Every couple of months, a top Russian leader makes a bold proclamation: We're back. We've got a new SSBN, we're going to build a new fleet of aircraft carriers, we've got new tactical aircraft so stealthy one just landed on the White House lawn. Accordingly, the headlines crackle all over the world: Cold War II! Russia Vows Major Arms Buildup In Challenge to West! The Bear Has Returned!
Then, once the rumpus dies down, nothing happens. The 'resurgent Russia' storyline gets packed away for the next time a Tu-95 buzzes an American warship at sea, or a top official in Moscow throws a little fit over the mean ol' West and its mean ol' ambitions for missile defense. (An external boogeyman remains politically useful in the new Russia.) If you needed any more evidence that The Bear is Not Back, check out this Wall Street Journal report, which depicts the deep dysfunction of the once-mighty Russian forces. Part of it tells the story of a Russian soldier who volunteered for what he thought would be an elite unit only for high-speed operators, not time-serving draftees. What kind of spooky missions did commanders assign to young Sergei Fetisov and his compatriots? Shoveling snow. Or there was this:
Officers were under instruction to recruit as many new volunteers as possible. Mr. Fetisov says they resorted to an unusual recruiting technique: Nearly every night at 11 that first winter, conscripts were mustered on the parade ground and made to stand in formation for hours, facing superiors who sometimes were drunk.The Journal's report isn't the first to detail the decrepit state of today's Russian military, but it is the latest that does not connect the reality of the Russian military with the Bear Is Back effect it regularly has in Washington and other capitals. Before the J-20 sucked all the oxygen out of the foreign-fighter department, remember how people freaked out about the debut of the T-50? The term "Raptorski' was coined -- though rejected by Bill Sweetman -- and people began to worry about the T-50's "stealthogenic" active cloaking system, which could supposedly render the jet undetectable by ejecting "plasma" over its skin. Observers were worried about revolutionary, Star Trek-level capabilities from a military that still relies on creaky old Soviet equipment. There's no reason not to take Russia seriously, but there is every reason to at least treat it realistically.
"Finally an officer would say, 'Those willing to sign contracts, you're dismissed. The rest of you, stay at attention,'" Mr. Fetisov recalls. "A personnel officer would tell stories about the great treatment contract soldiers get. They had to stand there in the cold until at least two or three men agreed to sign," Mr. Fetisov says. "This went on for weeks, but they never got 100%" of the regiment on contract.
It's kind of poignant, in a way, that so many people in Washington and around the world continue to have such respect for Russian military might. Russia is a potential adversary we know very well, and which reminds us of a time that was as dangerous as our own, or more, but which at least was a little simpler to understand.