An interview with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov discusses historical disputes over the outcome of World War II, current reforms in the Russian Armed Forces, military development goals, rearmament, withdrawal from Georgian territory, and cooperation agreements with Ukraine.

Question: Many war veterans are wondering why we are taking so much trouble to get the leaders of other countries to come to Moscow for the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Victory in World War II. Why do we need so many guests? This is a celebration for us, and anyone who wants to share it is welcome. But if they don’t want to, let them stay home; that doesn’t affect us.

Sergei Ivanov: We’re not forcing anyone to come. We have done our duty as hosts in issuing invitations, but attending or not attending is up to them. In fact, the overwhelming majority – 99% of those invited – have accepted. Only a few have declined.

Question: Do we know who they are?

Sergei Ivanov: Lithuania, Estonia… I’d like to emphasize this: the invitations we sent were personal invitations, from President Putin to the heads of state. Even if some other official comes to Moscow in lieu of a head of state, that official would not have a place on Red Square.

Question: Are any other CIS countries preparing to celebrate this great anniversary?

Sergei Ivanov: To my knowledge, all former Soviet states are marking the Victory anniversary. War veterans will gather. Some countries might not have military parades, but there will be gatherings and demonstrations… All religious faiths intend to hold appropriate services on May 9.

Question: May 9 is something of a sacred anniversary. And it’s disappointing to see that sometimes discussion focuses not on the Victory itself, but on whether a monument should or should not be erected, or the question of whether the Red Army liberated or “occupied” Europe, or who should apologize to whom. Why does this happen, in your view? Is it because our society is divided, and the whole world still hasn’t recovered from the Cold War – or are we erecting the kind of monuments that do not promote unity?

Sergei Ivanov: As far as the people of Russia are concerned, I am certain of this: May 9 is one of the most beloved and moving anniversaries for Russia, for our citizens. When opinion polls ask people about their favorite annual holidays, two are clearly in the lead: New Year and May 9. It’s in our genes, I think, because almost every family has someone who fought in the war, and someone who died.

The historical disputes are a different matter. Whatever anyone may say, history has never seen another war like that war. God willing, there will never be another war like that. And of course, that war was won at the cost of countless deaths – and the impact on demographics and our living standards is still perceptible. But the people, and the people’s army, succeeded in defending independence and sovereignty. And when some now argue over whether we did or did not occupy other countries, I feel like asking them: And what would have become of you if we hadn’t broken the back of fascism – would you still exist as a people?

Question: An anniversary offeres a good opportunity to consider the future as well as the past. From your standpoint as defense minister, what is the position of Russia and its Armed Forces on the military-political map of the world today? Who are our friends, who are simply our neighbors, and who are our strategic partners?

Sergei Ivanov: We have allies within the CIS Collective Security Treaty, and partners as well. The collapse of the Soviet Union entailed a radical break, extending to the Armed Forces as well. There are two aspects to consider here: politics and technology. Looking at the political aspect, we can see that Russia is not the Soviet Union, so it simply doesn’t need the kind of military that the Soviet Union had. We have no intention of serving as a bugaboo for the whole world, with vast powers capable of “reaching La Mancha” or destroying the world entirely. We don’t want that.

All the same, these are the realities: at the global level, strength is taken into account and the strong are respected. In the good sense of that word: strong, not aggressive. In military terms, Russia remains – it is even fated to remain, by definition – a powerful state in military terms, since we are the world’s largest country in terms of territory, extending across ten time-zones. Among political analysts, there are some demagogues who claim that our troop strength need be no more than 200,000 – like the armed forces of European countries. But let’s just look at a map and draw a few comparisons: the size of those countries, and the size of Russia. The nature of their neighbors, and the nature of ours. That’s the geopolitical answer.

Question: And what do you call the “technology aspect”?

Sergei Ivanov: The nature of the threats we face has changed fundamentally since the end of the Cold War. Political analysts had it easy back then: everything was set out for the next 40-50 years. Two camps, each with a certain number of missiles and warheads. And that’s all; silence.

The global situation is entirely different now. It has become much more unpredictable, with the factor of localized religious or ethnic conflicts – unimaginable 20 or 30 years ago. The Armed Forces have to change their form in accordance with changes in the world at large and the changing nature of threats. Over the past 15 years, the troop strength of the Russian Armed Forces has been reduced from 3.3 million to 1.2 million: by almost two-thirds. But making any further cuts would pose a threat to the national security of our territory.

