Old grudges, new steel

In the last few years, the army of the Russian Federation has changed its guise not effortlessly, even if many past rusty issues are still present



When it comes to Soviet Union, the images of its military power abound in the popular imagination. It may be said that the Urss’ armaments themselves became more iconic than what the regime propaganda could ever have imagined. In this context it is impossible not to mention the legendary assault rifle AK-47 Kalashnikov.

The name Kalashnikov has been around for very long time since the homonymous rifle and its subsequent variants “invaded” battlefields, arsenals, guerrillas’ equipments, terrorists, criminals and the armed forces of half the world. Globally, about a hundred million of Kalashnikov are estimated to be in circulation, both assembled by the Russian factory Izhmash (situated in Izevshk) or in the form of replicas produced by other countries (China, North Korea, the ex “Eastern bloc” and many others). This has meant that the Kalashnikov became something more than a simple weapon: a global phenomenon, a real icon, a symbol of struggle and resistance with a great political significance.

How can one fail to imagine the silhouette of the T series tanks, the nuclear submarines and the legendary Mig of the Soviet air force. In other words, a whole army became the icon and the symbol of a power quite different from the one of the “great opponent” and its Western allies. It was a darker clanking power which often operated pursuing the logic of the show of force, even with a deterrent purpose of civil protests (like during the “springs” in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968). Under the shadow of the majestic red star this power was hiding dirt, grudge, corruption and so much backwardness with the consequence of extremely high expenses, especially if compared to the current Russian Federation.

In the era of Urss, according to different assessments, the expenses for the defence were a variable percentage between the 15% and the 25% of the pil. In the Russia of ‘90s this percentage didn’t exceed the 6% (1994) and, in the budget of the current year, it was the 2,7% in total.

The desire for reform

After the decline of the Soviet Empire, the emerging Russian Federation inherited part of the bulky (and expensive) Urss’ arsenal, conventional and not. As regards the problem of centralisation in the Federation and the preservation of the nuclear arsenal, many solutions were proposed by other international “actors” (surprisingly the major help was offered by Usa), but most of the equipment of regular forces remained in service. Early issues arose because of the wars fought in Georgia, Chechnya and in the Balkans during the second half of ‘90s. The bad experiences gained during the soviet period (especially in Afghanistan), the constant threat of the international terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists and the secessionist wars for the independence in the ex Soviet area of Eastern Europe (Georgia 1992-93/2008, Kosovo 2000 and two wars in Chechnya) inflicted tough lessons to the army: they pointed out the inadequacy of the outdated armaments but also the backwardness of the military doctrine itself. The times of great deployments of forces and glorious marches of crawlers were and are over.

The military doctrine of the Russian Federation was adopted in 1993, in the transitional period marked by democratic reforms. In 2000, the president Vladimir Putin made some additions. Nevertheless, it is still a temporary document which defines the main principles of the structure of our military organisation. This is the reason why the Russian armed forces have a lot in common with the past Soviet army and are pretty dissimilar from the new socioeconomic order of the country.

The real attempt at change started in 2010, during the presidency of Medvedev who launched the ambitious and expensive plan GPV-20 (gosudarstvennaia plan vooruzheniia), whose purpose was to lead the army of the Russian Federation up to the 21th century, or almost.

The goals of GPV-20

As already said, in the end of ‘90s and in the first 2000s, the Russian army was greatly equipped like the Soviet army. The ambitious purpose of the plan launched during the presidency of Medvedev was to modernise every field of the army and to start projects for new generation armaments.

The GPV-2020 is a 10-year program that envisages the large-scale procurement of a wide range of weapon systems to equip and modernize the Russian armed forces. It was hoped that at least 70 percent of the armed forces’ equipment would be modern by the time the GPV was completed. In 2010, the share of modern equipment was said to be just 15 percent.

The reform of the army greatly rode the increase in fuel prices which promoted Russia as a great exporter during those years. In a first moment, the roadmaps were observed and funds were present. Despite it, after a sharp drop in fuel prices in 2014, the economy of the Russian Federation went into shock and the ensuing crisis stopped the reform of the army, started only few years before, thus nowadays it is slowing down, so close to stalemate.

However, while the funding allocated to rearmament has been impressive, Russia’s ambitious plans to reinvigorate its defense-industrial sector have encountered economic challenges. First, the decline in oil prices from over $100 per barrel in the summer of 2014 to an average price of around $40 per barrel over 2015, and around $30 per barrel during the first half of 2016, exacerbated a pre-existing slowdown in economic growth[1].

This terrible blow was extremely significant but nowadays the Russian army can be considered quite modernized and, despite the fact that the major delay involved the production of new equipments, the rearmament strategy was successful with ups and downs in some fields.

