February 21, 2008: So far, the attempt
at getting back into the superpower business isn't going so well. A flotilla of
Russian warships conducting exercises in the Mediterranean were observed to be
hesitant and uneasy as they went through their paces. These were crews and
officers who were out of practice. One of the support ships broke down and had
to be towed to port. The increased number of long range bomber flights are
mostly for show. They serve little military purpose. It's all about rebuilding
some respect for the Russian military.
The government is making a lot of noise
about rebuilding the armed forces, and another Cold War with the U.S., but this
is all talk, to make the government appear like it's doing something. The
military would need massive amounts of money (over $100 billion a year, for a decade or more) to
restore any meaningful amount of military power. Nothing near that amount is
forthcoming. The government is trying to get the population stirred up, so
there is less resistance to the purchase of many expensive warplanes and ships.
A lot of this necessary because China is buying less, and starting to offer
their own stuff, often containing stolen Russian military technology, on the
world market. China is threatening to offer its copy of the Su-27 (the J-11).
Currently, half of Russian weapons export sales are Su-27s. The Chinese ignore
Russian complaints about the stolen technology. To keep Russian weapons
manufacturers in business, the Russian military has to buy more, to make up for
the lost Chinese sales. Western firms are also going after the lucrative Indian
arms market, which Russia has dominated for decades. Last year, Russia sold $7 billion worth of
weapons overseas, and may have a hard time topping that this year.
While there is less kidnapping and
gunfire in the streets, Russian criminals are still in business. Computer crime
is increasing, apparently under the protection of the government. Large scale
assaults on foreign banks, corporations and governments are traced back to
Russia, yet Russian police refuse to cooperate in rounding up the suspects. At
the same time, a former senior intelligence official, who defected to the West,
explained how, in the 1990s, Russia stole half a billion dollars from the UN "Oil
for Food" program that was supposed to be feeding Iraqis. Russian officials are
still known to be ready to deal, if the payoff is big enough. Back home, the
government is increasingly making up the rules as it goes along, sliding back
to the customs so common when the Soviet Union existed. Those who make a lot of
noise in opposition either flee the country, or get prosecuted on some trumped
The Caucasus continues to be a
dangerous neighborhood. Corruption and police with a "license to kill" are
causing more unrest. Not that corruption and random violence are new to the
region. But Islamic radicalism is becoming attractive to many young men,
especially those who can't get attached to one of the many successful criminal
gangs. These outfits use the Caucasus as a base, and operate throughout
Eurasia. This is a growing problem. The Russians fear that some crime bosses
will support Islamic terrorists, just to get back at the government for some
recent loss (arrests, scams disrupted).
The recent American shoot down of a
failing spy satellite, using a SM-3 anti-missile missiles fired from an Aegis
cruiser, upset Russia. U.S. military technology has been the bane of Russian
military planning since World War II. Back then, billions of dollars worth of U.S.
military equipment was shipped to Russia, and a generation of Russian officers
came away impressed at the casual (technical) competence of the Americans.
During the Cold War, Russian planners were constantly in fear of new U.S. technology
breakthroughs. These happened frequently enough to remain real to the Russian
generals. Now this satellite shoot down just reinforces the feeling of
technological inferiority. The Russians passed this attitude on to the Chinese,
who tend to see the U.S. lead as more of an opportunity than as an obstacle.