New report on Russian interests in Syria, part 2: Russian arms sales

I’ve covered Russian arms exports to Syria on this blog before, but the CAST report has some useful new information on this topic. Barabanov and Aliev note that Russian arms exports to Syria were very limited until the restructuring of Soviet-era Syrian debt to Russia in 2005.  Shortly after that, the two countries signed a series of arms contracts with a total value of 4.5 billion dollars. While these contracts were not publicized, available information indicates that they included the following:

  • 8 MiG-31E interceptors. This contract was annulled in 2009, most likely because of Israeli objections. No aircraft were ever transferred.
  • 12 MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets, with an option for an additional 12. The first set of aircraft, and possibly all 12, are to be transferred towards the end of this year. No information is available on the option for an additional 12 aircraft.
  • 8 battalions of Buk-M2E missile systems (total value $1 billion). Four were shipped in 2010-11, with the rest to be transferred by 2013.
  • 12  battalions of S-125-2M Pechora-2M SAMs ($200 million). Four were shipped in 2011, and another four were shipped on the MV Alaed, which was recently forced to return to Russia after its insurance was cancelled.
  • 36 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems ($700 million). According to the CAST report, only 12 have been delivered so far. SIPRI, on the other hand, believes that all 36 have been delivered.
  • 2 K-300-P Bastion coastal defense systems, armed with 36 Yakhont anti-ship missiles ($250 million). Contract completed in 2011.
  • an unknown number of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems. Most likely, none have been delivered to date.
  • an unstated number of Igla-S surface to air missiles (200 according to SIPRI). Contract completed in 2010.
  • modernization of 1000 T-72 tanks to T-72M1M level ($1 billion). Little work completed to date.

There was another set of contracts completed in 2007-08 to modernize Syria’s air force. This included the following:

  • 15 Su-24MK bombers. Work began in 2010. These are to be armed with Kh-31A anti-ship missiles, 87 of which were produced through 2010.
  • unknown number of MiG-29 fighters to SM level. (24 according to a previous CAST report). First four completed in 2011.
  • unknown number of MiG-23 fighters to MLD level. Seven completed through 2011.
  • 20 Mi-25 combat helicopters. 17 delivered so far. Last three were supposed to be delivered on the MV Alaed earlier this month.
  • 2 Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters. Contract completed.

The most recent contract was completed in December 2011, for 36 Yak-130 trainer aircraft ($550 million). However, this contract has not yet been approved by the Russian government.

To summarize, Russia has completed about $5.5 billion worth of military contracts with Syria since 2006, primarily for air force and air defense modernization. The report notes that despite prompt payment by the Syrian side, fulfillment of many of the contracts was dragged out (and in the case of the MiG-31s, cancelled) by the Russian government. So far, Syria has received only $1 billion worth of equipment from these contracts.

The authors argue that Russia has been very cautious in selling arms to Syria, making sure that Western powers and especially Israel did not object to the equipment being provided. In particular, Russia has refused to sell Iskander ballistic missile systems and S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria. In other words, the report argues that Russia has valued its relationship with Western states and Israel more than the financial and political gains from selling more weapons to Syria. Furthermore, even if Assad’s government survives, it will not be able to afford to pay for more Russian weapons for the foreseeable future, limiting its role as a customer for the Russian defense industry.

New report on Russian interests in Syria, part 1: Russian motivations

The Russian defense think tank CAST has produced a new report on Russian interests in Syria, by Mikhail Barabanov and Ruslan Aliev. This report largely supports my recent contention that while Russia has significant material interests in Syria, they are not the main reason for its support of the Assad regime. Let me first address what the report says about Russian motivations. Tomorrow, I’ll address the part of the report that spells out Russian material interests in Syria, since CAST provides some interesting new information on this topic.

One thing that the report notes at the outset is that there is a widespread consensus in Russia on support for the Assad regime. This includes not just political leaders, but also most experts and the public as well. The authors describe the Russian position as a strong consensus to defend Russian interests and limit Western willfulness. Of course, this just begs the question of what are Russian interests in this case.

