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How Russia quietly modernized its weaponry and closed the gaps in its arsenal

Updated: Mar 15

Western – especially US – analysts have exclusively focused on one phase of reform:

the phasing in of new equipment.

Numerous Russian and Western articles have stated that the Russian armed forces were still using legacy equipment from the Soviet Union and that its replacement was occurring more slowly than planned by the Kremlin.

However, this is a misunderstanding of the nature of the reforms. The initial stages were not designed to create a new army in terms of equipment, but to ensure that existing equipment was ready to use, and to make the organization that uses it more effective and professional.

Indeed, to successfully intervene in Russia’s neighborhood, Moscow does not necessarily need the latest cutting-edge defense technology. Rather, such interventions would have to be precisely targeted and quickly executed to pre-empt a proper Western reaction.

It was logical for Russian policy makers to postpone the equipment phase of the military reform until the first two phases of restructuring had yielded tangible results. It takes more time to educate officers, phase out or retrain generations of military leaders, and overhaul bureaucratic structures and logistics than to acquire new equipment.

Moreover, Russian policy makers expected the conditions for its realization to improve over time, in terms of both budget and technology.

During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev there was hope that Russia’s military-industrial complex would benefit from modernization partnerships with European countries, particularly Western Europe. Hence there was no reason to rush the rearmament phase of Russia’s military reforms.

The military-industrial complex made use of the modernization partnership, and closed some gaps in its arsenal – such as tactical drones – by import. It persuaded Israel to agree to a license-built contract for a variety of tactical drones, in exchange for Russia canceling the sale of the S-300 air-defense system to Iran.

Other foreign purchases improved the effectiveness of existing equipment, such as new radio equipment for the armed forces, computerized training and simulation facilities, command-and-control networks, and night-vision devices for tanks.

Other deals with foreign nations were designed to close gaps in production techniques and project-management skills in the Russian defense industry. The most famous of these deals was the proposed sale of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia by French defense company DCNS.

While the vessel itself is not the miracle weapon that Russian claimed, the deal allowed the Russians to learn how the West builds warships. By taking part in the construction of the two helicopter carriers, the Russian shipbuilding industry learned project-management techniques that will help the country to accelerate future shipbuilding programs.

Previously, Russian warships had been built using traditional methods – from keel up

in the yard or dock. This is slow, and delivery problems with minor items can block the yard or dock, causing delays.

Western nations instead build their vessels in sections in different yards, and assemble the blocks later. This makes projects faster, cheaper, more flexible, and less prone to delays. Similar “partnerships” have been planned with Italian and German businesses

to gain insights into Western production techniques and procedures for land vehicles, aircraft, defense electronics, and composite materials.

After Vladimir Putin announced the Russian rearmament plans in 2012, Russian defense spending increased from $70.2 billion in 2011 to $84.8 billion in 2013, and then $91.7 billion in 2014.

However, the straining of European-Russian relations after Putin’s return to the presidency, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and collapsing energy prices have caused severe setbacks for Russian rearmament programs.

European sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine crisis – especially the ban on the sale of arms and dual use goods – did not cause many deals to collapse publicly,

but it remains to be seen how far the defense industry’s projects have been delayed by the interruption of links to technical expertise and manufacturing facilities in the

West. The incremental improvement of Russian legacy systems will also be delayed.

But the biggest blow to the defense reforms was the failure of Russian economic modernization policy in general. In 2015, the government further increased the

proportion of GDP spent on defense in the face of rising inflation and falling GDP, but there are doubts about whether this is sustainable.


China’s defense industry has benefited from the country’s overall economic and industrial modernization. Russia, meanwhile, has failed to modernize at all. Its plan for economic modernization was a bureaucratic, state-centric one that disregarded the fact that technological modernization needs a private industrial sector.

Technological modernization of the defense sector alone worked during Stalin’s time, but not in the information age. The difference between the Chinese and Russian defense industries illustrates this problem.

Russia’s defense modernization is far from complete. The introduction of new generations of airplanes, warships, and land systems began only recently. This modernization effort will continue over the next decade, and many of the programs will run into the 2020s or even the 2030s. The decision on the next phase of rearmament has already been postponed several times.

Although the low oil price, among other factors, may cause delays, most modernization program should yield their first results by 2020.

Whether by coincidence or design, Chinese military documents from the 2000s usually referred to 2020 as the year by which China would be ready to fight at least a regional war, and thereafter become a global military superpower. To militarily challenge Europe, Russia would need allies.

Whatever the projected date for completing reforms, Russia knows that it is not yet time for a major military confrontation. However, its defense apparatus could still exploit situations that arise unexpectedly.

The notion that Russia is preparing to face off with the West and NATO is not just domestic politics and saber-rattling. Russia cannot challenge the international order alone, but the Kremlin’s assertion that the West is in decline and the East on the rise implies its belief that the conditions for a military revision of the current world order will improve over time.

Sooner or later, Russia’s leaders believe, they will be presented with an opportunity to join a revisionist coalition. In the meantime, the Russian armed forces are capable enough to successfully defeat any of its immediate western neighbors, including the EU and NATO members that border the Russian Federation, if they are isolated.

And, for the time being, this neighborhood will remain the focus of Russian military strategy.

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