Originally published in Latvian on www.delfi.lv
Mārcis Balodis, researcher at the Centre for East European Policy Studies
In times of war, it is unquestionably necessary to extol one’s victories and to be reminded of the resources still at one’s disposal, which the adversary should be wary of. When such resources are available, these statements help to maintain fighting spirit and belief in one’s own superiority among the internal audience. In turn, it clearly signals the readiness to respond to any challenges with force to both existing and potential opponents. Russia is currently in such a situation and does not hesitate to remind the entire world of its military might, raising the question of whether Russia is truly capable of following its words with deeds.
There are no alternatives
In August of this year, during the opening of the military-technical forum “Army 2022”, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia’s high-precision weapon systems, that are based on new principles of physics, are years or even decades ahead of their foreign analogues in terms of tactical-technical characteristics.
Admittedly, he did not explain how Russian scientists were able to discover new principles of physics. He went on to say that Russia is ready to provide its allies with the most modern weapons, from small arms to drones. Furthermore, Russia’s technologies are highly valued around the world for their quality and effectiveness on the battlefield.
On the other hand, during a meeting with Russian defence industry companies at the end of September, Putin directed that production capacity be increased to ensure the supply for his soldiers. He emphasised the importance of supplying local companies with raw materials of local origin, reminding that import substitution in this sector should be implemented without reservation.
Furthermore, Putin reminded of the need to study and test Western-supplied equipment in order to improve Russia’s own technology. The mention of import substitution is essential, because this concept has been present in the Russian economy since 2014, when sanctions against Russia were imposed. The strategy is based on the goal of reducing the technical and technological reliance of industries on external suppliers by replacing imported goods and services with domestic ones. Given the current sanctions against Russia, the only way for Russia to maintain its military potential is through import substitution. However, it is understandable that this raises concerns about Russia’s true capacity to achieve such goals.
During a meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the end of October, Putin admitted that Russia’s latest weapon systems performed well in battle, but that production must be adjusted based on feedback and recommendations from end users. He noted that such changes should already be implemented in the short term, so that the development plans of the local industry are consistent with the development of the armed forces. Only a few days later, he reminded the government that the modernisation of the Russian armed forces, including the weapons system, should be ongoing and in line with the actual needs of the armed forces. Importantly, he emphasised the importance of encouraging competition among local manufacturers to ensure the availability of high-quality and effective solutions.
However, on 10 November, Putin signed an order requiring Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Defence Minister Shoigu to rewrite army supply regulations so that they correspond to the actual needs of the army by 14 November, that is, within four days. In effect, this means the end of a roughly 10-year-old national arms production programme that received approximately 31 billion euros per year or two-thirds of the defence budget.
Of course, the order is based on the undeniable reality of Russia’s armed forces receiving insufficient technical support during the war, which sanctions will only exacerbate. Consequently, Russia has clearly prioritised developing its armaments production in recent months. Some of the publicity is understood to be intended to highlight Russia’s military prowess. However, in war, production continuity is required, and import substitution in this situation is critically necessary for Russia to maintain the intensity of its attack.
The role of the West
However, the reality of armament availability and long-term production capacity is far more complicated than Russian public communication might suggest. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) investigated 27 different Russian weapons and communications systems, as well as other types of equipment obtained in Ukraine, such as “Iskander-M” missile systems, “Tor-M2” air defence systems and drone systems. The study concluded that Russia’s armed forces continue to rely heavily on Western-made components, particularly microelectronics, for example, semiconductors. This largely confirms long-held suspicions about the shortcomings of Russia’s import substitution strategy.
For example, at least 450 foreign components, mostly made by US companies, were discovered among the 27 systems tested. It is important to note that, under Russian law, the use of components manufactured in other countries is only permitted if Russian companies can prove that domestic products cannot be used. This is critical from the standpoint of sanctions, because limiting the availability of technologies produced in Western countries directly limits Russia’s ability to renew its military stockpiles, especially given Russia’s tendency to use various missile systems to fire on Ukrainian infrastructure.
Long term, this opens up two options for Russia: circumventing sanctions or reorienting to technologically simpler systems. According to researchers, among the 27 systems tested, at least 80 different components were found that have already been subject to sanctions, proving Russia’s readiness and ability to circumvent sanctions.
It is worth noting that approximately 100 speed cameras were stolen in Sweden recently, with Canon cameras missing, but other complicated systems used in speed cameras are said to have remained intact. Notably, the Russian armed forces use similar commercial cameras in their “Orlan-10” drone systems, raising questions about creative Russian efforts to compensate for a lack of technology.
This is not to say that Russia will not be able to partially restore and maintain its armed forces. Russia has and will retain resources in areas where the most advanced technologies are not required, such as the production of small arms and artillery weapon systems and ammunition. However, Russia’s rhetoric about ultra-modern weapons systems that are said to be capable of competing with, if not surpassing, Western counterparts may, in the long run, turn into loud rhetoric with no substance.
Modern armaments production necessitates large quantities of modern technologies, which cannot be fully replaced by circumventing sanctions through smuggling or converting other technologies. It should be noted that this is precisely why sanctions must be imposed on Russia in order to prevent access to Western technologies, which are then directed against the West. This is only supplemented by economic sanctions, which will limit Russia’s financial opportunities to develop domestic solutions or circumvent sanctions in the long run. Of course, no sanctions are insurmountable, so cooperation with third parties is critical in limiting Russia’s ability to exploit system flaws.
For many years, Russia’s armed forces, particularly their modernisation, have been part of Russia’s foreign policy arsenal for threats and intimidation. Since 24 February, Russia has lost a significant portion of its image on its own, and it now must face the consequences of its actions. Russia should not be underestimated, but there is no denying that its technological reliance on the West stands in stark contrast to the encouraging statements about the capacity and quality of its domestic industry. The need to replace Western-made components with domestic or Asian-made alternatives may burden the same resources required to modernise existing armaments. As the invasion of Ukraine continues, more and more resources will be required to meet the needs of the army. Special consideration should be given to the need to find ways to maintain and supplement the modern armaments currently being shelled on Ukrainian territory.
To be fair, these considerations will have a limited impact on the Ukrainian war. Russian commanders will need to plan the use of various weapon systems more carefully. At the same time, Russia still has a wide range of weapons that do not require modern Western components to maintain and manufacture, such as artillery systems and ammunition, which will allow Russia to use them against Ukraine in the future.
This publication has been financed by the European Media and Information Fund (EMIF) that is managed by the “Calouste Gulbekian Foundation”: The sole responsibility for the content lies with the author(s) and the content may not necessarily reflect the positions of EMIF or the foundation.
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