The authors mention that Putin may have some sympathy for Assad as a fellow authoritarian leader facing internal protests that have Western support. But they judge that Putin is too pragmatic and opportunistic to allow such considerations to affect Russian policy.

They argue instead that the greatest role in determining  Russian policy is played by the elite and expert consensus that Syria must not be lost, as Assad’s defeat would mean the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East. Syria is seen in some quarters as one of the last symbolic remnants of Russia’s superpower status. For supporters of this view, Western intervention in Syria would be seen as the destruction of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s great power status.

Barabanov and Aliev then argue that this view is support by skepticism about the results of the Arab spring in general and the possible outcome of the Syrian revolution in particular. Russian elites believe that the Arab spring has destabilized the Middle East and opened the door for Islamist forces to take power. As they see it, only secular authoritarian regimes such as that of Assad can counter the rise of Islamist forces. The strong support being given by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels only deepens Russian suspicions in this regard, given Russian beliefs about past Saudi efforts to export “wahhabism” to the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

Finally, Russian dislike for unilateral Western interventionism plays a role as well, augmented by Russian views that Western powers used the potential of a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi to push through a UN Security Council resolution authorizing Western intervention in Libya that was then cynically interpreted in a way that allowed Western powers to overthrow the Gaddhafi regime.

The authors conclude by noting that the Syrian situation thus combines all the phobias and complexes of Russian politics and public opinion. What is actually happening in Syria thus plays second fiddle to Russian perceptions about Russia’s role in the international system and pathologies related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline.

All of this is broadly in line with my recent memo on this topic, so I’m naturally quite sympathetic to the argument in the report. I put more emphasis in my analysis on Russia’s role in the international community versus concern about Islamism and regional stability, but these are relatively fine distinctions that don’t really change the overall point: Russia is not backing Assad because of its commercial relationship or desire to maintain a military outpost there. It is backing Assad because it perceives that Assad’s downfall would have serious and long-lasting negative repercussions for Russia’s position in the Middle East and in the world, as well as for regional stability in the Middle East. This makes it far less likely that Russia would be willing to change its position in exchange for concessions on other material issues.

Why Russia Supports Repressive Regimes in Syria and the Middle East

The following post has just been published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo. It was originally presented in early May at a PONARS workshop in Tartu, Estonia. Click here for more information and other memos from this conference.

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In recent months, Russia (with Chinese support) has increasingly staked out a strong position in support of the Assad regime in Syria. As Syria’s allies dwindle, Russia has become its foremost protector in the international arena. In doing so, it has followed a policy consistent with previous statements in support of regimes facing popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. This is not a new policy, as similar statements were made by Russian leaders during the Green revolution in Iran in 2009. To explain this policy, many analysts have focused on the importance of Russian economic investments in countries such as Libya and Syria or on political connections dating back from the Soviet days.

Undoubtedly,economic factors play a role in determining Russian policy. But the threat of spreading political instability and concern about setting precedents are at least as important for Russian leaders, who see the potential for the spread of unrest to other states in the region and fear the demonstration effects of successful revolts on vulnerable regimes in Central Asia. This memo will discuss the balance between interest-based and ideological factors in determining Russia’s response to the Arab Spring.

I argue that although Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East have played a role in shaping its response to the Arab Spring, fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year. Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings. Second, the Russian government has sought to counter what it perceives as U.S. strategic gains in the Middle East. Economic factors, including arms sales, are thus only the third most important reason for Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders facing popular revolts over the past year. Continue reading

Defense industry news

Every Wednesday, Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier publishes a new issue that includes short news items about the Russian military. I’m going to experiment with providing occasional translations of these news stories, without commentary. Not sure if  it’ll become a permanent feature or not. It will depend on how much time it takes and whether I feel it takes away from my time to write longer analytical pieces here. But I’ll try it for at least the next few weeks.

–Severnaia Verf is planning to build three support vessels for the Russian Navy, capable of being used in northern environments. The first of the ships will be built by 2014, with the last to be handed over in 2016. They will go to the Northern, Pacific, and Black Sea Fleets.

–Admiralteiskie Verfi is building a rescue ship, to be called Igor Belousov, that will be used primarily for rescue operations involving submarines. It is expected to be commissioned in 2014.

–President Putin noted that four trillion rubles, i.e. almost a quarter of all GPV-2020 funding, has been allocated to rebuilding the air force and army aviation.

–The first new Il-476 transport plane will be rolled out on July 5 in Ulyanovsk. Russian military transport aviation hopes to acquire up to 100 of these planes.  There are discussions of selling 36 more, plus four Il-478 tanker planes based on the same fuselage, to China. These would replace the Il-76 and Il-78 planes that were not sent to China because of problems at the previous assembly plant in Tashkent.

–Dmitry Rogozin stated that Russia and Israel are discussing developing a joint venture to build UAVs that could be used by both countries, with construction to take place in Russia. In the meantime, Russia may sign new contracts to purchase 48-72 UAVs from Israel, in addition to the ones already purchased in the past.

– Vladimir Putin, in the meantime, noted that Russia is planning to spend 400 billion rubles through 2020 to develop a fully indigenous UAV capability.

–Sevmash is on track to transfer the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier to India on December 5.  The ship has been undergoing sea trials in the Barents Sea since June 8.

Syria, Russia, the US, and the Implications of those Helicopters…

Josh Tucker from The Monkey Cage asked me to comment on the Russian helicopters supposedly heading to Syria. Here’s what I wrote:

Yesterday’s statement by Hillary Clinton that Russia is supplying Syria with attack helicopters has stirred up a great deal of controversy, providing more ammunition (so to speak) to US domestic opponents of the Obama administration’s policy of normalization of relations with Russia. This policy has already been damaged by Russian actions against domestic political protests, by serious disagreements over missile defense, and by the two countries’ diametrically opposed positions on the ongoing conflict in Syria. In this post, I want to quickly address the specific question of Russian arms exports to Syria and then turn to the political impact of this most recent contretemps.

I have written before on Russian arms sales to Syria. Most of the recent contracts in this sphere have involved missiles of various kinds, as well as the modernization of tanks and fighter aircraft. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has not sold any helicopters to Syria since the Soviet days. Although this is not evident from the SIPRI data, Russian sources indicate that a contract was concluded in 2005 for Russia to modernize Syria’s Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters. Russian media is speculating that US intelligence confused the return shipment of Syria’s own (newly modernized) helicopters for brand new helicopters that have been sold to Syria.

While I don’t have the information to come down definitively on one side or another of this debate, I would just say that it is generally very difficult for Russian arms exporters to conclude a major contract of this type in complete secrecy. It also takes time to make the helicopters, so any such contract would have had to have been concluded at least a year or two ago, when there would have been no need for secrecy. There is I suppose some possibility that Russia is supplying Syria with helicopters from its own inventory, rather than newly built ones. But that seems relatively unlikely given the relative scarcity of good equipment in the Russian military after years of low procurement. So I would say that the most likely scenario is in fact that these helicopters are in fact modernized Syrian Mi-17s, rather than new ones secretly sold to Syria.

Regardless of the exact provenance of these helicopters, recent events and the rhetoric on both sides show that the conflict is rapidly heading in the direction of a civil war. Moreover, this would be a civil war with echoes of the proxy civil wars of the Cold War days, with Russia potentially arming the Assad regime while Western countries (and their Gulf State allies) arm the rebels. Such wars were fairly ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s, but have largely faded from our memory since the end of communism. At the time, both superpowers were able to compartmentalize their relations in such a way as to continue negotiations on critical issues like arms control while fighting these proxy wars and engaging in rhetorical battles over the relative virtues of communism, capitalism, Western democracy and people’s democracy. It may be that leaders on both sides will soon need to relearn those compartmentalization skills so they can continue to cooperate on issues that are important for both sides (Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, dealing with the rise of China) even as they take opposite sides in a likely civil war in Syria and engage in increasingly heated rhetoric about repression of grassroots protests (or, from the Putin government’s point of view—Western efforts to foment regime change) in Russia.

UPDATE: Actually, the helicopters are modernized Mi-24s. Not sure whether the Russian media reports were mistaken and the mid-2000s modernization contract was for Mi-24s rather than Mi-17s or if there were two separate contracts.

The million man army does not exist

For months, I’ve been arguing that the Russian military does not actually have the one million soldiers that it officially lists as serving in its ranks. A recent article by Aleksei Nikolskii in Vedomosti confirms my argument with official statistics.

Nikolskii cites an official report by Nikolai Pankov, the MOD State Secretary, to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdiukov. According to this document, in April 2012 the total number of people serving in the military included 160,100 officers, 189,700 contract soldiers, and 317,200 conscripts. In other words, 667,000 people. In addition, there are medical personnel, cadets, faculty at various military academies, and some other types of personnel that are not included in those statistics. But even adding those in, Nikolskii notes that according to a source in the MOD, the total number of military personnel would not exceed 800,000.

Back in December, I came up with some very similar calculations that led me to estimate a total strength of 750,000. As Nikolskii rightly points out, given Russia’s current demographic situation, there’s simply no way to maintain a million man army without increasing the number of contract soldiers to 500,000.  The current goal is to add 50,000 a year until they get to around 420,000 in 2017. I have my doubts on whether that’s an achievable target, but much will depend on whether the new higher salaries for military personnel prove sufficiently attractive. I haven’t seen any numbers on the number of new contract soldiers recruited since the higher pay rates went into effect at the beginning of January. It seems to me that if the effort had been highly successful, it would have led to a publicity effort. So the longer the military maintains its silence on the question of contract soldier recruitment in 2012, the more skeptical I get about the success of its effort.

In the meantime, I’m glad to see that more and more Russian experts are coming around to the position that the military should abandon the fiction that the Russian military has one million personnel and admit that 800,000 is a more realistic assessment of the current manning situation. The gap between the official position and reality, of course, implies that 20 percent of billets are currently vacant.

This does not bode well for the concept of fully manned permanent readiness brigades, which has been at the core of the Serdiukov reform. The concept is still a good one, of course, but it may be better for the Russian military to cut the number of brigades and keep the ones it has fully staffed than to operate with the fiction of fully staffed brigades, as it seems to be now.

 

 

The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

This issue of Russian Politics and Law considers how the political system functions in Russia, focusing especially on the differences between formal rules and informal practices. The issue starts with a discussion of the personalities involved in running the Russian political system. In “Formats of Russian State Power,” Ol_’ga Kryshtanovskaia, one of the leading experts on Russian political elites, compares the power resources at the disposal of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. She shows that the two leaders divided responsibilities between themselves in a way that does not match the constitutional division of power between the president and the prime minister. Instead, “the siloviki, the economy, parliament, the regions, and the party have been left to Putin, while Medvedev is responsible for the formal performance of constitutional obligations, the courts, the fight against corruption, and the training of a personnel reserve.”

The comparison of resources available to the two leaders reveals that after two years in power, Medvedev had largely failed to develop his own political team and remained dependent on Putin. By examining the resources available to both members of the ruling tandem in late 2009, Kryshtanovskaia correctly forecast Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. However, she does not think that the Medvedev presidency will pass without consequences for Russia’s political system. In her conclusion, she discusses the possibility that the creation of the Putin–Medvedev tandem has changed the Russian political game, setting the stage for ongoing shifts between the president and the prime minister in future election cycles.

Grigorii Golosov’s article, “Problems of the Russian Electoral System,” moves the discussion to the sphere of institutional rules of the game. The author analyzes how the Russian electoral system has evolved since 1993, showing how electoral institutions that are commonly used by democratic states around the world have been distorted to eliminate their democratic potential. He enumerates a list of problems withRussia’s electoral system, beginning with the single national electoral district—a feature that can work in small homogenous countries such as Israel and the Netherlands but makes no sense in a country as large and diverse as Russia. An excessively high threshold for party entry into parliament further distorts the proportional representation system, allowing the ruling party to easily dominate parliament. Finally, he criticizes the “locomotive” system that allows candidates who have no intention of sitting in the Duma to run at the head of their party’s list, only to be replaced by unknown deputies after the election.

Having discussed the problems that characterize Russia’s electoral system, Golosov then considers what kind of system should be adopted in the event of democratization. He shows that a majoritarian system based on single-mandate electoral districts would not work well in Russia because of its tendency to create highly disproportional outcomes and to entrench local bureaucratic clans in power. He recommends instead a modification of the current system of proportional representation, with lower thresholds and with relatively small electoral districts.

The bureaucracy plays a critical role in the functioning of the Russian political system. In “The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy,” Sergei Sytin describes the bureaucracy as a social stratum or corporation with its own subculture and political and economic interests. While traditionally state bureaucrats have been tasked with implementing decisions made by their political superiors, they are no longer willing to limit themselves to such a neutral role. Instead, Sytin argues, they are increasingly seeking to implement their own agenda, a tendency that has led to their partial politicization. He believes that the bureaucracy is gradually usurping power over state policymaking, although its dominance has only limited potential.

Since Vladimir Putin first came to power, propaganda has come to play an increasingly important role in the Russian political system. Aleksandr Belousov’s article, “Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia,” analyzes the forms and content of propaganda under the Putin–Medvedev regime, with a focus on the ideological concepts of the “power vertical” and “sovereign democracy.” He notes that the regime’s propaganda efforts were most successful in influencing the population during the first two Putin terms, when the regime established a circle of intermediaries who publicized its positions without necessarily having an official position in the government.

As far as the content of the propaganda, the concept of the power vertical was the basis for all subsequent propaganda constructs. It helped that the population was ready for an increase in centralization and control after the relative chaos of the Yeltsin years. The concept of sovereign democracy came later, with the goal of distinguishing the Russian political system from both the democratic ideals of the early postcommunist period and from Western democracies. The concept of sovereign democracy allowed the Putin regime to justify the changes it had made in the Russian political system without explicitly rejecting the democratic revolution of the late 1980s or the partial rapprochement with Western democracies.

The last two articles in this issue focus on efforts to change the rules under which Russian politics takes place. Mikhail Il_’chenko’s “Inertia in Russian Politics” discusses the extent to which reform of the Russian political system is hampered by institutional inertia. He argues that in the 1990s Russian reformers failed to import the institutional innovations that would have been necessary to turn Russia into a functioning democratic state. Neither the party system nor federalism worked as intended, creating instead what Ilchenko calls a decentralized version of the old Soviet nomenklatura. Despite extensive changes in the formal rules of the game, the mechanisms through which power is produced and through which leaders relate to society remain essentially unchanged. What many analysts consider to be traditional Russian values, such as paternalism, strict hierarchy, and clientelism, are in fact merely the representations of Russian political institutions. Putin’s reforms have ensconced these mechanisms more firmly in Russian politics, closing off alternative paths of development and foreclosing the possibility of gradual reform from within.

Ivan Bolshakov’s article on “The Nonsystemic Opposition” addresses the functioning of political opponents of Russia’s current political leadership. Bolshakov argues that the terms “extrasystemic opposition,” “antisystemic opposition,” and “nonsystemic opposition” all fall short as descriptions of what separates opposition parties from those in power, calling instead for a new vocabulary that would more accurately describe the role of such parties in the Russian political system. Bolshakov argues that none of the opposition parties existing in Russia today have a positive evaluation of the Russian political system. Their goals vary between seeking to change the existing system and wanting to destroy it entirely and start over.

The six articles in this issue show that the rules of the political game in Russia depend very little on the formal institutions of the political system. Instead, informal practices, interpersonal relations, and inertia determine power relations. This makes reform both highly necessary and very difficult to implement. The recent protests against fraudulent elections petered out largely because the majority of people who supported them quickly realized that they were not going to be able to affect the system, which would survive this brief scare. The comfortable reelection of Vladimir Putin showed that the system of power had weathered the storm and could endure with minimal modifications until the next crisis. As a result, the chances for real political reform declined further; the system appears likely to survive essentially unchanged until it is brought down completely by a future crisis that it cannot handle.