An international conference held in Moscow on 23-23 May highlighted the way Russia’s security apparatus is torn between its heart and its head. Intellectually, it recognizes that international terrorism and instability remain the greatest current threats to Russian and global security. However, emotionally — and politically — it continues to view the outside world in general and NATO in particular with mistrust, and is trying to build up its regular armed forces to match.
At the conference, defense minister Sergei Shoigu observed that “the most pressing threats to European security today are posed by global terrorism.” At the same event, Lt. General Igor Sergun, head of Russian military intelligence (GRU), warned that he sees terrorism as a growing challenge, especially with the anticipated rise of radicals in Afghanistan and Syria. He is especially concerned about the presence of foreign radicals in such hotspots since “after they acquire practical combat experience, they can be expected to return to their countries where they will be able to apply it on the European continent.” Indeed, Russia is even contemplating sending its own Border Troops to Tajikistan to bolster local forces.
Effectively combating terrorism requires small, highly-trained intervention forces, substantial, professional and honest police and security apparatuses and serious commitments to identifying potential radicals and attackers. While Russia has made some moves towards acquiring these with the proliferation of security special forces and reform of its police, such priorities are still — indeed, increasingly — taking second-place to a rearmament program that is geared towards fighting conventional wars against other nations.
After all, Shoigu also used his recent address to restate Moscow’s official view that NATO represents a challenge to Russian interests and that it must create a “combat-ready, mobile” army, one “equipped with modern weapons.” To this end, at a time when Russia is facing increasing pressure on its state budget, with a clear need to spend money on social services, infrastructure and economic diversification, the plan is to spend a steadily increasing share of GDP on defense.
However, there are now signs of increasing internal disagreements within the government about these plans. The finance ministry has indicated that some proposed expenditures will have to be postponed, perhaps pushing back the overall modernization plan to 2025. Besides, not only is a large proportion — possibly 20 percent — of the procurement budget wasted or embezzled, but there are renewed concerns about domestic industries’ ability to provide Russia’s military with the systems they need reliably and on time. The danger is thus that Moscow both concentrates on the wrong target, and fails even to hit that.