Mark Galeotti’s book Putin’s Wars shows how Russia’s army modernised after the chaotic 1990s – but it’s still rife with corruption
Opposite the American embassy in Moscow is a clothing chain that US diplomats might do well to avoid. The “Army of Russia Store” sells everything from camouflage leggings and “Team Putin” jackets to tee-shirts of Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister in charge of the Ukraine invasion.
Far from being of interest only to military geeks, this clobber is actually marketed as high-end fashion in Russia, like a tooled-up Tommy Hilfiger. And as Mark Galeotti writes in his book Putin’s Wars, it’s just one way in which “cynical state propaganda and genuine popular enthusiasm converge on the nation’s military”.
Another is May 9’s Victory Day parade, celebrating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler, when young women pose for selfies in front of the latest tanks. Then there’s the Army Games, a martial gymkhana where children can shoot AK-47s and eat kasha (military-issue buckwheat porridge).
True, given the latter’s disastrous performance in Ukraine so far, it is doubtful just how popular such events will remain – especially now that 300,000 Russians can experience army life for real, courtesy of Vladimir Putin’s recent mobilisation. Rather like the NHS in Britain, Russia’s military has become something of a state religion – feted so blindly that nobody actually noticed it was no longer a world-beater.
All of which, though, adds to the timeliness of Galeotti’s book – a brisk crash course in Putin’s attempts to turn Russia’s army from the demoralised Soviet behemoth he inherited in 2000 into a 21st-century fighting force. As with a number of Russia tomes published this year, it’s had last-minute editing to factor in the Ukraine debacle. But for armchair generals everywhere – and maybe real ones too – this may well make the Christmas stocking list.
Indeed, if Russian military pundits had rankings, Galeotti might be commander-in-chief. A fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and former columnist at Jane’s Intelligence Review, he has studied Russia’s forces since their pull-out of Afghanistan. He also pens regular columns on the Ukraine war’s progress in The Telegraph and The Sunday Times – which may explain why he was among nearly 30 UK journalists banned from visiting Russia this year.
Unlike some think-tankers, moreover, Galeotti’s not shy of real-life field research. Many of the insights in this book are credited to Russian soldiers he cultivates as drinking pals – a great way to get past those old Soviet habits of secrecy, provided your liver can cope. The book starts with one such boozing marathon in a Moscow slum in 1990, when a traumatised, vodka-swilling Afghan veteran predicts Putin’s rise. “It’s all going to fall apart, you know, and when it does, everyone is going to prey on us,” he slurs. “And before you know it, we’ll need another vozhd [boss].”
The Russian army did indeed need someone properly in charge. In the chaotic 90s, soldiers foraged for mushrooms to survive, moonlighting as labourers and hitmen. They smuggled heroin from Central Asia on military flights. The first Chechen war in 1994, which ended in a ceasefire, repeated the humiliations of Afghanistan.
All that changed under Putin’s modernisation programme – often despite entrenched resistance from Moscow’s graft-ridden defence ministry “blob”. The top heavy ranks were thinned out, and many conscript ranks replaced with paid professionals. Vast World War II munitions stocks were scrapped – along with the cushy stockkeeping jobs they generated. A target of 70 per cent modern weaponry was set and met. Tanks were equipped with hi-tech reactive armour, which has explosive counter-charges to fend off missiles. No more was Russia’s military “an overweight and greying bear”, writes Galeotti.
True, the man who did the heavy-lifting on these reforms wasn’t Putin himself, but his defence minister Shoigu, currently taking much of the flak for the botched Ukraine invasion. Last month, fellow Russian hardliners suggested he do the decent thing and shoot himself. Yet despite his image as Putin’s blundering, thuggish gofer, Shoigu emerges here as a canny operator.
Galeotti describes him as the Kremlin’s own “turnaround manager”, with a knack for instilling esprit de corps into long-dysfunctional government departments. One of his biggest morale-boosters, apparently, was scrapping portyanki – the uncomfortable wraparound foot cloths that Russian soldiers had worn instead of socks since Tsarist times. Shoigu is also smart enough never to steal Putin’s limelight, says Galeotti. When the boss poses topless during their holidays together in Siberia, Shoigu keeps his own moobs covered up and “diplomatically fades into the background.”
Galeotti charts the military’s transformation via detailed assessments of its main scraps over the last 30 years. There’s the second, more successful war in Chechnya from 1999, the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the intervention in Syria, and the stealthy 2014 takeover of Crimea, when Putin’s “Little Green Men” sported state-of-the-art kit. There are excursions to Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and other corners of Moscow’s old empire, and sometimes too much detail – unless you really want to know what the 693rd Motor Rifle Regiment of the 19th Motor Rifle Division does in North Ossetia.
But Galeotti also stresses how military success made the Kremlin overconfident. As one boozy contact, toasting Crimea’s annexation, warns him: “I fear our leaders may not know where to stop.” The book then explains how despite Shoigu’s reforms, endemic corruption helped cripple the mission in Ukraine.
Vehicles foundered because heavy-duty tyres had been replaced with cheap Chinese ones. The fancy new reactive armour often failed because the explosive had been filched. Soldiers started looting because they’d been given out-dated rations – which, even when fresh, looked about as appetising as old pairs of portyanki. Looting in turn created a “wider culture of banditry” that led to the horrors in Bucha and Irpin.
Putin, though, bears ultimate responsibility, says Galeotti. From “forcing the generals to fight a powerful enemy without proper preparation, without adequate logistics, and to a strategy based on political prejudice rather than the facts on the ground,” he has driven the world’s second superpower to the point of collapse.
We should not cheer. While Russia is seen as a “bully and an interloper” by neighbours to its west, in Central Asia it is still a “welcome protector”, with Russian garrisons helping weak governments maintain stability. Lousy though those governments often are, they are preferable to the chaos or Islamist militancy that might thrive were Moscow not propping them up.
Finally, a spent conventional force might also encourage Putin to unleash his nukes, as he has hinted in recent weeks. Galeotti recounts one chilling chat with a Russian defence scholar and sometime presidential advisor, who “off-handedly” says that atomic weapons could be used to subdue non-nuclear-armed states. “The matter of fact way he advanced it, and his surprise when I challenged it, spoke volumes about the thinking held within his circle,” Galeotti notes. On this occasion, also, his contact also appears to have been stone-cold sober.