Russia's Tragedy and Ours
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
August 23, 2000
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Russia's tragedy - and ours
By Graham T. Allison
August 23, 2000
Reprinted from the Boston Globe
Russian bureaucratic bungling, dissembling, delay, and delusion in effect condemned 118 sailors trapped aboard the sunken submarine Kursk to death. One is reminded of former prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin's comment on an earlier failure: 'We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual.'
Had the Kursk 118 served on an American, British, or Norwegian sub, survivors of the initial explosion would most likely have been saved. Had Russia promptly requested 'all possible assistance,' a sophisticated American minisub equipped with advanced technologies that allow the crew to operate in turbulent conditions and see through murky waters could have reached the sub within 24 hours.
This tragedy raises troubling questions about the Russian Navy and the military's competence to operate sophisticated weaponry. It raises profound questions about the future of Russia itself. Is the Kursk affair a blast of truth that exposes the real condition of Russia today: a former military superpower, now bankrupt, no longer repairing its vast arsenal of training personnel, at risk of failing as a modern state?
Putin's answer to this provocative question is: Yes, unless. Yes, unless trends of the past decade are arrested and reversed. Prior to this incident, he had demonstrated extreme realism and great courage in talking straight to his fellow citizens about the severe challenges he and they face.
After Yeltsin's surprise resignation last New Year's Eve and his appointment as acting president, Putin issued the traditional greeting. Instead of offering customary good cheer, he spoke of Russia in terms few Russians had ever imagined. He compared Russia not to the United States, not to the great nations of Europe, but to Portugal. As he stated bluntly, 'To reach the production level of Portugal and Spain, two countries that are not known as leaders of the world economy, it will take Russia approximately 15 years if the GDP grows by at least 8 percent a year.' Have a Happy New Year?
Putin's recent state of the union address warned Russians that the country is not only in danger of falling to the rank of Third World countries but of disintegrating as a unified state. Even closer to home, he described Russia as a nation that is deeply sick, shrinking, and dying.
Consider the facts. Russia's GNP is $270 billion. Per capita purchasing power is equivalent to Guatemala or Algeria - well below South Korea and less than half that of Mexico. The total budget of Russia's national government is less than the budget of the City of New York: $27 billion. The Soviet Union was larger in population than the United States. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's population shrunk by half but, according to Putin, it continues to shrink at the rate of almost one million individuals per year and totals less than 150 million today. In addition to emigration, major causes of this decline include premature deaths, especially of men (whose life expectancy has fallen to 57 years) because of alcoholism, suicide, and infant mortality.
To win a bet with a friend at the club or classroom, one has only to ask to estimate Russia's total defense budget today. It amounts to less than $5 billion - smaller than the defense budget of South Korea or even Israel. In comparison, the US annual defense budget is $290 billion.
The gap between Russia's defense spending on the one hand and its military's self-image, structure, and manning on the other is delusional. With a budget less than a quarter of Germany's, for example, Russia attempts to maintain three times as many men in arms, 10 times as many officers, 20 times as many generals, and five services rather than three. Moreover, with less than a quarter of the resources, Russia attempts to remain a major military power in space, in nuclear weaponry, in land-based missiles, in long-range bombers, with aircraft carriers on the sea and submarines under the sea - none of which is any part of Germany's military posture.
The result: a hollow Russian military shell. For absence of repairs, training, and exercise, Russia now finds itself with a force that is essentially unable to fight. As Putin said candidly last week: 'Are our own forces effective? Unfortunately, they are not. How can it be considered optimal if training is not conducted in many units, pilots rarely fly, and sailors rarely go to sea?'
The state of Russia's military establishment was reflected in its loss to Chechen fighters in the 1994-96 war. As one Russian wag opined, Russia's vaunted military was no longer able to invade itself.
Were Russia's military, and even the Russian state, sinking and dissolving on another planet, Americans could regard this as either tragedy or just deserts but nonetheless as a matter of distant interest. Sadly, however, they and we share a shrinking globe. After four decades of extraordinary exertion in which America won a great victory in the Cold War, the supreme irony is that we find ourselves gravely threatened by the weakness and potential collapse of Russia.
Nowhere is there greater danger than in the possible failure of Russian military officers who control nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at the United States and thousands of nuclear weapons vulnerable to theft and sale to terrorists.
Graham T. Allison is director of the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and is a foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center at 617-495-1400.
For Academic Citation: