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BLAIR RUBLE: There are all sorts of ways in which they can hurt us, even if they are weak. And this is something which I think Americans have not fully comprehended.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, life in Russia 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
CELESTE WALLENDER: A corrupt, underpaid, underfed Russian military is susceptible to selling not only Kaleshnikovs to Chechnyan rebels, but nuclear, chemical, biological weapons or materials to the highest bidder.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. In December 1991 a chain of events occurred which had seemed unthinkable for decades. A superpower collapsed. The vast empire of the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
PORTER: Russia is by far the largest of the 15 nations which then gained independence. Since then it has been struggling to fill the shoes of the once mighty Soviet Union. For insight on the challenges facing the new Russia, I spoke with one of America’s leading Russia experts, Blair Ruble, Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, DC.
BLAIR RUBLE: A lot of change has taken place but what I think is remarkable is the extent to which that change has been filtered through a set of social relationships that have remarkable staying power. I hesitate to call it culture because I think a number of the barriers to change really come out of the Soviet experience and are not deeply rooted in Russian culture, but are definitely rooted in the experiences of people who lived through the Soviet experience. And there’s a reliance on informality. There is an arbitrariness to authority. There is conformity to old forms of interaction which have held up despite everything that has gone on around them. And I think the result is that we, we end up with a system that is neither democratic nor nondemocratic, neither market nor nonmarket, but something that’s a very unusual blend. There are a number of people who suggested that this would be the case ten years ago. But it, it’s a little surprising exactly how those pieces have come together.
PORTER: After 10 years do we yet have a picture of what Russia will ultimately be?
RUBLE: I think we have a picture of what Russia will be in the short to medium term. The long term I think is still very much open to question. But I think it’s a system which is more open to the outside world than the old Soviet Union was, for sure. It’s a system in which there are elections. There is a modicum of free press. More importantly, people can express viewpoints in private without really paying significant consequences for those viewpoints. In that sense it’s a more open society, it’s potentially a more democratic society. And that’s weighed against a set of institutions and a ruling elite which is still given to more top-down bureaucratic control and does not seem to have totally embraced the principles of democracy. And what you, what we’ve ended up with is a kind of nonauthoritarian, nondemocratic mix with some elements of a market economy and some elements of a democratic polity.
PORTER: You know, that’s more complex than I think people want it to be.
RUBLE: No, I know, I know.
PORTER: Isn’t it?
RUBLE: No, that’s right.
PORTER: I mean, I want to ask you, “Does democracy exist?” You know, “Does capitalism exist in Russia?” And the answer is “Kind of.”
RUBLE: Kind of. No, that’s exactly right. And you know, the world’s a complicated place and we shouldn’t be totally surprised by this. But there are no easy answers when it comes to Russia. It’s ending up someplace that we haven’t really seen elsewhere.
PORTER: There are so many big problems: crackdowns on the media, organized crime; there are environmental disasters; unemployment. What are the biggest challenges? How do you prioritize these?
RUBLE: Well, I think the biggest challenge is the emergence of a Russian society and polity that values human capital. This begins to get into issues of inequality; it gets into issues of health care; it gets into underinvestment in education and in science; and it deals-it is an artifact to some extent of the arbitrariness of power that still exists, the lack of check of rule of law. But the 21st century is, is a century in which wealth is generated by investment in human capital and that, those investments aren’t being really made in the Russian case. And I think that that’s the biggest challenge. And that challenge reflects the need to have the business and political elite that thinks of its role as something more than just enriching itself. And it’s going to take some time for that kind of business and political elite to emerge.
PORTER: Russia is such an enormous country. How does the central government in Moscow, does it-how much control does it have, how much authority does it have, the farther away you get from Moscow?
RUBLE: I think the farther you get from Moscow the less control it has. I think what’s interesting about President Putin’s efforts to reestablish central authority is the speed with which he’s been able to get people to verbally express their subordination to him and to Moscow. But, in fact, my sense is that people in the regions are going off and doing what they want to do anyway, even as they say, “Well, you’re in charge.” And this is a long-standing Russian pattern. Some of the best works of 19th-century Russian literature are written about this phenomenon. But the further you are from Moscow the less control Moscow has, despite the efforts of Putin to reestablish a chain of command.
