‘Magicians’ Versus ‘Technologists’ in the Russian Military (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 79

(Source: NBC News)

*To read Part One please click here.


For several centuries, military theorists in Russia have debated whether the special qualities of the Russian soldier can compensate for the technological superiority of the adversary (see Part One, EDM, May 16). Today, no one is likely to make such a bold claim in favor of the alleged war-winning uniqueness of Russian troops. And yet, the “magicians” school—which historically supported that notion—is not dead in Russia. Paradoxically, its modern-day adherents have more recently moved closer toward their philosophical rivals, the “technologists,” by placing all their hopes in an expected miraculous breakthrough in domestic military technology development. The new generation of “magicians” believes that as a result of this miracle, the technological might of Russia will again offer Moscow the opportunity to dictate its will to the world. Therefore, from year to year, hope for a miracle grows among the country’s top leadership.

Almost eight years ago, speaking on TV, then–prime minister Vladimir Putin agreed that he was fartovyi—lucky (RBC, December 16, 2010). And with his return to the Kremlin, such confidence in luck has begun to come out in the remarks of top officials and strategists. This mindset leads to conclusions inside the corridors of power that future disasters could actually end up dramatically improving Russia’s position on the international arena. Similarly, some sort of new world order might allow Russia to start fresh and once again become a superpower, the thinking goes. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov specifically echoed such sentiment in December 2012. Speaking at a meeting of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, he suggested that with a “radical ‘re-dealing of the cards,’ probably, it will be possible to start many things with a clean slate, and not all of the rules governing the international hierarchy today will be applicable in the future. For example, it is possible that […] it will be important not where any technology was created, but the ability to use it better. In this regard, Russia has obvious advantages with its literate, daring population and huge resources” (Mid.ru, December 1, 2012).

In turn, President Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, on March 1, 2018 (see EDM, March 1, 5, 8), was a kind of apotheosis of the “magician” approach. And logic played no part at all. In the first part of the speech, he expressed clear concern that the country faces a technological backwardness. But he followed this up in the second—“military”—part of the Address, by essentially claiming the opposite. Alone and without international cooperation, under the conditions of Western sanctions, the country has made technological breakthroughs in several areas, he acclaimed. His presentation described hypersonic warheads, laser weapons, and nuclear engines for cruise missiles and submarines. As such, his speech quintessentially exemplified Putin’s ideal situation: On the one hand, he acknowledges a general technological gap between Russia and its “enemies,” which is unlikely to be overcome in the foreseeable future. But, on the other hand, he is confident in an inevitable miracle—a technical breakthrough in a few narrow but important sectors, delivered by the genius of Russian engineering thought. If in the 19th and 20th centuries the “magicians” relied on the patience of the Russian soldier, now they count on the genius of the Russian scientist. In their minds, this will offer them the unique opportunity to “re-deal the cards.” Meanwhile, no one in the top ruling elite is giving any serious attention to the urgent need in Russia to fund fundamental science or establish new scientific schools (see Russia in Decline, September 13, 2016).

Putin, with his humanities-based education, almost certainly is not able to independently comprehend the technical solutions being offered to him. But his subordinates understand their boss’s expectations and offer him up “evidence” to support his illusions (see EDM, November 16, 2017). Last year, the defense ministry supplied Putin with a video of a Russian helicopter attack on terrorists in Syria, which he then proudly showed to Oliver Stone, who was filming a documentary on the Kremlin leader. But it soon became clear that the footage was actually of a US Apache helicopter in Afghanistan. The fakery was identified easily by bloggers (Meduza, June 20, 2017). However, the most advanced military technologies reported to the president are top secret, and no one privy to this information is willing to remind Putin of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Following the “magicians’ ” course inevitably leads to mistakes in important decision-making. But an effective system of military management specifically relies on structures in which people have a clear, fact-based understanding of the situation. In Russia, this task falls primarily to the Main Operations Directorate of the General staff. But when it begins to lie, to conduct a certain kind of double or triple accounting—one set of facts and conclusions for the public, another for the Kremlin, the third for themselves—sooner or later, confusion will inevitably set in. And such lying could be a fatal factor in the next crisis. For example, let us imagine Putin believes the “magicians” from the General staff that thanks to “proper organization” and help from Russian military advisers (or secret technical improvements), the Syrian air defenses were able to destroy two-thirds of US cruise missiles launched on April 14 (see Part One). As a result, emboldened by the Syrian air defense’s astounding effectiveness, the Kremlin pushes Bashar al-Assad into direct action against US troops in Syria.

Belief in the “magicians’ ” words can easily turn into foreign policy miscalculations. In April, the director of the Russian foreign ministry’s Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department, Vladimir Yermakov, proclaimed: “the military-technological balance has radically changed in Russia’s favor.” Therefore, Yermakov alleged, “new legally binding international arms control agreements are hardly possible in the foreseeable future.” If Russia has superiority, treaties are not necessary. This high-ranking Russian diplomat responsible for arms control talks stressed extending the New START Treaty will be possible “only after the US fully complies with the provisions of this treaty” (TASS, April 15). And yet, prolonging New START would actually be favorable for Russia. Moscow has significantly fewer carriers of nuclear weapons. The United States currently possesses 652 strategic launchers—deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and heavy bombers; whereas, Russia has only 527 such launchers. In line with the treaty, Moscow could build up its weapons to a ceiling of 700 launchers, while the US is forced to limit itself (State.gov, February 22).

A particular danger is that the “magicians” in today’s Russian leadership have virtually no opponents. The “technologists,” if they still exist, prefer to keep quiet.