The words were worrisome. "Attempts to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the borders of our country continue," said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, addressing his country's Defense Ministry board. "All this requires a qualitative modernization of our Armed Forces to give them a new, forward-looking perspective." He said this as he announced military reforms and a large-scale rearmament program that will commence in 2011.
Headlines blared "Russia versus NATO" in Europe and the U.S., raising the old specter of the Cold War. But the Obama Administration did not seem to be concerned. "It looked like the comments of the President of Russia were largely for domestic consumption," White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Tuesday. Analysts, in fact, believe that, far from picking a fight with NATO, Medvedev was using the western alliance as a weapon to prod his own military into much needed reform. (See Russia celebrating its military might, Soviet-style.)
Restructuring the military has been a sensitive issue for Russia's officer corps since October, when Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that the country's top-heavy army will be reduced, specifically cutting 200,000 of its 350,000 officers. "The structure of Russia's armed forces is totally abnormal," says Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst. "We have one officer for every two privates." The overall numbers of the armed forces will drop from 1.13 million to 1 million. The remaining soldiers, the reasoning goes, will have access to better and more up-to-date equipment. Supply and command problems were clearly evident in last August's Georgia war. There was a lack of coordination between air and ground forces as well as mismanagement of equipment. One famous anecdote from the war had a general borrowing a mobile phone from a journalist in order to call in commands to his troops. (See pictures from Russia's 2008 war with Georgia.)
Several officers have already resigned since the announcement, and sensitivity in the upper ranks remains. "In the last few months it became very clear that there was a lot of opposition to these plans," says Golts. "The biggest surprise in Medvedev's speech was the fact that, yes, even in the economic crisis these reforms are going to take place and within a fairly short time span." The cuts are necessary to free up funds to modernize equipment. On Tuesday, Serdyukov said that only 10% of military equipment is up-to-date. Medvedev said it would be better to buy new hardware rather than fix and update aging equipment; he plans to spend $43 billion on weapons purchases, despite the economy.
The argument goes that Medvedev needed to further sugarcoat the cuts and reforms the most dramatic in the last 40 years. "You cannot tell these officers that they will have to be cut because Russia wants to make friends with the U.S.," says Dmitri Trenin the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "You have to tell them they have been cut because NATO poses a serious threat, and we need to improve our armed forces to be able to protect ourselves."
Assuaging thousands of officers who are losing their jobs may take more saber-rattling in the name of national security. The earlier talk emanating from Moscow of using Latin American air bases for long range Russian bombers (which governments in the region could not confirm) may have been part of the strategy. Medvedev may also take next month's G20 Summit in London to talk tough when he meets with Barack Obama. There is much to bluster about: the proposed missile defense shield to be based in the Czech Republic and Poland; Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear program; and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) is due to expire in December.