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Don't Laugh at the Bear

But don't make him bigger than he is.

5:30 PM, Oct 14, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Over at Commentary, Abe Greenwald is incensed by a Newsweek article by Christopher Dickey, John Barry and Owen Matthews, "The Realist Resurgence",
that claims "Russia is weaker than it looks, which is why NATO's soft power strategy can still work." Greenwald is particularly irked by the article's snarky tone:

Sneering at the weakness of Russia's fleet en route to Venezuela, [State Department Spokesman Sean] McCormack said, "We'll see if they actually make it there. Somebody told me they had a tugboat accompanying them in case they break down along the way."

Based on that point alone, we're treated to three pages on how today's Russia is more worthy of laughter than concern, and why, therefore, globally-minded "realists" in the State Department are winning the day with their laid-back approach to handling Moscow. The article closes on this cute note:

So the fleet led by the Kirov-class guided missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) continued toward Caracas. And so, by last report, did the tugboat.

Greenwald points out that the Russian battle group made a detour into the Mediterranean to pay a visit to the port of Tripoli in Libya--just a few weeks after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a formal visit to that country to open "a new chapter in U.S.-Libya bilateral relations," the implication being that Russia is working to undermine that new relationship through its visit.

Greenwald also makes much of the recent announcement that Russia will increase its defense budget by 26 percent in 2009, to a total of $48 billion, and that President Medvedev has promised to restore Russia's nuclear deterrent over the next 12 years.

Greenwald's main point appears to be Russia is still dangerous. It most certainly is, as the recent invasion of Georgia showed. Yet if you can get past the tone of the Newsweek article, its salient point is to assert the viability of the European policy of appeasing Russia into collapse. That notion is dangerously wrongheaded and misreads the nature of the Russian threat today--ironically, by overestimating its military dimension in the same way Greenwald has done.

But first, some context. Yes, Russia will spend $48 billion on defense next year. That makes its budget about the same size as . . . Great Britain's. In comparison, the United States will spend somewhere in the vicinity of $650 billion (depending on the size of the supplemental appropriations for the war). Note that the bulk of the Russian defense budget, like ours, goes to military personnel expenses--salary, pensions, benefits, etc. The Russian defense budget is opaque, but it is probably reasonable to say that they resemble other European countries in spending about 25 percent of their budget on "investment"--meaning procurement plus research & technology (R&T). That leaves the remainder for operations and maintenance (O&M), the money spent on things like training, repairs, supplies, spare parts, fuel, and so forth, without which all the hardware in the world is so much overpriced junk.

This means Russia will spend perhaps $20-22 billion on personnel next year (more, if they intend to improve professionalism and develop a real NCO corps); about $12 billion on investment (let's say about $10 billion on procurement); and about $9-10 billion on O&M.

That's really not that much for modernization, push come to shove and even taking into account Russia's low labor rates. By way of comparison, Poland bought some 24 F-16s a couple of years back for about $3 billion; Romania intends to buy 48 multi-role fighters at a cost of $4.5 billion. How much do you think Russia can really buy for $10 billion per year? How much new technology can it develop into workable systems on $2-4 billion per year? As for O&M, Russia maintains an extremely large force of increasingly elderly tanks, APCs, artillery, aircraft and ships. Much of its inventory is non-operational because of lack of maintenance. What they do have they run on a shoestring, because they have chronically under-invested in O&M. This means their force, what there is of it, cannot sustain combat operations or deploy substantial forces out of area for any significant time.