PORTER: I want to talk a little bit about US-Russian relations. President Bush, President Putin, had sort of publicly, they’d said all the right things, yet now that seems to have all been washed away by the events of September 11.
RUBLE: It appears that President Putin has used the opportunities created by September 11 to orient his own policy towards the West and towards a growing partnership with Europe and the United States. And I think he has done so in very public ways over the objections of the military and security forces and others, to be sure. One issue is whether or not it can stick and that depends, I think, on whether or not Russia gets rewards for Putin’s having made this clear commitment to the West.
PORTER: President Putin has, seems to be using this as a way to justify his actions in Chechnya and that’s probably the narrowest sense. In the largest sense Russia faces the same or much greater, I should say, threat from extreme Islamic fundamentalism as any country in the world. Would you agree with that?
RUBLE: Well, I think they face that threat and it’s also important to recognize that Russia is a country in which there are tens of millions of Islamic citizens. And Moscow alone as of this summer is estimated to have over a million Muslim residents. Tatarstan, Bashkortostan are in the center of the country, they are oil-rich areas, and they are predominately Islamic areas. So Russia has-faces two very different challenges. One is the challenge of external aggression from the south, which may come wrapped in Islamic cloth because that’s the way in which political leaders in that part of the world mobilize people; but even as it’s coming to terms with its southern flank it also has to define its own identity in a way that leaves a place for its Muslims who live and are citizens of the Russian Federation. And that’s a very difficult task. And, and I think it’s going to be a real challenge to the Russian political elite to deal with that.
PORTER: Ten years after the Soviet collapse do we yet have a picture of the role Russia will play in the rest of the world?
RUBLE: I think we have a picture of the role that President Putin would like Russia to play, which is that of a significant European power. Whether or not Russia has the economic and military capacity to play that role is still an open question. But I think the Putin regime is very much about asserting a Russian presence in international relations. And that’s the direction that he would like to see. He would like to see a Russia that remains a player at some significant level in Europe and the rest of the world.
PORTER: Why is the success of Russia important to the rest of the world and why should Americans care whether or not Russia becomes a viable, stable state?
RUBLE: Because Russia can hurt us. We’ve gotten used to saying that Russia is Chad with nuclear weapons. Well, first off, it’s not Chad. Secondly, the nuclear weapons are important. But they have not just nuclear weapons. They have oil, they have gas, they have natural resources. They physically bump up against two regions we care about-well, three regions we care about-the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia. They think of themselves as an international player; therefore they’re concerned with exerting their presence in the international arena, which means there are all sorts of ways in which they can hurt us, even if they are weak. And this is something which I think Americans have not fully comprehended over the last ten years, is that it may be true that Russia can’t necessarily help us a lot-although I think that’s an overstatement-but there, there’s a way of making that argument. But even if that’s the case it’s still true that Russia can hurt us.
PORTER: Do you have any prediction for us on where Russia will be ten years from now? Will it face the same set of problems it does now or a whole new set of problems?
RUBLE: I think a lot depends on the extent to which the shift that Putin has made in recent weeks towards the West represents a long-term orientation towards the West. I think if it does, Putin may want Russia to be a European power and not a European society. But I think being a European society will come along behind that and we’ll end up with a very different Russia. I think the orientation towards the West is very important right now.
I think another factor that people don’t look at is the possibility as the Russian population declines that the Russian Federation will have to open up its borders to large-scale migration. And this is an issue which will probably not reach the table for another five years or so, but there’s a powerful demographic logic behind it and a Russia that opens up its borders is going to be, by definition, a very different Russia from what we’ve had in the world before. And I think it may be that ten years from now the biggest change is going to be who is living in the Russian Federation. But that’s, that’s sheer speculation. But it’s something we need to begin to think about and the Russians themselves need to think about.
