20 years under Putin: a timeline

Over the last year, the rhetoric of war has increasingly colored discussions about relations between Russia and the West. More American and European military and political figures have started calling Russia the main threat to the security of their countries, and Moscow has ordered more large-scale military exercises than usual, in regions from the Arctic to the Far East. Igor Sutyagin, senior research assistant at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), spoke with Imrussia.org editor-in-chief Olga Khvostunova about the combat readiness of Russian forces and the prospect of a military conflict breaking out between Russia and the West.


Some of the weaponry used by the Russian army — for example, the T72-B3 tank — is modern only on paper. Photo: Dmitry Rogulin / Itar-Tass


Olga Khvostunova: How would you assess the current condition of Russia’s armed forces? In which branches (ground troops, navy, or airborne troops) is the situation most dire?

Igor Sutyagin: The condition of the Russian armed forces is improving, but so far it is not exceptional. The biggest problems are in the navy, where less than a third of the large warships are even able to go to sea, not to mention being combat-ready. In the other branches, the situation is better—although this is because their weapons systems are not as complicated as those on the warships.

OK: At the Army 2015 forum, President Vladimir Putin said that by 2020, the share of modernized weapons in the Russian army must rise to 70% and, in some cases, to 100%. Are these plans achievable?

IS: The answer to that question depends largely on how you define “modernized” weapons. For example, the T-72B3 tank is considered in all reports as “modern.” In fact, the most recent of these tanks was produced in 1989. Each of them has been equipped with more advanced sets of onboard electronics, and they have been fitted with newer tracks. But the engines were not changed even in the tanks that were modernized, and as a result they are obviously weak. The gun and the armor remain the same, and after the mid-1990s, when new armor-piercing ammunition was introduced in Western countries, they also became weak. So, in essence, such a tank cannot be termed modern, or even new. Generally speaking, it would be possible to equip even a T-34 with modern electronics, but the question is, to what extent is it legitimate then to call a T-34 a “modern tank”? There are many of these types of cases in our present modernization drive. So, if you play with things a bit, it’s fairly realistic to achieve “100 percent modern equipment” and if not by 2020 then by a bit later. However, such equipment will be considerably inferior to current models present in the armies of many other countries.

OK: In the Western press, politicians and military experts have spent a lot of time in recent months analyzing new Russian military inventions, such as the Armata tank. How do you assess the quality of these new models?

IS: The quality of the new inventions is interesting, but even more interesting is the issue of what forms the inventions will take in practice and whether they can be mass-produced. For example, the Armata still depends on supplies of Western component parts (for example, its sight is formally Belorussian but is based on key elements produced in France, and some of its engine control assemblies are Ukrainian, which are now being replaced with ones made in Omsk, and so on). At the moment, the Armata can be compared to a “concept-car” (a prototype of a futuristic car). It’s a great idea, but you must keep in mind how starkly different the concept-car built in the late 1980s by the Leninist Young Communist Automobile Factory was from the mass-produced Moskvich-2141. As a result, it is premature to compare a promotional image with the military vehicle that it will become. After all, not everything is going smoothly with the new generation T-50 fighter plane either: the Russian military has already declared that they won’t buy them for five aviation regiments, nor will they buy 60 of them, or even 52, as was claimed later, but only 12, six of which already exist (and one of which already caught on fire).

Overall, I would rate the inventions highly. Some of them have even turned out to be excellent, for example the radioelectronic warfare systems—but they shouldn’t rest on their laurels, because the typical state propaganda line about there “not being anything like it in the world” is always misleading, and often it is a downright lie.

OK: In your view, how necessary is it to undertake an army modernization program now, given the ongoing economic crisis? Is this program linked to the geopolitical situation, including the heightened tensions between Russia and NATO?

IS: The current arms program was launched in 2010, so it isn’t directly related to today’s level of confrontation with the West. And in general, a modernization program for the Russian army really is needed—the armed forces should be brought up to a level that corresponds to the demands currently placed on them. The only problem is that in the current circumstances, the modernization drive is an almost guaranteed way to ruin the civilian economy. The idea that the defense industry can power the economy, as it did in the 1930s, does not hold true today, because the needs of the civilian economy and those of the military industry have diverged significantly.

