With precision, NATO warfare marches past Russia

Published June 16, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

At a closed meeting of the Kremlin security council on April 29, as the Yugoslav war entered its second month, a plaintive President Boris Yeltsin ignored policy papers in front of him that called for upgrading Russia's tactical nuclear weapons.

Instead, Yeltsin had a question for his military leaders. Even though Russia is a nuclear power, he said, his loud protests of NATO's airstrikes against Yugoslavia were being flatly ignored. According to a well-informed source, Yeltsin demanded: "Why are they not afraid of us? We have not stopped anything!"

His military chiefs had no reply, and his lament goes to the heart of how profoundly troubling the allied air campaign was for this broken and humiliated superpower. The war underscored once again just how far Russia has slipped militarily, and how it has exposed fresh vulnerabilities as well as festering problems from the past.

The surprising dispatch of a Russian convoy to Kosovo ahead of NATO troops might lead the military to recover some of its wounded pride. But the sensation is unlikely to last.

"The Yugoslav events have shown that we were little reckoned with, and we failed to stop this aggression despite all our efforts," said retired Gen. Vladimir Belous, a military analyst. "The Soviet Union would have been able to do this. But Russia found it was beyond our strength. We live in a world of military strength."

While NATO flew more than 34,000 sorties and dropped 22,000 bombs without suffering a combat casualty in the 78-day air war against Yugoslavia, today's Russian pilots can only hope for 50 hours of light training a year. Last year only 46 percent of flight schools' training flights were made because of fuel shortages and their planes' maintenance problems.

"A lot of young pilots have not flown for a few years," Maj. Gen. Nikolai Anisimov of the air force financial department said recently.

The deterioration of Russia's conventional and strategic nuclear forces from the peak of Soviet power has been long under way and will not be reversed soon. But a disturbing new factor for the Russian military is the remarkable advances in Western high-precision weaponry demonstrated by the allies in Yugoslavia. The laser-guided weapons, cruise missiles and graphite-laden bombs that darkened Serbia's electric power stations all have given a fresh jolt to military leaders here, according to numerous analysts, who noted that the United States had also used such weapons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan.

"Russia has slept through the preparation stage for this war," lamented the well-informed analyst who recounted Yeltsin's remarks at the security council meeting. "At the present, Russia's armed forces do not possess an arsenal of high-precision weapons. This war demonstrated Russia's unpreparedness for this type of war."

"The armed forces are in a catastrophic state," Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin acknowledged at a recent Cabinet meeting. "The military industrial complex and the army are barely able to survive."

As its conventional forces fell apart, Russia in recent years increasingly relied on nuclear deterrence as a shield to preserve its great power standing. Even so, its nuclear forces are also falling apart, and Russia's arsenal is shrinking because of obsolescence and lack of money.

But what has caught the eye of Russian military experts is the way Western high-precision conventional weapons have advanced to the point that they can substitute for nuclear ones in pre-emptive attacks. The differences between a tactical, or short-range, nuclear missile and a conventional high-precision weapon have been blurred, the Russians say. Without a nuclear blast, deadly accurate conventional weapons can punch out the eyes of command and control sites, or extinguish electric power at radar stations or submarine bases. In the Cold War, at least, this kind of surprise attack would have been expected to be nuclear.

"Russia must take into consideration that high-precision weapons can be used against us, including against strategic installations, missile silos and submarine bases," Belous said.

"The Russian military has expressed concern about these highly accurate (conventional) weapons for a long time, since the mid-1980s," said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. "Their special concern was those weapons would be effective for a surprise attack against Russian nuclear deterrent forces, and it is still their major concern."

That concern led to the April 29 National Security Council meeting, the results of which have been kept secret. According to the well-informed analyst, Yeltsin was presented with several options for upgrading and expanding Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal. One involved a new short-range missile; another involved creating a new generation of low-yield battlefield nuclear warheads. Yet another idea was to acquire old strategic bombers that were left behind in Ukraine after the Soviet collapse. While Yeltsin's precise decisions are not known, Pikayev said the discussion suggested that Russia intended to continue its reliance on nuclear deterrence as its first line of defense.

Pikayev said that Andrei Kokoshin, a former first deputy defense minister and Kremlin defense council chief, had long championed developing high-precision weapons. "He thought such weapons, and not nuclear weapons, represented the future of modern warfare," Pikayev said. Since Kokoshin was dismissed last year, "there has been a pause or reverse in the thinking" back to nuclear deterrence, he said.

Many experts worry that Russia, backed into a conflict, could reverse the 1991 commitments made by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George Bush to dismantle thousands of short-range tactical nuclear weapons, which were never covered by a bilateral treaty, and redeploy them. But they said Yeltsin did not go this far in the Yugoslav crisis, although it might have been an option had there been a NATO ground invasion.

The Soviet Union was an extraordinarily militarized state, but today's Russia is, in contrast, dead broke. Under law, 3.5 percent of Russia's economic output is supposed to be devoted to defense. In reality, the draft budget for next year earmarks only 2.17 percent for defense. The Russian defense budget next year is to be 110-billion rubles, which is equivalent to $4.5-billion at current exchange rates, a tiny fraction of U.S. defense outlays and less than what NATO has spent for the entire Yugoslav operation to date.