PORTER: That is Blair Ruble, Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
MCHUGH: The unstable nature of the Russian military, next on Common Ground.
CELESTE WALLENDER: Russian mothers will move heaven and earth to prevent their young sons from being enlisted.
MCHUGH: The Soviet Union once had a military force which nearly circled the globe. Today, the Russian military force is in disarray. Morale is very low and corruption is very high.
PORTER: The Russian military is only one-fourth the size of the old Soviet military. And defense spending has dropped 95 percent in the ten years since the fall of the Soviet Union. I sat down with Celeste Wallender, a Russian security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. She says a weak, disorganized Russian military may be a serious threat to the Russian people and the rest of the world.
CELESTE WALLENDER: Morale is low because pay is extremely low. Russia still relies primarily on conscription-that is, the draft. Russian, young Russian men who are smart, who are well connected, who have very active parents-all these sorts of things-can come up with ways to get out of being drafted. And so Russian military services tend to end up with enlisted people who are somewhat less educated, somewhat less proactive, and so then you begin with a base that isn’t probably as good as you would like. Also, the Russian general population is facing a health crisis. Russian-the Soviet Union wasn’t very good at providing hi-tech health, but it was pretty good at providing basic health. That system has fallen apart and so drug use, infectious diseases, just basic-malnutrition, susceptibility to just average everyday sort of illness really runs rampant through even Russia’s young male population. And so that affects what you’ve got to work with. And then on top of that they’re ill-paid because they are enlisted and because the Russian military doesn’t pay, devote a lot of money to taking care of the enlisted personnel. There have been stories of soldiers who are literally starving in some bases. Committing suicide because they despair at what’s going on. And even officers are very poorly paid.
And where the corruption comes in is officers and enlisted personnel-this isn’t to excuse it-but simply trying to make ends meet. If you’re not paid, you have a family to take care of, you need to be able to buy food because the military isn’t providing it to you. You’re very susceptible to be willing to take a bribe and allow some drug trade to go unmarked. Or to sell your equipment. There have been a lot of stories. A lot of the equipment that the Chechin rebels, at least early on, were using, they had actually obtained from Russian soldiers. Russian soldiers selling the arms that they had been issued to buy food. So unless you have a structure for the professionalization of the army, you have a proper political system that decides how big the army needs to be, what its missions are, how to create a professional officer class under new circumstances, post-Soviet circumstances, and to think about the relationship to society and the needs of society to produce pretty-well educated, capable young men who will serve-because in Russia it’s all men-you’re not going to be able to tackle this problem. You’re not going to be able to tackle it simply by sending those who are corrupt to jail. There are more fundamental issues they have to deal with.
PORTER: There are bunch of things in there I want to pick up on. One of them, you talk about Russian society as a whole. How much is the Russian military a mirror of, what’s happening in the whole society, and how much of it is the fact that the Russian military is in fact, worse off than the rest of society?
WALLENDER: That is a really good question. I think that in my judgment the Russian military has particular problems that Russian society doesn’t have. For example, enlisted personnel are subject to terrible hazing. You don’t tend to find that in Russian society. It has its problems but people, at least I believe, and I think studies show, are generally supportive. Some of the dislocations and terrible costs in the post-Soviet decade have been made up by people helping one another. That’s not true of enlisted personnel in the Russian Army. That’s one of the reasons why Russian mothers will move heaven and earth to prevent their young sons from being enlisted. Because a lot of them are brutalized, damaged for life, and even killed by the process of hazing. That’s sort of a unique practice and makes life in the military worse.
Also, because of the conflicts that have plagued the former Soviet Union, and maybe because of conflicts coming, if there is further instability in Central Asia and the Caucuses arising from the global anti-terrorism campaign, you know, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to die if you serve in the Russian military. And an awful lot of personnel have died, especially in Chechnya.
But on the other hand, I think it is a good way to think of it that the problems of the Russian military really do reflect the problems in society. And are-and in that sense are a more fundamental problem. The lack of hope about what your career will look like and what your future could look like. The problems of finding food. The problems of education. The health problems. All those are not unique to the military. They really are arising from the broader Russian social context.