 […] rearmament is moving faster than originally envisaged in some areas, but slower in others, suggesting that the overall improvement in the share of modernized equipment in service in the Russian armed forces conceals significant variation in performance across different categories of weapon systems[2].

The plan GPV-20 was definitely fundamental to make the Russian army more competitive in the international stage and, thanks to this project, the Russian military doctrine became the protagonist of a deep renewal. After all, in the recent years, the regional policy of the Federation has been particularly aggressive but, at the same time, no one can ignore the dynamism the army was used with. One of the most meaningful example was Syria, the largest test bench for the Russian strategy.

The muscles of the Federation

Even if Russia has not an exorbitant military expense, such as American or Chinese ones, the great efforts both exhausted the economy of the country and made Russia “the biggest fish” in its area of expertise. One of the most recent example can be found in the border crisis between Ukraine and the Donbass region (deeply marked by the civil war) which alarmed the nearest countries but also in the USA, during the period before the first important summit between Putin and Biden.

The secretary-general of NATO Jens Stoltenberg showed his apprehension on the eve of the summit. “In the last few days, Russia has mobilized thousands of soldiers willing to fight along Ukraine’s borders. It is the greatest mobilization since the illegal annexation of the Crimea in 2014”. This was what Stoltenberg claimed during a joint press conference with Kuleba in Bruxelles.

At present, the tensions have not eased yet but the show of force of the Russian Federation has achieved an undeclared but important goal, becoming a threat that should not be underestimated.

On Friday 10th of September, Russia and Belarus started the active phase of large-scale drills Zapad-2021 and Ukraine started to reinforce militarily the borders; the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensy claimed that it was possible the outbreak of a total war against Russia.

The drill Zapad 2021 determined the victory of Russia and its army during a never born war which kept in suspense not only Ukraine, but also NATO and Europe. An “arm wrestling match” which no one is willing to face seriously.

In Transnistria the movements of Gotr created tensions because 350 soldiers with about 30 tanks left their usual location to move for 50 km and reach the Moldovan territory. This can only mean one thing: also the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the breakaway region will take part in Zapad-2021. The construction of trenches and the installation of mobile field-armies proved this intention. Moscow has already gained its first success demonstrating that when Russia flexes its muscles, the whole neighborhood shakes.


Despite all these things, the Russian army is still a formidable opponent (or ally) in the popular imagination and, at present, it is getting closer to its own myth. Unfortunately, the Federation’s problems in reforming its military arm are not just economic. Some old grudges of the Soviet period are still here, even if they have been repainted with the dark green of the aggressive and competitive Russian vehicles.

High levels of corruption have allegedly exacerbated the problem of rising costs, with some estimates suggested that as much as 20–40 percent of procurement funding has been lost (Aleshin and Eliushkin 2013). However, while such estimates are often reported in the Russian press (with the most pessimistic estimates then reported in the Western press), it is difficult to gauge their accuracy. Whether the misallocation of resources in the Russian state and/or OPK—by corruption or other means— is an order of magnitude worse than other countries is, in the absence of any firm evidence, an open question.[3]

The economic factors and the corruption are not the only spanner in the works of the plan GPV-20. A third important factor has to do with a problem that has persecuted the red army in its arms race for many years: the technological backwardness which has always exhausted some fields.

Shipbuilding is a good example. With the exception of some submarines (e.g., the Project 636, which was produced for export during the 1990s and 2000s) and some smaller vessels, the shipbuilding industry has not developed or produced many new ships since the 1980s (Gorenburg 2010).  As a result, although some existing Soviet-era warships have been refurbished under the GPV-2020, the OPK has struggled to keep to schedule in the delivery of newly designed ships. This pattern suggests a certain path dependence that reflects the historical strengths and weaknesses of the OPK. The defense industry has performed best where established designs existed, or where serial production of newer designs had already begun before 2011. These sub-sectors of the OPK proved most able to absorb the massive expansion in defense procurement spending discussed above. Building new areas of comparative advantage in, for example, large warships, or in fifth-generation fighter aircraft, may well require a prolonged injection of R&D funding before success is observed.[4]

Despite all these issues, the Russian army managed to get back on top and it is proving to be an effective tool in the hands of the Cremlino in order to pursue the interests of the nation. After all, the minds of the Cremlino have proven to be incontestably skilled and the Russian foreign policy has got significant achievements in Europe, Middle East and in the ex Soviet area in the recent years. It remains to be seen if and how far this new guise of the Russian military arm will manage to carry on in its intimidating role, for now.

*Traduzione a cura di Daria Balestrieri


[1] R. Connolly, C. Sendstad, Russian Rearmament, Routledge, 2018, cit. p. 151
[2] Ivi., cit. p. 145
[3] R. Connolly, C. Sendstad, Russian Rearmament, Routledge, 2018, cit. p. 152
[4] Ivi., cit. p. 153

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