Russian Military Regionalism

Michael Jasinski
August 17, 2008

The regional influence on the Russian government’s ability to control, secure, and make safe nuclear weapons is multifaceted and complex. It ranges from regional secessionist/terrorist threats, through more benign regional attempts to influence the federal government’s policies, to the problems posed by regional organized crime entities.

Of the wide range of regional influences on the safety and security of nuclear weapons, the threat of seizure by a separatist organization appears to be the most remote. The threat of separatism among the Russian Federation’s subjects has subsided considerably since the mid-1990s; moreover, there appears to be a realization that the possession of nuclear weapons is more of a liability than an asset. The Chechen conflict compelled the Russian military to take precautions against theft, but no attempts to seize nuclear weapons were noted. In addition to the difficulty of gaining access, the key deterrent preventing Chechen or other rebels from attempting to seize and possibly use nuclear weapons is the realization that doing so would most likely severely damage their political legitimacy. Even if a province with nuclear weapons were to successfully separate from Russia, it would likely follow the path charted by the separatist Soviet republics and give up its nuclear weapons in return for international support and recognition. The former Soviet republics used nuclear weapons to gain political capital by giving them up, rather than retaining them.

Regional influences on nuclear forces are more subtle than outright threats of seizure. They are related to the ongoing struggle between the regions and the center over control of tax revenues and the sharing of financial burdens. Regional maneuvers do not represent an attempt to gain control over the military, but rather are motivated by a whole range of other political and economic considerations. This struggle has affected the status of military installations located in the regions, which on occasion have become bargaining chips in the negotiations between the center and the regions.

At the most basic level, regional governments are interested in retaining military bases on their territory. Military bases confer prestige on a region and are important economic assets. They provide jobs for local civilian personnel and purchase a wide range of services from the local economy. Regional governments also have an interest in the well-being of the conscripts from their territory and often sponsor their military units. Such arrangements usually take the form of economic assistance to the units and the placement of draftees from the sponsoring region in the region’s sponsored unit. The armed forces have acquired a negative reputation as a result of frequent reports of hazing, the continuing Chechen conflict, and other problems affecting the military. Thus, the concept of regional governments sponsoring military units enjoys grass-roots support; it provides some assurance to the families of draftees that their sons will be sent to units that are relatively well-off materially and are under a certain degree of external oversight by city representatives.

Sponsorship agreements, while helping to solve the military’s most urgent problems, nevertheless carry some inherent risks. Such agreements may actually hurt the quality of the conscripts if they bypass the armed services’ selection processes, particularly in units that have access to nuclear weapons or reactors. While sponsorship arrangements that include the provision of goods and services provide an important economic stimulus for the cities and their local industries by substituting locally generated defense orders for federal orders, such assistance is unpredictable and unevenly allocated. Therefore, locally generated orders do not represent a sound substitute for steady financing of the military by the central authorities.

The Russian military’s, and particularly its nuclear units’, dependence on regional utility companies has also been a source of concern. The Russian military’s inability to pay the electric bills of its units has in some cases caused power shut-offs that might have had dire consequences. This problem is also related to the conflict between regional, municipal, and federal governments over control of collected tax revenue and sharing of financial burdens. Regional authorities have complained that they do not receive a sufficiently large share of tax revenues to cope with their assigned responsibilities. This deficit makes it even more difficult for regional utilities to supply power to entities, such as the military, that cannot afford to pay for their services. The struggle between the center and the regions over tax revenue and financial burden-sharing has spread to the issue of military personnel benefits. Russian military personnel are entitled to a wide range of services, many of which are funded by regional authorities. As a result, military servicemen have become a burden on local budgets, and many regional authorities have taken unilateral measures depriving servicemen of their benefits.

Although the danger of seizure of nuclear weapons by organized crime groups is low, these entities pose an indirect threat because their illegal economic activities can undermine the readiness and morale of nuclear units. The military units’ high degree of exposure to the civilian economy increases the risk of contact with organized crime groups. For example, many military organizations, including elite Strategic Rocket Forces divisions, grow their own food and perform other economic activities to make up for shortfalls in funding. The combination of inadequate pay and insufficient oversight over commercial activities undertaken by military units creates temptations for soldiers and officers to engage in illegal economic activities. In some cases, such activities have included the theft of nuclear weapon system components or nuclear reactor electronic components containing valuable metals. Such thefts harm the safety of such systems. Other illegal activities have included the pilfering of fuel and of other materials allocated for training of mobile inter-continental ballistic missile units. While not as dangerous, other illegal economic activities have caused large numbers of officers, including senior ones, to become closely aligned with regional economic interests (and associated organized crime groups), making them more likely to resist decisions and reforms that may hurt their economic interests.

To a certain extent these problems could be addressed by a program of military reform that would implement force cuts, streamline the military organization, consolidate control over nuclear weapons by reducing the number of nuclear-capable units and storage facilities, and improve the living conditions of military service members, particularly in units that have direct contact with nuclear weapons. However, military reforms alone will not suffice here. The root causes of regional influences on the security and safety of nuclear forces can be only addressed through reconciling the conflicting interests of the Russian federal government and the regional authorities.

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