PORTER: For those of us who are not in Russia, should we be happy that the Russian military is weak and disorganized? Or are there some hidden dangers there?
WALLENDER: I think it’s absolutely the case that a weak Russian military in these terms is not an American national security interest. Because, yes, a weak Russian military, if one is thinking of smaller, less capable of threatening its neighbors, less capable of threatening the United States, if that were the goal of the Russian government-that sounds like a good thing. But the form of weakness is, is really dangerous for the United States. Why?
One, is because Russia is a big country and it does have legitimate security problems. It doesn’t handle them well in my opinion. But one of the reasons it doesn’t handle them well is because it doesn’t have the confidence of professional resources to be able to stabilize these regions on its borders, and so it’s done largely irresponsible things, in the Caucuses in particular. That’s number one. You need-Russia is a big place, it needs to be, it needs to feel secure. It needs to feel that it doesn’t have to send forces in in an emergency situation to deal with a problem. It needs to have the confidence that Russian citizens are safe and Russian citizens need the confidence that they are safe so they will be responsible and think long term.
The other problem with a weak Russian military is precisely the concern that American decision makers have been talking about all through the 1990s. And we’ve touched upon already. A corrupt, underpaid, underfed Russian military is susceptible to selling not only Kaleshnikovs to Chechnyan rebels, but nuclear, chemical, biological weapons or materials to the highest bidder. And that’s one of the big concerns. It’s not-part of the concern is that scientists, Russian scientists, will sell their knowledge, expertise, and access. But a big part of the concern is that the people who guard those weapons, those resources, those materials, will be tempted to sell them in order to provide for their families, or find a better way, or escape from Russia. So a weak Russia is insecure, afraid, irresponsible, and also vulnerable to those abroad who are interested in proliferating weapons of mass destruction. And that’s not in American security interests.
PORTER: Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested a number of possible reforms for the Russian military. What do you think he should do? What are the biggest reforms that need to be made?
WALLENDER: Russian military needs to focus first on what missions it has to serve. Russian analysts talk about this and the Russian leadership has talked about it, but they haven’t done it. In the 1990s while they were talking about the real danger, the real threat to Russian security lying in the south, lying in terrorism, lying in the problem of instability in the borders, they yet did not restructure from a very traditional Cold War military to a new kind of military that could deal with those threats. Now, all militaries take a long time to restructure. The American military hasn’t prettily restructured during the 1990s either, and we’ve had debates also about how the nature of the threat changes over time and we’re not necessarily prepared for what we’re facing right now. But given the fact that the Russian military has been actively facing these kinds of conflicts and yet continues to think about dealing with NATO contingencies in Europe, it is really astonishing that there hasn’t been higher level political will to change what the Russian military has been doing.
What you have is you have an officer corps that was trained in the Soviet period, understood the world as it existed then, has its professional interests bound up with how the military operated then. That is, lots of heavy armor; large formations that were meant to cope with a NATO invasion, or to preempt a NATO invasion. Integration to a certain extent of those kinds of heavy armor formations with air support and also nuclear weapons. What they need now are lighter divisions or even lighter formations smaller than that at the level of brigades or even platoons that can move more rapidly, that can get into mountain environments and get out. One of the problems in Chechnya is they can’t get into those mountain environments because they don’t have the right brigades to be able to move in, deal with some of the incursions, root out some of those who-the Chechnyans-who then move in at night, create problems for the Russian forces, and then move back out into the mountains as well as the villages.
So that kind of Russian military, they’ve talked about that, they know that. They don’t need to hear Americans telling them that. But what they haven’t been able to do is get the political strength to force the Russian military to reorient.
