Despite Putin's swagger, Russia struggles
to modernize its navy
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[February 21, 2019]
By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin
calls improving the Russian navy's combat capabilities a priority.
The unfinished husks of three guided-missile frigates that have
languished for three years at a Baltic shipyard show that is easier said
Earmarked for Russia's Black Sea Fleet, the frigates fell victim to
sanctions imposed by Ukraine in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean
peninsula, prompting Kiev to ban the sale of the Ukrainian-made engines
needed to propel them.
With Moscow unable to quickly build replacement engines for the Admiral
Grigorovich-class frigates, construction stopped. Russia is now cutting
its losses and selling the three ships to India without engines.
The navy's problems stem largely, but not exclusively, from the
Ukrainian sanctions. There are also problems, for different reasons,
with new equipment for the army and air force.
The picture that emerges is that Russia's armed forces are not as
capable or modern as its annual Red Square military parades suggest and
that its ability to project conventional force is more limited too.
"You need to always distinguish between reality and the shop window,"
said Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Russian magazine Arms Exports.
"Red Square is a shop window. It's like in restaurants in Japan where
there are models of the food. What we see on Red Square are models of
food, not the food itself."
Western diplomats and military experts say Putin has long projected an
image of military might to strengthen his and Moscow's image at home and
abroad, but that Russia is overhauling its military far more slowly than
"Moscow's problems mean its ability to project conventional military
force -- something it is doing in Syria and has done in Ukraine -- is
not as great as the Kremlin would have the world believe," said one
Western official with knowledge of Russia's military.
In a speech on Wednesday, Putin did not mention the navy's engine
problems, focusing instead on how it is due to receive seven new
multi-purpose submarines ahead of time and 16 new surface ships by 2027.
Defense spending has risen sharply under Putin. But Russian officials
and military experts say Moscow has a shortage of modern factories and
skilled labor and does not have the available financial resources needed
to reverse decades of post-Soviet decline as quickly as it wants.
Frolov said Russia had successfully produced prototypes of new weapons
systems, but struggled to move to serial production.
That does not mean Russia's military is not a force with which to be
reckoned. Some of its hardware, such as its S-400 air defense systems,
is world-class. Putin has also spent heavily on missile technology,
unveiling new hypersonic systems.
But Russia's air force and army, like its navy, are experiencing
re-armament problems. Its new stealth fighter first took to the air more
than nine years ago and a super tank made its Red Square debut almost
four years ago. Neither is due to be deployed in large numbers soon,
government officials say.
The program to build Russia's most advanced stealth frigate, the Admiral
Gorshkov-class, has been paralyzed by sanctions -- even before the
sanctions hit it took 12 years to build the lead ship, which entered
service last summer.
Russia hopes to add 14 more such ships to its navy, but has no engines
for 12 of those vessels.
Moscow is trying to develop its own gas turbine engines and its own
full-cycle manufacturing base.
That task has been handed to aircraft manufacturer NPO Saturn, which is
part of Rostec, an industrial conglomerate run by Sergei Chemezov, who
served as a KGB spy with Putin.
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The Russian Navy's frigate Admiral Grigorovich sails in the
Bosphorus on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey,
November 4, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo
Ilya Fedorov, Saturn's then director, said in 2014 he had concerns
about costs, and the company failed to deliver the first engines to
the navy in 2017.
Fedorov told the Russian news agency Interfax at the time that "all
our ships run on these turbines, and if we don't make our own
everything will grind to a halt."
Fedorov is no longer with the company. Viktor Polyakov, Saturn's
current director, said early last year that prototypes of its three
new engine types had passed tests and that serial production had
Chemezov told Reuters at a military exhibition in Abu Dhabi this
month that an undisclosed number of engines had been handed to the
navy. But none has yet been fitted to the frigates.
Saturn says it has received initial orders from the Ministry of
Defense. But one source close to the matter said the ministry had
not yet guaranteed how many engines it would buy.
"We shouldn't expect Russia to start fully fledged serial production
for at least another five years," said Serhiy Zgurets, director of
Defense Express, a Ukrainian consultancy.
Alexei Rakhmanov, head of Russia's United Shipbuilding Corporation,
said in December that the first Russian-made engine should be fitted
to the fourth of 14 more planned frigates in the "very nearest
Even if that happens, Igor Ponomarev, the head of the St Petersburg
shipyard making the new stealth frigates, says that vessel is not
due to be ready before the end of 2022. The rest of the program is
likely to stretch into the 2030s.
TROUBLED STEALTH FIGHTER AND TANK
Russia's planned new Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter jet is also
Moscow had initially been expected to procure about 150 of the
fifth-generation Su-57s, but defense industry and government
officials say they now expect just one plane, the first
serially-produced aircraft, this year. A further 14 may follow.
Experts say the costs of mass-producing the new plane are simply
Plans for Russia's super tank have also foundered.
Oleg Sienko, the then director of the factory which produces the new
T-14 Armata battle tank, said in 2016 Putin had approved the
purchase of 2,300 Armatas. Since then, various prototypes have been
tested, but the tank had to be reworked.
The army will receive the first 12 serially-produced tanks of around
100 only by the end of this year, Defense Ministry sources told
daily newspaper Izvestia this month.
Dr Richard Connolly, a Russia specialist at the University of
Birmingham, said Moscow's military might should not be
underestimated but Russia was still suffering from the legacy of an
economic crisis that followed the Soviet Union's collapse, hitting
state arms orders and the military-industrial complex.
"It's not as easy as simply saying, 'Right, we've got the money, so
go and make it happen', because a lot of the shipyards have rusted,"
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, by Gleb Stolyarov
and Anton Zverev in Moscow and by Stanley Carvalho in Abu Dhabim,
Editing by Timothy Heritage)
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