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article imageOp-Ed: Rearming Russia, and trying to make sense of Putin’s moves

By Paul Wallis     Dec 24, 2015 in World
Moscow - New revelations of a Russian arms buildup, new bases, and much bigger military budgets are providing a lot of fodder for speculation, mainly outside Russia. One expert says Russia looks like it’s preparing for a war with another state.
Actually, outsiders haven’t been particularly good at predicting Russian moves, or Putin’s mindset, on a broad range of subjects. It’s a sad fact that the default image is of a nation acting like a reborn Soviet Union, not a different, modern, nation with different goals and a very different approach to situations.
Let’s start with one basic premise — the new Russia isn’t carrying the political, economic, or ideological baggage of the USSR, and doesn’t need to pretend to be the USSR. It has a few souvenirs, but it’s now 30 years since the end of the Soviet Union.
Military considerations are now just part of the picture, not the whole picture. This isn’t the Cold War, and the simplistic logic of those days is entirely out of place. NATO, itself a much-modified holdover from that era, and originally designed to combat the USSR, seems to see everything through the lens of the 1980s.
That’s understandable to a point; after all, it’s what NATO was made to do, but the goalposts have moved, and Russia is hardly following the Soviet script in most actual events. The takeover of the Crimea was done with more subtlety and much less drum-banging than the USSR would have made in a similar situation when annexing anything.
A torchbearer carries the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch past a Russian Sukhoi jet at Irkut aircraf...
A torchbearer carries the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch past a Russian Sukhoi jet at Irkut aircraft corporation in Russia on November 24, 2013
Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee/AFP/File
The West was caught without any practical solutions in that case. It wasn’t predicted, nor was anything at all done in the interim to make the Russian moves impossible, like reinforcing the Crimea with a strong military presence.
Modern Russia thinks and acts differently on the world stage. The clumsy, rhetoric-prone peasants in suits watching endless military parades have been replaced by effective businesspeople.
Russian rearmament has been carried out quite openly, on a very different scale from the USSR’s rather grandiose, and ultimately fatal, overkill in terms of numbers, both in terms of equipment and quality.
From a purely military perspective, as a matter of fact, Russian rearmament looks more like a housekeeping exercise in some ways.
Numbers cited by The New York Times include:
2300+ armored vehicles
1000+ helicopters
2000+ self propelled artillery systems
50 surface ships
400 tactical missile systems
28 attack submarines
400 ICBMs on mobile launchers
600+ fixed wing aircraft
Russian Navy Warship
Russian Navy Warship in Sebastopol Russia
This is a very interesting profile of any arms program, in many ways. It indicates a very strong internal military industrial and design capacity. Jane’s, the famous military analytic company, says Russia intends to modernize its military by 2020. That’s a pretty ambitious, but given the numbers, more or less credible goal.
It also, however, indicates a major, and comprehensive, logistics and structural realignment. These new systems are far more capable than their predecessors, which are hopelessly out of date. To back up these new systems, it’s not just the front line which needs to be modernized; it’s the entire military infrastructure.
Few governments around the world, even the historically insane, would undertake a full revamp of their entire military capability and the related expense, without some soul-searching about viability. To really modernize means to be able to deliver actual capacity on an ongoing basis, also very expensive.
This is where the mindset has changed, drastically. Stalin emphasized quantities, rather than quality; upgrading in kind, not in diversification of capabilities. The USSR, to its detriment, followed that basic principle to the very expensive, non-viable, end.
In the USSR’s military, even tank design was slavishly followed, the T 80 being a clear lineal descendant of the T54, with a few novelties added, like missile firing capabilities. The T90 tank, a stopgap upgrade of the T72 which is basically a platform for new tech, and Black Eagle tanks (demo tanks from the late 90s, not seen as actual Main Battle Tanks) indicate a reconfiguration of combat roles, new systems and increased capacity, not design ancestry. It’s well within design possibilities that the 2300 new armored vehicles will be made to take generational upgrades.
The same may be said about air and naval capacity. The USSR’s navy rotted away after the collapse of the Soviet Union. New ships mean replacing a lot of capacity which is simply no longer there. Air capacity stalled at the Sukhoi 27 level, a 70s-80s design generation of fighters designed to combat the F15s and F16s of their era which was replaced by multiple generations of Sukhois from the Su35 fighter onwards. New generation Russian fighters have reengineered themselves in to very high powered platforms like the current generation T50/Sukhoi PAK FA for any new off the shelf combat systems.
Tanks in Red Square.
Tanks in Red Square.
Sergei Chirikov
The numbers quoted above do indicate a major increase in combat capabilities, but not to the point of overkill or being a significant buildup of threat levels. If they were all in one combat zone, they’d be a significant offensive force. Actual deployment, however, is unlikely to be configured like that.
In a country the size of Russia, with the need to distribute forces appropriately across an area twice the size of the US, with a vast range of borders, and with the Arctic as a clear area of priority, these forces are basically replacement value. In the case of the Arctic, it can be said that this is a new frontier in Russian defensive operations, and any new buildup reflects a range of new priorities.
Incidents – Defining the nature of mistrust
Another range of issues cited is a series of incidents between Russian military forces and Western forces. The shooting down of a Russian fighter by Turkey, if anything, highlights the level of cranked-up tension in some areas.
It also highlights the ability of Russia and the West to engage in unnecessary, counterproductive exercises. This incident was done at the expense of the main global issue, which is putting an end to IS and turning the Middle East into something other than an ongoing war zone. These incidents, nasty as they are, are hardly a basis for a future analysis of global military issues.
Forearmed for what, and forewarned by whom?
What’s really strange, and rather unbelievable is that Western analysis focuses on Russia’s means of waging war, but not on the possible reasons for waging it or the goals of waging it.
Nor is the hype about the expanded military budget very believable. Is anyone seriously saying that the Russian military should plod on with seriously outdated 1980s equipment, at a severe disadvantage to most of its neighbors? Can you upgrade a national military which operates in 11 different time zones from top to bottom without major cost?
Modern Russia may be neither cute nor cuddly, but it is pragmatic. It also knows how to do business on a global scale. This military expenditure may also indicate a rebirth of the ability to export modern arms just as much as any “buildup.”
That’s a real issue, and it’s being almost totally ignored. A lot of the world, particularly in Asia, uses Russian weapons or weapons of Russian design. There’s a ready market for more, particularly modern weapons.
Russia’s partnership with India in military hardware also indicates a very healthy distribution system, and lower costs per unit in some cases. Given the low dollar value of the rouble, this could be a very profitable exercise. The big budget may pay for itself, in some very easily foreseeable circumstances.
Crying wolf is one thing — watching in a sort of hysterical daze while the wolf takes back its role as major military market predator is another. Sorry guys, I think you’ve missed what’s called a disclosed check in chess — fait accompli with multiple disclosed threats, not just some simple A-B move.
At this stage, I think Western analysts should heed an old Roman saying — “If you’d kept your mouth shut, we would have thought you were clever.” Apparent ignorance is one thing — documented ignorance is another. Avoid both, if possible.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Russian federation, Russian military budget, T90 tank, T50 Sukhoi PAK FA fighter, russian navy
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