But the other problem-and that’s the political-the other problem is this is going to be extremely expensive. Cutting military costs more money than just keeping them going the way they are. You have to buy new kinds of helicopters, new kinds of armor, new kinds of weapons. You have to train a whole new generation of officers who aren’t trained to deal with the NATO invasion but are in, are trained to deal with these kind, new kinds of missions. So it’s also been a function of Russian economic decline and misallocation of Russian economic resources. And Putin seems to understand that. And they’ve talked about that. And the Russian economy is doing better. And the Russian political leadership seems to have a better grip of control over the military issues. So I’m actually somewhat optimistic that this may begin to happen over the next couple of years. But it’s awfully late for it to just be starting.
PORTER: How can President Putin convince the public that they need to spend more money on defense?
WALLENDER: Probably it would help if the Russian leadership could convince the public that the money it is spending right now is well allocated and well used. The Russian-Russian society, Russian public, does not trust its government. It didn’t-part of this is the Soviet legacy: cynicism about what the government is doing and recognition that the government isn’t serving you. But it’s also the lessons of the 1990s, where you saw not just-you know, everyone knows there were the oligarchs making a lot of money. But one has to understand that these oligarchs were tightly enmeshed with the political leadership and an awful lot of people who served in high-level political positions made an awful lot of money themselves and went in and out of government quite freely and used the government access and government positions to make money.
Now, it’s OK for individuals to make money in the private sector; that’s what we want Russia to do. We want them to become a market economy. But there has to be confidence of society that there is a distinction between private enterprise and private interests and public service and the use of public resources for the public good. And Russian society doesn’t buy that now. So what the Russian leadership should do first and foremost-and they’ve been making some effort along these lines-is to make people confident of that.
But then the other-I mean, unfortunately, we’re going to see a similar phenomenon in Russia that we saw now, which is probably a greater willingness to have a larger degree of spending on defense and military to respond to this crisis. It’s tragic that it took a crisis and a horrible incident such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it does tend to galvanize public support. It certainly will galvanize it in the United States for spending more on defense. It may well-and especially what’s going to come now in the next few months and maybe years-may well reorient Russian society towards thinking that they need to devote some resources to this as well.
PORTER: Will President Putin use Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as a way to encourage more feeling of threat and therefore more public spending on defense?
WALLENDER: Well, he’s used it for the last two years to try to galvanize support for Chechnya and the operation in Chechnya, not particularly for defense spending. I fear that he-well, or, depending on how you look at it, it might be good-that he’s used up his resources on that one. In other words he’s already made the argument that “Islamic fundamentalism is this terrible threat and you have to support us to deal with it.” If I was a Russian citizen I’d be sitting around going, “Well, you’ve had two years and you haven’t dealt with it. In fact, you’ve probably made it worse.” And those voices are beginning to be heard. I’m not sure if the Islamic fundamentalist threat, so to speak, in and of itself, will get Russian society galvanized to support more defense spending.
What may work though-and I think we’re seeing hints of this in the Russian press and we’ve seen it, hints of it in President Putin’s speeches the last couple of weeks-is the argument that now that it’s a global effort, now that the West and particularly the United States takes this seriously, now we can begin to really, really address this effectively. And now is the time to put some resources into this problem. Because now we have international cooperation and now we have a chance of succeeding. I think that’s more likely to be the line of argument we see. Putin has actually been-I wouldn’t say careful-but has made some attempt to distinguish between Islam and terrorism. And that’s partly because Russia itself has a substantial Islamic population. It’s also because Russia’s allies, or partners, or neighbors in the region of Central Asia and also in the Caucuses are largely Islamic societies. So they have to be careful to not demonize Islam as well, although they haven’t always been careful. So I think that terrorism will be the focus rather than Islamic fundamentalism. And the argument will be “We now have partners. We can cooperate. So now’s the time to do it.”
PORTER: That is Celeste Wallender, a Russian security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Next week, we’ll conclude our series, “Ten Years After The Soviet Collapse,” by examining the war in Chechnya and the fate of the new nations created when the Soviet empire ended.
MCHUGH: And be sure to join Keith and I next month on the Russia Project, a two-hour special documentary on life in Russia a decade after the Soviet Union.
PORTER: The Russia Project will be hosted by Walter Cronkite and is made possible by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. Contact your local public radio station to find out when you can hear The Russia Project. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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