Russia's military looks like an empty shell. It couldn't defeat a ragtag provincial militia in Chechnya. Defense Minister Igor Rodionov frets that it no longer can protect its own nuclear arsenal. Perpetually strapped for cash, Russia is having trouble even paying and feeding its 1.7 million troops.
But behind the scenes, Russia's military leaders are shaping a strategy that one day could pose a new threat to the West. While cutting outlays on conventional defense forces, Moscow is focusing much of the resources it does have on R&D in "information warfare," say Western analysts. It is anteing up for new generations of smart sensors and precision weapons to "see" an enemy in real time. And it is working on viruses and other high-tech wreckers that can attack an adversary's civilian computers running everything from the financial system to telephones and utility grids.
U.S. experts on the Russian military believe Washington soon may have to take Moscow seriously again. "When there is money, Russia will be able to come back into the game and rejoin the next cycle of the information process," says Stephen J. Blank, a Russia specialist at the U.S. Army War College.
ELITE BACKING. Many in the Russian elite back the effort. It will involve a major reform of the Russian military that could slash troop numbers to 1.2 million and move to a fully professional army by 2000. At the same time, says Mary C. FitzGerald, a Hudson Institute analyst, the Russians will be "putting everything [they] can into research and development."
Some cash is coming for the push. Russia's Parliament recently gave final approval for a budget that doubled defense R&D appropriations, to $2 billion.
All this is a backhanded compliment to America's state-of-the-art military technology. The performance of U.S. smart weapons in Operation Desert Storm, for instance, vindicated Russian military thinkers, such as former Soviet Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov. In the mid-1980s, he forecast that technology would so alter the nature of battles that it amounted to a revolution in warfare.
Now, though, the Russians are playing catch-up. Some military brass are using scare tactics to coax more money from legislators. They say the West, having won the cold war, is trying to gain control of Russia's natural resources. In an article that disturbed Russian defense specialists in the U.S., published before he became Russia's chief of staff last October, General Viktor Samsonov argues that the cold war "has not ended." The U.S. and its allies, he warns, will seek final victory by using "information and other means."
Clinton Administration spokesmen are unruffled in public. "We do not view Russia as an adversary," says one. And some outside analysts doubt that such a secretive society as Russia could ever make the leaps that the military hopes for. But Moscow knows as much about integrating military strategy, doctrine, and technology as anybody--and far more than China, conventional wisdom's choice as the rising military power in the next century.
The Russian government is strapped for cash. But if the amounts now flowing into R&D turn into a flood when Russia's economy bounces back, America's former preoccupation with the Russian bear may come out of hibernation.