global search for energy by consuming nations is seen by Russia as the dominant potential source of military conflict, especially in their own neighborhood: the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Artic region.
Moreover, Russia feels surrounded by enemies and has become a paranoid state. Internally, this has prompted severe restrictions on freedom. Order 1965, for example, allows the government to read any private mail, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is looking for authorization to send the military abroad, into action, without legislative approval.
Reform within the Russian military is being triggered by two main factors: one, the need to deal with the high levels of corruption within the institution; another, the modernization of the institution after its poor performance during the August 2008 war in Georgia revealed weakness and inefficiency. Major cuts in manpower and obsolete equipment are being made, while the number of tanks is being reduced from 23,000 to some 5,000, due to their poor performance in Georgia, where half of the tanks that went into action broke down.
Recruiting of new and better staff is difficult due to low pay and poor living conditions. Equipment is obsolete. Some ships are over 30 years old. Submarines are not functioning properly. MIG aircraft sold to India was returned due to its poor quality. In Venezuela, only three of the 24 Suhkoi jet fighters seem to be in operation. Russia is currently buying weapons such as Unmanned Aerial Drones (UAD’s) from Israel.
Professor Herspring asserts that the Russian military is not battle ready. Its modernization cannot be accomplished in the medium term due to lack of funding. In spite of this, there are sectors within the Russian political establishment that are spoiling for military action in the region.
Russian Military Challenges For Central And East Europe
The basis of Russian geopolitical strength vis-à-vis Europe, says Professor Spero, is not military but rather its significant fossil energy resources and its control over many of the main pipelines that provide oil and gas to central and eastern European countries. Events in Ukraine and Georgia were triggered by energy and economic considerations rather than military. Arguably, in its current state of readiness the Russian military does not pose a significant threat to the Central and Eastern European countries, its invasion of Georgia notwithstanding.
Russia-China Security Relations
The relations between Russia and China are also based on energy considerations. China needs all the oil and gas it can get and Russia needs financing to develop its pipeline systems. China has become a big lender to Russia in this area. The sale of Russian weapons to China has been declining since 2007, due to less production and inadequate quality control in Russian arms factories along with deep seeded distrust by Russia to keep arming China. Weitz adds that another inhibiting factor has been the copying of Russian weaponry by China through reverse engineering.
Could The Russian Military Find A Niche In Latin America?
The reportedly dismal state of its military establishment, together with the economic crisis and poor governance, has kept Russia from joining the U.S. and China in the club of superpowers. In spite of its shortcomings, the Russian military could find in Latin America a promising client. Latin America is a region where the U.S. has traditionally had the major, in fact, and the only military presence. There are two main factors that could help to promote such a possibility: one is the increasing presence of U.S. warships in the Caucasus, associated with the Ukrainian and Georgian events. The other is the global struggle for control of vast energy resources that, according to Russia, offers the main potential for military conflicts.
The first one has fueled the need by Russians to take similar steps in America’s “near abroad” as the U.S. has taken in Moscow’s. The 2008 visit of Russian warships and long-range bombers to Venezuela took place as a response to the U.S. military presence in the Caucasus. On that occasion, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez said that Venezuela “would welcome a Russian permanent presence if this was requested” by the Kremlin. Chavez has already purchased about $5 billion in Russian equipment and weapons, including jet fighters, tanks, rifles and missiles. The second factor also has to do with Venezuela, a country that has the second largest petroleum deposits in the world, after Saudi Arabia’s. The recent agreement between Colombia and the U.S. to allow a military presence on seven Colombian military bases represents, in Russian eyes, a real threat to Venezuela’s control over these oil deposits. It would not be surprising if Russia accepts Chavez’s invitation, made in 2008, to establish a permanent military base in Venezuela, as a countermove to the U.S. presence in Colombia.
If this were to come about, it would pose a real dilemma for the United States. A Russian military base in Venezuela, even with obsolete and low quality weaponry, would represent a tangible threat to U.S. national security. It could serve as the stage for an energy-driven reenactment of the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960’s, with Hugo Chavez playing the role of a more emotionally unstable Fidel Castro. Such a military presence, apparently theirs for the asking, would give Russia a good bargaining position in the Latin American geopolitical game, which is starting to unfold with some intensity.
Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to