Tag Archives: Russian Military Power

But We Make Rockets

Yes, Russia is making rockets now.

Vladimir Putin came to power on the eve of the 21st century promising (among other things) to remake Russian military power.  But progress was slow.  The economy struggled to emerge from the default and devaluation of 1998.  A poor, unready army found itself mired for several years in the Second Chechen War.

Not until after an uneven military performance in the August 2008 five-day war with Georgia — and not until after the 2009 economic crisis, perhaps in 2012 or 2013 — did the funding necessary for significant improvements in combat readiness and larger procurement of weapons and equipment reach the Russian Armed Forces.

Then came war in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and Syria.  Blowback from Syria could make Central Asia or the North Caucasus Russia’s next front. But questions about recent Kremlin bellicosity already bear close to home — on Russia’s domestic political and economic circumstances.

Consider a Gazeta.ru editorial from October 26.

“But we make rockets”

“Can the army and navy replace everything else for citizens”

RS-24 Yars ICBMs on Parade (photo: AP / Ivan Sekretarev)

RS-24 Yars ICBMs on Parade (photo: AP / Ivan Sekretarev)

“Often it’s easier for people to accept growing financial hopelessness to the sound of bold military marches.  Not for the first time in Russian history the army is beginning to replace the nation’s economy, life, general human values, and becoming the new old national idea and practically the only effective state institution.”

“Not everywhere in Russian industry are orders shrinking and demand falling.  There is production that is very much in demand.  In the ‘Tactical Missile Weapons’ corporation, for example, they’ve gone to three shifts of missile production for the Syrian front, a source in the defense-industrial complex has told the publication ‘Kommersant-Vlast.’  Against this backdrop, an article appeared in The Independent newspaper about how in Russia, after the events in Crimea and Syria, the army is again becoming the ‘departure point of Russian ideology’ — that very national idea for which they searched so long and unsuccessfully in post-Perestroika Russia and here now, finally, have found.”

“‘Russia has only two reliable allies — the army and navy.’  These famous words of Emperor Aleksandr III (who, incidentally, went down in history we would say now under the nickname Peacemaker) have once again in our history acquired a literal meaning. Other reliable allies of whom Russia was evidently sure over the last year-and-a-half or two years clearly no longer remain with us.”

“In a time of economic crisis, the temptation among Russian authorities to make the army one of the leading state institutions grows even greater.  The remaining institutions are emasculated or work as badly as ever.  In the end, to do this is sometimes simply useless:  the impoverished voter will say — why are your institutions here, is my life improving?  The expenditures are great, but the effect will be, probably, negative.”

“How much better the army is:  there is discipline, and pay, and achievements, and a plan of development.  The share of military expenditures in the budget is growing, but a cut in its absolute size has affected it to a lesser degree than civilian sectors like education and health care.”

“All hope is now on defense — as in ‘peace time’ we placed hope on oil and gas.”

“The army again is a lovely testing ground for demonstrating one more innovation — import substitution.  Not all Russians can understand why it’s necessary to burn up high quality foreign goods. But hardly anyone would object that Russia didn’t buy any aircraft, tanks or missiles abroad.  The president at a session of the Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation Issues announced that thanks to import substitution the country’s defense industrial enterprises are ‘becoming more independent of foreign component supplies.’”

“In general, we found by experience that we didn’t quite succeed in finding any other nation-binding idea over 25 years of not very consistent attempts to draw close to the Western world.  The simple national idea ‘state for the sake of man’ didn’t take root, including, alas, because man somehow didn’t value it very much; attempts to raise free citizens and form a civic nation, bound by common human values, failed.  There were neither citizens, nor values…”

“Being that there wasn’t demand for a free citizen not only above, but even below.  It is precisely therefore that we don’t have normal trade unions, strong nongovernmental organizations, and independent civil initiatives.  It’s not just the state that doesn’t need ‘all this.’  It’s society too.”

“Therefore one year before State Duma elections there isn’t even opposition in political parties to the openly military-oriented budget.”

