Raymond Finch published the following response to my Vostok-2010 post on Johnson’s Russia List. For those readers who don’t read JRL, here’s the comment and my response.
After watching much of the TV coverage on the Vostok 2010 war-games, I would respectfully disagree with Dr. Gorenburg that “the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision.” (“Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military,” DJL #138). From my analysis, manning, training, and equipping the armed forces remain a muddle. Similar to the detailed and highly publicized military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Vostok 2010 exercises were choreographed to remind the Russian people of both the country’s military prowess (highly questionable) and their dear leader’s concern to defend against external threats (equally dubious). At another level, the scenes of river-crossing tanks, exploding rockets, and mid-air refueling were just so much ammunition to justify further defense expenditures. The closer you study the various scenes of this pokazyka, the more they appeared to be merely sophisticated PR exercises for the various branches to show off their product-lines (and hopefully claim a larger share of the defense appropriation pie). Most Russians likely shake their head in disbelief at this Soviet-era thinking, and how these stage-managed field exercises do little to address the real threats that Russia confronts today (Islamic radicalism, endemic corruption, collapsing infrastructure, frightening demographics, etc…). These exercises may indeed be a ‘step forward for the Russian military,’ yet the direction of this step is anything but clear.
Ray Finch argues that the exercise was just a show and therefore cannot indicate that the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build. I don’t disagree that there are elements of show in this exercise, as there are in all large-scale military exercises, regardless of what country is conducting them. I have said as much in past articles. But I disagree with the statement that the exercise is nothing more than that. This exercise, unlike most other major Russian exercises of the recent past, actually sought to address many of the real potential conflicts that Russia might face in the near future — including low intensity warfare. Of course there were some big show pieces, but the goal, if you read the discussion of the exercises in the media (both government and independent) was to focus on maneuverability, logistics, and command structure much more than on the big showy set pieces of the past. Obviously, TV coverage of the war games has other purposes, primarily PR-related. But one should not confused what’s shown on TV for public consumption with the actual purposes being served by the exercise. To conclude, I would reiterate that the Russian military leadership has a clear vision of the kind of military they would like to have. That doesn’t mean that they know exactly how they will achieve that vision. There are many issues, especially related to personnel and equipment, on which the Russian leadership is not at all clear how to get from here to there. But I still believe that Vostok-2010 was a step, however small, in the right direction, as are the various reform moves that have been made over the last 20 months.