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?
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.
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.
Gen. Odom was even more emphatic in our conversation that while the Russian military is back as a political force and influence within the political chaos that is Russia these days, what he wrote in his book is still essentially true.
"The military might be getting a little more money from the Kremlin these days, but it still has nowhere near the resources it needs to maintain its present strength [between 1.2 million and 1.4 million men] as a well-trained, effective fighting force,'' he said. The generals still resist the kind of systemic reform that would be necessary to create a solid fighting force because they're content with the status quo.
In essence, Gen. Odom explained, conscription allows the colonels and general to use the recruits as serf labor. They not only put them to work building nice housing and facilities for the officers, they hire them out to businesses and others who need cheap labor, pocketing the proceeds. Most recruits are still paid only sporadically and hardly trained at all, he said. And because of draft dodging, the number of people in the military is probably noticeably lower than the official figures.
The Chechen war, Gen. Odom thinks, is more about domestic Russian politics than anything else. Prime Minister Putin wants a strong showing for his supporters in next week's elections, and he wants to become president next year. A winnable war against the hated Chechens (Gen. Odom is fascinated by the level of hostility toward Chechnya at all levels of Russian society) is simply good politics. And since it increases the political influence and prestige of the military (barring a severe embarrassment) the military is pleased.
"Military strength is relative, of course,'' he reminded me. In the context of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia or the Baltic countries the Russian military could probably be a dominating force even now. It still has plenty of military equipment, and even though most of it is left over from the Soviet days most of it is serviceable. And it still has impressive logistical capabilities; it's been able to move and mobilize men and materiel for the Chechen campaign fairly impressively. But in its present condition it doesn't present much of a threat to central Europe.
Let alone to the United States, I would add.
As we continued talking interspersed with offhand but good-natured remarks from the general about how naive "you libertarians'' are and how it seems to him that libertarians are really anarchists who aren't ready to admit it to themselves we found some agreement on the proper approach to Russia. In essence, Gen. Odom thinks the United States has paid too much attention, almost to the point of obsession in the case of Strobe Talbott, to Russia.
"The important countries in today's world are in Western Europe and industrialized Asia,'' he said. We should keep our relationships there strong. But Russia at this stage is a regional power worth keeping an eye on, but not worth propping up with IMF money, which probably does more harm than good for ordinary Russians anyway. ("Although, maybe $12 billion a year isn't a bad investment to keep the country economically weak and politically divided,'' he said only half jokingly.)
The program to subsidize the decommissioning of Russian nukes, while well-intentioned, has had perverse effects, he believes. "When you take the fissile material out of a weapon it makes it much easier to ship it to some terrorist,'' he says.
I found numerous points of disagreement with Gen. Odom; he thinks those of us who would just as soon see NATO disappear or be reconstituted as something different are shortsighted and naive. But he's a well-informed, thoughtful military man who keeps up on events and views the world from a realistic sometimes painfully realistic perspective. And that makes him more interesting than the often naive crusaders who tend to stumble into imperial adventures out of unfocused and often woefully ignorant impulses to reform and renew the world whether it wants to be reformed in our image or not.
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