Russian leaders talk big, but army and economy are weak

MOSCOW — Russia's military is riddled with weakness. Its equipment is outdated. Its technology is decades behind the West. And its capacity for battlefield communications and intelligence gathering is terrible.

In short, Russia has a mid- to late-20th century military in a 21st century world.

That and more was revealed during Russia's war with U.S.-backed Georgia last month, when its troops routed the small Georgian army but looked woefully short of the fighting power of nations like the United States.

And to top things off, Russia's economy has recently been slammed by the double whammy of a plummeting stock market and falling currency as the effects of the global economic crunch were compounded by worried Western investors withdrawing billions of dollars in the aftermath of the Georgian war.

Instead of pausing, the Kremlin has charged ahead, warning and threatening the United States and its allies at every turn. Brushing aside American predictions that Moscow would isolate itself from the world by invading Georgia, the Kremlin this week announced joint training exercises with Venezuela — where President Hugo Chavez is an avowed foe of U.S. policy abroad.

News on Wednesday that two nuclear-capable Russian bombers, reportedly without nuclear weapons, had landed in Venezuela punctuated both the uncertainty and the gravity of the situation: Was this just a political jab by Moscow leaders, or is the Kremlin signaling it is willing to risk a fight despite its obvious weaknesses?

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has publicly said he has no desire for conflict. Russian generals under his government's command, meanwhile, say they might target U.S. missile defense shield sites in eastern Europe with ballistic missiles.

"It's a very dangerous time," said James Townsend Jr., who from 2003 to 2006 was the director of European and NATO policy for the secretary of defense and is now director of the international security program at the Atlantic Council of the United States, a think tank. "It's made dangerous by uncertainty, it's made dangerous by the possibility of miscalculation."

Russia observers differ on the implications of the standoff.

Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired Russian major general who ran a premier military think tank from 1993 to 2001, said the maneuvers by the United States and Russia after the Georgian war have been political posturing, and the idea that Russia and the West would get into an armed confrontation is "absurd."

Some pro-Western analysts, however, say that Russian leadership is testing how far it can go in reclaiming parts of the former Soviet Union, or at least reducing Western influence in the region, at a time when the United States is perceived as being weak and Europe divided. They also say the Kremlin is in danger of overplaying its hand.

During the fighting in Georgia, Russian officers in the field frequently relied on cell phones or old radios, and they were unable to establish tactical command centers close to the front. The air force and ground forces were badly out of synch, and some soldiers complained to reporters that they hadn't eaten in a few days.

Their American counterparts would have been able to quickly establish satellite uplinks, visual feeds from unmanned aerial drones — which the Russians weren't able to use at all — and real-time communications between all branches of the military.

The Soviet-designed T-72 tanks that rolled into Georgia — there were newer tanks as well, but the T-72s seemed most prominent — are prone to breaking down and are considered several rungs below American battle tanks.

"Military equipment is very old, and at the same time it's absolutely clear that Russia has no resources to change it," said Alexander Goltz, a military analyst in Moscow. "For all of the '90s we had no money to produce new military equipment ... the whole chain of subcontractors was destroyed."

But former military officers, and officials connected with the Kremlin, emphasize that Russia is in the same league as America when it comes to nuclear missile stockpiles.

Pavel Zolotarev, a retired Russian major general and deputy director of a government-funded institute that studies the United States and Canada, reminded a reporter of nuclear realities.

"As far as general forces, the American army far surpasses the Russian army in terms of equipment," Zolotarev said. "An army is made up of different kinds of forces. If we compare the nuclear forces of these two sides, then we have parity. We can destroy each other five or six times."

Amid all the heated words, it's important to step back and see Russia for what it really is, said Robert Hunter, the U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Clinton and now a senior adviser at the RAND Corp.

"I don't believe that Russia is a great power again. ... Russia is Saudi Arabia with trees," Hunter said. "In reality, Russia is a second-rate military power and will be for some time."

Hunter said that to try to understand Russia's recent actions, it helps to keep in mind that it has felt besieged lately. Kremlin leaders have been unhappy about U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and American backing for the NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia.

Given those tensions, Hunter said, the White House should allow the Kremlin some room to vent, as long as it doesn't go too far, and not provoke it toward bigger displays of military aggression.

"Most of it I would keep my mouth shut about," he said. "If they want to steer off to Venezuela, be my guest."


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