My original op-ed about Russia and Swedish defence has triggered lively reactions, which is excellent. Regrettably, few if any have been willing to address what I believe to be the main point, namely, that Swedish defence policy suffers from a deep credibility crisis.
Tax payers may legitimately wonder how it can be that we spend some 46 billion crowns annually for a defence that, according to statements by the Commander-in-Chief, can only defend a limited part of the country, only for a week and seemingly only during office hours.
The very simple fact that Finland spends about half of what Sweden does, and still manages to maintain a credible defence force, strengthens me in my belief that there is something rotten in the Kingdom of Sweden, something that has little to do with Russia.
In line with many other commentators, The Local’s contributor Annelie Gregor argues that I am off target in my assessment of Russian militarization and the country’s drift towards authoritarianism. Her argument is divided into five points. I will address these in order.
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The first is that I am unjustified in downgrading Russian military capability solely based on failed launches with the Bulava SLBM. My reason for using this example is that the Bulava, arguably, is the only truly modern component in the 20 trillion ruble rearmament program. One might also mention the much-touted Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA fifth generation fighter aircraft, but the Moscow grapevine refers to it as “generation 4.5,” suggesting that it may not quite live up to standards. The remainder is little more than hyped-up Soviet designs.
The Bulava is the most expensive Russian weapons program ever. It will constitute the backbone of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, and if it does not work, then the whole new generation of Borei class nuclear-powered ballistic submarines will be without teeth. Despite a series of allegedly successful launches, Russian military analysts have claimed that the missile is still not reliable. The tragedy of the accidental sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 was due to a faulty experimental torpedo that exploded on board. I would argue that this shadow looms large over the Bulava.
Gregor’s second point is that I fail to mention a recent large-scale military exercise held to test the combat readiness of Russia’s Eastern Military District. President Vladimir Putin has shown great pleasure that the Russian armed forces succeeded in rapidly mobilizing 160,000 men and some 5,000 armored vehicles, including 1,000 tanks. If this had been true, it would have been impressive indeed. But did it really happen?
If it did, it means that about a quarter of Russia’s entire armed forces were deployed, in a single day, to the country’s Far East. Given what we know about Russian transport infrastructure, this is not credible.
It is easier to believe reports that a dozen or so brigades were involved. Taking into account that the army is about 20 percent understaffed, this would mean a maximum of 40,000 troops. And the question will still remain how many of those were actually deployed, with their weapons. The figure on heavy equipment must be squared with the fact that the Eastern Military District only has about 600 tanks and a similar number of other armored vehicles. Shall we believe that close to 4,000 armored vehicles were rapidly airlifted from the central and western parts of Russia? I do not think so.
I am far more inclined to side with the well-known Russian military analyst Alexander Golts who suggests that the main reason for holding the exercise in the Far East was that this would evade requirements to invite Western observers, and thus also the embarrassment of having foreigners witness the chaos. His conclusion is that “Believing in miracles is fine when you are five years old, but it is not the best policy when you are running the armed forces”.
Gregor’s third point is that Russian symbolic messages have become increasingly anti-Western and anti-Nato. She mentions the case of Russia’s recent simulated bombing run on Sweden. It was a huge embarrassment to the Swedish airforce, which was off-duty at the time, but I doubt that many Swedes are aware that it marked the ninth anniversary of the entry of the Baltic States into Nato. I would argue that the increasingly bellicose rhetoric is for domestic consumption only, and that aggressive actions, such as simulated nuclear strikes on Warsaw, indicate weakness and a desperate clamoring for attention.
Can anybody seriously believe that Russia would even contemplate a clearly suicidal attack on Nato, including nuclear strikes? I do not think so. It is clearly a major foreign policy problem, but I fail to see the relevance for Swedish – or indeed Nato – defence policy.
Gregor’s fourth point concerns the link between Russian economic strength and military expenditure. She argues that military export deals together with energy revenue will make the rearmament program sustainable. This reflects a good deal of confusion. Her argument that Russian gas will continue being a winner not only neglects that fact that Russian gas giant Gazprom is a complete disaster, which is about to lose Kremlin patronage.
More importantly, what matters to Russia’s fiscal balance is not gas, which is mainly consumed at home. It is oil that matters, and the price of oil is parked at levels that are clearly not sustainable. The Russian budget breaks even at $120 per barrel, and every single dollar on the barrel corresponds to about $2 billion in budget revenue. At current price levels, Russia is losing $30-40 billion on an annual basis.
This, and other factors, have caused Russian economic growth to decelerate for six quarters now, and some believe the country may already be in recession. President Putin demands five-percent growth, and is scolding his cabinet for failing to make good on his election promises of higher wages and pensions. The Ministry of Finance is in consequence leaning heavily on the Ministry of Defence to cut back. To take but one example, on August 17th it postponed (cancelled?) an order for 37 MiG-35 fighter jets at a billion rubles apiece. More is surely to come, as the economy deteriorates and as street protests call for more money to be devoted to social programs.
Finally, I am accused of having claimed that Russia is turning away from authoritarian rule. I have said nothing of the sort. I have, on the contrary, written a fairly large number of op-eds, beginning with Putin’s accession to power in 2000, warning about a turn to authoritarian rule. What I have argued is that there is a very large difference between present-day Russia and a truly militarized authoritarian regime that would constitute a true danger.
We have every reason to be concerned about Russian civil society, but I fail to see what this has to do with Swedish defence policy. Our crisis is homemade and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
Stefan Hedlund is a professor at the Centre for Russian Studies at Uppsala University.