Op-Ed: The Illusion of Russian Power

FILE - In this Tuesday May 7, 2013 file photo, Russian S-400 air defense missile systems make their way through Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander File)
FILE - In this Tuesday May 7, 2013 file photo, Russian S-400 air defense missile systems make their way through Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander File)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

On March 1, just weeks before a presidential election that would run him for an unprecedented fourth term as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in a speech at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, outlined what he described as six, new Russian super weapons that would alter the strategic balance of power in the world.

The premise of the speech was underscored by Putin's finish when he declared, "No one has listened to us ... so you listen to us now."

The speech came just a few weeks after the Trump Administration unveiled its National Defense Strategy in which Russia and China were singled out as near-peer rivals, indirectly lending credence to Putin's boast that Russia had returned to the ranks of the great powers. Predictably, Putin's March 1 speech precipitated an avalanche of articles in the Western media declaring a Russian military resurgence.

Is it possible that three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has in fact once again become a near-peer rival to the United States? What are these new super weapons that Putin unveiled? Are they real or are they a Potemkin illusion? What impact could they have on the strategic balance between Russia and the U.S.?

Russia's New Super Weapons

In his speech, Putin described six new weapons systems that he said Russia had started to deploy or would soon do so. These consisted of a cruise missile with a nuclear engine, since named Burevestnik -- Russian for the storm petrel, a seabird whose presence mariners believe foretells bad weather; the RS-28 Sarmat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile; a nuclear-tipped hypersonic boost-glide vehicle named Avangard; a nuclear-armed unmanned undersea drone since named Poseidon; a dual-purpose nuclear and conventional air-launched hypersonic cruise missile called Kinzhal, Russian for dagger; and a short-range directed-energy weapon since called Peresvet -- named for a 14th century warrior monk, Alexander Peresvet, venerated in the Russian Orthodox Church for his role in a battle against the Mongols.

These weapons systems are both strategic and tactical. They are a wish list of the kind of offensive capabilities that Russia would like to possess. As such, they speak volumes about the weapons Russia fears from the West and where it sees its own military vulnerabilities.

Ever since the Reagan "Star Wars" initiative, the U.S. has put considerable effort into developing an anti-missile defense system. To date, such systems have had limited success. They have been able to shoot down only about half the missiles they were tested against, and their reliability against an attack of ICBMs is in doubt.

Russia currently has approximately 1,700 nuclear warheads spread across about 500 ICBMs. The entire Russian arsenal of nuclear weapons, however, both deployed and non-deployed, is about 7,000 warheads. Some of those are in the process of being dismantled. At the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had amassed a stockpile of about 45,000 nuclear weapons.

What Moscow fears is that continuing upgrades to the Aegis BMD system could give the U.S. a relatively low cost, rapidly deployable anti-missile shield. Technically, with the deployment of the SM3 Block IIA missile and future technical upgrades, Aegis could have the potential to protect the entire continental United States.

Russia does not yet have a reliable anti-missile defense system, nor is it likely to be able to afford the development and deployment of one. Should the U.S. succeed in developing an effective anti-missile shield, the mutually assured destruction that has underpinned the strategic balance between the two nations would be obsolete.

Moscow is well aware of that vulnerability, hence Putin's emphasis on showcasing hypersonic weapons systems like the boost-glide delivery vehicle, the hypersonic cruise missile, or the flight programmable nuclear-powered cruise missiles.

All these weapons are designed to overcome an anti-missile defense shield by deploying weapons with unpredictable, programmable flight paths or weapons capable of outrunning any anti-missile defenses by operating at speeds from Mach 5 to Mach 20.

In short, the message that Putin wanted to deliver was that even if the U.S. succeeds in deploying an anti-missile defense system, the next generation of Soviet missiles has already made that defensive shield obsolete.

The second set of weapons systems unveiled by Putin were tactical in nature, although some of the strategic weapons, like the nuclear-armed cruise missiles, could serve in a tactical role as well. Weapons systems like the Poseidon, nuclear-armed underwater drones or the Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missiles would be particularly useful against ships deployed at sea.

That's no coincidence, since a ship-based, anti-missile defense shield would have significant advantages for anti-missile defense. Such a system could be deployed where it was needed most and would have greater evasive capabilities than a land-based system. U.S. Navy ships don't, at the moment, have an effective defense against missiles traveling at such hypersonic speeds.

An additional advantage of hypersonic missile is that they dramatically shrink the window between actionable intelligence and an actual attack.

How Real Are They?

So how real are these weapons? Putin's speech was accompanied by dramatic computer-generated graphics that depicted simulated attacks. All of which were aimed at clearly American targets.

One segment showed nuclear-armed, hypersonic glide vehicles raining down on Florida. Another showed a nuclear-armed cruise missile crossing the Atlantic, going around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and then proceeding across the South Pacific to attack Hawaii. For the complete speech, in Russian, including all of the computer-generated graphics, go here.

The Pentagon was quick to dismiss Putin's speech as old news, saying that most of the weapon systems he announced were not new and that the defense community was already aware of them. Likewise, it's unclear whether some of the video footage depicting the new weapons systems were actual functioning prototypes or simply mockups.

What is clear is that, barring a dramatic change in Moscow's finances, it is unlikely that Russia can afford the development and deployment of all these new weapons systems. At the very least, such deployment will likely come at the cost of slowing down the modernization of Russia's conventional military forces -- although a significant portion of that modernization has already been completed.

Russia's 21st Century Finances

Modern Russia may have inherited the military arsenal of the former Soviet Union, complete with a formidable force of nuclear-armed missiles, but it also inherited all the structural economic problems that plagued the USSR. Moreover, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the loss of Soviet control over the eastern bloc, left Russia with a much smaller population and industrial base.

