The Magazine

Tennis Shoes and Stolen Toilets

Russia's military 'renaissance.'

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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In 1976, when Soviet fighter pilot Viktor Belenko defected to the West in his MiG-25, his U.S. debriefers discovered (along with a trove of Soviet secrets) a military man with a life's accumulation of grievances against the Soviet system. Even at the height of Moscow's power, Belenko told them, the political leadership could not properly provide for its soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who often lived in squalid conditions with almost no means of entertainment or diversion.

The central obsession of the higher-ranking officers at the aerodrome where he was based was inventing ways to steal the highly purified grain alcohol that was used for cooling the MiG-25's avionics and deicing the wings. This often required that several tons of jet fuel be dumped on the ground and a nonexistent flight of the MiG-25 entered into the logbook in order to make it seem as though the alcohol had been consumed in service of the aircraft rather than at some drunken late-night dinner. A senseless waste, as he saw it, to soak hundreds of gallons of fuel into the soil and then later say there was not enough funding for proper base housing or an officers' club.

But the main source of Belenko's alienation was what he described as the Communist party's penchant for "trying to repeal the laws of nature by decree." In the case of his MiG‑25, this translated into the impossible task of being ready to take on the latest U.S. military aircraft in an airplane that still used vacuum-tube technology.

One wonders if there is a similar divorce from reality inside the Kremlin today with regard to the Russian armed forces. The past few months have seen a number of grandiose promises for restoring the might and modernity of Moscow's men at arms, but even the most optimistic projections for the Russian economy fall well short of what would be needed to pay for major military initiatives.

In July, a Russian admiral, Vladimir Vysotsky, announced on the Naval Fleet Day holiday that the Russian navy would add six carriers to its force--plus all of the cruisers, destroyers, supply ships, minesweepers, etc., that form a complete carrier battle group. Russia has never had even one proper carrier battle group, has only one aircraft carrier in operation, and has demonstrated that its shipyards are not up to the task even of refitting an old Soviet-era carrier for the Indian Navy. (The shipyards where the current Russian carrier was built during the Soviet period are in Nikolaev, Ukraine, and there are no comparable facilities in Russia.)

More recently, the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, made a speech calling for a massive military modernization program and a substantial increase in defense spending. According to his statements, by 2020 Russia will have built substantial numbers of new naval vessels, will have developed a combined air defense and missile defense system with both land and space-based elements, and will have upgraded the nation's conventional forces to a "permanent state of combat readiness."

This is all just so much chest-thumping. The immense sums required to support these lavish promises will not materialize. You can't get there from here, as the old aphorism goes. The price of oil (which Russia depends on for a great deal of its state revenues) has dropped to less than half its value from this past summer, the Russian stock market is in free fall, and foreign investment has fled Russia.

President Medvedev has announced an increase in military spending, but total outlays are still far less than the U.S. defense budget, and much of what has been allocated will have to go towards undoing the years of neglect and decay during the Boris Yeltsin presidency.

The performance of the Russian armed forces during the invasion of Georgia in August showed the dismal state of Moscow's military machine. Some Russian soldiers went into battle wearing athletic shoes because there were not enough boots to go around. Russian troops stole everything they could lay hands on--particularly from the Georgian army facilities they overran. Uniforms, beds, U.S.-supplied Humvees, and toilets were even pulled off the walls by Russian forces. "They had everything; the most amazing f--ing beds, amazing f--ing barracks with sealed windows," one Russian soldier was recorded saying in a short mobile phone video that was later broadcast--awestruck like Goldilocks when she stumbled upon Baby Bear's boudoir. Apparently living conditions for soldiers have improved little in the decades since Belenko's defection.