International Affairs Forum: Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week the world is in an arms race, and that NATO isn't listening to Russian concerns. What do you make of this?
William Odom: I don't think we're in an arms race at all, though I'm not surprised that Putin said this. Putin is playing to both a domestic and foreign audience. Senior officials in the military want to keep NATO as an enemy because it justifies their preference for force structure and resource allocations. They use that to resist reform and further reductions which are essential for any effective changes.
He also has in mind the west Europeans whom he is trying to split from the U.S., and split among themselves, and accusing the U.S. of starting an arms race by the deployment of ballistic missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland tends to have that effect.
So he has a very weak hand of cards to play, but this kind of off-the-cuff remark probably will have some effect - both domestically and for a European audience.
IA-Forum: Do you think U.S. missile defense plans in Europe are a good idea?
Odom: No, for two reasons. First, I don't think the technology is sufficiently mature for it to be operationally effective, so I think we'll end up spending money and getting nothing for it.
Second, if we're going to do it, trying to do it bilaterally without full NATO knowledge and approval is the height of diplomatic incompetence. What we've done is essentially to have given Putin this opportunity to make us look bad, to hurt NATO, and exacerbate our relationships. We're basically creating these opportunities for Putin to make trouble.
IA-Forum: Russia has made it clear it is unhappy with the continuing expansion of NATO. Do you think expanding it to include countries such as Ukraine and Georgia is a good idea?
Odom: I don't think it's a good idea, but not because I don't want to anger Russia. In fact it's actually objectively in Russia's interests to stabilize these areas.
The reason I don't want to enlarge NATO, certainly not at this time, is because enlargement has already been so big, and successful consolidation of this enlargement, particularly to include countries like Romania and Bulgaria, taxes NATO enormously.
Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld drew American troops out of Europe very heavily, and actually even in the Clinton administration the forces were cut much more than they should have been in my view. So the prospect of the U.S. military leading the big training exercises that are going to be essential to drag these new member armies into an effective modernization effort, and also to rectify the inoperability we have let occur with west European militaries, is not going to happen.
Just consolidating the present enlargement requires far more troops than we have in Europe. So to take on Ukraine and Georgia in the next three or four years would, in my mind, be the height of folly.
IA-Forum: Why is the Russian military in such bad shape?
Odom: It is in bad shape because the leadership in the military didn't want to reform. Under Gorbachev, he and his aides realized that, and began to take unilateral steps such as the reduction of 500,000 troops in eastern Europe and a considerable number of weapons in 1998. That started the deterioration on a large scale. And as the troops came back to Russia with no planning for their arrival, with no barracks and no housing support for officers, he also began to try to cut the other resources. So his defacto strategy in the face of their resistance was just to starve them of resources.
When Yeltsin took over in 1992, he continued the same policy of essentially starving the military of resources. That still left them with two, three or four dozen divisions, which was far more than they
could afford to keep up. You also had the very large military industrial sector, which wanted to sell weapons that could no longer be bought, at least not with the money being allocated.
Had the military leadership at the time recognized what Gorbachev recognized, and I think what Yeltsin recognized - that nobody in Europe wanted to invade Russia, and that they could essentially disarm unilaterally without any security problems coming from the West – they would have done what the Red Army did in 1921-23, when Trotsky reduced the military from 6 million down to 600,000. Stalin similarly did this in 1945 to about 1947-8, when he reduced it [the armed forces] down from over 12 or 14 million to about 2 million or under, allowing him to make big changes that he otherwise would not have been able to do with a big army.
The military was also reduced by 37% in around 1955-58. It infuriated the generals, but they didn't have any choice. They didn't want to go home, they didn't want to lose their jobs. It's like dealing with the unions in western Europe or the United States.
So I think, and I don't know how calculated it was - to some degree I think it was calculated under both Gorbachev and Yeltsin - that since they wouldn't reform, the next best thing to do was start on resources. Putin did this for a while, but he's turned it around to some degree as he's had the oil money to do it with. But he doesn't have anything like the kind of money needed to do what these generals want to do. So he's having it both ways - he's increasing pay and building a few new weapons, several of which haven't turned out successfully. But he's really not building up a force of any significance. So what you've got is an over-seized officer corp, a lot of units that are not very well trained, an air force that has so little flying time that it's not competent, a navy which is mostly in port and rusting, and a few units down in Chechnya.
So the Russian Army is essentially in terrible shape and is not going to get better. It may get better in a few of its units, but across the board it's not going to improve. And I would think the danger of anybody invading Russia today is even less. But if you told senior officers that nobody wanted to invade Russia, they would be insulted. So you've got to understand that climate, and the imperialistic attitude and nostalgia that remains among the Russian military elites and also among a lot of the political elites and even some of the public. That is what Putin is playing to. But he’s not investing enough money or forcing sufficient reform to restore a strategically significant military anytime soon beyond strategic nuclear forces. And all they can do for Russia is deter a non-existent enemy.
Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a Senior Fellow with the Hudson Institute and co-author of the book "America’s Inadvertent Empire." As Director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988, he was responsible for U.S. signals intelligence and communications security.
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