The Bulletin Online

By Pavel Podvig | 29 January 2008

By all indications, the Russian military has enjoyed a revival of sorts in recent years. 2007 was an especially notable year in this respect. In April, Russia completed construction of a strategic submarine of a new class, the first since the Soviet Union's dissolution. Despite a string of unsuccessful flight tests, the military has continued to develop a new sea-launched missile for these submarines. In May and December, the Rocket Forces tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) equipped with multiple warheads. In August, President Vladimir Putin made a point to personally announce that he ordered strategic bombers to return to the Cold-War practice of conducting regular long-range patrol flights. The list goes on--Russia has been upgrading its network of early warning radars, plans to resume producing strategic bombers, and is considering developing another new ICBM. In October, Putin called Russia's plans to modernize its strategic forces no less than "grandiose."

Because it serves as a vestige of superpower status, many Russians look at such a "resurgence" with pride. Naturally, the buildup concerns the West, which also views it in Cold War terms, even though the scale is nowhere near that of Soviet deployments. Whatever the reaction, there seems to be consensus that the credit for this mini-renaissance belongs to the current Russian leadership and to Putin personally. This partly explains Putin's high-approval ratings in Russia and his recent selection as Time magazine's "Person of the Year."

But upon closer inspection, a different story emerges. It's a story of weak leadership, not one of strength. Instead of leading a resurgence, the current Russian leadership has given the military and defense industry a free hand in setting national security policy and uncritically accepted their narrow view of the world and its problems. Just like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, today's Russia has little control over its military-industrial complex. And since the military-industrial complex can only build missiles, submarines, and bombers, it's not surprising that Russia's security threats are now defined to require missiles, submarines, and bombers. The result is that the discussion of security issues in Russia is dominated by paranoid scenarios involving the United States destroying Russian missiles in a surprise attack and alarmist projections of how U.S. missile defense will affect Moscow's "strategic balance."

It's hardly surprising that the military-industrial complex is pushing the "resurgence" agenda--generals always fight the last war. There's little doubt that they will convince the government to keep its number of missiles and submarines at a "respectable" level. Or that the military will be able to maintain these missiles at a reasonable degree of readiness. With a strong economy, Russia can certainly afford strategic forces that would be considered impressive by Cold-War standards. But these standards are irrelevant today and the strategic forces designed to fight the Cold War are useless when it comes to the security threats that exist today. Therefore, this "grandiose resurgence" will eventually prove unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous.