The Magazine

Red as in Rust

Russia's collapsing military-industrial complex.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Most weapons systems in the Russian arsenal today are warmed over versions of designs that were made in the Soviet period. Remarkably few innovations have been turned out since then, and almost none that are anywhere close to production status. This is a direct result of Moscow--despite all of its new-found wealth--turning off the investment spigot to the R&D centers of the defense industry.

Under Yeltsin the drying up of R&D funding was arguably a case of benign neglect, but under Putin--and now Medvedev--the state seems strangely determined to starve its defense industry, perhaps because it is not a power center for Putin and his St. Petersburg cronies.

One of Russia's premier institutions of scientific excellence is the Siberia Aeronautical Research Institute (SibNIA) in Novosibirsk. A discussion with the senior staff there tells the tale. "Our yearly budget is about 400 million rubles [$17 million], but of this sum we only receive 20 million rubles--5 percent--from the government," a SibNIA official tells me. "The rest we have to go find ourselves by doing work for foreign customers or commercial projects like the Superjet. If the government wanted defense and aerospace technology to really advance in this country we and other institutes like ours would be fully state-funded as NASA is in the United States, and we would not be knocking on doors all the time with a tin cup in one hand."

But Moscow's failure to invest is only part of the story. The senior officials appointed by Putin now want to kick all of Russia's designers and engineers out of their design bureaus and institutes in Moscow and move them out to a new national design center in the city of Zhukovsky, which is some 25 miles from the far southeast edge of Moscow.

The official rationale for this move is that it places all of these experienced personnel into one facility and thereby creates synergism. A better explanation is that Putin's cronies want the land these defense facilities sit on in central Moscow, which is worth untold millions to real estate developers.

This is a move that will kill off what remains of Russia's defense industrial base. Most of the personnel still working at these design centers are pushing 60 or more. "None of these people will make the move all the way out to Zhukovsky," says one of the SibNIA senior researchers. "Most of them would rather retire than submit to a two-hour--each direction--commute every day across the whole of Moscow.

No one in Moscow officialdom seems particularly bothered by the collateral damage from this real estate scam. All they care about is how much money they are going to be able to stuff in their pockets. The fact that there may soon be no one left to build the weapons the Russian military needs is at most a minor inconvenience.

Which may be another reason for the parade of tanks returning to Red Square after a 17-year hiatus. These old weapons are nearing the day when they will no longer be considered modern. Better to show them off one more time, before they become museum pieces.

Reuben F. Johnson writes frequently on Russian politics.