Possibly Putin's Greatest Political Blunder?
Jul 15, 2015

In May, a “Victory Day” parade to mark the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of the German military and the regime of Adolph Hitler was held in Moscow’s “Red Square.” For Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, the parade was an opportunity to create a soviet-style power show to demonstrate to the world Russia’s new military prowess (the massive military recapitalization was described by Eugene Gerden in FrontLine issue #3). During the parade, the Russian army displayed an impressive series of modern new armoured vehicles including a “new concept” Main Battle Tank. Overhead, new helicopters, transport aircraft and various new fighters also flew; it was an impressive display.

The Kremlin had clearly demonstrated, to its own population and the world, that Putin has a modern version of the “big stick” and is not to be trifled with. However, a number of questions linger about Russia’s apparent “re-arming.” These new, modern and capable platforms with specialist equipment is an expensive undertaking in terms of personnel, financial and required materials necessary to build the various parts. Can the country afford it?

There is no indication of when these new armoured vehicles, ships or aircraft will come into service. During the days of Soviet dogma, these displays were intended to project the “clear” message that Russia, should it desire, would “defeat every nation on a battlefield” with its massive military capability. It tactic failed in the end, as NATO nations acquired even more lethal and more robust weaponry than the Russians had planned for.

While the “new equipment” is superb, in truth, the Russian economy is in shambles. Russian soldiers have complained of sub-standard housing, missed pay days and the decaying life styles of the service members. Incidents of military equipment being sold on the “Black Market” in order to provide money for food and shelter have been reported. Air Force pilots complain of having drastically reduced flight time. In sum, despite the new, technologically advanced weapons, the Government will need to address these grievances if the Armed Forces is to trust them again. This problem cannot be solved by slogans and appealing to the serviceman’s loyalty, it will require a major reform effort to remove the “old guard” from power.

In addition to the state of the economy, the Russian military and the government both know they do not have the currency reserves to pay for such a cash-demanding program. The supposed underpinning of this Russian plan was that the current oil program would provide the resources to pay for the new weapons with a bit left over which could be used to improve social issues such as drug use, crumbling infrastructure and to fight the criminal organizations that siphon off the top a good portion of fiscal gains of the country.

Unfortunately, the world is awash in Petroleum resources as warring nations have sought to gain cash through selling these resources, and the bottom has fallen out of the market, selling at rock bottom prices. Many economies are struggling and unable to cope with this fiscal loss.

Within this tight fiscal climate, Russia can order more new systems but not have the resources to pay for them. In short, this force of new equipment may consist of a small number of vehicles and aircraft which will be displayed often. It will create the illusion that they can build a never-ending stream of new weapons that will be played for both domestic and foreign media consumption.

Russian “communist” tactics have left very few options. First, the only way to raise significant funds would be a major sell off of military equipment and services. In doing so he runs the risk that the weapons could end up in the hands of his enemies.

For example, given the support Ukraine has in other countries, Russian military equipment could find its way to the Ukrainian military and rebels, which would prove to be a disaster for the Russian government. Other than some lumber, electricity and military equipment, Russia has little to offer its neighbours without investing significant funds to develop self-sufficiency in food production. It is highly dubious that any call by the Russian government for aid would be met with favour by any nation in the West.

Finally, the Russian government is groaning under the heavy burden of money borrowed from a host of nations. If the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine lingers long enough, the world may see Russia defaulting on its loan. While Putin will be “persona non grata” he might well turn to the Middle East or China to raise enough money to enable him to continue to run the country, albeit probably under great pressure for removal of him and his regime. In any event, he will not be able to hold out indefinitely.

As for all of this “new” equipment, there is little doubt that the more desperate that the Russian government becomes, the more willing it would be to sell if not the “latest iteration” of military equipment, certainly the “previous” generation, with weapons such as the T90 Main Battle Tank and anti-aircraft “surface to air missiles” in order to maintain power.

From this vantage point, it would appear that Russia has become the “Paper Tiger” that Yeltsin so distained. From all appearances, Putin’s actions are popular with the general population but if he does not moderate his actions he could very well find himself a pariah to the West. He wants total power and control over all Russian affairs and won’t rest until he gets it.

It will be interesting to see how long he survives once the economy crumbles even more and begins to shut down. His extravagances at Sochi, his expensive military re-equipping programs, and his lavish governing style, show Putin acting quite irresponsibly. No doubt the fall, if it occurs, will be quick and a new more moderate government installed quickly. It will be a nasty mess that will need to be cleaned up by the moderates.

Rob Day, a former CAF logistician, is a military historian and analyst based in Ottawa.
© FrontLine Defence 2015