In Russia, 7th May was important for two reasons. Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as President for the third time. It was also the 20th anniversary of the official founding of the Russian Armed Forces.
Military reform is likely to feature near the top of Putin’s agenda. But not out of any desire for expansionism or aggressiveness, or any of the nefarious intentions identified by many Western pundits, who cite the tired cliché of the “riddle wrapped within an enigma”. Russia is no enigma. No more than any other nation.
A nation’s pageantry is its declaration of identity. Putin’s swearing-in took place in the magnificent Andreyevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. After the ceremony, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox church, celebrated a prayer service at Moscow’s Cathedral of the Annunciation. This is the new Russia, re-united with its historic identity.
Some vestiges of the Soviet past linger on, out of habit more than anything else. The parade officer addressed the president as Tovarisch Prezident (literally “Comrade President”). But the President’s Guard wore their new uniforms, modelled on those worn by the Russian Imperial Guard until 1914.
Following the collapse of the USSR, it was in the pre-Soviet past that Russia sought its national symbols. All countries do it. Malta’s use of the eight-pointed cross as a brand logo does not mean it is a crusader state. Likewise, the use of imperial Russian symbols is no indication of Russia’s foreign policy intentions.
Putin’s Russia must be understood in the context of four centuries of history. It is neither a continuation of Soviet Russia, nor a young twenty-year old state. It is an old country, with an old civilisation, seeking its rightful place among the nations.
In the Western media, Putin received a great deal of bad press, especially during the election. Yet many ordinary Russians supported his aims, even though they may have questioned his methods. Some Russian commentators have described Putin’s leadership as an imperial understanding of national problems.
Take the way in which Putin dealt with oligarchs. Everyone in Russia felt that the Yeltsin-era privatisation was unjust. Those who got rich in the process began to rule Russia. Under Putin and Medvedev, a new middle class has appeared – small property holders. They appeared during a readjustment of the privatisation process, a new Perestroika, when the oligarchs were removed from the political arena, with many of their assets put back under government control.
Historically, reform in the Russian Federation, as well as its imperial and Soviet predecessors, took place in reaction to crises or defeats. Putin is likely to accelerate the planned reforms of the Russian Armed Forces. In the Five Day War with Georgia in 2008, the military performed well, but forces were slow to deploy. The command structure proved to be too cumbersome, and there were shortcomings in intelligence-gathering and communications.
Shortly after the war, the prime minister’s office and the president decided on a radical reform on the armed forces. The details have not been published, but we are likely to see an acceleration in the professionalisation of the army. The idea is to have a number of well-equipped, highly mobile brigades which can deploy and act rapidly in the regional conflicts which Russia is most likely to face. The army already consists of conscripts (with a reduced conscription period) and a cadre of professional soldiers, NCOs and officers. Some airborne units are now entirely manned by professional soldiers under contract.
What are we to make of these reforms? Nothing, beyond the desire to bring Russia closer to the Western model. Whereas many Western nations built geopolitical relations based on exports of goods or culture, Russia is a relative newcomer in this field. For much of its history, Russia’s engagement with its neighbours was military, either in the form of direct intervention (as in World War II), or in the form of exports of equipment and expertise (as in the post-war period). As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a country with a vast territory bordered by unstable regions, Russia is seeking to retain its global relevance. Not imperialism then, but simple pragmatism.
The post-Soviet period has added another dimension to Russia’s relations with Europe and the world: energy. Russian gas exports are the energy lynchpin of Europe. To the east, there has been a rapprochement with China in the form of energy deals.
Putin is sometimes accused of imitating Pyotr Stolypin, who tried to accomplish economic and social transformation through nonrevolutionary means in Imperial Russia. In 1907, Stolypin famously rebuked fellow Duma deputies with the words: “You are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of Great Russia.”
Stolypin’s reforms were brutally interrupted by revolutionary turmoil. Putin faces different challenges. But he too wants a great Russia, or at least one that is treated by the West not with condescension, but as an equal partner.