Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia’s Eternal Military-Industrial Kolkhoz

It seems that professional observers of Russia’s endless political antics have something new to add to their list. People have long ceased to be amazed by the fact that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a habit of meddling in Russia’s military affairs, national security and foreign policy — all of which belong to the constitutional domain of President Dmitry Medvedev. But the president has unexpectedly stuck his nose into an area that had previously belonged to Putin alone.

Last week, Medvedev visited the NPO Mashinostroyenia missile design bureau in Reutov, located just outside Moscow. Amazingly, the head of state did not limit himself to simply inspecting new missile programs. Nor was he satisfied at being given the chance to sit at the control console of the country’s coastal defense system. Rather than express delight over the experience, the president gave a thorough dressing-down to the titans of the country’s military-industrial complex. It turns out that despite receiving major budgetary funding, the defense sector has done practically nothing to modernize its industrial base. What’s more, in addition to enjoying exclusive manufacturing rights on government orders, the military-industrial complex has had the temerity to jack up prices on its products. And Medvedev exposed the biggest secret of Russia’s military complex: It does not produce any modern equipment but busies itself trying to “modernize” old airplanes, tanks and missiles that were designed way back in the 1970s and 1980s. This highly ineffective practice of updating and upgrading old designs is exactly what the president said needs to be stopped.

Attentive readers might have noticed that the Russian commander-in-chief essentially repeated what several defense analysts — including myself — have been saying for years. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that our publications had any influence on the president. There is something else that is motivating Medvedev — an open conflict between Defense Ministry brass and leaders of the military-industrial complex. The Defense Ministry has no desire to buy overpriced, outdated military equipment. What’s more, the “Zapad 2009” war games convinced the military leadership that despite claims of possessing weapons “that are unmatched by any other country,” Russia’s military-industrial complex is physically incapable of producing equipment with modern information support.

Moreover, Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin made the extremely harsh statement that the Defense Ministry is not a welfare agency, and its function is not to keep decrepit defense contractors alive. In addition, military leaders announced plans to purchase drone aircraft from Israel and helicopter carriers from France. Military contractors, full of spite, retaliated by publishing “patriotic” texts accusing Defense Ministry leaders of selling out and of even betraying national interests.

By battling for increased effectiveness and productivity in the defense sector, Medvedev stepped on the toes of the multibillion-dollar cash cows that had been fattened for years by Putin loyalists such as former Defense Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Rosoboronexport chief Sergei Chemezov. Now we will see the degree of Medvedev’s influence and whether the captains of the country’s military industry will heed or ignore his criticisms. After all, the president was referring more to the symptoms of the illness than to the root causes.

The reason for the ineffectiveness of Russia’s military-industrial complex is that it is not an industrial complex at all. It is actually thousands of scattered enterprises that are incorrectly classified as defense contractors — mostly to save jobs. Some of them haven’t produced anything for years. This situation made it impossible to implement full-scale serial production in the defense industry. The best that most contractors can do is to manufacture enough pieces of hardware to fill the piecemeal orders trickling down from the main production plants where the final, antiquated assembly process is carried out. That is why the price for parts continuously increases, but their quality does not.

It is especially amusing when Medvedev vehemently demands that military factories stop merely upgrading old equipment and start manufacturing new hardware to begin re-equipping our armed forces by 2012. The top brass were apparently afraid to inform their commander-in-chief that all of Russia’s so-called “modern” military hardware — the Su-34, Su-35 and MiG-35 military aircraft, the S-400 air-defense system and the short-range Islander missile — are nothing more than slightly upgraded versions of projects that were designed nearly 30 years ago. These projects spent most of the 1990s lying around in dormant military plants. Even the so-called “supermodern” BrahMos cruise missile, a joint venture between India’s Defense Research and Development Organization and NPO Mashinostroyenia, is not built from solid-state electronics but vacuum tubes.

The only way out of this dead end is to stop the senseless attempt to produce everything at once — from missiles, tanks and aircraft to pistols and submachine guns. Military leaders need to set their priorities and create the necessary production chain while keeping in mind that initial overall production costs will be far higher than the individual price tag on this or that particular armament.

But I am not sure how much Putin and his team will like this new approach to reorganizing the military-industrial complex, considering that for the better part of the last decade they have been striving to achieve just the opposite. They tried to corral scores of defense enterprises into a single “military kolkhoz” called Russian Technology that included entities as disparate as aviation construction corporations and shipbuilding companies. And in the manner of a true Soviet collective enterprise, for every profitable and functioning company brought in, 10 more dying or bankrupt firms hitch along for a free ride.

While all of this waste was going on, Kremlin bosses did lift a finger. Then-President Putin’s regime took the losses onto its own books and continued shoveling tens of billions of rubles into the bottomless pit of defense spending. Will they take Medvedev’s angry words seriously? Their response will be a good indication of how much political weight Medvedev really carries.

But the fact that Medvedev has voiced his support for the Defense Ministry by criticizing the country’s traditional sacred cow, the military-industrial complex, as woefully inefficient can in some ways be classified as “modernization” — at least by Russian standards.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.