Defense Minister Serdyukov and Defense Secretary Gates signed two documents yesterday. RIA Novosti covered the event. The first document was a memorandum of understanding on bilateral military cooperation replacing an old one from 1993. The second, more important one established a ministerial-level working group on defense relations under the aegis of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission established in July 2009.
A joint statement from the two defense chiefs said:
“The following issues will be at the center of attention of the U.S.-Russian working group on defense relations: armed forces reform and transformation, high-priority defense and national security policy issues, transparency and strengthening trust to improve mutual understanding, regional and global security, new challenges and threats, and cooperation in areas of mutual interest.”
The document apparently says, as co-chairmen of the working group, the Defense Minister and Defense Secretary will meet at least once a year. And Serdyukov has invited Gates to Moscow.
In his remarks on their talks yesterday, Serdyukov said:
“The transformations occurring in the Russian and U.S. armies are very large-scale and very painful. But they are absolutely necessary to create a modern army, a 21st century army.”
Gates said both men face similar problems in reforming their armed forces:
“Mr. Serdyukov and I are making great efforts to implement broad reforms which are painful but necessary.”
An unnamed U.S. official explained:
“The Minister and Secretary are trying to introduce new thinking into the military system. The visit of the Russian minister was a chance to learn more about Russian military reform, and understand issues on which we can be useful. So the first session of the talks concerned only military reform.”
However, Kommersant picked the pithy winner of the day when it quoted former NSC staffer Steven Pifer:
“Yesterday Robert Gates presented his plan for reducing military expenditures under which the budget of the Defense Department will be cut by $100 billion over five years. It’s possible this experience will be interesting to Defense Minister Serdyukov, but I’m not sure it applies to reforming the Russian Armed Forces.”
Right on, brother. Mr. Gates surely knows the $20 billion of chump change he wants to trim each year is not a lot less than what annual Russian defense budgets have been, give or take some, in recent years. That $20 billion isn’t far off what the Russian government initially proposed to spend for arms procurement each year until 2020.
Saying the U.S. and Russian militaries are in the same boat when it comes to their reform efforts certainly makes for good feelings and good press in the midst of an important high-level visit. But it’s a great exaggeration that doesn’t really help anyone in the longer run.
The U.S. already has full-fledged, albeit overstretched, 21st century military forces; ones that are constantly and painfully reinvented to meet the threats and demands of the future. It’s painful all right.
Russia, on the other hand, is 18 years into attempts to reshape its Soviet-era Armed Forces into a modern military. It still has a fundamentally 20th century force, and not a late 20th one at that. It’s true to say that Serdyukov has ushered in Russia’s first comprehensive reform effort, and it’s very painful. But he’s hurt more by the fact that his predecessors didn’t do enough, fast enough. However, he may be doing too much, too fast. And the ultimate results may not be what Putin, Medvedev, and Serdyukov intended.
But the main point remains it’s naïve to suggest the two military establishments are in anything like the same place.
Similarly, it wouldn’t pay to get excited about the new framework for defense consultations and cooperation. We’ve been here several times. Like U.S.-Russian relations as a whole, over time these frameworks are driven off-track by Russian actions and U.S. overreactions. But they never die. They just get reloaded.