SPIEGEL: It's been 20 years since the end of the Cold War, and yet one issue remains unresolved: Russia's relationship with NATO. There is new hope, now that your president plans to attend the NATO summit in Lisbon at the end of November. Is it a breakthrough?
Serdyukov: Yes, we hope this meeting will give new momentum to relations between Russia and NATO.
SPIEGEL: What might a new relationship look like?
Serdyukov: There was a considerable chill after the August incidents
SPIEGEL: You are referring to the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008
Serdyukov: But now we're talking with one another again -- at the level of the military chief of staff, the defense minister and the foreign minister. And we're working together again, too: in our fight against maritime piracy, in the training of specialists and in military maneuvers.
SPIEGEL: Is it fair to say Russia no longer sees NATO as an adversary?
Serdyukov: I assume that we will see it as a partner in the near future.
SPIEGEL: But Russia has just substantially increased its military budget and intends to almost double spending on new weapons. You are asking for 20 trillion rubles, or €476 billion ($662 billion), to fund the effort. Who does Russia see as a threat today?
Serdyukov: Terrorism is the biggest threat. We are also concerned about the transfer of technology for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. And, of course, the fact that NATO is getting closer to Russia's borders with its eastward expansion constitutes a military threat to our country. As far as our weapons go, the Russian army hasn't purchased any modern military equipment in recent years. Our weapons are largely outdated.
SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama has shelved the American plan to build a missile defense system in Europe, together with Poland and the Czech Republic, to defend against Iranian mid-range missiles. Now a joint NATO missile shield is to be erected that will involve missiles with shorter ranges. The corresponding radar system wouldn't be capable of probing into Russian territory past the Ural Mountains. Does this reassure you?
Serdyukov: Of course we are pleased about the president's decision. We had already made a number of our own proposals. But the most important thing for us is to define the real threats for Europe. We also want to ensure that Russia participates as an equal partner. Only then can a missile defense system be created that satisfies all sides. That too will be discussed in Lisbon.
SPIEGEL: How exactly do you envision such a shield?
Serdyukov: Once again, we have to define the actual threat before we can talk about technical matters. Right now, the two sides take a very different view of the challenges and risks.
SPIEGEL: Now you're referring to Iran and its mid-range missiles?
Serdyukov: Our political assessments are very similar. But we're talking the technical possibilities. We don't share all of the West's views concerning the capabilities of the Iranian nuclear program.
SPIEGEL: For you, being on an equal footing also means that a Russian officer and a NATO counterpart would be pushing the button together when a missile approaches?
Serdyukov: We must exchange all necessary information, to clarify whether the actual situation coincides with data from our radar and the observation stations in Europe or other parts of the world.
SPIEGEL: The Americans are in fact quite far along with their plans. They mention four stages in which they will set up their SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles. They also know more or less where they'll be installed, and they're planning to build a radar system in Turkey. They don't seem to be waiting for Russia to come on board.
Serdyukov: If our fears are not taken into account, we will have to treat this as a hostile act against the Russian Federation -- and react accordingly.
SPIEGEL: To be clear, does that mean that you would return to your old scenario, which is to station modern Iskander missiles in the vicinity of Kaliningrad?
Serdyukov: That was what President (Dmitry) Medvedev announced two years ago, when the Americans wanted to build the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Thank God it didn't come to that. Now we have to find a version of the missile shield that's acceptable to all.
SPIEGEL: There are many skeptics in Russia, including military officials, who reject rapprochement with NATO. Will you be able to overcome the resistance?
Serdyukov: I am optimistic, because the political will exists. Many people didn't believe in the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and yet we managed to sign it this year.
SPIEGEL: Former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe advocated in SPIEGEL recently for Russia's admission to NATO. Can you imagine your country joining an organization that was established to protect itself against Moscow's attacks?
Serdyukov: The idea is premature, and I don't see any need for it, at least not in the near future. We should expand our cooperation. That's enough for now. Just as we have done for NATO's transit of military and civilian equipment across our territory to Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: In Afghanistan, it's becoming clear that the West is also unable to bring peace to the country, and that it will have to withdraw without having accomplished anything, just as the Soviet Union once did. But will this threaten to destabilize the Central Asian region, your immediate neighborhood?
'Afghanistan is Not a Purely Military Mission'
Serdyukov: I hope the Western peacekeeping troops will not withdraw before they have completed their mission. We pay close attention to what goes on in Afghanistan and share our experiences with the Americans. Of course the withdrawal of troops would affect the situation in Central Asia, although we can't envision how at this point. This is precisely why we want to help the West, with the delivery of helicopters, for example, which we are currently discussing. NATO wants to buy several dozen Mi-17s from us.
SPIEGEL: Soviet defense ministers who failed in Afghanistan have sat in this very room before. Why should the West succeed in Afghanistan?
Serdyukov: At some point we acknowledged that our aims could not be achieved, which is why we withdrew our army from Afghanistan in 1989. At the very beginning of the NATO operation, we warned that it would be very difficult and that the forces that were sent there at first would not be sufficient. The Soviet Union had more than 100,000 men in the country, men who were sufficiently prepared and fit for action, and still it failed. The West must also understand that Afghanistan is not a purely military mission, and it should take our experiences into account.
