A Sober Look at Russian Military Trends

July 9, 2015
The Armata T-14 made its debut in May, but this next generation tank broke down during a parade and needed to be towed | AP

Russia is the unquestioned aggressor in Ukraine. It has built up powerful forces all along its borders with NATO members in Europe, to the point where it enjoys a very visible conventional superiority against them there. Recently, NATO’s new chairman said that the Russian military could overrun the Baltic States in just two days. Furthermore Russia is constantly probing and threatening NATO members, and at least rhetorically has reduced the threshold for use of its nuclear weapons. It has also pioneered innovative tactical and operational concepts that the West increasingly [perhaps wrongly] calls hybrid warfare. It is concurrently launching massive propaganda and information warfare campaigns across the globe and especially against Western powers.

Not only is Russia threatening its European and Transcaucasian neighbors, it also is in the middle of a huge conventional and nuclear military procurement campaign through 2020 that is supposed to make 70% of Russia’s armed forces and weapons modern. Presumably that means the weapons would be high-tech. And in this campaign, nuclear weapons continue to enjoy priority status. This buildup, as suggested above, is also regularly accompanied by theatrical displays of military forces or announcements of nuclear or conventional procurements with the aim of looking strong at home and intimidating foreign audiences.

But when we look more closely it becomes clear that this procurement campaign, for all its undoubted successes in rearming the Russian armed forces since 2008, is encountering serous difficulties. Those difficulties owe much, but by no means all, to the foreign sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its aggression in Ukraine and declining or stagnant energy prices. Those trends, taken together, are clearly strangling the Russian economy. But it also is the case that the defense sector is one of the most neo-Soviet in the overall economy and a hotbed of corruption. Furthermore the costs of the materials it has to buy have risen steadily due to inflationary trends in commodity and raw materials markets other than energy. As a result much of this intimidating rhetoric or displays of force remain to some degree the modern analogy to Tsarist Potemkin villages.

Nobody should think, however, that we are dealing with a paper tiger, for we are not. Russia remains a formidable military force that is aggressively deployed. But it is not invincible or all-powerful.

For example, Putin recently announced that this year Russia will produce more than 40 ICBMs. This announcement predictably caused a firestorm of negative NATO comments as it was no doubt intended to do. But the fact remains that six months earlier Putin said Russia would produce 50 ICBMs in 2015. Nobody knows what happened to the missing 10 ICBMs in the interval. Moreover, there are commentators who argue that simply to maintain its existing nuclear capabilities Moscow must procure 40 new missiles annually. None of this means that Moscow is not brandishing its nuclear weapons in a very threatening fashion but the figures speak for themselves. Similarly, Alexander Golts pointed out in The Moscow Times on July 1 that Russia’s new military satellite system will only be launched in November, i.e. four months later than expected, leaving Moscow nearly blind in the event of a nuclear missile attack till at least November. Moreover, in 2014 Russia’s decaying constellation of Soviet-designed early warning satellites was left nearly blind, when one of the three remaining units malfunctioned. In January 2015 the remaining two satellites were taken offline leaving Russian decision-makers reliant on land-based radar systems to detect incoming missiles.

At the same time Moscow ‘s program to build the biggest ICBM in the world, the Sarmat missile, has also been delayed several months and production at the Krasnoyarsk Machine-Building Plant is only 60% complete. The prominent defense correspondent Alexander Golts also observed that Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently admitted that Russia’s space industry remains afflicted with a systemic crisis with redundant production facilities operating at only 40% of capacity and contended that this failure is not confined to the space sector but pervades the entire military-industrial sector. Typically the government is resorting to conscripting 4000 people to work in this sector, i.e. it is resorting to Peter the Great’s solution of factory serfs. Similarly high government officials admitted to underestimating the costs of the Armata tank, the showpiece of the ground forces which apparently cost $8 billion each. Nevertheless Putin has promised to buy 2300 such tanks by 2020 equaling one half the entire annual military budget. Golts also reported that Putin, speaking recently at Sochi, announced that almost one-third of all airplanes helicopters, UAVs and missile complexes called for have been formed in the first half of the year, i.. e 42 airplanes and 29 helicopters. Yet actual production was 19 airplanes and 20 helicopters. If thee figures are true than in April defense industry produced almost as much in this sector as it did in January-March. More likely many weapons are either unproduced or junk.

Clearly, despite spending 3% of GDP on defense (at least that much is announced), aspiring to raise that figure to 4%, tripling defense expenditure since 2007, and refusing to cut spending, Russia gets a miserable return on its investment. Moreover the report issued after Boris Nemtsov’s murder found that in the first ten months of the war in Ukraine, Moscow spent over a billion dollars to support the “rebels,” while rank and file mercenaries in the Donbass received $1.774 billion and the Russian government spent $1.5 billion on refugees from the Donbass. Meanwhile, Russia is cutting indexation of pensions, and investments in virtually all forms of human and social capital.

It should be clear to everyone that these processes replicate Tsarist and Soviet patterns and were instrumental in precipitating the fall of those systems. Russia’s militarization is dangerous not only because of the threats it raises abroad and the possibility of it starting a much wider war, but also because it is unsustainable and as has happened before in Russian history, a protracted crisis will shake the system to its roots. Being a reputed student of Russian history, Mr. Putin might want to take another look at that history, preferably through writers his regime has not yet censored.