Question: A person can’t keep losing weight indefinitely.

Sergei Ivanov: That’s right – there’s a risk of losing all your strength. It’s a question of technology. In military terms, we shall remain strong, but not via the sheer number of soldiers – that’s perfectly obvious. Rather, we shall remain strong by means of modern weaponry. If we have such weapons, we will be able to feel secure to a substantial degree.

Question: And do we have them?

Sergei Ivanov: We divide weapons into two categories. First, there are nuclear weapons – an area where we are still a match for any other country… And quantity is not the most important factor in this.

Question: So the number of warheads doesn’t matter?

Sergei Ivanov: Quality is more important, along with the guaranteed capability of those weapons to prove their worth. The probability of a nuclear conflict is minimal at present, much lower than it was in the past. But we live in the real world, and we have no intention of abandoning efforts to develop and improve our nuclear forces. Just like the United States. In this area, we are at the same level.

Question: What about the other component?

Sergei Ivanov: Conventional forces. As everyone knows, these were in a rather lamentable condition at one stage in the past. The start of the events in Chechnya made that very obvious. But we were able to draw the correct conclusions from that. Now we have a program for recruiting contract personnel into all permanent combat readiness units, making those units completely professional. A federal targetted program has been approved for that purpose. This year, around 40 Defense Ministry units will make the transition to contract service – all of them are permanent combat readiness units in the Ground Forces. The Paratroops will make a complete transition to contract service, along with the Marines.

Question: Will the professional parts of the military have adequate equipment?

Sergei Ivanov: Rearmament is under way. Not a thousand tanks at a time, as in Soviet days, but procuring only the latest models of weaponry that is really necessary for ensuring security and capable of countering real rather than mythical threats. Above all, fighting terrorism.

Question: What should a modern military in a developed nation be like: computerized, armored, airborne…?

Sergei Ivanov: It should be mobile. After all, we can’t support three to five million military personnel, as we did in the past – stationing a regiment, a division, or an army in every single region. Our units are spread out across Russia, relatively evenly, but taking threats into account. If necessary, these permanent combat readiness units can be airlifted to any location fairly rapidly. The Mobilization 2004 exercises enabled us to test our ability to airlift permanent combat readiness units from western Russia, for example, to the Russian Far East and vice versa. Such exercises are required to test the performance of these units in real-world conditions, if they land tens of thousands of kilometers away in unfamiliar territory where they don’t know the local conditions.

Question: When we hear the term “modern weaponry,” what does that mean?

Sergei Ivanov: It means high-tech weapons, of course, with information technology and new guidance systems. Only high-precision weapons systems – not carpet bombing, not an armada of tanks – only high-precision systems and radio-electronic warfare systems. Those who have such technological advantages are in a favorable position; recent events offer clear evidence of that.

Question: Do we have any secret weapons that other countries don’t have? And do strategic partners know about each other’s new weaponry?

Sergei Ivanov: Many countries, including Russia, are working on this – working on modern weapons systems. And none of our partners or allies know about it, of course – nor will they, until the weapons have been tested.

Question: You prefer to say “modernization” rather than “reforms.” What do you see as the outcome of modernization, once it is complete? What kind of capabilities will the Russian Armed Forces of the future have?

Sergei Ivanov: We aren’t setting any aggressive objectives; we need to be confident about defending our own territory, and the territory of our allies within the framework of the commitments we have made. Actually, it’s good that we don’t have too many commitments of that nature.

Is it realistic to aim at creating a world-class military? Of course it’s realistic. But we do have to understand that it cannot be achieved within two or three years. We need appropriate programs, and most of them are already in place. I have already mentioned contract service. Once the permanent combat readiness units are fully staffed with contract personnel, all sergeants throughout the Armed Forces will make the transition to contract service. This will enhance discipline, order, and observance of the law in the troops.

Question: Are there problems with that now?

Sergei Ivanov: Every incident gets a lot of publicity. I should point out, however, that the crime rate in the Armed Forces is half the national average. Per capita, of course. I’m not boasting of that; but all the same, the military is a far more law-abiding state entity than any other, whatever anyone might say. Statistics confirm this.

Question: Moving on to a difficult, even painful topic: the monetization of benefits, housing, mortgages. What is the outlook on social issues?

Sergei Ivanov: These are complex problems, since achieving other objectives will be very difficult unless these are solved first. If young men don’t want to study at military institutions and serve as officers, whom can we rely on in the troops? Above all, the problem concerns housing and salaries.