SPIEGEL: The German government's coalition agreement stipulates that the last American nuclear weapons must be removed from German soil. NATO and Washington refuse to do so, arguing that Russia still has many tactical nuclear weapons stationed in the European portion of its territory. Do you see any prospects for a nuclear weapons-free Europe?
Serdyukov: It would be premature to address that issue now.
SPIEGEL: Would you tell us how many tactical nuclear weapons Russia has? The West estimates the number at 2,000.
Serdyukov: There is a lot of talk.
SPIEGEL: Two years ago, one of your former deputies complained that the Russian military was at the level of the 1960s or 70s. You have since moved ahead with the rebuilding of the military. What is the core of your reform?
Serdyukov: All armies must adjust to the actual threat situation and to new challenges from time to time. We assume that the threats to Russia today are minimal. For that reason, President Dmitry Medvedev has decided to reduce the size of the armed forces to one million men by 2016.
SPIEGEL: From a force that once numbered five million.
Serdyukov: Most of all, we have a serious imbalance: too many officers and too few non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers. There was one officer for every soldier. In European armies, officers make up between nine and 16 percent of the whole. In addition, some units were not ready for action and had to be augmented first in the event of a conflict. We've changed that now. The second task is to re-equip the military, and that's what we need the 20 billion rubles for.
SPIEGEL: With such massive sums involved, how do you expect to come to grips with corruption in the military?
Serdyukov: That's something I have also discussed with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Every army, or least the American and the Russian armies, is afflicted with two diseases. The costs of weapons systems are constantly rising, and contractual deadlines are constantly not being met. This is why we established internal control mechanisms. And next year a new weapons procurement agency will begin work. It includes experts whose job will be to make sure that arms purchases are transparent. No military officials, and no representatives of the arms industry.
SPIEGEL: The Russian military has been seen as corrupt for years. Money for housing construction was misappropriated, and in the Chechen war Russian units sold weapons to partisans. Can a military like this even be reformed?
Serdyukov: Corruption is a problem in the entire society. The armed forces are not an exception. But we have already made substantial changes to the situation. We are trying to curb corruption in the military as much as possible.
SPIEGEL: What have you achieved, specifically?
Serdyukov: The military is a closed organization. As a result, some members of the military feel overly secure. In addition, the central administration was bloated beyond reason, so we reduced it to a fifth of its size. We had too many decision levels there, more than ten. Now we have three.
SPIEGEL: Is this the source of the resistance to military reform?
Serdyukov: Of course. Who is enthusiastic about losing his job? We will reduce the size of the officer corps by up to 150,000 men in the next three years. At the same time, we will make military service more attractive, partly by increasing pay. The appeal of the military had reached an all-time low.
SPIEGEL: In other countries, the military tends to stage coups in situations like this.
Serdyukov: I am not worried about that. We aren't doing anything precipitously.
SPIEGEL: You reduced compulsory military service from 24 to 12 months. Is Russia moving in the direction of a professional military?
Serdyukov: That's our goal, but we can't afford it yet.
SPIEGEL: The German defense minister wants to abandon compulsory service because he feels it's too expensive. But you want to keep it for the time being because, in your view, a professional military costs too much. How does this fit together?
Serdyukov: Naturally, an army that's based on compulsory service is cheaper than a professional army, particularly when we consider the housing and pay of professional soldiers. But what's more important is that compulsory military service enables us to train the population for an emergency.
SPIEGEL: You are breaking with the Soviet tradition of producing all weapons at home, and you now intend to order helicopter carriers from France. You've already purchased drones from Israel. Is Russia incapable of building modern weapons?
Serdyukov: Russia can manufacture even the most complex weapons systems. But it's easier, cheaper and faster to buy some things on the world market. Over the last 20 years our industry has fallen behind the top countries in some areas. We are buying the helicopter carriers complete with the technical documentation that will allow us to build them on Russian soil later on.
SPIEGEL: Can you imagine buying weapons in Germany, submarines, for example?
Serdyukov: We are working with the German defense ministry and German industry. We are in negotiations.
SPIEGEL: What kinds of weapons are you looking at?
Serdyukov: All I can say is: We have problems with armored technology.
SPIEGEL: Then perhaps you could tell us how you plan to use the drones from Israel?
Serdyukov: In our armed forces.
SPIEGEL: Can you be more specific?
Serdyukov: We only purchased a small number, for our training centers. We want to test where we can use them. Primarily with the army and in reconnaissance.
SPIEGEL: Could it be that only a civilian can make the radical changes to the Russian military that are now taking place?
Serdyukov: I can't do everything on my own. We work as a team, the head of the general staff and my deputies. Perhaps some things are easier for me because I am not committed to certain traditions and conventions of the military. I look at problems from the outside, as it were, which makes it easier for me to ask why things can't be done differently.
SPIEGEL: But a general doesn't take a civilian seriously.
Serdyukov: I can assure you that none of my generals look down on me.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Serdyukov, we thank you for this interview.