In 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, its population was roughly 286 million. The U.S., by comparison, had a population of about 249 million. Since then, the U.S. population has grown to about 325 million, while that of Russia has fallen to about 143 million.

Comparisons of industrial production are difficult since they involve a large number of state-controlled enterprises that operated inefficiently. Between 50 percent and 60 percent of the industrial base of the USSR was retained by Russia. This does not include industry in the Communist bloc that the USSR could avail itself of.

A comparison of automobile production between the two countries can serve as a rough index of industrial capacity. In 2016, Russia produced about 1.3 million vehicles. The U.S. in comparison produced around 12.2 million vehicles.

In terms of GDP, in 1989 the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. was $4.862 trillion, while that of the Soviet Union was $2.5 trillion. Per capita GDP was $19,800 versus $8,700.

By comparison, in 2016 Russia's GDP was $1.283 trillion, while that of the U.S. had grown to $18.62 trillion. Russian per capita GDP was roughly the same at $8,946, while that of the United States had increased to $57,608. Adjustments for purchasing power parity, however, would reduce the gap between the two countries.

At $1.283 trillion, Russia's GDP is smaller than Turkey's and just barely larger than the Philippines. Alternatively, it is slightly larger than the state of New York and slightly smaller than that of Texas. Russia may have inherited the military arsenal of a super power, but it is an economic dwarf on the world stage.

Moreover, its economy is heavily dependent on the extraction of raw materials, principally hydrocarbons. Roughly 70 percent of the Russian government's budget comes from the proceeds of its oil exports. Moscow needs oil prices to be between $65 and $75 a barrel in order to balance its budget, and it needs oil prices in excess of $100 per barrel in order to generate sufficient government revenues to fully fund its military expansion and modernization. Neither price threshold is likely in the short term.

The Kremlin's dilemma is that Russia's military aspirations are simply too big for its wallet. It may have a formidable military force, but that force requires maintenance to keep it effective and its technology has a life span. Most of it will be obsolete within one generation, all of it in less than two.

Legacy weapons systems can prove formidable against a tenacious but technologically unsophisticated adversary as Russia found out in Syria or the U.S. did in Afghanistan. But against a near-power rival, generation-old technology will quickly become obsolete.

Non-Military Offensive Capabilities

Russia cannot afford an arms race with the United States, any more than the Soviet Union could afford an arms race against the United States during the Reagan and Bush administrations. It certainly cannot afford to engage with the U.S. in building an anti-missile defense system.

Putin's new super weapons are designed to convince American policymakers that, with Russia's new capabilities, an anti-missile defense shield will be obsolete before it ever gets built.

That doesn't mean that those new weapons systems aren't real. They may be, even if they may still be some ways from being fully perfected, much less deployed. Nor does it mean that Moscow is not a formidable opponent. It is, and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

The Kremlin has done a brilliant job of developing a host of non-military offensive capabilities. It has formidable cyberwarfare capabilities. It has weaponized social media and turned it into a tool for creating social havoc. Who would have thought that, in the hands of the Kremlin, Facebook and Instagram could be turned into weapons of social mass destruction?

Likewise, notwithstanding the fact that the Russian military is a fraction of that of its Soviet predecessor, it has shown, in Syria for example, that against a militarily unsophisticated opponent, Russian military power can be a decisive game changer -- especially if that force is applied with little regard for collateral damage.

A Wasting Asset

What it does mean, however, is that the elements that constitute Russian military power are a wasting asset. Its rate of obsolescence will vary depending on the opponent that it is pitted against -- faster for a near-power rival, slower against a less militarily sophisticated opponent. But it is a wasting asset nonetheless; only the speed of its obsolescence is in question. The Russian economy simply does not have the wherewithal to maintain a 21st century military force.

A Russia fated for eventual decline will be a far more dangerous opponent than one that can maintain its status as a near-power rival. Realizing that its hand may be more constrained in the future may make Moscow more willing to take risks in the short term.

The choice that Russia had in the 1990s was to decide whether it wanted to join the Western international system headed by the U.S. and its allies or whether it wanted to maintain its post-world war II status as an alternative pole to that international system. Ultimately, Russia chose to maintain the veneer of a great power status, even though it lacked the economic wherewithal to sustain it over the long term.

The price of that decision was to deprive itself of the Western investment and trade that could have modernized the Russian economy and brought it fully into the 21st century and, in the process, given the Russian people a rising standard of living.

The comparison with the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe is telling. In 1989, Poland's GDP was around $70 billion and per capita GDP was around $6,000, about 75 percent of the Soviet equivalent. Three decades later, Polish GDP has grown to $470 billion and per capita GDP has increased to $15,049, almost double that of Russia.

Is a doubling of per capita GDP the price Russians paid for the road not taken? Is that the ultimate price of Putinism and Kremlin cronyism?

Students of Russian history are quick to point out that given Russia's large size, the inhospitable terrain, the lack of transportation infrastructure, indefensible borders and a legacy of repeated invasions, only an authoritarian strong man can maintain order and ensure that Russia does not fly apart.

The average Russian, they argue, prefers the order of a Putin-like strong man to the more democratic free-wheeling chaos of late Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

That may well be true. Regardless of whether Moscow's authoritarianism is an inevitable consequence of Russian geography, however, that authoritarianism need not contrapose itself as an alternative to the Western system of world order.

In trying to play what, in the long term, is an inherently weak hand, Putin and his Kremlin cronies have traded a short-term advantage for a long-term disadvantage and, in doing so, may well have relegated Russia to what Leon Trotsky called the dustbin of history.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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