For years now, Vladimir Putin’s oft-touted modernization initiative throughout the Russian military has been a casualty of economic war with the West. As the Russian economy struggles under the weight of international sanctions, the nation’s most prominent military initiatives have suffered from slashed budgets and reduced orders—but you’d likely never know it if you’ve been paying attention to the headlines.
Just about every week, you can count on a story breaking from Moscow that divulges juicy details about an up-and-coming Russian weapon system. Infantry robots, stealth fighters, active camouflage, “advanced” lasers, and much more have been unveiled by the Kremlin in recent years, to say nothing of the laundry list of new missiles Putin himself boasted about in last year’s national address. Of course, for each obsequious headline dedicated to aggrandizing Russia’s new tech, you can find just as many pointing out that none of this new gear seems to work. Still, that does little to dissuade the Russian propaganda machine.
Even classified programs like the near-legendary “Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6,” a 100-megaton nuclear drone submarine that could deliver unprecedented levels of destruction to coastal cities, have been “leaked.” These leaks, of course, colored the program as incredibly advanced and impossible to defend against, just the way the Kremlin prefers their leaks to be worded. The overall point is clear: Russia wants the world to see them as a global leader in defense technology. This effort is, in part, aimed at diplomatic posturing, but in a larger sense, it’s really aimed not at the nation’s enemies, but rather its friends.
Russia knows the United States has a long list of allies to whom it exports weapons, but it’s equally aware that there’s a long list of nations on Uncle Sam’s naughty list. These aggressive states won’t be offered the chance to purchase American missile defense systems, fifth-generation fighters, or the like. Nations like Iran, Syria, and even NATO ally Turkey want to get their hands on advanced defensive technologies, and America’s unwillingness to deal has left a great deal of money on the table. From deep beneath the pressing weight of shrinking defense budgets, Moscow’s military apparatus can’t help but see that money as an opportunity.
Russia isn’t in the business of going to war, they’re in the business of selling it.
Nowhere is this idea more prevalent than in Russia’s varied missile initiatives. There’s no denying that Russia has the lead when it comes to putting hypersonic missiles in the air (as compared to the United States, anyway), but to date, there’s been no strong evidence to suggest that Russia’s missiles have a capable-enough targeting apparatus to actually hit anything once they’re airborne. Nonetheless, a new Russian missile is shown off via carefully edited video production on a near weekly basis. Each video seems to show the same basic elements: a missile being launched and a missile flying through the air—and then nothing else.
Last week’s successful test of Russia’s Zircon missile is a perfect example of an initiative that draws headlines but lacks real substance. The missile may well become an incredibly handy weapon—to date, there’s no real means of defending against hypersonic weapons—but a test launch doesn’t actually make for much more than a way to gather data. These tests are stepping stones toward attaining a reliable system, not demonstrations of combat-ready tech. The United States also likes to show off its new toys as they undergo testing, but rarely will you see such a concerted national effort to get shots of a single missile test in front of an audience. The reason is simple: These videos are meant as advertising.
This also explains the electric guitar riffs backing their newest anti-ship missile demonstration.
Let’s be clear: Russia’s efforts to inject funding into their defense apparatus by selling weapons systems is not, in itself, nefarious. Although America may prefer to keep advanced anti-air assets out of its enemies’ hands, one can’t fault Russia for taking a page out of America’s playbook and positioning themselves as the arms supplier for the “Second World” (to borrow from Cold War-era terminology). It’s important, however, to recognize that Russia’s military apparatus now resembles a port that cruise ships visit in impoverished island nations: a shiny and presentable veneer hiding the truth. Just past the walls of the all-inclusive resort you vacation in, you’ll find a nation struggling with financial hardship. Just past the freshly painted nuclear-powered cruise missiles Russia won’t tell you can’t fly, you’ll find something similar.
Russian defense spending dropped by nearly 20 percent as a result of financial difficulties largely tied to sanctions put in place after their military annexation of Crimea in 2014. As a result, efforts to modernize Russia’s long-troubled (and only) aircraft carrier encountered slashed budget after slashed budget until a recent accident caused the nation’s only dry dock large enough to support the carrier to sink. That incident caused extensive damage to the carrier itself, and now, the Russian Navy’s flagship may never sail again. This isn’t an isolated incident: Russia’s T-14 Armata tank program, believed to be a competitor for America’s M-1 Abrams, had its order cut to so few tanks they’ll be little more than a token presence on Russian bases. Their fifth-generation fighter program was cut with just 12 aircraft being delivered. Each time a real Russian defense initiative produces costly but functional results, the costly part overshadows the rest and it finds its way to the cutting room floor.
And we get more headlines about robots—that turn out to be people in costumes.
Russia has demonstrated an operational understanding of the power that perception has over the world’s populace through their concerted efforts to manipulate the outcomes of foreign elections, and for the most part, the world has started to call them on it. Now it’s time we call them out for another element of that same manipulation initiative: trying to convince the world that they’re at the forefront of weapons technology so they can sell gear to the world’s ne’er-do-wells.