Russia: Big Threat or Paper Bear? - March, 2009

The month of March saw a flurry of activity in the Russian military. As predicted, Western military analysts have taken notice. Some are brushing it off as Putin's propaganda, some are fear mongering towards political purposes, some are panicking due to their Russophobia and some are simply attempting to make sense out of it all.



Russia: Big Threat or Paper Bear?

Medvedev takes off in fighter-jet:

March, 2009

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Or are they? That depends on whom you ask. President Dimitri Medvedev announced last Tuesday that Russia would modernize its large but decrepit armed forces, starting in 2011. New nuclear and conventional weapons systems will be acquired, but there will also be large cuts in Russia’s 1,027,000 armed forces, including large numbers of officers. Defense spending could rise 30%. Conservatives in North America and Europe are warning the Kremlin’s military overhaul threatens Europe and shows Russia has aggressive attentions. Eastern European capitals are particularly worried. But the facts tell a different story. According to Russia’s defense minister, Anatoli Serdyukov, only 10% of Russia’s current arms can be considered modern. The rest are outdated or obsolescent. His figures appear accurate. Serdyukov hopes to raise to 30% the number of modern weapons by 2015, provided Russia’s economy, badly battered by the nosedive in oil prices, can afford it. That remains in doubt.

President Medvedev claimed the defense buildup was due to the need to modernize aging nuclear forces, and growing threats to Russia around its borders. He particularly cited "attempts to expand the military infrastructure of NATO near Russia’s borders." Medvedev was expressing a deeply felt Russian anxiety. The US-led NATO alliance has pushed right up to Russia’s frontiers. Mikhail Gorbachev’s agreement with Washington to withdraw the Red Army from the protective glacis of Eastern Europe in exchange for NATO’s agreement not to advance east was blatantly violated by three US presidents as the alliance moved to the shores of Black Sea and Baltic. In recent years, the US has been expanding its influence into the Caucasian states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In addition, the US has set up bases in former Soviet Central Asia and Pakistan. What Medvedev did not mention was Moscow’s growing unease over its huge neighbor, China. There are only 20–25 million ethnic Russians in the distant, vulnerable Russian Far Eastern provinces facing 1.3 billion Chinese. Chinese-Russian relations are amicable, but tens of thousands of Chinese are steadily slipping across the border into Russia. At the same time, Russia’s Pacific region is being drawn ever deeper into China’s economic orbit.

Russia has announced defense modernization plans for the past two decades. The little war in Georgia last year showed that Russia’s ground and air forces badly needed new communications gear, modern command and control techniques, better tactical integration, drones, and improved space reconnaissance. So Moscow plans to downsize its land forces and try to make them more mobile and responsive by focusing on 3,500–4,000 man brigades provided with better air and land transport. These reforms make it clear that NATO in Europe will no longer be the "main enemy." Future military operations will focus on a new "Great Game" around Russia frayed borders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as President Medvedev noted. To put all this in perspective, during the Cold War, Russia used to have 12 million men in 100 divisions (about a third immediately combat ready) and a stupendous force of 50,000 battle tanks. Today, Russia’s modest million-man armed forces are unable to defend or even properly monitor the immensity of the Russian Federation, which borders on 14 nations.

In fact, Russia’s borders, 57,792 km, are the world’s longest, encompassing an immense area almost twice the size of the United States. Scaremongers who warn of a new Russian military threat should do the math and study maps. Russia spent $40 billion last year on defense. Medvedev’s planned increases – if they ever materialize – will increase military spending to $52 billion. The United States will spend US $741 billion on its military this year. Add another $54 billion for the department of Homeland Security. President Barack Obama has just earmarked $200 billion this year to finance America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. That alone is more than the combined defense budgets of Russia and China. The US accounts for almost half the world’s total military spending. Russia must also take into account the $330 billion military spending of America’s wealthy NATO allies and Japan. I think we can safely allow the Ruskis a few more modern weapons systems. The Red hordes are not at our gates quite yet.


Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Two recent news reports have drawn the attention to Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. Earlier this week, RIA Novosti quoted Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, deputy head of the Russian Navy General Staff, saying that the role of tactical nuclear weapons on submarines “will play a key role in the future,” that their range and precision are gradually increasing, and that Russia “can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles” with high-yield warheads. This morning an editorial in the New York Times advocated withdrawing the “200 to 300” U.S. tactical nuclear bombs deployed in Europe “to make it much easier to challenge Russia to reduce its stockpile of at least 3,000 short-range weapons.” Both reports compel – each in their own way – the Obama administration to address the issue of tactical nuclear weapons.

