December 14, 2011

Russia deserts its guns

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet union

The Russians are currently spending enormous sums on re-equipping and modernising their armed forces, often through the purchase of foreign technology, as they have deliberately allowed their own military industrial complex to decay

by Vicken Cheterian

Russia’s victory in its lightning war against Georgia in August 2008 did not prevent it from starting to completely overhaul its military soon after. It was a wise decision, according to the military expert Alexander Golts: “It is unusual for a government to carry out reforms after winning a war. But even though various commands had been granted significant resources over 10 prosperous years, the 2008 crisis revealed that the Russian army was ageing, and incapable of handling modern weaponry. That is what drove the minister of defence, Anatoly Serdyukov, to announce the most radical reform in 150 years [since the Crimean war 1853-56].”

The two Chechen wars in the 1990s had already revealed the fragile state of the army. And even though the outcome of the war with Georgia was obvious within 48 hours of the start of hostilities, and a ceasefire was signed on Moscow’s terms after five days, the conflict was a revelation for the military and political leadership. It showed just how obsolete the army’s command and control, reconnaissance and communication systems were. Even though Georgia had no jet fighters, Russia acknowledged that Georgian ground-to-air missiles had shot down four of its planes (three Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack planes and a Tupolev Tu-22 long distance bomber used for reconnaissance missions) (1); Georgia maintains it shot down 21 aircraft. Russia had a greater number of weapons, but the Georgian army showed technological superiority with its T-72 battle tanks modernised in the Czech Republic, Israeli-built drones and modern communication systems.

Such was the shock felt in Moscow (2) that in December 2010 President Dmitry Medvedev announced that $670bn, the equivalent of 2.8% of the country’s GDP for every year until 2020, would be spent on modernising the military. This was the first time since the end of the cold war that such a sum of public money had been invested in this sector, which had been surviving on its exports since the 1990s (3).

For 15 years the Russian army had no new equipment: the air force got no new aircraft until 2003, and since then it has had only a few extra planes. Medvedev has acknowledged that only 15% of the country’s military arsenal is state-of-the-art (4). The new measures aim to allow the armed forces to catch up by replacing 30% of their equipment by 2015.

But it is not certain the government can achieve that target. During the Soviet era, defence was at the heart of the economy. It is hard to get exact figures, but it is estimated that between 20% and 40% of GDP was spent on the military (5). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military industry’s income depended on its exports. Post-Soviet Russia has not developed or produced any new weapons.

Russian brain drain

The army’s current equipment was developed and manufactured under the Communist regime, with two exceptions: the fifth-generation Sukhoi T-50 fighter, which is said to rival the US army’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor as the world’s top jet fighter. Its prototype, tested in 2010, has created interest within the Indian and Vietnamese armies, even though experts say its flight characteristics and engine make it more an advanced fourth-generation than a fifth-generation. The other marvel of advanced Russian technology is the Bulava intercontinental missile, but this has had technical difficulties. “Every attempt to launch it has ended in failure due to one of its components,” says Golts. This is caused, he says, by a “break in the industrial chain of production, which makes the Russian defence industry incapable of mass production”. Thousands of scientists left Russia after the collapse of the USSR, and recruitment is at a standstill. Since Russia’s modernisation efforts ignored the military industrial complex, it is crumbling, with an ageing workforce: the average age of defence industry engineers is 58.

This means it is unlikely Russia will regain the level of production it once had. After Vladimir Putin’s visit to Algeria in March 2006, an $8bn contract was signed for Russia to supply Algeria with 35 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 fighters. In 2008 Algiers sent back the 15 it had received, saying they were of poor quality. The electronic systems did not correspond with the description in the contract, and some components seemed to be from old Soviet-era stock. Moscow did not oppose the return of the aircraft, and allocated them to its own air force.

The saga of the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier was another snub. The vessel had operated during the Soviet era as the Baku, and was then renamed after the Soviet hero, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov (1910-1988). Due to lack of funds it was retired before being offered for sale in 1996. In 2004 India announced its intention to buy it for $950m, and renamed it “INS Vikramaditya” after a legendary king. Several contractual changes were made in order to replace the cruise missiles on board with a larger air fleet. After hitches and amendments to the contract, the project cost three times the agreed figure, and delivery was put back from 2008 to 2012. The Gorshkov affair caused a scandal in India — Russia’s biggest client for armaments — and the criticism the Indian authorities have had to endure could drive them to other arms suppliers in the future (6).

For the moment Russia’s arms exports are still rising: $3.4bn in 2001, $7.4bn in 2009, $9.3bn in 2010. But Russia could lose its dominant position in the global arms market. China, which was Russia’s biggest client during the 1990s, is now developing its own J-10 fourth-generation jet fighters, and is producing Type 99 main battle tanks. Although it is still a big importer of Russian arms, it is now ranked behind India and Algeria (7). This year, a few days before the US defence secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing, China unveiled its prototype fifth-generation jet fighter. While China’s armed forces currently absorb its entire production of arms, experts believe China could become a formidable rival to Russian exporters.

