Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Robert Gates on Russia

I was extremely disappointed with comments made by both Senators McCain and Obama at the presidential debate concerning Russia.

Monday US Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke to the National Defense University. A portion of his speech concerned Russia. Strikingly, the words spoken by Gates came across as far less alarmist and much more measured than those of either presidential candidate in the debate. Defense Secretary Gates said:
Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia’s tiny military. But before we begin rearming for another Cold War, remember that what’s driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate their near abroad – not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe. As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that the Russian conventional military, though vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And Russian demographics will likely impede its numbers getting much larger. Though Russia’s recent air and naval forays into this hemisphere have grabbed headlines, it’s also worth nothing that in the last 15 years the Russian navy has launched just two new major warships. Russia does present serious challenges, but ones very different from the past.
The highlighted point is key, especially noteworthy is Gates understanding that Russian humiliation goes a long way toward accounting for its behavior today. Gates rightly rejects any notion that Russia is out to dominate Europe or the world. In fact, Gates echoes key points I raised in this post. The whole speech -- which outlines Gates' vision for US defense priorities in the coming years-- is worth reading or viewing when you have time:


  1. Hey Jotman, I would like to hope that a certain amount of belligerence on the campaign trail is just that, campaigning and playing to the gallery. I think McCain is a threat to the world -period- and Obama has become overly hawkish (again being optimistic, does he feel the need to do that to fight the distrust of so many racist voters) both reveal a sad truth that politics in the 'homeland' are drenched in imperial (also white christianist) war talk. How ridiculous that an empire that spends more than the rest of the world on war trades in polite euphemisms of 'defense'.
    The neocons are the real crazies (and McCain is loaded with them) but away from them I would think Gates speaks the general establishment truth, the US recognises its limitations and while still exhibiting 'manifest destiny' chauvinism at least figures to use less overtly violent methods. No imperialism is best of all but at least a soft imperialism leaves more people alive.
    The nostalgia and fondness that seems to come out of the woodwork at the prospect of returning to cold war certainties is rather sad, like addicts eyeing an old needle. I can see Russia's rationale better than the US, it was ravaged by shock treatment economics and there is a nationalistic yearning for status and the Bush regime continue to provoke them as much as they try to reassert dominance in the region. For the US I think it is the military industrial political matrix using nostalgia to generate future profits. And again dreams of dominance. We really should demand better of our leaders and ourselves, stop letting the bullies run things.

  2. Hi Rick,

    I too find it relatively easy to put oneself in the shoes of the Russians.

    For the US I think it is the military industrial political matrix using nostalgia to generate future profits. And again dreams of dominance.

    Concerning Gates, I was impressed by the extent to which he rejects nostalgia and confronts the Cold War era military-industrial establishment priorities.

    But the central paradox is that though I do not doubt the sincerity of his commitment to security, the military-industrial complex thrives most when the world is perceived as dangerous. The problem with Gate's approach to reform, is that -- as much as the reform he seeks -- the defense establishment needs is to go on a diet. But Gates' priority is reform; to redirect some of its vast energies. Gates may well succeed at creating more efficient operations capabilities, but the dynamic whereby the military complex seeks of its own accord to create institutionally advantageous realities in the real world is not likely to go away.

    The tendency to turn to military solutions to address problems that could best be addressed through other means would seem to have both an institutional and an economic basis. Here's an analogous situation: when an American doctor prescribes so many new drugs to help patients cope with every conceivable illness. That's when you have too look at the gifts the physicians get from big pharma, who pays for their training, etc. To understand the doctor's behavior we need to look at the system of incentives in which he operates.

    Surely the first rule is to avoid the mad doctor. I agree with you that stopping John McCain has got to be the first step.

    We really should demand better of our leaders and ourselves, stop letting the bullies run things.

    Absolutely. And we need to fix a system that seems to spawn bullies.

    To that effect, with any luck, the new challenge will be: how to make it easier for intelligent leaders like Obama or Gates to prioritize human needs over institutionally-driven wants.

  3. The "Russian" part of R. Gates' speech resonates with the view highlighted in this recent Economist article:

    The article suggests that the Russian military commanders are just coming to realization that the armed forces require a deep overhaul from massive conscript-based to smaller all-professional forces. And that's a long way to go, the inertia is too big... As Gates correctly noted current Russian Army is facing a dire conscription crisis.

    Today Gazeta.Ru reported that this autumn's conscription wave will face numerous difficulties (there are two waves, "spring call" and "autumn call"). Due an earlier (and botched) conscription reform, this fall the Russian armed forces have to demob 205,000 men from the previous two waves, and plan to recruit about 210,000 men to replace them.

    Note: Since 2008, conscripts are only required to serve one year.

    This is a mounting task, almost double of 133,000 of the earlier "spring call", and given the poor quality of conscript base on one hand and the low prestige of the armed forces on the other hand, the quality is almost certain to drop. A number of grounds that used to qualify for exemption have now been abandoned, meaning that young fathers, school teachers, vocational school students etc earlier exempt categories are now required to serve their time in the military. This fall army will recruit almost anyone who's is not lucky enough to bail himself out, regardless of health.

    According to a top officer of the General Staff, "the quality of the conscript base is far from good. This spring every third conscript wasn't fit for health reasons, and more than 50% had health restrictions of one kind or another..."

    Source: [Russian]



Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.