Russian Army fired up over tank debate

Dale R. Herspring

By A Contributor

Those who think all decisions in Moscow still come from Kremlin and are carried out by obedient subordinates, with disputes hidden from outsiders, are in for a surprise. I remember days sitting in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow trying, when Soviet leaders spoke, to figure out, first, if there was a debate over the issue discussed, and second, who was on which side. 

Seldom did we figure things out. Except for some of our military attaches who succeeded in photographing Soviet equipment or embassy personnel who managed to talk to senior Soviet military officers, it was terra incognito. Besides, if you managed to corner Russian officers, they would always answer, “I don’t know.” They were being honest; officers in the U.S.S.R. were some of the most apolitical military officers I ever met. They were under the Communist Party but focused almost entirely on their military specialities. They had indoctrination lectures, but as one former colonel put it, “We largely ignored the poor political officer and what he had to say.”

Now, however, debates between Russian military officers are open and blunt.  Almost daily I read articles — usually by retired officers, but sometimes by active officers — criticizing some aspect of the armed forces. Reading the Russian military press after the war in Georgia one could believe that the Georgians won.  The Russians overpowered the Georgians, whose military competence was open to question, but as Russians remarked, “We did it with a World War II strategy” — overwhelming the other side with numbers.  The experience brought home to the Kremlin and high command how far behind the West the Russian military is.

While debates over how to best modernize and restructure the military have been common, recently something stunning happened. In a major publication, a senior civilian criticized Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff, for his comments regarding the future of tanks in the Russian Army.  Makarov had said that given the revolution in military affairs, tanks have no future. Russian tanks are inferior to those in the West he said — especially when it comes to armament, and besides, tanks are becoming irrelevant Such comments sent shockwaves through the Russian military-industrial complex. Makarov’s words, if borne out, could mean the end of a major part of the country’s industrial complex.

However, Makarov’s comments were sharply rebuked by the new vice premier, Dmitri Rogozin, who had been ambassador to NATO and is now in charge of modernizing.  A lack of young workers — the average age of engineers and scientists is in the 60s — and outdated machines have created an industrial mess.  Much of Russia’s “modern”  military equipment comes from the eighties.  That is why Russia’s leadership has admitted that only 10 percent of the country’s weapons are modern.

Rogozin has been going around the country trying to shake up the country’s complacent defense industrial complex. He insists that Russia will create a military organization that is second to none by 2020, at which time the Kremlin believes that 70 percent of all of its weapons will be modern.

Rogozin has demonstrated that he has no intention of being diplomatic with others, including Makarov. Rogozin said, “Our military commanders should not be conducting a dispute with military science and industry through the media.  There are many other ways to solve problems ... In NATO, for example, this would be impossible.”

Behind this dispute is a bureaucratic battle worth billions of rubles. For example, will Russia rely on its own military-industrial complex or is it going to continue to purchase weapons in the West?  The military would much prefer to buy the more modern and higher quality Western equipment and weapons.  That attitude clashes with Rogozin’s determination to rebuild and modernize the military using domestic sources.

So what does this mean for tanks?  Makarov will likely lose this battle, and probably his job, if Putin stands behind Rogozin.  Beyond Russia, there is a debate in other armies (including the U.S. Army) over the relevance of the tank in today’s world. For now, what is important is that the sacrosanct world of the Russian military is long gone. The idea of a civilian openly criticizing the nation’s top soldier is something very new.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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