Although the Russian military tends to be apolitical and obedient to civilian authorities, its political role is complicated in the increasingly authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.
Russia has not had a successful military coup since 1801. This fact is often mentioned in research and commentaries to prove that the Russian military has been effectively subordinated to civilian control. However, its tanks were on the streets of Moscow in 1991 and 1993, its soldiers have been mired in conflict in Chechnya, and its recruitment officers used to stop likely draftees outside metro stations to send them to the barracks.
At the same time, since 1997 over 60% of Russians have considered mandatory military service as a sacred male duty. The same trend has been displayed in public opinion on Russia’s military security since 2000: today, 88% of Russians believe the military is ready to defend their homeland.
One of the reasons for this seemingly toxic relationship is that the military is an essential component of Russian national identity. Emperor Alexander III once said: ‘Russia has only two allies: the army and the navy’ – and President Vladimir Putin revived this phrase in 2015. Russia’s official history glorifies its military victories over the Mongols, Swedes, Poles, Napoleon, the Ottomans, and finally, the Nazis. The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces displays frescos with Second World War veterans, as well as Special Operations Forces soldiers armed with Kalashnikov machine guns in Crimea.
The military occupies an important part of the Russian national self-image, as a weapon for protecting the homeland and projecting Russian power abroad. However, having a strong military is not sufficient to overcome the post-Soviet inferiority complex. Russians know they are not wealthy, and it is something they are ashamed about. Only 12% of survey respondents think that the government should spend more on defence, instead of welfare improvements. Guns cannot buy butter, and Russians know it.
Russian society is going through a generational change. The opinions of people who grew up in the USSR seem increasingly alien to young Russian citizens. Educated young Russians are less willing to serve in the military and less likely to respect military traditions than their older compatriots. For example, 75% of respondents over the age of 60 believe that a young man must go through military service. Only 40% of people under 30 years old agree. Although most Russians respect the military, not everyone is ready to bear the costs. This is one of the aspects of the overarching civil–military divide in Russia.
The average Russian knows very little about the military. Few can name Russia’s military branches, and even fewer would have a considered opinion on their operational purpose. Former Minister of Defence Anatoly Serdyukov paid special attention to public relations and media engagement, and his successor Sergei Shoygu has invigorated the Ministry of Defence’s social media presence. The military TV channel ’Zvezda’, active social media engagement, and general praise for the military in state-controlled media create an echo chamber where positive news is amplified, and negative stories are marginalised or silenced.
This was all too clear in 2019, when the head of the association of military officers of Russia, the decorated one-star general Sergei Lipovoi, blamed the internet and computer games for a tragic shooting involving eight fatalities. Private Shamsutdinov shot and killed his fellow soldiers and officers for alleged hazing, sleep deprivation and threats of sexual violence. Reportedly, Minister of Defence Shoygu expressed an opposite and highly critical opinion compared to that of Lipovoi, ordering the regiment’s dissolution at a private meeting at the Ministry. Lipovoi’s comments explicitly show that there is a lack of evidence-based discussions on problems in the military, and that the Russian public has little knowledge of the military it praises.
Not surprisingly, Russians place less trust in the coercive institutions with which they routinely interact. The police and the office of the federal attorney are the least trusted security institutions. Brutal, corrupt and often ineffective police officers and prosecutors have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, whether they are reporting a crime or being investigated for one.
The public perception of the military, by contrast, is highly mythologised. Most Russians have little understanding of the unique nature of military service, and they are even less aware of command-and-control failures. That Russian citizens do not have to interact with the military on a daily basis makes it a useful tool for legitimising the current government.
This limited awareness of military matters, amplified by generational differences, creates a civil–military divide that may contribute to an overestimation of national military capabilities. This could be particularly problematic in the current period of economic difficulties, as defence cuts could jeopardise the socio-economic wellbeing of military officers, and hence, the quality of military personnel. An unsubstantiated belief in military supremacy can lead to budgetary miscalculations and unintended negative consequences for domestic and international security.
Confidence in the military has always been a vital aspect of Russian politics. Due to its association with national identity and the securitised perception of Russia’s place in the world, promoting trust in the military is a fruitful tool for achieving political legitimacy. The question of military reform was highly topical during Putin’s first term. Back then, Boris Nemtsov, a member of the State Duma, was the leading advocate of one of the reform proposals. Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko party, put forward another. Putin ultimately opted for a Ministry of Defence proposal that did not solve any structural problems, but cemented unilateral presidential control over the military. Nemtsov and Yavlinsky did not make it into the next Duma, and the former was killed next to the walls of the Kremlin in 2015. No matter how democratic or authoritarian the Russian regime is, development of the military will always be on the agenda.
Russian civil–military relations are in an imperfect equilibrium. On the one hand, the Russian military is professional and subject to unquestionable civilian control. It is not actively involved in politics, although the highly centralised power of the president ensures it is obedient to politicised civilian orders. One need only consider the case of Ruslan Shavedinov, an associate of Alexei Navalny, who was kidnapped by the police and forcefully sent to serve a draft in the Arctic. Local officers and soldiers clearly disliked the political attention associated with such a special draftee and relocated him to a remote auxiliary helipad with no mobile network or roads.
On the other hand, the military as an institution occupies a special position in Russian national identity. It is an important source of political legitimacy; Russians value it for its ability both to provide security and to furnish an image of Russia as a great power. However, the existing civil–military divide creates an imbalanced perception of Russian military power. It also contributes to the miscalculation of military threats and a general acceptance of military assertiveness as a key element of Russian foreign policy. Accepting international practices of civilian control, rooted in all branches of government, should be an important element of efforts to bridge the civil–military divide and ensure military security in Russia and abroad.
Kirill Shamiev is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Central European University and a junior research fellow at the Higher School of Economics. He studies Russian civil–military relations and policymaking in the security sector.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.