By Rafael Broze, Center for Strategic Research
With the continued economic downturn affecting worldwide budgetary, military and strategic choices, the Russian Federation is facing a particularly bleak future. Beset on all sides by challenges great and small, burdened with the formidable task of reorganizing its Soviet-legacy armed forces and with no major financial turnaround on the horizon from an economy largely reliant on the world price of petroleum, Russia is going to have to cut deeper and make harder choices than many of its peers.
A laundry list of Russian ambitions and requirements might read, in no particular order of priority, like this:
– Continue the reorganization and upgrading of conventional land forces;
– Re-equip an aging air force;
– Reassert a credible nuclear deterrent by finishing the stuttering development of next-generation SLBMs and rebuilding an SSBN force that largely exists in blueprints or is shuttered in port;
– Re-establish a naval industrial base that is badly ailing (of which the announced purchase of several Mistral-class helicopter carriers is just the latest sign);
– Maintain a strong influence in Central Asia and the Russian Far East, despite US diplomatic efforts and stronger and stronger Chinese influence in the two regions;
– Maintain a careful watch (and a strong military force) in the greater Caucasus, where instability marks the Russian regions, relations with Georgia are fractious (to say the least), and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is simmering;
– Develop alternative (most likely Arctic) oil and gas fields to make up for rapidly declining production from Soviet-era wells;
– Asserting control over shipping routes opening up beyond the Arctic Circle and keep up in the mini-arms race in the far north that Russia itself started with a bellicose 2001 strategic document and subsequent aggressive behavior;
– Maintaining a strong share of the supply and direct transshipment of natural gas to Europe against a wider menu of alternative routes (developed after European societies and corporations tired of Russia’s capricious pipeline antics).
Obviously this list incorporates things great and small (strategic nuclear deterrence vs. Arctic shipping routes). Furthermore, while the Russian Federation has made some progress on one or two fronts recently (for example its reform of the size of the ground forces), the burden that these priorities represent is only going to grow heavier over time.
Given that now-Prime Minister Putin has largely forgone establishing a credible rule of law (especially in the corporate sector) in Russia, and striven long and hard to put most major national firms in the hands of a small syndicate, the Russian government itself may have to shoulder much of the burden of maintaining the goose that lays the golden (petro-) eggs. This at the same time as Russia attempts a wide-ranging military reform and strategic effort. Acquisition programs are already falling behind schedule or cancelled entirely, and the ends still massively outweigh Moscow’s financial means. As a result, Russia will have to cut drastically in some areas to salvage other objectives, or will find itself slipping farther and farther behind on all fronts.