Novosibirsk, Russia - Russia's May 9 Victory Day was marked this year
with more than normal fanfare and a massive show of military hardware rolling
through Red Square--the first such display of weaponry on this holiday since the
end of the Soviet empire. Standing on a special platform to review the
parade--in front of a Lenin's tomb covered in bunting and Russian flags--were
newly inaugurated president, Dmitri Medvedev, and his predecessor, and now
prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union the
traditional Communist celebrations have faded. But May 9 continues to have
historic resonance for the Russian people. Soviet losses in the war against
Nazi Germany were between 20 and 30 million, the country's industrial base and
infrastructure were left in ruins, and the nation was nearly bankrupt. It took
decades to recover from the wholesale destruction.
Still, the 63rd anniversary is not a kruglaya data, as the Russians
refer to nice, round-numbered 40, 50, or 60-year anniversaries, so no special
celebration would seem to have been warranted this year, much less tanks,
armored personnel carriers, and mobile ballistic missile launchers rolling
through the streets.
The reasons for such a grand public spectacle were twofold. One was that
Medvedev had been inaugurated only two days before on May 7, so the military
show was a way of signifying the transfer of power to the new president and a
demonstration that Russia
remains a strong and united nation.
The other, more significant motivation was the culmination of the Putin
regime's years-long crusade to send a message to the world that Moscow is once again a
great military power--that it intends to challenge the West at every possible
This military posturing has manifested itself in a number of ways. Russian
strategic bombers have begun flying patrols near NATO airspace again, for the
first time since the end of the Cold War. In early February, a Russian bomber
patrol buzzed a U.S.
carrier battle group in the Pacific--violating Japanese airspace in the
process. During April's NATO summit, Putin reportedly threw a temper tantrum
and threatened that he would cause Ukraine to "cease to exist as
a state" should the former Soviet republic attempt to join NATO. Russia's Kommersant newspaper, quoting a
diplomat who witnessed the spectacle, reported that Putin threatened to
encourage the secession of the Black Sea peninsula
of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, areas
where the population are pro-Moscow.
The story is easy to believe because Putin threatened far worse earlier in
the year. In a joint press conference with Ukrainian president Viktor
Yushchenko in February, Putin threatened his neighbor with nuclear annihilation
if it allowed NATO to establish bases there. "It is frightening not only
to talk about this, but even to think that, in response to such [NATO]
deployments ... and one can't theoretically exclude these deployments, Russia would have to point its warheads at Ukraine,"
But for all of the bluster, Russia's
military hardware is aging and decaying before our eyes, whether it is chugging
through Red Square or flying at 2,000 feet above a U.S. carrier's flight deck. Defense
attachés and intelligence officers assigned to Moscow used to live for these military
parades, which sometimes gave them a chance for a first glimpse of some new
weapon system. But there was certainly nothing to get excited about in the
"If they wish to take out their old equipment and take
it for a spin, and check it out, they're more than welcome to do so," said
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell at a press conference. Russian military
observers were even more dismissive. "Our armed forces today are merely a
bad copy of the Soviet Army," said retired General Vladimir Dvorkin in an
interview with the Associated Press.
The steep decline of the Russian military began in the 1990s when orders for
defense screeched to a halt during the Yeltsin era. But the "happy days
are here again" era of $100 per barrel oil under Putin has not brought a
cornucopia of new orders from the Russian ministry of defense. Procurement of
new fighters and other systems has been anemic; most of the budget allocated
for aerospace R&D has been diverted from military projects to the
development of the Sukhoi Superjet 100, a regional passenger airliner.
Meanwhile the Tupolev Tu-95s that were sent to buzz the Nimitz battle group in
the Pacific are a design that is more than 50 years old.
Most weapons systems in the Russian arsenal today are warmed over versions
of designs that were made in the Soviet period. Remarkably few innovations have
been turned out since then, and almost none that are anywhere close to
production status. This is a direct result of Moscow--despite all of its new-found
wealth--turning off the investment spigot to the R&D centers of the defense
Under Yeltsin the drying up of R&D funding was arguably a case of benign
neglect, but under Putin--and now Medvedev--the state seems strangely
determined to starve its defense industry, perhaps because it is not a power
center for Putin and his St.
One of Russia's premier
institutions of scientific excellence is the Siberia Aeronautical Research
Institute (SibNIA) in Novosibirsk.
A discussion with the senior staff there tells the tale. "Our yearly
budget is about 400 million rubles [$17 million], but of this sum we only
receive 20 million rubles--5 percent--from the government," a SibNIA
official tells me. "The rest we have to go find ourselves by doing work
for foreign customers or commercial projects like the Superjet. If the
government wanted defense and aerospace technology to really advance in this
country we and other institutes like ours would be fully state-funded as NASA
is in the United States,
and we would not be knocking on doors all the time with a tin cup in one
failure to invest is only part of the story. The senior officials appointed by
Putin now want to kick all of Russia's
designers and engineers out of their design bureaus and institutes in Moscow and move them out to a new national design center
in the city of Zhukovsky, which is some 25 miles
from the far southeast edge of Moscow.
The official rationale for this move is that it places all of these
experienced personnel into one facility and thereby creates synergism. A better
explanation is that Putin's cronies want the land these defense facilities sit
on in central Moscow,
which is worth untold millions to real estate developers.
This is a move that will kill off what remains of Russia's defense industrial base.
Most of the personnel still working at these design centers are pushing 60 or
more. "None of these people will make the move all the way out to
Zhukovsky," says one of the SibNIA senior researchers. "Most of them
would rather retire than submit to a two-hour--each direction--commute every
day across the whole of Moscow.
No one in Moscow
officialdom seems particularly bothered by the collateral damage from this real
estate scam. All they care about is how much money they are going to be able to
stuff in their pockets. The fact that there may soon be no one left to build
the weapons the Russian military needs is at most a minor inconvenience.
Which may be another reason for the parade of tanks
returning to Red Square after a 17-year
hiatus. These old weapons are nearing the day when they will no longer be considered
modern. Better to show them off one more time, before they become museum pieces.