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It is common knowledge that certain animals behave strangely just before an earthquake. Mice and rats leave their dens, and dogs begin to howl. If we apply that logic to Russia's Defense Ministry, it is in store for a tectonic shift.
Russia's top brass are usually happy to remain in their "dens" and out of the public eye, but they have suddenly decided to appeal to the people for support. An unidentified high-ranking military source informed Interfax that the General Staff has been dealt a terrible blow. According to media reports, the Defense Ministry has prepared a directive that will cut the General Staff in half.
This may be just another groundless leak, but there are signs that the General Staff is in store for some bad news. One example is that they had to relocate from their offices on Arbat to Leninsky Prospekt, site of the former Warsaw Pact headquarters. The official reason for the move was repair work, but it is highly likely that they will not return to their former headquarters.
Some months ago, I wrote that Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, in his efforts to institute tougher accountability for defense expenditures, would be forced to address the fundamental problems in the army's organization and functioning. It appears that time has come.
I think the Russia-Georgia war may have played a pivotal role in forcing this issue to the forefront. The Kremlin may have finally understood that our armed forces, which remain essentially unchanged since World War II, could suffer defeat against an army only slightly larger than Georgia's.
President Dmitry Medvedev clearly alluded to the inevitability of fundamental reforms during a meeting with high-ranking commanders on Sept. 26 at a military base in the Orenburg region. In Medvedev's announcement, which has been called his new military doctrine, he said, "All formations must be upgraded to the permanent combat readiness category" by 2020. This is the most important statement he has made so far as president regarding the armed forces. For all intents and purposes, this means that Medvedev would like to put an end to the conscript army. This is because "permanent combat readiness" can only be achieved with a much smaller and highly qualified professional army, and not with the current huge and ineffective army, which is made up primarily of unqualified conscript soldiers.
Medvedev also said that increasing the effectiveness of military command systems was a top priority. At the very least, this means removing the command overlap between the Defense Ministry and the General Staff. This will undoubtedly involve stripping the General Staff of its command and control over troops as well as giving the Defense Ministry control over all military divisions.
Of course, the bloated ranks of generals will try to oppose this reorganization because their jobs are on the line. The most effective way to sideswipe this initiative is to create a smokescreen by exaggerating the supposed threat from the United States and NATO and by drumming up huge, multibillion-dollar weapons projects that would supposedly counter this threat -- for example, the creation of an air and space defense system. In reality, however, not only is the U.S. or NATO threat fictitious, but this space defense system would be completely useless even if Russia were drawn into a direct military conflict with the West.
The logic behind the idea for an air and space defense system was about as subtle as a blow to the head. Since the United States was planning an "attack from space," Russia had to counter it with a its own air and space defense system. Reconnaissance satellites would be needed to detect an incoming target and pass the coordinates to fighter aircraft or cruise missiles. The problem, however, is that it is necessary to operate in two different environments to deter such an attack. The processes of radio detection and the act of interception are fundamentally different. Enemy missiles flying through space are governed by one set of physical laws, and when flying through air, by different laws. So, unless Russian scientists have discovered new laws of physics, it would be pointless to combine earth-based and space-based missile defense systems.
It would be equally pointless to build up the country's nuclear forces or create new battle tanks. In either case, the money would be spent on individual systems, while the basic organizational structure of the armed forces designed to defend against the United States would remain unchanged. The Kremlin will have to make an important choice soon -- between creating a smaller, professional army capable of countering the real threats facing Russia, such as terrorism, or continuing to maintain a bloated, inefficient conscript army aimed at fighting a fictitious enemy from the West.
Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.