The Russian Inventory

Like the United States, Russia doesn’t say much about the status of its tactical nuclear weapons. The little we have to go by is based on what the Soviet Union used to have and how much Russian officials have said they have cut since then. Unofficial estimates set the Soviet inventory of tactical nuclear weapons at roughly 15,000 in mid-1991. In response to unilateral cuts announced by the United States in late 1991 and early 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged in 1992 that production of warheads for ground-launched tactical missiles, artillery shells, and mines had stopped and that all such warheads would be eliminated. He also pledged that Russia would dispose of half of all airborne and surface-to-air warheads, as well as one-third of all naval warheads. In 2004, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “more than 50 percent” of these warhead types have been “liquidated.” And in September 2007, Defense Ministry official Colonel-General Vladimir Verkhovtsev gave a status report of these reductions that appeared to go beyond President Yeltsin’s pledge. Based on this, Robert Norris and I make the following cautious estimate (to be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in late April) of the current Russian inventory of tactical nuclear weapons:

Based on the number of available nuclear-capable delivery platforms, we estimate that nearly two-thirds of these warheads are in reserve or awaiting dismantlement. The remaining approximately 2,080 warheads are operational for delivery by anti-ballistic missiles, air-defence missiles, tactical aircraft, and naval cruise missiles, depth bombs, and torpedoes. The Navy’s tactical nuclear weapons are not deployed at sea under normal circumstances but stored on land.

The Other Nuclear Powers

The United States retains a small inventory of perhaps 500 active tactical nuclear weapons. This includes an estimated 400 bombs (including 200 in Europe) and 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles (all on land). Others, perhaps 700, are in inactive storage. France also has 60 tactical-range cruise missiles, including some on its aircraft carrier, although it calls them strategic weapons. The United Kingdom has completely eliminated its tactical nuclear weapons, although it said until a couple of years ago that some of its strategic Trident missiles had a “sub-strategic” mission. Information about possible Chinese tactical nuclear weapons is vague and contradictory, but might include some gravity bombs. India, Pakistan, and Israel have some nuclear weapons that could be considered tactical (gravity bombs for fighter-bombers and, in the case of India and Pakistan, short-range ballistic missiles), but all are normally considered strategic.

Implications and Issues

Whether Vice Admiral Burtsev’s statement is more than boasting remains to be seen, but it is a timely reminder to the Obama administration of the need to develop a plan for how to tackle the tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s nuclear posture is now approaching a situation where there are more tactical nuclear weapons in the inventory than strategic weapons. And NATO’s remnant of the Cold War tactical nuclear posture in Europe seems stuck in the mud of nuclear dogma and bureaucratic inaction. None of these tactical nuclear weapons are limited or monitored by any arms control agreements, and – for all the worries about terrorists stealing nuclear weapons – are the most easy to run away with. In April, NATO is widely expected to kick off a (long-overdue) review of its Strategic Concept from 1999. It would be a mistake to leave the initiative on what to do with the tactical nuclear weapons to the NATO bureaucrats. The vision must come from the top and President Obama needs to articulate what it is soon.


Russia to Unveil Spaceship Plans
Artist's impression of the future vehicle, equipped with a booster stage to escape the Earth’s gravity and to reach lunar orbit.

The Russian space agency is expected to unveil development plans for a next-generation manned spacecraft on Monday.

Roscosmos should name the ship's prime developer, which has competed to win government funds for the project. The proposed new spacecraft should enter into service sometime towards the end of the next decade. It will replace the venerable three-seat Soyuz capsule, which has carried Russian cosmonauts into orbit for more than four decades. Although Roscosmos has remained tight-lipped about the upcoming presentation, the agency has quietly released its requirements for a future manned transport system to the Russian space industry. In doing so, the agency has shed some light on the ship's likely design and its possible missions. The spacecraft, currently known only by the Russian abbreviation PPTS, for Prospective Piloted Transport System, would be able to reach low-Earth orbit or to enter orbit around the Moon.

Several configurations

The Earth-orbiting version of the ship would have a mass of 12 tonnes, carry a crew of six, along with no less than 500kg of cargo; while its "lunar cousin" would weigh 16.5 tonnes, have four seats and be capable of delivering and bringing back 100kg of cargo. The unmanned cargo version of the vehicle would be required to carry no less than 2,000kg to Earth orbit, and return at least 500kg back to the planet's surface. Roscosmos has reserved the option of making the crew module of the spacecraft reusable, reckoning that a cone-shaped capsule could fly up to 10 missions during its 15-year lifespan. In providing the technical specifications for the new spacecraft, the agency has also given a glimpse of its vision for the future of the Russian space programme. Although the most capable version of the ship is meant to support expeditions to the Moon, "intermediate" configurations are intended for a variety of other tasks. For example, the agency wants the future developer to evaluate the possibility of sending the ship into high-inclination orbits extending towards Earth's poles, usually frequented by Earth-observation and spy satellites. While in Earth's orbit, the new spacecraft would have to be able to fly 30-day-long autonomous missions; or stay no less than a year in space when it is docked to the International Space Station, or to a possible future Russian space station. (Currently, Soyuz spacecraft, which serve as "lifeboats" for the International Space Station, have to be replaced roughly every six months due to potential deterioration of some of their systems, such as batteries and propellant).

