The West in general and the United States in particular has had to endure a Russia during the Putin era that wants to be considered a first line global power while at the same time is unwilling to accept responsibility for any shortcomings. During the days of the Soviet Union, capitalism and the democratic nations that supported it were charged with being the source of all things negative affecting the USSR. The Cold War was very convenient for Moscow. The governmental structure may be different for Russia today, but the same culture of shifting responsibility exists.
In this regard high-ranking Russian civilian and military leaders can be useful political water-carriers -- at least those that can be controlled. Russia's V.V. Putin definitely wants to project a tough image at home and abroad and in General Nikolai I. Makarov he has a perfect messenger. An excellent example of this Chief of General Staff doing his job is his statement in reference to the reinvigorated plan to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Europe. "A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens," threatened the general. The question is not whether he is serious, but whether the U.S. is willing to test him.
Then there is Vladimir Putin: Putin very much would like Russia to have a feared military capability. Such a desire fits his personality, but also fits his nation's post-WW2 outlook. The problem is that contemporary post-Soviet Russia cannot afford the military it would like to have in spite of its control of energy supplies for key portions of Western Europe. What it lacks is not merely the willingness (ability) to make the necessary financial commitments. It lacks the sizeable career officer (commissioned and non-commissioned) cadre necessary to maintain a large modern military's trained and experienced personnel infrastructure.
To Putin's credit, he has refused to sacrifice Russia's civilian economy in order to build up his desired military. As much as Putin and his prime minister Dmitri Medvedev would like to abolish completely the nation's draft of young men into military service, these now one-year conscripts provide the numbers -- though not the quality -- of personnel to fill out the designated active duty units. The regular professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen are recognized by Western military observers as ranging in capability from adequate to excellent. Unfortunately this does not ensure a unit performance level competitive with Russia's Western counterparts nor those of the equivalent Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).
In an attempt to make up for the lack of Russian tactical prowess -- shown clearly during the brief war against Georgia -- general officers and their civilian equivalents tend to seek to gain attention and credibility by making bellicose statements such as General Makarov's. This verbal chest-thumping may fulfill the Kremlin's and Russian military's required propaganda stance, but it does little to aid their readiness posture. There are certain proclamations, however, that have brought more than a little reaction.
In June of this year the outspoken General Makarov announced in Helsinki at a joint defense meeting with high-ranking Finnish officers that he saw nothing worthwhile in Finland's interest in NATO. In fact, he said, "…cooperation between Finland and NATO threatens Russia's security." He then went on to question the right of Finnish military units to hold maneuvers close to the Russian border. On a rhetorical roll he later stated that the entire concept of a Nordic defense cooperation agreement including Sweden was a potential threat to Russia. Not unexpectedly the Finnish defense minister described Makarov's comments as "out of touch with reality." The minister's remarks off the record were not so diplomatic.
The bottom line for the Russian defense structure is the fact that it no longer has a readily available enemy land force to either threaten or defend against. Large numbers of Russian infantry and tanks are not needed to protect Russia's eastern or western reaches. In the contemporary strategic world it is the nuclear-armed Russian navy and air force along with missiles of every range that are the true heirs of Peter the Great's historic forces. And in more modern times there can be no comparison between the dynamic Marshal Georgy Zhukov of World War II and General Makarov of today -- no matter the latter's posturing.
Makarov and his boss, Vladimir Putin, still firmly believe in the Cold War guide of having a powerful enemy against whom Russia can rant. Peaceful competition just doesn't seem to be enough. Of course, neither the general nor the president really wants war. They want ascertainable enemies whom they can blame for Russia's shortcomings. It may seem too obviously self-serving, but it's true. The only lasting legacy of Soviet communism is the instinct to see the West as behind all of Russia's faults.
In this thinking, American anti-missile batteries in Poland are being aimed at Russia as a precursor to an attack. "Why else would they be there?" asks the Russian leadership. The well-publicized development of Iranian long-range missiles is not an adequate explanation in Russian eyes. The promise of "flexibility" after his reelection that President Obama whispered to Dmitry Medvedev on a forgotten open microphone is what Moscow is counting on to alter American planned deployment.
If that is true, it certainly seems an odd way for the Russian General Staff to set its strategic plans. What matters, of course, is that the specter of American ambition to attack Russia is kept alive. Marshal Zhukov must be spinning in his grave.