The agreement signed in January 2011 for Russia to buy two Mistral amphibious assault ships from France is symbolic of another trend. The Mistral can carry up to 700 soldiers, 60 vehicles and 16 helicopters, and carry out ground attacks, in situations similar to the Georgian conflict. The decision to buy craft made in France was controversial in Russia, where many demanded the $1.9bn contract be given to one of Russia’s many disused naval shipyards. It is not the first time this has happened. In 2009 the Russian army signed an agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to import 12 drones. In 2010 another contract was agreed, authorising the construction on Russian soil of Israeli-designed drones (8).

Foreign suppliers

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, is not surprised to see Russia importing military equipment: “The Soviet Union was an exception,” he says, referring to a self-sufficient military-industrial complex capable of meeting all the needs of the Red Army. “Even the United States, whose defence budget makes up half the world’s spending on defence, buys arms from abroad. By buying elsewhere, the Russian government maintains pressure on its defence industry, making it more competitive in quality, price and deadlines.”

Russia is likely to turn more frequently to foreign suppliers in the future (especially if the current talks on large-scale remilitarisation succeed), even though Serdyukov does not exclude buying domestic defence technology. Although it is in a different situation, the US army is buying more Russian arms, from Kalashnikov rifles to transport helicopters. The Pentagon favours basic, inexpensive, and easily maintained technology with which to equip its new allies, who were formerly supplied with Soviet arms. It hopes to buy 59 Mil Mi-17 troop carrier helicopters from Russia for $800m, to supply Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan (9).

There are signs that civilian industrial technology is also running out of steam. For several years Moscow has been trying to relaunch its Soviet-era satellite navigation system, Glonass, which was intended to rival the American GPS and the European Galileo systems. It was abandoned in the 1990s by president Boris Yeltsin, but in 2002 the Russian authorities announced they were sending 24 new satellites into orbit to have the system ready by 2011. An accident during a launch in 2010 destroyed three of the satellites and caused $476m worth of damage. The Glonass system’s performance remains inferior to its competitors in accuracy and coverage, jeopardising the entire programme (10). Russia’s civil aviation industry prefers to buy craft from Airbus or Boeing than Sukhoi, leaving the commercial future of its passenger plane Superjet 100 in doubt.

For the last 20 years military reform has been a constant feature of Russian political life (11). In the 1990s the term “reform” was used as a euphemism to avoid talking about the collapse of the armed forces. Putin came to power just as a new war was starting in Chechnya. The army had extra funding and, despite the violence it perpetrated and the huge number of civilians and soldiers killed, it managed to regain some of its prestige. Putin used this to project an image of a Russia once again powerful. He reinstated the tradition of military parades in Red Square to commemorate the victory of 9 May 1945, and in 2007 he even brought back the flypast by Tupolev bombers.

Russia as a great power

But Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs says: “Russia no longer has any imperialist impulses. Putin tends to portray the second world war as Russia’s war, neglecting the participation of other countries. Victory in the ‘great patriotic war’ — as we call it — brought Soviet citizens together. Putin is trying to restore Russia’s rank as a great power, not rebuild the empire.”

The overhaul of the armed forces and huge investment in the latest military technology should bear fruit after 2020. So what will Russia’s defence look like then? According to journalist Andrei Soldatov: “This policy of reform has nothing to do with the Russo-Georgian war. It predates it by a long way.” Nonetheless, the army sees it as a punishment, and feels uneasy. In the last two years several special forces units (Spetsnaz) which helped win that war have been disbanded; military service has been abolished and 100,000 officers have been made redundant. All this has provoked opposition in the army, which is traditionally passive and apolitical. The official reason is to reduce the army from 1.2 million soldiers to 1 million. But in reality numbers are already lower, at around 750,000.

When the Mistral contract was signed with France, only Georgia and the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) disapproved. Neither Poland nor Turkey were critical, and for good reason: Russia is no military threat to these medium-sized powers. Only because of its ageing nuclear arsenal does Russia remain among the world’s great powers. Despite its forceful rhetoric, the Kremlin frequently has to give in to Washington’s demands. Supplies are transported to US troops in Afghanistan on the Russian rail network, despite Russia’s opposition to the US having military bases in central Asia. In September 2010 Russia was obliged to cancel its contract to sell S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran after pressure from the US and Israel.