Military pensions are higher than civilian pensions. They should always be higher – I’m firmly convinced of that. On the other hand, Russia now has 8 million military pensioners, compared to 1 million active military personnel. So not all problems can be solved immediately.

Question: Here’s a hot topic in another area: the withdrawal of our troops from Georgia. How will it happen? Where will they go – into open fields again, like the Soviet troops withdrawn from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states?

Sergei Ivanov: We have never said that we don’t want to withdraw from Georgia. In 1999, Russia made some commitments and took immediate action on some of the: shutting down two bases, bringing the quantity of weapons into compliance with international agreements, opening negotiations which are still under way. I hope these negotiations will soon be completed. The question is not when the withdrawal will start, but when it will be completed. Given the amount of hardware and the number of personnel involved, it will require at least four years to build the required infrastructure on Russian territory, where we shall establish new bases to replace those withdrawn from Georgia. This is our sovereign affair – we’ll build those bases wherever we choose. And we won’t report to anyone on that. But we do need to build some military towns – at least some housing for the officers, arsenals, hardware storage facilities – in short, all the infrastructure. As yet, no funding at all has been allocated for that purpose from the federal budget. Extra funding cannot be provided until 2006.

And withdrawing military hardware is not a simple operation in itself. The hardware needs to be serviced, prepared for transport, loaded, and transported to Russian territory. All this also requires spending and resolving transport problems.

Question: How will security be ensured for our troops on Georgian territory during withdrawal?

Sergei Ivanov: Georgia will be responsible for that on its territory. This is Georgia’s problem.

Question: There’s a similar question regarding the Black Sea Fleet. Various opinions are being offered on that score.

Sergei Ivanov: Most of those opinions are not coming from the military, whether Ukrainian or Russian. I recently met with the Ukrainian defense minister. At a press conference, he stated openly and unambiguously that Ukraine does not intend to revise the basic agreement on stationing part of the Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory until 2017. The basic agreement is fairly extensive, and many details are not specified in it, so those aspects still need work. But they can be decided via supplementary agreements. This does not mean revising one iota of the basic agreement; in other words, it has no impact at all on the operations of the Black Sea Fleet.

Question: Are any problems arising with the use of the firing range?

Sergei Ivanov: The territory was divided in 1997. The basic agreement states that the Feodosia firing range belongs to the Black Sea Fleet; so do the Saka and Gvardeisk airfields. In that sense, division is long since complete. Functional issues are still being specified. For example, the question of whom we should notify and how much notice we should give if we want to conduct some firing exercises at Feodosia.

Question: Given Ukraine’s current policies, how shall we maintain vessels built at the Nikolaev Shipyards?

Sergei Ivanov: Essentially, there is only one ship involved: the Admiral Kuznetsov. We use our own personnel to service it, whenever it is economically advantageous to do so; in some cases, it is cheaper to use Ukrainian personnel. In future, of course, we shall focus on building all substantial items of military hardware on our own territory, using our own workforce.

Question: Russia is confidently participating in the global arms trade, and making quite a lot of money from it. But do the Russian Armed Forces benefit in any way from arms exports?

Sergei Ivanov: Most of the benefits, of course, go to the defense sector enterprises that produce the arms and military hardware.

Question: So we export arms, but our own Armed Forces don’t get modern weaponry.

Sergei Ivanov: They are getting it now. This year, for the first time, spending on state arms procurement will exceed arms export revenues. In other words, for the first time in a decade we are buying more than we are selling. Funding for state arms procurement is 188 billion rubles this year; arms export revenues for 2004 came to $5.1 billion.

But I’d like to add something here. The experience of modern industrial nations worldwide shows that the optimal contribution of state arms procurement to defense enterprise revenues is 25-30%. No more. Boeing, Lockheed, and other leading producers get only 25% of their business from the US government; the rest they earn for themselves, by making dual-use products. All we hear from Russian enterprises, however, is: Give us 100% or we’ll go under.

Question: But is anyone monitoring how the enterprises spend the money they make from arms exports?

Sergei Ivanov: That’s up to the state, not the Defense Ministry. We can’t issue commands to the military-industrial complex, after all. On the other hand, we have some leverage of our own. We don’t buy everything; we only buy the best-quality products, at the lowest prices. So if the producers want our orders, they need to make an effort, rather than trying to sell obsolete models.