Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu gave a rare lengthy interview to the popular paper Moskovsky Komsomolets—the first in seven years, since being appointed to head the Ministry of Defense in November 2012. Speaking with the news outlet, Shoigu lauded his unparalleled achievements in restoring Russia’s military might after decades of decay and neglect. According to Shoigu, Western animosity toward Russia did not materialize “five years ago [in response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea],” but began much earlier. The West made a serious strategic mistake, Shoigu implied, by exposing its true intentions too early: “If they continued to play nice as with [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, if they would not have moved NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] westward, [would have] refrained from encroaching on Russia’s ‘near abroad’ and interfering in our internal affairs […] then in the end they would have achieved their designated goal to destroy and enslave Russia the same way as with the former Soviet republics and Central European nations.” But under President Vladimir Putin, Russia awoke and began pushing back, rebuilding its military with great sacrifice to resist Western domination and managing to build a multipolar world, Shoigu claimed (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 22).
Russia is being accused of running “hybrid wars,” but, Shoigu insisted, it is the West that is the true perpetrator, devising strategies to overthrow legal state authorities under the pretext of “promoting democracy” and leaving behind a trail of chaos and destruction in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya and Venezuela. Military chiefs from Russia and the United States successfully talk to each other to prevent dangerous incidents in Syria; and the Russian military has similar contacts with Israel and Turkey. It would be good for Washington and Moscow to have direct contacts at the defense minister level, Shoigu suggested, but this is hampered by the constant change and dismissal of US Secretaries Defense in the Donald Trump administration. Russia must be strong militarily; and even though its defense spending is much smaller than that of the US, it is much more effective, Shoigu asserted. At the same time, he denounced Putin’s liberal economic advisors for constantly advocating defense spending cuts. The budget for 2020 and a three-year budget plan until 2022 are being hammered out today in the government and the Kremlin. Shoigu’s decision to go public with a big interview in Moskovsky Komsomolets is almost certainly a salvo in this budget allocation fight (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 22).
Ilya Kramnik, a well-known Moscow-based defense analyst, commented on the Shoigu interview in the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia. Specifically, he accused Shoigu’s defense ministry of being closed to the public and independently minded analysts, of issuing crude propaganda instead of genuine information, as well as of failing to publish a single white paper on defense during Shoigu’s seven years as minister. Kramnik also questioned Shoigu portraying himself as the sole savior of the Russian military, noting that meaningful reforms began in 2008–2009, under Shoigu’s predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov. Moreover, he argued, the military top brass, headed by chiefs of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov and Valery Gerasimov, has actually played a decisive role in this process. Shoigu reacted to the published criticism immediately: Izvestia removed the article (which was published in hard copy on September 24) from its website, and Kramnik was immediately fired from Izvestia’s staff. The text presently remains available on Kramnik’s Facebook page (Newsru.com, September 26).
The sacked Izvestia author had not criticized Shoigu’s strategic assessment of a supposed US-led eternal conspiracy to destroy and enslave Russia; he only questioned some of the defense ministry’s PR practices and Shoigu’s personal projection of grandeur. But that was enough to have him fired. As Shoigu explained in his Moskovsky Komsomolets interview, the West is running a constant cyberwar against the Russian military, spreading fake news and subversive innuendo, as well as organizing journalists and civil activists to investigate Russian military and special forces casualties in Donbas and Syria. NATO has created special cyber and communications warfare centers in Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia, to undermine Russian military morale and incite a revolution. These Western plots must be resisted with vigor. Hence, a defense ministry Political Main Directorate was created in July 2018 to counter this threat (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 22). Apparently Kramnik, basically a loyal pro-Kremlin defense analyst, has been identified by the Ministry of Defense as an enemy hybrid warfare combatant—and dealt with accordingly.
In the perpetual confrontation with the West, Russia needs allies. On September 16, the massive Tsentr 2019 strategic war games commenced, including contingents from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. The exercise, which concluded on September 21, involved some 128,000 military personnel, 20,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 600 aircraft and 15 warships—mostly Russian. The main task before the participating troops was to prepare to defend former Soviet Central Asia against an Islamist insurrection. Similar exercises including Russian, Chinese and local Eurasian contingents were held previously within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but they were much smaller in scope and more clearly anti-terrorist in nature. Tsentr 2019, meanwhile, effectively simulated a peer-to-peer confrontation with a fictitious enemy state ‘located in the southwest” that supported an insurgency in Central Asia, eventually leading to an overall armed conflict or regional war (see EDM, September 25). The Chinse People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contingent in Tsentr 2019 featured more than 20 warplanes, including heavy H-6k nuclear-capable bombers, which dropped live ordinance together with Russian jets. Some 70 Russian large military transport Il-76s dropped around 2,000 paratroopers with heavy equipment in the first such Russian mass parachute operation since the 1980s (Militarynews.ru, September 20). Two armored airborne battle vehicles crashed during the drop because of parachute failures, but no casualties were reported (Militarynews.ru, September 22).
Shoigu and his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, declared Tsentr 2019 a resounding success, demonstrating high levels of Sino-Russian “shoulder to shoulder” cooperation and exchanged military experience (Militarynews.ru, September 20). Li Zhanshu, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (the country’s top decision-making body) and head of the national legislature, subsequently met with Putin in Moscow and declared, “The US is double deterring China and Russia and attempting to separate us, but we understand their game and will not succumb. We will support each other’s national interests and security” (Interfax, September 25).
Next year, Russia’s main strategic war games will be Kavkaz 2020, in the North Caucasus, Crimea, the Black Sea and near Ukrainian Donbas. Will a PLA contingent with warplanes participate, as in Tsentr 2019 and, before that, in Vostok 2018? Will the PLA be standing “shoulder to shoulder” in Europe against NATO? Is the Russo-Chinese strategic partnership morphing into a real military anti-US alliance?