Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu used the shortened workweek before Red Army Day (February 23—officially rechristened “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” following the collapse of the Soviet Union) to promote Russia’s military successes. Dressed in an army general’s uniform decorated with military ribbons, Shoigu addressed an all-Russia youth forum in Moscow on February 21. The following day, Shoigu, again in military uniform and backed by his top brass army generals, addressed the State Duma. In previous years, Shoigu as well as his predecessors addressed plenary sessions of the Duma behind closed doors; those proceedings were always declared state secrets, and deputies were instructed not to disclose anything to journalists. But this week, Shoigu’s address and question time in front of Russian legislators were open to the press and streamed live on the Internet by the Ministry of Defense.
Speaking before the youth forum, Shoigu asserted that Russia has achieved a resounding military-political victory in Syria by defeating the opposition, which was armed by the United States and its allies. He added that the wave of so-called “colored” pro-democracy revolutions, allegedly sponsored by the West, has been decisively crushed and reversed by heroic Russian soldiers fighting in Syria. Yugoslavia, Georgia, Iraq, Ukraine and Libya have been the victims of Western-sponsored pro-democracy “colored revolution” insurgencies, according to Shoigu. He asserted that while opposition fighters and mercenaries in Syria have been receiving arms and munitions from abroad, Russian weapons and soldiers have stabilized the situation by supporting the legitimate government in Damascus (Militarynews.ru, February 21).
In his speech before the Duma, the defense minister declared the mission in Syria accomplished: The possible overthrow of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been thwarted, and the Syrian civil war was effectively stopped after the “liberation” of Aleppo. The Syrian opposition is being separated from the radicals—something the Western powers, according to Shoigu, could not achieve. Russian naval and air bases in Syria have been secured and will continue to operate indefinitely “to keep the strategic balance in the region and prevent the spread of terrorism.” Russia massively used new weapons systems in Syria; and some 86 percent of all Russian air force pilots, according to Shoigu, carried out combat tours in Syria “to gain experience.” Russian special forces and military police battalions “have demonstrated their high efficiency” in Syria (Mil.ru, February 22).
Replying to questions from Duma members, Shoigu disclosed that, four years ago, Russia secretly created an “information warfare directorate” within the defense ministry—in effect a new branch of the military that will be engaged in cyber warfare “counterpropaganda.” Apparently, this will involve hacking into databases and Internet trolling. Duma deputies seemed surprised when Shoigu publicly disclosed this previously secret information. Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, a former chief of the Airborne Troops (VDV) and the current Duma defense committee chair, told journalists these new troops will “protect [Russia’s] national defense interests and engage in information warfare,” including cyber warfare (Militarynews.ru, February 22). Retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the defense ministry’s international cooperation department, insists Russia should be more aggressive in information warfare “to open up concealed Western data in the US and in Germany to expose their lies” (Militarynews.ru, February 22). The hacking of e-mail accounts to dump their contents into the public domain could seem to fit the Russian understanding of “information warfare.”
Shoigu also announced that newly formed army divisions are being deployed in the west, south, north and on the Kurile Islands. A two-divisional air defense command is being deployed in the Arctic: one division covering the Barents Sea region and the other—from Novaya Zemlya Archipelago to Alaska (Militarynews.ru, February 20). Shoigu further noted than an additional division is being deployed in the Kuriles. In fact an entire army corps is reportedly being deployed in the Kuriles: a division and several separate brigades, combining army, anti-aircraft and long-range anti-ship missile units. This corps must defend the entire Kurile Island chain, including the presently uninhabited northern islands—not only the southern ones claimed by Japan—against a possible enemy (US and Japan) assault (Mk.ru, February 23). The Kurile corps must deny enemy air and sea assets from penetrating the Sea of Okhotsk—thus turning this body of water into a fortress from which Russian nuclear strategic submarines based in Kamchatka may target the continental United States. The Kurile defenses are part of a larger Pacific defense rim from the Bering Strait to Vladivostok. Last August, Shoigu announced the creation of such a defensive rim, which will also include the deployment of a coastguard division on the Chukotka Peninsula, facing Alaska. Using long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, this division will be tasked with denying the US access to the Arctic through the Bering Strait (Mil.ru, August 23, 2016).
Finally, Shoigu announced to Duma lawmakers, on February 22, that—to enhance Russian patriotism—the Ministry of Defense was building a replica of the Bundestag (German lower chamber of parliament, in Berlin) in the ministry-run “Patriot” team park, close to Moscow. Members of the defense ministry–sponsored youth movement Yunarmya (Youth Army) will be able to storm this replica of the Bundestag to exercise, according to Shoigu. The storming by Russian troops of the Bundestag in 1945 symbolized the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Duma unanimously voted on a resolution to approve Shoigu’s job performance as defense minister (Kommersant, February 22).
Shoigu—unlike most of President Vladimir Putin’s other ministers—has the instincts of a true politician, as demonstrated by this week’s public, self-promotional saber-rattling performances. The immediate objective seems obvious: to secure Putin’s long-term commitment to allocate sufficient funds to continue the military’s massive rearmament program, which is being challenged by the finance ministry wishing to cut defense spending. Some 58 percent of weapons in the immediate battle-ready units of the Armed Forces are today considered modern, and a massive rearmament is underway. In 2017, some 1.4 trillion rubles ($30 billion) have been allocated for arms procurement (Interfax, February 21). But at stake is the overall scope of the rearmament program from 2018 to 2025, which must be approved by next July. Last September, an open conflict was reported between Shoigu and Finance Minister Anatoly Syluanov: Shoigu demanded some 22 trillion rubles ($400 billion) for rearmament, while Syluanov announced he had only 12 trillion ($218 billion) (Kommersant, September 17). On February 23, Putin announced the rearmament program is a topmost priority “to defend against aggression” (Kremlin.ru, February 23). Shoigu seems to be winning.