By Paul Goble
Vladimir Putin’s militaristic speech to the Federal Assembly presented as innovations developments either that happened long ago or that others have found unsound and as genuine possibilities for a country that lacks the scientific and industrial base needed to carry them out, according to Mark Solonin.
Solonin, a historian whose criticism of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine led him to seek asylum in Estonia where he now lives and works, provides one of the most detailed critiques step by step of what Putin said and why besides his bombast there is little new to fear (solonin.org/article_seans-ohotnichey-magii).
Putin devoted most of the military section of his speech to wonder weapons without any acknowledgement of the fundamental reality of such systems in today’s world. “The times when an outburst of creative gifts could lead to those have long passed. In the 21st century, any new step toward improvement is based on experience and difficult trials.”
And if one goes beyond this metaphor, Solonin says, such innovations require “the existence of scientific-construction collectives with enormous experience measured in decades and material support of this experience in the form of testing ranges, measured complexes and computer programs.”
“In the Soviet Union of the 1950s through the 1980s, this existed,” he continues. “But then it all fell apart. The chief bearers of priceless experience – people – were lost. The enterprises of the military-industrial complex are led by effective managers from among former chekists and the defense ministry by a former furniture manufacturer.”
And while all this has been happening – or more precisely while no development has been occurring in Russia – “the Americans have not been sitting on their hands for 10, 15 or 20 years just waiting for us to catch up.” They have been moving forward, and Russia will have to catch up with them before it can surpass them.
From all this flows an irrefutable conclusion: “not miracles, no ‘fireballs,’ no arms systems ‘without analogues in the world’ will not exist in Russia in 2018 because they will never exist. ‘Our boys’ can’t and won’t be able to think up anything more than the Americans already have.”
“In the best case,” the Russian historian says, “with the enormous financing of the last decade, the old Soviet projects will be revived and the lag behind the world’s scientific-technical leader will be reduced.” But anyone who promises more is lying; and anyone who believes him is only deceiving himself.
Solonin then examines each of Putin’s “magic” weapons in detail. (Military experts will want to consult his long article.) He points out that the Sarmat missile is not part of Russia’s arsenal. Moreover, “its fight tests not only have not been completed but as a matter of fact have not been begun.”
The supposed capacity to attack the US over the south pole as well as the north has existed since 1961, but no one would think to do the former because it would give the opponent ever more time to figure out ways to shoot it down. The Americans “aren’t fools.” If they launch, they will launch over the north pole not the south.
Putin’s notion of a nuclear-powered cruise missile of virtually unlimited range is even more absurd. There were discussions of this in the late 1950s, but serious scientists as opposed to opportunistic Russian presidents rejected it because the missile would be too big, it would be too easy to spot, and it would probably destroy itself once it re-entered the atmosphere.
Putin talked a lot about “hypersonic” weapon systems, forgetting to tell his audience that missiles have been hypersonic since the Germans launched one in 1942. The real problem is making them in such a way that they can change course when back in the atmosphere and avoid burning up if they have the features that might allow that.
Scientists in the West have been working on these questions for many years, as once did Soviet scientists. But Russian scientists today aren’t, despite Putin’s claims to the contrary. And as a result, there are now far more questions left open than answers or at least positive actionable ones available.
The same thing is true of a space plane as the Americans have discovered through tests, but that Putin, whose subordinates haven’t tested one, clearly has not. The best Russia and the world can hope for is that after the Russian election, this speech with its absurd claims will be forgotten, except for those concerned about the judgment of the man who made it.