Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Moscow Will Boost Defense Spending to $50 Billion --- Conflict in Georgia Exposed Deficiencies Of Aging Arsenal

The Wall Street Journal, 20th September 2008 15:06

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW-- The Kremlin is set to boost its defense budget by more than one-quarter, taking it to a post-Soviet high of $50 billion next year as it seeks to add muscle to its foreign policy and reverse underinvestment.

The cash infusion also is aimed at fixing problems revealed by last month's brief war with Georgia. Though the Russian military crushed the smaller Georgian one, it suffered substantial losses, according to military analysts.

Even with the increase, disclosed in a draft budget that was given preliminary approval in Parliament Friday, Russia's military spending still will be only a fraction of the roughly $700 billion the U.S. spends annually. But the budget boost highlights a gap between President Dmitry Medvedev's sometimes-conciliatory rhetoric and actual Kremlin policies.

Earlier this month, Mr. Medvedev told foreign observers that Russia didn't aim to become a "militarized country behind an Iron Curtain." The previous day he had struck a different note, though, saying that rearming Russia is one of "the highest state priorities."

Mr. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said they don't want Russia to be drawn into a Cold War-style arms race that would drain funds needed to replace crumbling infrastructure and improve living standards. But military spending has risen almost every year since 2000, and militaristic displays such as Red Square tank-and-missile parades have made a comeback.

On Thursday, a Russian nuclear submarine in the White Sea successfully test-fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile, hitting a target on the Pacific Coast more than 4,200 miles away, officials said. On Friday, two strategic bombers returned to base after a training exercise in Venezuela. Russian media portrayed the exercise as a way of showing Washington that U.S. plans to place a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe will draw a response.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice derided the planes as a "few aging" bombers, echoing a series of comments about the Russian military made by U.S. officials.

Earlier this month, a Russian-led group of former Soviet countries said it would form a joint military force in Central Asia, an area where Moscowhas bridled at an embryonic U.S. presence. State media also routinely use the army as a propaganda tool to galvanize patriotic sentiment, stirring memories of Soviet military might.

Yet almost two decades of underinvestment have left the Russian army, navy and air force poor relations to their Soviet forerunners. As the military-industrial complex atrophied after the Soviet collapse in 1991, deliveries of new equipment dwindled to almost nil, while money earmarked for procurement went into the pockets of corrupt officials.

"Defense spending has multiplied since 2000 . . . but the results have been really meager," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert at opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Spending skyrocketed from $5 billion in 2000 to $40 billion in 2008, but galloping inflation and almost no new weapons development meant it made little difference, he said.

A policy to buy only Russian-made hardware has also taken a toll. Observers said the top brass is actively discussing the politically unpalatable prospect of purchasing Western-made arms.

Last month's war against Georgia highlighted the weaknesses of Russian procurement policies, according to reports from Russian military officials that have since trickled out in the local media.

Though victorious, the Russian army discovered it had almost no spy drones, substandard satellite navigation and an aging arsenal of imprecise conventional weapons. When Russian commanders wanted to communicate with each other, they had to use cellphones because their own battlefield communications equipment was so poor. When the army wanted to observe Georgian troop movements, it sent a Tu-22 strategic bomber to do the job of a drone. It was shot down. Russian officers discovered that captured Georgian hardware -- of the same Soviet-era vintage as their own -- was actually better, since it had been modernized. Georgian tanks, unlike their Russian counterparts, had night-vision and fire-correction mechanisms.

The MoscowDefense Brief journal said the conflict was a wake-up call.

"Victory over the Georgian army . . . should not be a cause for euphoria, but rather a stimulus to accelerate military transformation," it wrote.