MOSCOW — Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of defense is many things, but lazy isn’t one of them.
Dimitry Rogozin has been jumping from city to city — holding conferences about the construction of new warships and delivering grandiose critiques of the leaders of the Russian space program. Everywhere he goes, he delivers electrifying speeches, explaining that the world is a jungle full of enemies who want to steal Russia’s natural resources.
“If we don’t manage to modernize our country, then Russia will become the world’s loot,” he says. It sounds a lot like Stalin’s 1931 speeches. Rogozin’s solution also sounds pretty Bolshevik: he thinks Russia is too far behind in many domains to catch up to the West, but that Russia should concentrate on developing weapons that would allow it to hold its own.
The problem is that Rogozin’s energy doesn’t make up for the sad state of Russia’s defense industry. Domestic missiles stubbornly fly off course. The defense minister just called off tests of an underwater missile carrier after yet another unsuccessful launch of an intercontinental missile, which had apparently already been set off during an explosion at the factory. The whole series of missiles had to be sent back to the factory for inspection.
Then there was the catastrophe with the Proton-M rockets, a system used for both government and commercial space launches and satellites. During the most recent launch last July, the rocket booster crashed just after take-off, prompting an investigation and temporary suspension of the program. The failure meant billions of dollars in losses, and was caused by an employee who had gotten confused about the poles and put the sensors in the wrong place, according to an investigation. Then there was the nuclear submarine that caught on fire after a problem with the security machinery. The list goes on and on.
It’s not just about accidents, either. Experts say that the defense technology the government orders this year will likely be cut later, just as happened last year. In fact, in the past 20 years the government has never actually carried out its original purchasing plans, reducing them after the fact almost every year. Even President Putin has acknowledged, albeit indirectly, the failures of the military complex.
Failure to communicate
It’s obvious that Russia’s defense industry has serious structural problems that can’t be solved by speeches about the West’s aggression. Part of it is the sorry state of the sciences, and it doesn’t help that the average worker is close to retirement age. To say nothing of obsolete technology.
According to Putin, the biggest problem is lack of cooperation between the government and the defense industry. But in the case of dud missiles, there were 650 different businesses working on the project.
As much as Rogozin’s rhetoric sounds like Stalin, he’s not going to be able to solve the defense industry problem in the same way that Stalin did — by establishing civilian producers of consumer goods that could also be used to make military technology. That would require both political and economic isolation, because otherwise Russians couldn’t be forced to buy domestic consumer goods. Another option would be to establish special factories exclusively for defense industry use, although that would be extremely expensive. In that case, it would be important to produce only a few weapons, just the ones that are crucial to the Russian army.
In my opinion, the most important weapons would be those related to intelligence gathering, drones and high-precision weapons — that is, precisely in the areas where Russia is decades behind other countries. We should be asking, “Do we really need new tanks and armored vehicles? Do we really need more heavy missiles?” We have to focus on our priorities. That also means resisting the continual attacks from lobbyists who insist that refusing to buy more tanks or airplanes is treason. Which is to say that any real attempt by Rogozin to start production of military technology will put him in a difficult position.
He seems to understand this perfectly and is postponing the moment when he has to follow through with Putin’s promise to start full-scale weapons production. There is only one way out — to delay these ambitious plans even further. Rogozin has even admitted as much after a recent meeting about ship building.
“We talked about the government’s weapons program for 2016-2025,” he said. And so the vision of modernizing the Russian military continues to be stuck like a tank in a vicious circle.