“Distinct from this is that America which we love to accuse of aggressiveness, but in which military expenditures and their share in the budget are steadily falling in recent years.  In fact, legislative control over the military budget is one of the main forms of civilian society’s control over the army in the USA.  Though in America there were times when the military tried to decide both for society and for politicians.  Considerable force and time was required to put the military under control, but the States succeeded in this.”

“In Russia the easiest and quickest means of unifying the nation turned out to be the bloodless victory in Crimea and the somewhat bloody events in the Donbass.  The idea of abstract imperial power, and the image of ‘the country rising from its knees’ were substantiated, as the man in the street perceived it, and they were near and comprehensible to him.  Like, we lead a miserable life ourselves (when was it otherwise?), but we are a ‘great power’ again.”

“Polite green people, capable quickly without noise and dust of ‘deciding questions,’ create in the multimillion-person army in front of the television an illusion of their own significance.”

“It’s not only the missile corporation that’s working ‘in three shifts’ now, but also the factory of national pride, based exclusively on military victories.”

“Firstly, we are proud of past victories, in which, besides the live heroes of that war, there is no one alive today who isn’t, in essence, a participant:  St. George’s banners and inscriptions on foreign-made cars ‘To Berlin!,’ ‘Thanks granddad for Victory,’ ‘Descendant of a Victor’ flash at every step.  Secondly, they actively urge us to pride in new military victories.”

“Meanwhile the war in distant Syria works for such military-patriotic PR even better than the war in Ukraine.  And further from the borders, pictures of Russian aircraft bombing terrorists a world away inspire the people more than the sullen ‘militiamen’ of which the masses have had enough already.”

“What’s fashionable in war and militancy also enters official political discourse.  Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu has firmly become the second most popular politician and most successful top-manager in the country.  And the president not without some internal pride calls himself the ‘dove with iron wings,’ telling foreign guests directly at a Valday Club session that he was still in the Leningrad courtyard when he learned to ‘strike first’ if a fight is inevitable.”

“And it’s still necessary to remember:  even a war far from the borders, if it’s protracted, requires not  only military, but also great financial resources.”

“So if the economic collapse in Russia continues, pride in the army still cannot fully make up for people the absence of conditions for a normal life.  But for now — in a situation where the authorities live by tactics and not by strategy, — the army and military mobilization of the nation really look like a national idea, and a panacea for the crisis, and a means of supporting a high rating.”

“Polite green people are already capable of becoming not simply a symbol of the Crimean operation, but a symbol of an entire epoch. But they usually don’t solve all the accumulated social, economic, and human problems of a large country.”

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Better Talk About Your Problems

Army-2015 (photo: Mil.ru)

Army-2015 (photo: Mil.ru)

Last week the Russian MOD put on an extravaganza.  Army-2015 was a huge public exhibition of the latest and greatest Russian military technology and equipment.  It was a major patriotic event designed to boost the average Russian’s pride in his or her armed forces.

Army-2015 was not intended as a forum for discussing the Russian military’s deficiencies and difficulties.  However, the venerable BBC Russian Service interviewed four well-known commentators attending the show about this very issue. It’s a topic no longer easy to find in the Russian media.

The BBC turned first to State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Tetekhin from the KPRF who pointed to the Pentagon and its penchant for airing the U.S. military’s problems to identify and resolve them.  Tetekhin said Russia very much lacks similar discussions in its legislature and military ranks.

Army-2015 (photo: Mil.ru)

Army-2015 (photo: Mil.ru)

The British broadcaster asked these observers to name weak points in Russia’s military which — in their opinion — need to be fixed immediately.  The experts listed five:

  • The development and production of modern armaments suffers from a lack of personnel and the “incompleteness of the material base.”
  • The size of the armed forces is insufficient, and manning is difficult because of a lack of men.
  • A lack of follow-through in reforms, arbitrariness in decisionmaking.
  • Insufficient modern weapons, including UAVs, and the slow pace of reequipping the army.
  • The need for large expenditures to continue reform — to stop it is impossible, but great resources are needed to complete it.

That “incompleteness of the material base” sounds like defense industry is missing skilled workers, part and component suppliers, and sub-contractors who traditionally supported big arms makers. Moscow was compensating for this with foreign purchases, but it is now preoccupied with arranging for domestic import substitution.

