Worrying About the Russian Army
Foreign Affairs Editorial Opinion (Published)
Published: 12/16/99 Author: Alan Bock
Posted on 12/16/1999 08:07:06 PST by Antiwar Republican
Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock
December 16, 1999
WORRYING ABOUT THE RUSSIAN ARMY
On Monday night "Nightline'' featured a program whose taped intro was fraught with worry about
yet another possible overseas enemy. Noting that the Russian government seems intent on wiping out
virtually the entire nation-province-territory-whatever of Chechnya whatever anybody in the West
might say and that this policy seems to be extremely popular among Russians of all sorts, combined
with the fact that Russian President Boris Yeltsin recently went out of his way to remind President
Clinton and others that Russia still has lots of nuclear weapons, host for the night John Donvan
wondered whether it wasn't time to worry about Russia being the same kind of global threat the
former Soviet Union posed during the late, lamented Cold War.
The intro piece presented a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that the Russian military in particular
has made something of a comeback since its long period of decline after the fall of the (official)
communist regime. The Russian military was badly embarrassed by its failure to dispatch the
Chechens in the 1994-1996 war – a failure that nonetheless included an alarming amount of Russian
brutality against the Chechens. But the army might be back. It's getting more money from the
government and a free hand in Chechnya.
The Russian military is conducting a campaign that, while slow and grinding, looks as if it will
succeed in decimating the Chechen resistance. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a good fit
with the military and a shrewd political and military tactician. Various generals, believing they were
deceived by NATO during the late Kosovo conflict, are talking about the necessity of viewing NATO
as a potential enemy. And they do still have nukes. So is Russia worth worrying about?
ODOM THROWS COLD WATER
Interestingly, the guest on the program who seemed most skeptical about the scenario was former
U.S. Army General William E. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, who wrote a
book in 1992 about the decline of the Soviet military. The stage could have been set for him to say
that maybe he was premature in declaring the Russian military moribund, or that he was right before
but the military has made a comeback. But he didn't.
Instead, he affirmed his opinion that the Russian military was still in a condition of decline, at least as
a military force – although he agreed with Princeton Sovietologist Stephen Cohen that the military
was doing well in the battle for Moscow, meaning it had more political support and popularity than at
any time in recent memory. But he noted that the Chechnya campaign, far from proving the Russian
military's new prowess, demonstrated its still-debilitated condition.
The military had to draw forces from the entire empire to get enough decently trained soldiers for the
Chechen campaign, which he dubbed a "fragile offensive.'' The campaign against Grozny is an
extremely conservative and cautious one, he said, whereas even a second-rate first-world military
should have been able to finish the job long ago, with fewer casualties.
A CONVERSATION WITH
I was intrigued, so I called Gen. Odom at the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, where he
hangs out these days, and we had a long and very interesting conversation.
Gen. Odom is hardly a pacifist. In case anyone has forgotten, he was the one who, just before the
Kosovo campaign, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal advocating an aggressive campaign from
the north, rather than through Kosovo, designed to capture and take control of Belgrade. Hungary
ought to be cooperative, he argued, and the terrain in the area is a plain rather than mountainous, so
it should have presented few serious logistical problems to a well-trained modern fighting force. The
Germans in World War II, he reminded readers, had moved along pretty much the same course and
taken Belgrade in about a week.
Like many people with actual military experience, however, while he is hardly opposed to war on
principle, he has a strong preference for battles with clear objectives closely correlated with the
resources and capabilities available, as compared to windy but essentially empty goals like ending
ethnic hatred in our time.