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HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 8Books Reviews - General (4 titles)Z. Barany, Democratic Breakdown a...

Books Reviews - General (4 titles)

Z. Barany, Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, 247 pages.

Erica Marat

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1The dilemmas created by the abrupt collapse of the Soviet military in 1991 and the inefficient defense reforms that followed in post-Soviet Russia have been analyzed from various perspectives. In his book on the decline of the Russian military, Zoltan Barany puts forth two explanations. First, the author argues that the Russian military became increasingly politicized, with a small group of generals influencing important issues in the defense sector. Second, centralization of presidential power forestalled both defense reforms and as a result the democratization of civil-military relations in the country. Barany concludes that the combination of these developments resulted in the "institutional decay" of the Russian military.

2The book begins with a detailed case study of the Kursk submarine tragedy in August 2000 which the author then extrapolates to the entire state of the military in Russia. The unanticipated tragedy revealed the strategies the Russian government and the military would likely take in future crises and how then President Vladimir Putin was able to prove his mettle, despite the fact that the crisis unraveled only seven months after he acquired power. The handling of the Kursk crisis exposed intra-elite confrontations among the Russian leadership and their still persisting Soviet mentality. Similarly to the Soviet period, Russian political and military elites tried to conceal important details from the domestic public and suppressed mass media reports. It took the military leadership two days to announce the swiftly unfolding crisis on board the Kursk, while the political leadership declined the help offered by Britain, Norway and other Western states during and after the crisis. Moreover, the author explains, Russian authorities gave misleading information to the Norwegian divers who tried to rescue the Kursk crew. Had the Russian elites been more open to foreign assistance they would have had a chance to save the 118 men on the Kursk.

3The Kursk tragedy, which took place a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, symbolized the continuing decay of the Russian military. The three military doctrines adopted in the post-Soviet period largely reflected the military elites' inertia of Cold War thinking, placing more importance on international military superiority over solving pressing domestic problems. The 1993 doctrine focused on Russia's use of nuclear weapons, while the 2000 doctrine used some anti-Western rhetoric directed against the hegemony of the United States and NATO. The latest doctrine of 2003, often referred to as the "Ivanov Doctrine" for the important role played in its creation by the Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, cast greater attention to the non-traditional threats of terrorism, fundamentalism and drug smuggling. However, although the doctrine set goals for the Russian army to learn how to fight in low intensity conflicts, little progress has been made in implementing these military reforms. The number of military personnel was substantially reduced and small steps made in improving service and living conditions of military personnel. But these developments by no means can be viewed as military reform. The author concludes that although the Russian military wants to regain its global importance, the strategic documents adopted in the past few years were full of inconsistencies and confusions.

4The proportion of public officials with backgrounds in the security and military structures has been increasing during Putin's leadership, inadvertently augmenting the political weight of the military. The military’s leverage over the political domain has at times exceeded its power during the Soviet period. Together with Putin's strong presidentialism, this trend suspended the many changes the Russian military needed to make. The limited group of military and security elites enmeshed in corruption and interested in misinforming political elites were reluctant to change the army on the ground. The author questions why the military, although having all the necessary prerequisites, never took over full control of the state or disappeared altogether. Here, however, the author underestimates the importance of the legacy of the Party-military relations during the Soviet period when one could not function without the other.

5Books on the Russian military have been published in increasing numbers over the past several years, raising the bar for any new book, including the current one, in a field that risks replicating common structures made by multiple authors. The book lacks tables that illustrate, among other important details, military expenditures, recruitment rates, arms production and trade so that the reader could be able to compare quantitative changes. The author also follows a common trend found in other books that have been written so far. Namely, while criticizing the Russian leadership for multiple failures, the author makes little effort to compassionately understand the political culture in Russia and the circumstances that have led political and military decision makers to their policies. This leaves the reader looking for more in-depth explanations.

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Electronic reference

Erica Marat, “Z. Barany, Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, 247 pages.”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 8 | 2008, Online since 14 July 2008, connection on 24 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Erica Marat

Institute for Strategic & Development Policy and Central Asia - Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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