Tetekhin expressed his concern about who will design Russia’s future weapons systems.  The skill of those working in R&D today is “an order lower” than the previous generation, he says.

For Konstantin Sivkov, the main problem is that the armed forces aren’t large enough.  He says they need to be 50 percent bigger to defend the country. More modern weapons answering modern requirements are also needed.

Igor Korotchenko sees the lack of drones — tactical to strategic and strike variants — as Russia’s most important military shortcoming.  He also complained of changing priorities and arbitrary decisions made by new defense ministers, especially regarding arms purchases.  As a remedy, he calls for permanent deputy defense ministers and service CINCs.

They tried virtual life tenure for deputy defense ministers and CINCs in Soviet times.  Didn’t work out too well.  It was a true recipe for arbitrariness and stagnation.

Lastly, the BBC quotes Konstantin Bogdanov, who gives us the most thorough summation of where the RF Armed Forces are today.  It’s worth quoting verbatim:

“The first and main problem is the unfinished state of the military reform, launched at the end of the 2000s, and repeatedly changed in its particulars. Both under Serdyukov and under Shoygu.”

“The second problem is connected to the still not overcome so-called ‘procurement holiday of the 1990s.’  The fact is a significant part of equipment, which should have been withdrawn from the inventory at the start of the 2000s and replaced with new models, is being replaced only now.  Fifteen years at a minimum have been lost.”

“This led, in particular, to an entire range of industrial enterprises, to use a sports analogy, ‘getting out of shape.’  Over the course of a long time, they couldn’t support the delivery of necessary equipment and armaments with the required characteristics and production costs.”

“This situation is being corrected somewhat, but at the end of the 2000s it was completely outrageous.”

“The manning problem is connected with the demographic hole.  They have to drag people into the army, I wouldn’t say with a lasso, but with a very sweet cake — pay.”

“There is yet another problem — the need for large infrastructure outlays.”

“Abandoned military garrisons in the Arctic, the construction of new bases there.  But this is not just a problem in the Arctic, attention is just riveted on it.  […] Airfields are being reestablished, military bases reestablished, which were abandoned at the end of the 1990s.”

“This is enormous money, and how all this will look under difficult financial conditions is hard to say.  The army is eating lots of resources, but it has gone halfway and stopping here wouldn’t be right.”

A Swedish Defense Debate

Two Swedish observers recently engaged in an exchange of opinion pieces regarding the connection between a supposedly more muscular and threatening Russia on the one hand, and an allegedly feckless Swedish defense policy on the other.

Here we are, of course, more interested in their divergent views of Russian military power rather than in (as they are principally and rightly concerned) its affect on Sweden’s defense.

Stefan Hedlund

Stefan Hedlund

Uppsala University professor Stefan Hedlund wrote first.  His article appeared originally in Svenska Dagbladet.

Hedlund concludes the Swedish legislature is radically changing its long-held view of Russia as relatively benign to one of Moscow as a growing threat to Sweden’s national security.  Proponents of this view, he says, point most often to Russia’s militarization and its increasingly autocratic political system.

However, he says President Vladimir Putin himself basically admitted the government’s 20-trillion-ruble State Armaments Program is failing.  Failing because the OPK, on the whole, cannot produce weapons and equipment of requisite quality, in necessary quantities, according to specified deadlines.

He cites the Bulava and Yuriy Dolgorukiy.

Just one good example among many he could have picked.

Then Hedlund concludes:

“Perhaps it was simply naive to think that the Russian military industry could pick up where it left off two decades ago, after standing at a virtual standstill, and all of a sudden produce weapons system [sic] at high international standards.”

He turns to politics, and the fragmentation of the Russian political elite just beneath Putin.

He sees it this way:

“These political developments don’t add up to the picture of an every [sic] more strong-fisted leader [Putin] who hasn’t ruled out waging war on his neighbours.  It is much more probable that Russia will be paralyzed by infighting for a long time to come, and an ever degrading economic outlook will mean the government may have to retrace it steps on promises to keep up salary developments and shore up pensions.  There might simply not be money left for the military.”