Martian possibilities

In addition to docking to the station, the spacecraft would have to be able to conduct servicing of unmanned vehicles in space and even remove pieces of space junk from their orbits, as well as conduct unspecified military tasks. The lunar version of the ship would be capable of flying no less than 200 days in space when docked to a space station in orbit around the Moon. A number of Russian reports have described recent studies looking at the possibility of a lunar orbital station, LOS. Such an outpost would also serve as a hub for lunar modules, which would deliver crews from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. The 200-day mission requirement probably provides some hint about Russian plans to eventually build a permanently occupied lunar outpost, similar to Nasa's lunar base developed under its Constellation programme. In a recent interview with the ITAR-TASS news agency, Aleksei Krasnov, the head of the manned space flight directorate at Roscosmos, said that the future spacecraft could serve as the "core" technology for a future Martian mission. This apparently referred to the role that the vehicle might play as a delivery and return craft for the large complex that would be needed to raise a manned assault on the Red Planet. By the time the new Russian spacecraft could enter service around 2018, the Soyuz family will have logged more than half a century in service. In recent years, Russia and Europe did look at the possibility of developing the next-generation vehicle together, but the two parties could not agree on the work share. Europe will now separately pursue the possibility of upgrading its robotic ATV space freighter to a manned ship, but still using some Russian technology.

Powerful launcher

As reported by BBC News last month, Roscosmos has already completed a tender for the new rocket that would carry the future manned vehicles into space. Although the agency has delayed the announcement of the winner until at least 6 April, many unofficial sources in Russia maintain that TsSKB Progress, based in Samara, will lead the development of the new rocket. It is believed that the launch vehicle will feature a three-booster first-stage, each booster equipped with powerful RD-180 engines, burning a mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene. The engine was originally developed by Moscow-based NPO Energomash for the US Atlas 5 rocket and its performance to date has been impressive. Ironically, Russian officials rejected a design of the yet-to-be flown Angara rocket that featured the RD-180. Now, the power plant, which has earned such a fine reputation across the Atlantic, could return vindicated to its native land. The second stage of the new manned rocket would probably sport a pair of RD-0124 engines, currently in use on the Soyuz-2 rocket. Thus, both stages of the future launcher would be equipped with the newest existing power plants, greatly reducing the cost and the risk to the overall project.

In related news:

Russia Deploys New Nuclear Cruise Missiles

Six new atomic submarines, armed with improved nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, will join the Russian navy. The Defence Ministry said the first, the Severodvinsk, will be launched in 2011 and at least five others of the same type will be built by 2017. The new hypersonic cruise missiles with increased range are designed to strike "aircraft carriers of the potential enemy if they pose a direct threat to Russia's security," the ministry said. It added that the missiles are also capable of hitting land targets. Russia has increasingly relied on nuclear weapons to compensate for the decline of its conventional forces. In December, the chief of the Russian general staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said Russia will keep its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which he said were necessary to counter a massive Nato advantage in conventional weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons have a much shorter range compared to strategic nuclear weapons. They are intended for use within a theatre of battle. Earlier this week, the Russian navy's deputy chief of staff said the role of tactical nuclear weapons in the Russian navy may grow. Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev said the increasing range and precision of tactical nuclear weapons makes them an important asset.


US Says Russia Buzzed its Aircraft Carriers

Russian planes have reportedly buzzed American aircraft carriers amidst a joint US-South Korea military drill in the Sea of Japan. The US aircraft carrier Stennis on Monday was overflown by two Russian Ilyushin IL-38 maritime patrol aircraft within 500 feet, US military officials were quoted by CNN as saying. The USS Stennis was about 80 miles east of Pohang, South Korea, in the Sea of Japan partaking in the joint military exercise when the flyover occurred. On Tuesday, two Russian long-range bombers overflew the Stennis and the USS Blue Ridge several times at about 2,000 feet, US military officials said. On both occasions, the US navy flew their aircraft to meet up with the Russian planes, and tried contacting the Russian pilots without getting a response from them. The Pentagon also considers such actions nothing more than the flexing of military muscles by Russians. While the Russian overflights are not considered illegal actions, many believe it to be a reminder to the US that Russia is aware of the Eastward proliferation of the US and NATO and will not allow any encroachment of its sphere of influence and sovereignty.


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

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