Igor Sutyagin

“In terms of dangers stemming from sovereign states, Russia is indeed the main threat. Judge for yourself: Russia is a nuclear power with leaders who say openly that it is unnecessary to observe the norms of international law, and that the reshaping of borders, on the contrary, is Russia’s legal right.”

OK: What is the main difference between the approaches to military modernization in Russia and in the U.S. or NATO?

IS: In the West, as far as I can tell, military modernization involves less pretending and cheerleading and instead employs more of a systematic approach.

OK: In recent months, reports have appeared regularly about Russian fighter planes violating the air space of foreign countries and submarines being detected in foreign waters. Are these provocations or mistakes?

IS: First of all, it must be said that what’s being reported is mainly not violations of air space or territorial waters—in other words, not the penetration of sovereign territory—but only close approaches to those borders. In some cases these were mistakes, but for the most part these are feelers meant to gauge the combat readiness and political will of Western countries to react to acts of provocation.

But it must also be noted that Finland’s air space has been deliberately violated on at least three occasions, violations that pushed Finns into the recognition that Russia is a dangerous country after all, and that it would be better not to remain with the risky status of a neutral country as a result, but rather to find good allies. For now, Sweden can serve as an ally, but support in Finland for joining NATO has grown threefold over less than two years, reaching nearly 50 percent, while previously it was 17 percent.

OK: In other words, the declarations by Western political figures and military commanders that Russia is the main threat to their countries’ security is justified?

IS: In terms of dangers stemming from sovereign states, Russia is indeed the main threat. Judge for yourself: Russia is a nuclear power with leaders who say openly that it is unnecessary to observe the norms of international law, and that the reshaping of borders, on the contrary, is Russia’s legal right. Whatever Russia’s leaders say, it is a fact that in a majority of international agreements since 1999, Russia repeatedly indicated that Crimea is part of Ukraine... So who can guarantee that such a country won’t make incursions elsewhere with all of its nuclear forces? It’s not the Islamic State—it will be far more serious.

OK: How realistic is the possibility of war with NATO?

IS: Unfortunately, the likelihood of a military confrontation of Russia with NATO is growing and getting near the point when such a confrontation could already be called realistic. There are two reasons for this. The first—I’m sorry to say it, but it must be said—is Russia’s irresponsible behavior in halting its announcements of large-scale military exercises. After all, it was precisely in order to avoid another June 22, 1941, from either side, that the Vienna document on confidence- and security-building measures was signed, requiring that large-scale movements and concentrations of troops be announced in advance so that no one reacts too harshly out of a failure to understand the situation. When Russia, without announcing it, concentrates 150,000 soldiers on its border with the Baltics, it could seriously shatter someone’s nerves. And the second reason is that the Kremlin is consciously pursuing a high and growing level of unpredictability, so the nervousness will only increase, and in the end it will lead to a tragic accident.

Meanwhile, NATO provided Russia with plans for all of its training exercises for 2016, while Russia emphatically refuses to take a similar step and is continuing to hold snap drills of its armed forces. At some point—if, for example, a Russian military airplane collides with a civilian airliner, causing many casualties, which is something officials in the West are very afraid of and which has almost happened twice now—this could lead to an extremely jumpy reaction. For example, it could cause a Western nation to shoot down the Russian plane, triggering a chain of events that would lead to war. And this problem could be solved easily if Russia simply agreed to announce training maneuvers.

OK: According to Levada Center survey data published in early summer, 52 percent of Russians fear a war with the West. Will the Kremlin take public opinion into account when considering the possibility of a confrontation with the West?

IS: In addition to that fear of war, there is an ever more desperate determination to take thoughtlessly aggressive actions. Look, for example, at what percentage of Russians support the idea that ’’we should begin a nuclear world war right now, because the Americans are playing dirty anyway, so why slowly die under their pressure—it’s better to die with thunder and lightning right now, striking them first.’’ I guarantee you will be simply amazed when you learn how much support there is among our countrymen for this idea of blowing up the world tomorrow! And the Kremlin is not losing touch with popular desires... So the likelihood of war, alas, is far from zero. And the fact that Russians fear war with the West means nothing—because if they seriously tamp down the anti-Western rhetoric now, then the refrigerators, which are beginning to empty out, will speak too loudly for the authorities to take. When there is no bread, the circuses have to be extremely entertaining, so that no one thinks too much about economic policy. And the fear of war drowns out such thoughts superbly. After all, you can always blame it on the need for defense...