Inside Putin's Ambitious Push To Modernize The Russian Military

Vladimir Putin has made a priority out of expanding and updating the military capacity of the Russian military, but there is still much heavy lifting required to move beyond the mechanical and human rust of the Soviet era.

The Russian military is still heavily dependent on Soviet-era equipment and leadership (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
The Russian military is still heavily dependent on Soviet-era equipment and leadership (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
Benjamin Quénelle

MOSCOW - "Our military can now match the West!" There is no shortage of pride from Sergei Skorniakov, deputy commander of the Yaroslav Moudry, the crown jewel of the Russian navy's Baltic fleet.

The battleship has been presented as a symbol of the "Renaissance" of the fleet, moored in a naval base in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave tucked between Poland and Lithuania, where the Kremlin is threatening to deploy its Iskander close-range missiles and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. The majority of the men are now volunteers rather than conscripts; both the control crew and the sailors on deck have seen their salaries double. Aboard the ship everyone repeats that they finally feel respected after the military reforms of Vladimir Putin, the past and current occupant of the Kremlin.

But the Yaroslav Moudry also illustrates the limits of Russia's military modernization. The 4,500 ton heavily armed vessel, which came out of the shipyard in 2008, is based on a model from the time of the USSR -- the control room is still decorated with red stars, symbols of the Soviet regime. Computers are rare here, and the communication equipment seems to have come from a nautical museum.

"Modernization is happening. We are gradually equipping ourselves with new weapons," responds Vice-Admiral Viktor Tchirkov, the general commander of the Baltic fleet.

Modernizing is a priority for the entire army, and Putin has promised a "rearmament like no other." Some 23,000 billion rubles, or nearly 600 billion Euros, will be spent over 10 years in the Russian military-industrial machine. More than 10% of this sum will be devoted to the first and only attempt at a major overhaul of its factories.

The head of the Kremlin has certainly set his ambitions high: by 2020, he is aiming to transform 1 million underpaid, underequipped and undermotivated men into a professional army of 145,000 soldiers. Some 400 modern ballistic missiles should be delivered, as well as eight strategic submarines, 20 multipurpose submarines, 50 surface vessels, over a 100 pieces of military spacecraft equipment, 600 modern planes, 1,000 helicopters and 28 new anti-aircraft missiles.

Curbing corruption

The figures leave experts perplexed. Most of them, however, praise Putin's proposed reforms, which are being orchestrated by the Minister of Defense, Anatoliy Serdyukov. However, the plans are "impossible" to respect from a technical standpoint, says Alexandre Konavolov, an independent expert. "The military-industrial estate is living too much off of the ruins of the Soviet era, and is therefore incapable of producing a modern army," he explains.

"For a rearmament of such an extent to succeed, Putin should repeat what he has done in the army: reform it from the top down," warns Alexandre Golts, another renowned military commentator.

Ruslan Pukhov, part of the Cast think-tank, says Putin is well aware that "the problem isn't money, it's our production capacity."

One obstacle to modernization is corruption, with military commanders usually benefitting from large accumulations of wealth through murky transactions. The Defense Minister has now demanded to be informed of any manufacturing costs beforehand, while the Kremlin now wants to limit the portion of contracts to any one arms company to 20 percent (25 percent in the navy) in order to limit any possible abuses of power.

"There needs to be clear rules. The level of corruption has already decreased due to the regulation of purchase offers," Ivan Konavolov assures, another journalist specializing in defense matters. "But the temptation is all the bigger now that the government has placed large sums of money on the table to finance modernization. Lobbies are powerful, and too often, those who are ordering equipment are close to those that control procurement deals..."

There is also a structural problem. At the time of the USSR, when a large amount of manufacturers supplied the army in one way or another, factories would often manufacture products destined for military use. The system used to work when it was under a regime that was ready to go to war on all fronts and took on the mass production of arms. This is no longer the case. Disorganized delivery chains now suffer from chronic failures in quality-control systems.

Old stuff, old men

These problems have many causes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the industrial sector exploded into multiple companies with largely unknown owners that the Kremlin wanted to group into vast conglomerates. "But these vertical integrations were forced, without real evaluation of production capacity and without control of finances," Alexandre Golts says.

Another explanation: from the young, inexperienced recruits to the aging commanders of the Soviet era, the military-industrial machine suffers from a lack of skilled managers in their 30s and 40s in the engineering sector. With many specialists having left for better paid jobs, the armament industry could not attract the best graduates from the Science Academy like in the days of the USSR. Innovation, as a result, has been largely crippled.

The order from France last year of two Mistral helicopter carriers also created tension, but the ministry's message remained clear: if manufacturers do not modernize, the army will buy from abroad. This would have a major effect on Russia's military, which is still one of the world leaders in exports, with a new $12 billion record in sales last year.

Export markets have saved numerous Russian businesses, with external orders allowing them to survive for ten years despite the absence of national orders after the collapse of the USSR. Amongst these orders were Almaz Antey, with its anti-aircraft defense systems; a group which today does not have enough production capacity to meet new demands and which is finally planning to build two more factories.

The military industry has faced bitter failures. Some 5 billion rubles (125 millions euro) have been squandered by the Vega company in producing a new drone. The project finally had to be given to a private civilian company, and by waiting for a hypothetical Russian plane, Moscow was forced to give it to Israel.

The war against Georgia in August 2008 showed the concrete weaknesses of an army lacking modern equipment at the height of its ambitions: Russia prevailed, without a doubt, but only by fighting the old-fashioned way. "The majority of wars today are regional," says Alexandre Golts. "The army must therefore rearm itself for other conflicts. Its priorities should be drones, "smart weapons' and means of communication."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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