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So Different, Yet So Similar: Civil-Military Relations in the United States and Russia

A longer version of this piece was originally published in Riddle and is reproduced here with slight changes to accommodate editorial style.


The murder of George Floyd sparked mass protests and riots in the United States In response, state governors summoned National Guard troops to patrol the streets, while the capital was flooded with paramilitary units ranging from private organizations to Secret Service officers. This fueled the debate on the nature of American civil-military relations. Interestingly, such relations in Russia are in many ways similar to those in the United States. Both countries value their armed forces and allocate the lion’s share of their budgets to maintain them, while their societies and politics are heavily militarized.

The civil-military relations of any country have their foundations in its sociopolitical characteristics. In the United States, the armed forces are the most respected state institution. Thus, in every election, candidates try to get the support of retired generals and gain credentials as backers of the military. That is why, for example, Biden’s comment that the military would escort Trump out of the White House should he refuse to leave is yet another attempt by a candidate to get closer to the military and distance themselves from an opponent.

American generals can influence the legitimacy of foreign policy. A survey of 12,000 participants revealed that criticism of a policy by generals delegitimized it in the eyes of society; their support slightly increased its popularity. Moreover, retired generals eagerly comment on politics in the media, thus informally presenting the stance of the armed forces. Hence, politicians who want to be reelected have to take the military’s position on civilian issues seriously. This complicates an ideal setup of civil-military relations, in which the military are completely beyond politics.

When US defense secretary Mark Esper compared the protest scene to a battle space, it drew fire from both politicians and retired military. In June, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was photographed walking, alongside President Trump, across Washington’s Lafayette Square after the authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters. The general later issued a public apology for creating a perception of the military being involved in domestic politics.

The United States has about 500 military bases abroad, and this cannot but have an impact on foreign policy. For example, the Pentagon was ahead of the Department of State in the race to lead the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, which once again turned a civilian process of reconstruction into a military administration. US foreign policy supports autocracies and other undemocratic regimes if they are important in military terms.

Since the early 1990s, the American armed forces have had the right to hand over used armored vehicles, helicopters, UAVs, and machine guns to law enforcement. The availability of such weapons may have enabled their unjustified use, as in the case of the murder of the unarmed African American Leonard Thomas, shot by a sniper, or the death of Daniel Shaver, shot after moving his hand toward his waistband.

Civil-Military Relations in Russia
The Russian army is also the most trusted institution in the country. The Ministry of Defense has been successful in creating this positive image. Thus, among Russians, the image of the army corresponds to the status of a great superpower. However, Russia suffers from a host of civil-military problems that limit the country’s development.

First of all, control over the army and law enforcement in Russia is hypercentralized. The president controls every process in the army and law enforcement. MPs, the prosecutor’s office, and nongovernmental organizations have barely any oversight authorities. That is why President Putin never has to ask anyone when he wants to allocate money to the defense sector; he can do so by cutting social spending, as happened in late 2011, when the 2011–2020 State Armament Program was adopted. With the present political system, Russia is unable to have a John McCain of its own, a leader who, despite his hawkish views, advocated sound spending and opposed corruption and abuse in the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Russian MPs will support any spending on war.

Excessive centralization leads to low accountability of the army and law enforcement in the areas most important for citizens and the troops themselves: conscripts’ rights, social security, and the reintegration of retired officers and veterans. For example, there is a huge difference in national responses to the death of American soldiers in Nigeria and Russian soldiers in Russia. The death of four US Special Operations soldiers in Nigeria shook Washington. Marine general Thomas Waldhauser, head of the African Command at the time, had to testify before Congress. The Pentagon’s internal investigation was pilloried by members of Congress and the press.

“This is how psychological breakdowns happen,” was the reaction of Alexander Sherin, first deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s Defense Committee, when he learned about a mass shooting perpetrated by Private Ramil Shamsutdinov. The Russian military indulges in avoiding responsibility, claiming that the army is merely a microcosm of society. Russia needs strict parliamentary control that could lead to investigations into shootings.

Second, Russian foreign policy is also militarized. Even though Russian generals rarely comment publicly on politics, the military is powerful, especially after 2014. The reason lies in the informality of Putin’s immediate milieu. As a result, only those admitted to the presidential circle can influence his policy. As Putin himself put it, he “was an officer for 20 years” and felt part of the military team.

Finally, the Russian police, National Guard, Federal Penal Correction Service (FSIN), and Federal Security Service (FSB) are heavily militarized too. Russia’s National Guard is a regular military service that used to be called internal troops. The FSIN and FSB are endowed with special powers and armaments, and can be used without restraint against the civilian population. However, a more pressing problem is their militarized mindset, which sees detainees as enemies and protesters as steered by outside forces. By this logic, representatives of the elite find it more important to fulfill their tasks in an accurate and timely manner than to protect human rights and freedoms. At the same time, the response to the unjustified use of violence by one agency is extrapolated to an entire power structure. It undermines citizens’ confidence in the legitimacy of actions by these agencies meant to combat crime and terrorism.

So, despite often conflicting political orientations, Russian and American civil-military relations are similar. Russia and the USA are militarized states, with the army and law enforcement strongly entrenched in domestic and foreign policy. The imbalance of civil-military relations in both countries results in unnecessary wars, excessive spending on the army and law enforcement, and citizens who are disappointed in their politicians. Recognition of this problem and a gradual revision of the preferences of the army and law enforcement would promote economic growth and make both countries safer, both domestically and for the rest of the world.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Kirill Shamiev

Junior Research Fellow, Center for Comparative Governance Studies, HSE; Public Policy PhD candidate, Central European University.

Kirill Shamiev is a junior research fellow at the Center for Comparative Governance Studies, Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, and a PhD candidate in public policy, Central European University, Vienna.

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