Hedlund hits key elements of the problem with Russia’s alleged militarization:  the OPK’s inability to deliver arms and a clearly evident Finance Ministry rearguard action to rein in military procurement spending.

Finally, Hedlund concludes it’s essential to discuss Sweden’s defense policy problems “without muddling it up with incorrect perceptions about the development [sic] in Russia.”

Political science PhD candidate Annelie Gregor responded to Hedlund with this essay.  Ms. Gregor neglected to add that she is, apparently, an employee of the Swedish Armed Forces.

Annelie Gregor

Annelie Gregor

Gregor argues Hedlund claims Russia is not in the midst of a military build-up and is turning away from authoritarian rule.

This is not at all what Hedlund said. 

Hedlund maintains Russia’s militarization isn’t effective and Putin’s autocratic style masks concerns about domestic politics that are more important to him than building up the armed forces or attacking a non-contiguous Nordic country.

Gregor’s first point about the recent surprise readiness evaluation in the Far East simply has to be ignored.  Not because of her primarily, but because of how others have futzed it up. 

She says it “involved” 160,000 troops.  Others have said Russia “mobilized” or “deployed” this number.  The entire manpower contingent of the Far East Military District (probably some 160,000 men) certainly wasn’t “involved” in those exercises, and those troops certainly weren’t “mobilized” or “deployed.”  They already actively serve in the region where the exercise took place. 

It is true to say recent Russian exercises have featured some re-deployments and equipment movements from other districts, but they are limited to what Russia’s strategic mobility resources can manage.

Difficult as it is to believe, Gregor cites Russia’s performance in the five-day war with Georgia as evidence of a threat to Sweden.

The same Russian Armed Forces that were caught off guard, and initially acquitted themselves so poorly that a major military reform program started immediately afterwards to improve their readiness and capabilities.

As more evidence, Gregor recalls this spring when “two Tu-22M3 Backfire heavy bombers simulated a large scale aerial bombing on Sweden.”

Two Backfires with nuclear-armed cruise missiles would be more than enough to ruin Sweden’s day.  But one notes they are not “heavy bombers” nor do two constitute anything “large scale.”  The incident was, perhaps, more about flying time and asserting Moscow’s right to use international airspace.

Gregor then argues with Hedlund about whether revenues from oil, gas, and arms sales will be adequate to support Russia’s “militarization” in the future.

This part of Hedlund’s article was, unfortunately, not translated.

One contends, however, that if Hedlund said the Russian defense budget will decline as its oil earnings decline, he’s right.  In fact, one could go further and say the budget is irrelevant.  What does matter is what Moscow actually buys or gets for it.  

The Russians are getting more training (because they can buy more fuel), but they aren’t getting new weapons on the schedule they originally laid down.  

And corruption remains a huge tax on the budget, just check on the criminal cases against former Defense Minister Serdyukov’s former deputies. 

And it’s obvious to serious observers that arms sale profits don’t go to the big white building on the Arbat.  They go to Rosoboroneksport which is connected more to high-level political infighting than to the Defense Ministry.

Hedlund never said Russia is turning from authoritarian rule as Gregor alleges.  Hers is a classic “straw man” fallacy.

Hedlund responded to Gregor’s response.

He argues Moscow’s “increasingly bellicose [anti-Western and anti-NATO] rhetoric is for domestic consumption” and its “aggressive actions, such as simulated nuclear strikes on Warsaw, indicate weakness and a desperate clamoring for attention.”

Anti-U.S. and anti-NATO speech will probably always be popular in Russia.  Simulated nuclear strikes are warnings to Europeans of the consequences of cooperation with the U.S. in missile defense (or anything else for that matter).

Hedlund says he’s done anything but argue that Russia is turning from authoritarian rule.  He concludes:

“What I have argued is that there is a very large difference between present-day Russia and a truly militarized authoritarian regime that would constitute a true danger.”

Eloquently put.  Putin’s regime is a clumsy, capricious, and ineffective brand of authoritarianism.  It recalls the late years of the Tsars more than Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR.  Dangerous to a degree, but not an existential danger.

Perhaps there’ll be yet another installment in this debate.