Page last updated at 10:17 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

Analysis: Russia ready to work with Nato

Russian tanks deployed during the South Ossetia conflict - file picture
Last year Russian tanks came face to face with the US-trained Georgian military

While Russia made many headlines in 2008 for its military assertiveness, it is still open to much greater co-operation with the West under US President Barack Obama, foreign policy analyst Irina Isakova argues.

Russia's actions in 2008 left no doubt that it was interested in being a global partner to the US and European states in a multipolar world. Moscow denied it was interested in a revival of Cold War competition with the West.

Still, it made it clear that it was ready to defend its national security and economic interests by all means, including what it would call an "appropriate level of force". That was demonstrated in the Georgia crisis last summer.

Its increased military activity was designed to set out the parameters of its "red line alerts", as a warning against possible US/Nato interventions in the former Soviet Union, and to show that any attempts to encircle Russia strategically were bound to fail, as the country's strategic and trade ties extended beyond just its immediate neighbours.

US backyard

Anticipating a changing world order, with more senior players - where the G7/G8 may give way to G20+ and other regional groupings - Moscow has also been re-establishing its contacts and presence in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf.

The most visible re-emergence of Russia as a global player has been in Latin America.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev on board Russia's Admiral Chabanenko warship in Venezuela, November 2008
President Medvedev has accompanied the Russian navy in Venezuela

The unprecedented level of defence-related activities there - in the US backyard - was meant to prove that Moscow had legitimate economic and security interests in the region, similar to those that the US has claimed to have in the former Soviet Union.

President Dmitry Medvedev's visits last year to Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba led to substantial defence deals, as well as agreements to co-operate in energy, space and other hi-tech areas. They were also accompanied by highly publicised military exercises, like those between the Russian and Venezuelan navies.

The Russian general staff has confirmed its support for an expansion of naval bases abroad - but not that Syria, Libya and Yemen have already been earmarked.

Despite the global financial crisis, defence orders remain strong. According to data revealed by deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov, Russia earned more than $8bn in arms sales in 2008, with $33bn more in the pipeline.

And Russia is looking for more buyers. For instance, it is to resume arms sales to Lebanon, has expressed interest in intensifying defence co-operation with Saudi Arabia, and is competing with British, US and French defence contractors for orders from Lebanon, Algeria and elsewhere.

Russia is also considering buying in foreign-made defence hardware, like unmanned drones from Israel - an unprecedented step. And despite the deepening financial crisis, the government has promised that its defence procurement programme up to 2015 will be completed in full and on time.

It has reiterated its commitment to provide the military with one trillion roubles ($28bn) for armaments programmes in 2009 and up to 4trn roubles ($112bn) until 2011.

Urgent reforms

While these decisions on Russia's defence posture have already been made, the new "military doctrine", which would specify the main risk and threat factors, as well as potential friends and foes, is not expected until the end of 2009. A special security council task force is to submit the final document.

The new doctrine is expected to reflect current and forthcoming international developments, including any changes Nato may set out this year, missile defence deployments, and WMD proliferation.

Russian military parade in Red Square - file picture
The Kremlin has promised to fulfil an extensive military funding plan

By delaying submission of the new doctrine, the Russian military gains a certain level of flexibility in redefining its place with potential partners in response to new US and European security and defence policy.

Plans to reform Russia's military were approved long before the five-day Russia-Georgia war. However, that speeded up the process, as it demonstrated the need for a comprehensive and urgent modernisation of the armed forces, and the completion date was brought forward from 2016 to 2012.

The wide-ranging structural reforms cover command and control, the mobilisation of reserves, education and training, and logistics.

They confirm that Moscow's priorities lie not just in defending its national territory, but also in increasing its expeditionary capabilities. That could allow its armed forces to increase their presence in international missions like UN peacekeeping or EU disaster relief operations, as well as providing expeditionary support abroad or monitoring activities along the main trade routes.

Coming months crucial

Between 2003 and 2008, Russian defence spending increased five-fold. However in real terms, allowing for inflation and devaluation of the rouble, it may actually only have doubled, according to Ruslan Pukhov, director of Russia's Centre of Strategy and Technologies.

And while that sounds expansive, in fact the defence ministry and the armed forces in general are to experience cuts in personnel that are unprecedented in peacetime.

In the next three years the Russian military has to cut 200,000 of its 1.2 million personnel - most of them officers. This will be done mainly by discharging officers at retirement age or with limited combat experience.

Russia's six regional military districts will take on a greater role, to be able to resist any hostilities within their borders and mobilise immediate defence.


The brigade-oriented posture is considered by the military, on the one hand, as a more appropriate module for responding to current security risks, allowing the country's defence establishment to respond to several local and regional conflicts simultaneously. On the other hand, it is seen as the best module for co-operation with US or Nato forces in possible joint operations.

Nevertheless, the essential element of the current defence reform is based around securing active deterrence capabilities. In September 2008, President Medvedev ordered its military to be able to prevent nuclear and terrorist attacks on Russian soil by 2020.

Establishing adequate missile defence is seen as a counter-strategy priority. Russia said last year it would deploy Iskander operational tactical missiles to its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, as a response to US/Nato missile deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland.

However, Russia has reportedly put this deployment on hold while it waits to see whether President Obama will push ahead with the missile shield.

It is obvious that the emphasis of the new defence policy could go both ways. It could be either anti or pro co-operation with the West, depending on negotiations with the Obama administration regarding Nato's enlargement plans and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The initial START, signed by the first President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, is set to expire in December 2009. Moscow has repeatedly stated that the signing of a new nuclear disarmament deal will only be possible if Washington abandons its plans to place elements of the US missile shield in Europe.

One can therefore see that developments over the next several months will be crucial in deciding Russia's policy towards co-operation with the West.

Irina Isakova is a freelance foreign policy analyst based in London.

Print Sponsor

Russia boosts military spending
23 Dec 08 |  Europe
Venezuela welcomes Russian ships
25 Nov 08 |  Americas
Russian bombers land in Venezuela
11 Sep 08 |  Americas

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific