Russia and Ukraine: Not the Military Balance You Think

Moscow’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies has just published a new book on the military aspects of the Ukraine crisis. Here’s a preview of my book review, published today at War on the Rocks.

Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, 2014).

Over the last few months, the crisis in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis began with Russia’s almost completely non-violent military takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014. A new English-language volume edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov highlights the causes and nature of the conflict in Crimea, as well as provides some lessons for both Ukraine and other states that might be subject to Russian aggression in the future.

This volume provides balanced and comprehensive coverage of virtually all military aspects of the conflict in Crimea, including both Russian and Ukrainian points of view. The experts from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) are some of the top Russian military analysts and the quality of their research and understanding of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries is clear in the writing.

The book begins with a short chapter by Vasily Kashin describing the backstory of the territorial dispute over Crimea. Although it starts with the conquest of the region by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century and mentions more familiar arguments related to the legitimacy of the region’s transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, the main focus is on events after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Kashin highlights tensions over Crimea’s status within Ukraine throughout the 1990s, the role played by former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in promoting pro-Russian separatism in Crimea in the 1990s and 2000s, and the contentious negotiations over the division and subsequent status of the Black Sea Fleet and its base in Sevastopol. His key insight is that “the Russian government took no serious measures to support separatist movements in Crimea” prior to its invasion of the peninsula last February. This illustrates that Russian actions during the crisis were not the culmination of a plan to dismember Ukraine, but a reaction to the perceived security threat coming from the Maidan protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

To read the rest, please click here.

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 2)

(Based on a report in Moscow Defense Brief. For a discussion of submarines and surface combat ships, see part 1)

Auxiliary ships

The Russian Navy is getting a number of new support ships in the near future. These include three Project 23120 9000 ton ocean-going logistics ships, the first of which was laid down at Severnaya Verf in November 2012. The ships are similar to civilian offshore hydrocarbon exploration ships and are to be delivered at a rate of one a year in 2014-16. The navy is also expecting to receive six Project 20180 support and weapons transport ships. Two of the ships are currently under construction, with delivery expected in 2014 and 2016. The ships, being built at the Zvezdochka shipyard, are modified versions of the Zvezdochka salvage tug commissioned in 2010. The Igor Belousov (project 21300S) large submarine rescue ship, which was laid down in December 2005 in response to the Kursk disaster, was finally launched in October 2012 after a long delay caused by the failure of a Russian design bureau to provide a deepwater diving complex for the ship. In the end, the navy has settled on a British design that is being built in Russia. The ship is due to be commissioned in 2014, with another three ships of this type likely to be ordered in the near future. In addition, the navy has ordered a large number of harbor support ships and tugboats, with around 80 expected to enter service by 2016.


Russian shipyards continue to have a thriving export business. The biggest customers in 2012 were India, Vietnam and Algeria. Vietnam has ordered six Improved Kilo class (project 06361) submarines from the Admiralty Shipyards. The first two submarines of this order were launched in 2012, while subs three and four were laid down last year. The first sub is expected to be delivered this year. The Vietnamese navy took delivery of two Svetlyak class (project 10412) patrol boats in October 2012. It also ordered two modified Gepard class (project 11661E) frigates, to be delivered in 2016 and 2017. These are in addition to two similar frigates delivered in 2011. Both ships are to be built in Zelenodolsk. Vietnam is also building, under license, a series of ten Tarantul V class (project 12418) corvettes, with the first two ships expected to be commissioned this year.

Contracts with the Algerian navy are for modernization of existing ships, rather than the construction of new ones. These include the mid-life overhaul of a Kilo class (project 877EKM) submarine at the Admiralty Shipyards, which was completed in July 2012, and the ongoing modernization of a Koni class (project 1159TM) frigate and Nanuchka II class (project 1234EM) corvette at Severnaya Verf. Further surface ship modernization orders are expected once the current pair are finished.

India remains the most important foreign military customer for Russian shipyards. In 2012, the Indian navy inducted the INS Chakra, an improved Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine that was leased to India for a ten-year period. There is some speculation that a second submarine of the same type may be leased to India in the future. Yantar shipyard completed a second series of Talwar class (project 11356) frigates for the the Indian navy, with two ships delivered in 2012 and a third in June 2013. Negotiations are currently under way for another set of three frigates to be built. In January 2013, the Zvezdochka shipyard completed the mid-life overhaul of a Kilo class (project 877EKM) submarine for the Indian navy. This was the fifth Indian diesel submarine to be modernized at this plant. Finally, the long-term effort to modernize the former Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier for the Indian navy, which was due to be handed over in 2012, hit another snag because of problems with the main power plant, causing at least a one year delay in the project.


Based on Boltenkov’s summary and my own past research, it seems to me that the Russian shipbuilding industry has improved in recent years but remains in relatively poor shape overall. Yantar Shipyard in particular has been reported to be in fairly poor shape due to a lack of investment. On the other hand, the Severnaya Verf, Sevmash, and Zvezdochka shipyards are in relatively good condition. Russian shipyards are good at building ships that they have been building for some time, such as the Talwar (modified Krivak) class frigates and improved Kilo class submarines. The implementation of new designs, on the other hand, has led to numerous problems and delays regardless of the type of ship and the shipyard building it. The construction of Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, Lada class submarines, and Admiral Gren amphibious ships have all been affected by construction delays and other problems. Construction of nuclear-powered submarines is proceeding, but at a much slower pace than hoped for by the Ministry of Defense. Frequent changes in requirements have resulted in a number of ship classes that have been cancelled after only one or two ships, which will have a negative impact on maintenance. Finally, the goal of renewing the Russian navy’s fleet of larger surface combat ships still seems a long way off, with a design for a new class of destroyers still several years away from completion.

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 1)

The cover article of the brand new issue of Moscow Defense Brief (subscription required) from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, examines developments in Russian military shipbuilding in 2012, written by Dmitry Boltenkov. Since the article is not publicly available, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary. Part 1 covers submarines and surface ships. Part 2, coming soon, will cover auxiliary ships, export contracts, and provide some analysis.


Construction of Borei-class (project 955) submarines progressed significantly in 2012. The navy took delivery of the Yury Dolgoruky, the first sub of this class, at the end of 2012. After some training exercises, the sub is expected to enter regular service by the end of 2013. The second sub, the Alexander Nevsky, is expected to be commissioned in the fall. The third sub, whose construction started in 2006, was launched in January 2013, while construction of the fourth started in July 2012. Two more subs are to be laid down this year. Given the 7-8 year construction times on these submarines, it seems unlikely that all eight will be completed by the 2020 target date.  2023 seems to be a more realistic goal. Furthermore, the lack of new tests on the Bulava missile in 2012 is concerning, though additional tests are expected this autumn — most likely using a new automated missile launch control system.

The Yasen-class (project 885) nuclear attack submarines are being built far more slowly, with the first submarine in the class (the Severodvinsk, which was laid down back in 1993) currently undergoing tests and expected to enter the fleet later this year. The Kazan (the second submarine of this class) will be commissioned in 2015 at the earliest, with the third to be laid down in July. Again, the chances of all 8 contracted subs being completed by 2020 is virtually nonexistent.

Diesel submarines are also being built, including the recently restarted, but still troubled, Lada class. The first sub in this class, the St. Petersburg, entered sea trials in 2004. Problems with its propulsion systems have prevented its commissioning and led the project to be suspended indefinitely several years ago. The project was restarted in 2012, but the St. Petersburg still has not been commissioned. Construction on the two other subs in this class that were laid down before the suspension has resumed and they are expected to be ready for sea trials in 2015 and 2016, respectively. MDB reports that  the second boat may be equipped with new lithium-ion batteries, while the third may have air-independent propulsion. It seems unlikely that any more subs of this class will be built, which means the navy will get three essentially different boats, each with its own maintenance needs. This is precisely the sort of the thing the Russian military has been trying to get away from. The hope is that a fifth-generation conventional sub currently being designed by Rubin Design Bureau will soon be ready for construction, obviating the need for the Lada class. In the meantime, the navy will have to depend on old and new Kilo-class submarines. The first of a set of six improved Kilos is expected to be launched later this year. Two more are under construction and another is to be laid down by the end of 2013. All six are expected to be in service by 2016.

Surface ships

The first of the two Mistral-class ships ordered from France is currently under construction, with the second to be laid down sometime in 2013. Both ships are to be completed and delivered to Russia by the end of 2015. Boltenkov reiterates that both will be assigned to the the Pacific Fleet. Furthermore, he notes that the Russian Navy has ordered four assault-landing boats from STX L’Orient in France. The fate of the third and fourth Mistral-class ships, which were to be built entirely in Russia starting in 2016, remains unresolved.

Two types of frigates are being built for the navy. The first of the Admiral Gorshkov class (project 22350) frigates is expected to enter sea trials in late 2013. Two others are under construction, with a fourth to be laid down later this year. Two more ships of this class have been ordered, with hopes of completion by 2020. MDB reports that the project is facing serious delays with its primary Poliment-Redut SAM weapon system, which is being developed by Almaz-Antey (a company that has had many problems successfully completing the development of new weapons systems in recent years). The second type of frigate (project 11356R) is essentially the Talwar class previously built for the Indian Navy. This is an updated version of the Soviet Krivak class. Russian defense industry is much better at building updated versions of tried and tested designs than at building something completely new. It’s therefore not surprising that construction on these ships is proceeding quite quickly, with three ships already under construction and another to be laid down this year. The first ship of this class, the Admiral Grigorovich is expected to be launched this summer and to enter service in 2014.

The navy is also receiving some smaller combat ships. Construction on various versions of the Steregushchiy class (projects 20380 and 20385) of corvettes continues, with two in service, one in sea trials, one expected to begin sea trials later this year, three under construction and another to be laid down in July. Severnaya Verf is building these ships in about three years, while Amur shipyard is taking much longer. Various sources indicate that contracts have been signed to build another 10 of these corvettes, which would bring the total number in service to 18 by the time the program is complete.

Several types of ships are being built expressly for the Caspian Flotilla. The Dagestan missile ship, equipped with Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles, was commissioned into the Caspian Flotilla in November 2012. No further ships of this type are planned, however. Two Buyan-class (project 21630) small artillery ships were commissioned into the flotilla in 2012. An updated version of this class (project 21631), to be armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, has been ordered. Five ships are now under construction with an estimated completion date of 2015. A contract for three more of these ships was signed in January 2013. The Caspian Flotilla is also expected to receive three Serna class (project 11770) high speed air-cavity landing craft this year, built according to an existing late Soviet design.

Finally, the navy is building a number of specialized surface ships, including the Admiral Gren (project 11711) large tank landing ship, which has been under construction since 2004 and was finally launched in May 2012. Completion will be no earlier than 2014 and initial plans to build another 4-5 of these ships have been shelved. Four Dyugon class (project 21820) high speed amphibious landing craft are also under construction, though Boltenkov reports that problems with the design mean that no more ships of this type will be built once these four are completed. The first ship of the Aleksandrit class of minesweepers (project 12700) is under construction as well, with three more expected to be built in the near future. Two Grachonok class (project 21980) anti-sabotage boats were commissioned in 2012, with two more expected to be completed by the end of 2013 and another four currently under construction. A total of about 20 are expected to built in the next few years.


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.

Is the Mistral deal in danger of collapse?

In today’s Moscow Times, Ruslan Pukhov (the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow and the publisher of the Moscow Defense Brief journal) has an excellent analysis of the problems that may stymie the Russian purchase of the Mistral ships from France. He argues that the disagreement is primarily about the transfer of sensitive technologies, especially the SIC-21 command and control system, and the total price of the ships. I have written about the price disagreement already, and it seems that little has changed on that front since early March.

I imagine that if price were the only problem, it could be resolved through negotiations. French backtracking on the extent of tech transfer is potentially a much bigger problem for the deal. Pukhov argues, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the reason Russia wants these ships is to get the advanced control systems. It doesn’t really need the ships’ “modest force projection potential.” So if France refuses to transfer the systems, Russia may well call off the deal.

Pukhov’s analysis of the root causes of the crisis is particularly interesting, so I’m going to quote it in full:

As usual, both sides have contributed to the problem. Russia has not yet built up experience in purchasing big-ticket foreign military equipment for import. Despite the popular notion that Russia is planning to re-equip its military with foreign weapons systems, the reality is that such imports total less than $100 million per year. By contrast, Russia exported $10 billion in arms in 2010, with another $16 billion in equipment purchased for domestic use. What’s more, the lion’s share of those so-called “imports” are actually systems and components that foreign clients wanted installed in Russian equipment for export, meaning that they were never intended for domestic use.

Without experience in foreign procurement deals, Russia also lacks the necessary legislation and history of cooperation between the relevant institutions. This has resulted in a less than perfect level of cooperation between the Russian military; Rosoboronexport, the country’s weapons export and import monopoly; and the defense industry.

In addition, there are powerful opponents to the deal on the Russian side, especially the domestic shipbuilding industry and its patron, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. In summer 2008, Sechin halted the ill-advised purchase of the dilapidated and unfinished Ukrainian cruiser Ukraine for 20 billion rubles (more than $670 million). The influence of the gray eminence has declined since then, but it remains strong enough to stop the Mistral purchase in one way or another. Political opponents to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his reforms have also used the disagreements over the Mistral to boost their cause.

Pukhov goes on to note that the French Saint-Nazaire shipyard’s economic position has improved significantly since discussions about the deal began, so that France does not need the work as badly and can stand firm in the negotiations.

Pukhov also considers the role of Russian opposition to the European intervention in Libya and France’s leading role in it as a potential factor in the hardening of Moscow’s stand in the negotiation. I don’t think this is particularly relevant, especially as the timing is all wrong. Negotiations began to bog down in late February, some weeks before the start of the intervention in Libya. And the other factors Pukhov lists are more than sufficient to explain the problems.

Pukhov argues that the chances of signing a contract are becoming increasingly remote. I’m not sure I would go that far yet. Both sides have invested a lot in the deal and I think they have very strong incentives to find a way to work it out. But it certainly won’t be smooth sailing.

Golts on prospects for the Russian military

Last week I was in Russia for a conference. While there, I got a chance to meet with Aleksandr Golts, one of the most reliable Russian experts on the Russian military. Here are some thoughts on our discussion.

Manpower and the Demographic Problem

Golts noted that the greatest problem facing the Russian military is the lack of 18 year olds for conscription. Between now and 2020-2025, the cohort of 18 year olds eligible for conscription will consist of no more than 600-650,000 men per year. Meanwhile, 700-750,000 are needed to fully staff the desired million man army. And various deferments and exemptions will inevitably reduce those numbers even further. There are few good options for maintaining a conscript-based military, especially since an increase of the term of service to 18 months is politically unpalatable and could not possibly be adopted until after the 2012 elections. By that point, it might be too late to avert a collapse of the military’s manpower system. (Golts was skeptical of the need for that many people to serve in the Russian military, but that’s a separate issue.)

He argued that contract soldiers are better than conscripts anyway, because the military does not have to spend as many resources to train them, even if they only end up staying for a single term of 3-5 years.  The implication is that Golts supports the initiative to increase the number of contract soldiers to 425,000, announced at the March 18 military collegium meeting (which was the date of my interview with Golts). The idea is that this effort will succeed where previous ones have failed because of the concurrent increase in salaries for soldiers and officers.

Golts pointed out that the recent decision to partially reverse the cuts in the number of officers had two sources. First, the military had not been able to build apartments  for all the retiring officers. Second, the regime had been scared by last fall’s protest meetings that were organized by the VDV veterans. In the run-up to next year’s elections, it didn’t want to have to deal with 200,000 articulate and well-trained 30-40 year old men who had good cause to hate the regime.


Golts was highly pessimistic about plans for rejuvenating Russian military industry, arguing that the military industrial complex (OPK) is actually regressing. Furthermore, it is not a complex at all, as the leading enterprises lack subcontractors to provide basic parts for final assembly. In the Soviet period, these parts used to be provided by civilian factories, who used to lose money on their manufacture. Now that there’s no Gosplan to force them to provide these components, this part of the process has broken down. Instead, the components are manufactured at the final assembly plant, but the process is slow and the product is of poor quality. Problems with the production of basic components has caused numerous defects in sophisticated weapons systems, including the Bulava SLBMs.

There are also significant problems with staffing. In the Soviet period, military industry used to be the best place to work, but now because of lower salaries and a lack of prestige it is much less attractive than the civilian sector.

(I should note that other analysts in Moscow — including those from CAST — disagreed with this assessment of the cause of problems in Russia’s defense industry, arguing that it’s in better condition than Golts believes and that supply chains for the more advanced enterprises continue to function.)

At the same time, for 15-20 years, there was no R&D work being done. With the exception of the fifth generation fighter plane and the Bulava, all of the plans for new weapons systems being used even now are no more than modifications of Soviet-era plans developed in the 1980s.

There are also problems with the OPK’s organization. As part of Russia’s overall recentralization under Putin, the Soviet-era sectoral ministries were largely restored as holding companies (United Shipbuilding, United Aircraft, Rostekhnologii). Many of the constituent units of these companies are disfunctional — the more effective units are used to keep the effectively bankrupt ones afloat. For example, Rostekhnologii controls 570 companies, a quarter of which are bankrupt.

Golts argues that because of all these problems, Russian OPK actually reached its maximum construction capacity back in 2005. Since then, increased financing has just led to higher prices for new state orders. Rather than attempting to reform itself, the industry is focused on coming up with new ways to absorb the vast increase in financing earmarked in GPV 2020.

Prognosis for the future

One of the main problems with the GPV, according to Golts, is that there is no prioritization — the military wants some of everything. At the same time, the Mistral deal was designed to be a wake-up call to the OPK — to make it clear to them that the military will no longer be satisfied with the old ways of doing business with defense industry. That doesn’t mean that OPK reform is inevitable; everything depends on how long Putin and his team will continue to support Serdiukov.

Unlike military reform, reform of the defense industry is likely to result in the exacerbation of undercover battles over the division of profits and resources. The leaders did not know the scope of the military’s problems when they charged Serdiukov with pursuing the reform. Now the likelihood is increasing that changes in the structure of the defense sector will affect the stability of the entire political system, because OPK reform will inevitably affect the distribution of control over lucrative rents among members of the inner circle. Previous aspects of military reform either didn’t affect rent payments or could be used to restructure rent flows away from generals and toward members of the inner circle.

One issue that will be critical for further reform but has not received sufficient attention in the domestic press is the extent to which cooperation with Western militaries is necessary for the success of Russian military reform. Serdiukov understand that he can’t really create a modern military with today’s officers. What is needed is a radical change in the military education system. To this end, he has created a working group to study foreign expertise on this issue. There is an effort underway to adopt Western models for operational planning for the Russian military. However, full adoption may have to wait for new generations of Russian officers.