How did things get this bad? Alexander Perendijiev — a former officer in the Red Army and the Russian army, and now a university professor — blames corruption: “The people in power think money can solve everything. And yet Serdyukov, the former inspector of finances, was appointed minister of defence to sort things out and curb this phenomenon. The system won’t change unless there is genuine public supervision.” Despite Medvedev’s declarations, it is doubtful there will ever be such a radical change. Since perestroika (12) there has been a lack of planning and political vision as to the role the military-industrial complex should play in the new economy.

Making cooking pots in factories

While the powerful discuss Russia’s modernisation, everyone carefully avoids talking about economic reform, as that brings back traumatic memories of Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to modernise the Soviet system, and the collapse of the eastern bloc. Economic reform is no longer on the agenda, but Medvedev and his colleagues acknowledge that the country may be too dependent on oil and gas exports, and that its economic model is out of date. Mineral products are 70% of exports, compared with 5% for machinery (13). If it is limited to tackling bureaucratic corruption and encouraging technological development, Medvedev’s modernisation plan will soon be inadequate, even superficial.

There seems to be no connection between the current debate on modernisation and the huge sums promised to the defence sector. Medvedev suggests investing $2bn (14) in creating a Russian Silicon Valley in Skolkovo, outside Moscow, while Oxana Gaman-Golutvina, professor of political science at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, says there are 32 scientific research centres in the country that badly need funding.

The policies being put forward seem to disregard the reality for those working in a scientific research industry inherited from the Soviet era, just as they ignore the relics of the old defence industry. Commentators are amazed that the new proposals include nothing about creating a bridge between the development of high technology and the defence industry. From Gorbachev to Yeltsin, Putin to Medvedev, Russian leaders have all underestimated the potential of the defence industry. Lukyanov describes the situation: “The conversion that took place during perestroika consisted of making cooking pots in factories designed to make supersonic jets. During the Gaidar reforms [Yegor Gaidar, prime minister June-December 1992] in the 1990s, no one knew what to do with the military-industrial complex, so it was cut off from the rest of the economy, and left to depend on exports. It was not part of the country’s economic system.”

A close examination of the Russian military-industrial complex exposes many myths about Russia, including one that regained currency after the Russo-Georgian conflict, that it wanted a return to the cold war. Even if it had the capability, Russia has no interest in challenging the Nato alliance. There is also a generally accepted idea that Putin opposed the oligarchy inherited from Yeltsin’s presidency, in order to create a regime run by the former KGB and the military. It is reinforced by the fact that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos, has been in prison since 2004. Gaman-Golutvina rejects this: “Putin’s entourage do come from the FSB [successor to the KGB] and the army, but while their influence is real, they exercise power primarily in the energy export sector.”

Neither Soviet nor Russian leaders have ever considered applying high technology to the defence industry, and making it a key part of their modernisation programmes. In Soviet times the defence sector was run in an opaque way, which made it particularly resistant to change (15), and it absorbed a huge proportion of the national budget. Gorbachev-era reformers never imagined that positive change could come from this sector, so they chose to fight it rather than support it. In none of the reforms since then has anyone known how to take advantage of the most advanced sectors of the defence industry, and, not being able to gauge their value, they have simply let them die. While Medvedev is trying to modernise, he fears the social and political consequences of these reforms, so is content for the moment to praise the Silicon Valley model. Even though Russia has oil, gas and other mineral resources, which make huge profits for the ruling classes, can it afford to overlook the development of its advanced technologies?

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and editor of From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Socialism, Hurst, London, 2011

(1) A report by Russian experts suggests six planes were shot down, at least half by Russian ground troops.

(2) Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, 9 August 2010.

(3) “Russia to cap annual defense budget at 2.8% GDP for next decade”, RIA Novosti, Moscow, 25 November 2010.

(4) “Medvedev Says Russia to Triple Military Salaries Next Year”, Bloomberg, 18 March 2011;

(5) William E Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998, p 104.

(6) “‘Second-hand’ Gorshkov costlier than new warship: CAG”, The Times of India, New Delhi, 24 July 2009.

(7) “Russia’s arms exports to reach record $10bn in 2010”, RIA Novosti, Moscow, 28 October 2010.

(8) “Israel signs $400 million deal with Russia”, UPI, 15 October 2010.

(9) “On Pentagon Wish List: Russian Copters”, The Wall Street Journal, New York, 8 July 2010.

(10) “Russia to launch new batch of Glonass satellites by June”, RIA Novosti, Moscow, 25 January 2011.

(11) Vicken Cheterian, “Russia’s disarmed response”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2000.

(12) Name given to the programme of reforms launched in 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev.

(13) “Medvedev calls for economy reform”, BBC News, London, 12 November 2009;

(14) “Russia’s Skolkovo may cost $2 billion in next 3 years - Vekselberg”, RIA Novosti, 1 July 2010.

(15) Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor, Oxford University Press, 1996.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the russia's bear is back baby.