Russian History


Chapter 9. The Armed Forces

IN THE SOVIET ERA, THE ARMED FORCES were the most stable institution in the nation, exercising strong influence over general national security policy as well as over specific issues of military doctrine. However, the last regime of the Soviet Union, that of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91), saw unprecedented debate over military issues, including a movement away from the primarily offensive concerns (which always had been cloaked in declarations of their necessity for an effective national defense) to a more defensive position in military doctrine. It is now known that discussion of such a change began in the Soviet Union as early as the 1970s but only became manifest between 1987 and 1989. Ultimately, the change was dictated by policy makers' recognition of grave shortcomings in the Soviet Union's political, economic, and technological positions versus the West. After long discussion, in 1993 Russia finally produced a military doctrine that nominally reflected the new military thinking. But that doctrine was only the first step in a long and painful process of reassessing the needs and capabilities of Russia's armed forces under a completely new set of global and domestic circumstances.

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the former Russian Republic, henceforth known as the Russian Federation, inherited about 85 percent of the union's overall military establishment, including manpower, defense industries, and equipment. However, Russia inherited only about 60 percent of the union's economic capacity--the resources needed for future support of that military machine. Moreover, the military power that remained was a fragmentary mixture of elements from the former Soviet military structure rather than an organized whole. Many of the priorities in the Soviet Union's national security doctrine--such as the capability to launch amphibious invasions in support of client states on the other side of the world--had no logical priority in the new Russian state. Requiring substantial reshaping of their capabilities according to economic resources, the Russian armed forces in the 1990s have received budget allocations sufficient to maintain a force numbering less than half the 1.5 million personnel on duty in mid-1996. Beginning in 1994, the campaign fought in Chechnya illustrated clearly that Russian forces were poorly coordinated and not combat ready.

The decline of the Russian armed forces--and the shocking shrinkage of the territory they had occupied until the beginning of the 1990s--was a blow to national pride. Nationalist politicians urged a new military buildup that would return Russia to the superpower status of the Cold War years. Particularly in the election year of 1996, national security policy became entwined in political rhetoric, and, as with other urgent issues in Russia, constructive solutions were delayed until the nature of the next presidential regime could be clarified. In the mid-1990s, individual steps such as arms agreements and an apparent shift of strategic emphasis from the West toward China continued, but overall public and state support for the armed forces languished.

At the same time, the Russian military retained a strong role in the formation of a new national foreign policy, especially policy relating to the recently independent former Soviet states, referred to in Russia as the "near abroad." Military occupation under various guises continued in the Caucasus, Moldova, and Central Asia, as well as the separatist Republic of Chechnya, and in 1996 strong nationalist factions exerted pressure to increase the Russian presence in order to tighten Russia's links with the other former republics of the Soviet Union.