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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: May 20, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Can Russia Afford Its New Tanks?

We've written about the new Russian Armata tank and armored vehicle system. Much like the U.S. F-35 jet, the idea was to create a next-generation weapon that could be used for multiple weapons platforms and for multiple purposes. The idea behind using the same platform for multiple vehicles, like the T-14 Main Battle Tank and the T-15 Heavy Infantry, is that the platform will be easier, and cheaper, to design, build, and maintain, and sharing parts across multiple vehicles will better facilitate field repairs.

But the F-35 is controversial because it is expensive and may not live up to its promises. Will the Armata go the same route?

Yesterday we wrote about a technical description of the tank published in Janes IHS.

A detail we did not mention in the Janes report, however, is that the T-14 did not have multiple weapons which were originally rumored to be part of the design, including the new 152mm main gun:

Notably, the unveiled turret dispels suggestions the MBT would be armed with a coaxial 30 mm cannon, in addition to its 2A82A 125 mm main gun. Indeed the pre-production vehicles paraded by Russia feature neither a 30 mm cannon nor a coaxial machine gun (MG) armament as expected, although the production vehicles might eventually feature the dual 30 mm cannon/7.62 mm MG.

Although the T-14's turret features a large bustle, it remains unclear whether this features the autoloader/weapon-handling system for the MBT's main gun or serves another purpose (meaning the T-14 would retain the vulnerable hull-mounted carousel system present in previous Russian MBTs). Some reports also indicate Russia has not entirely abandoned its ambitions to arm Armata with a 152 mm main gun. If this is the case, it could explain why the T-14's unmanned turret has an unusually high profile relative to the position of the 125 mm main gun, with the turret possibly designed to incorporate growth potential up to the 152 mm calibre.

Could this indicate that there are problems with the new guns, or is it possible that they were too expensive to design or manufacture?

And is the 125mm cannon enough? The Moscow Times points out that a 125mm cannon would still fire shells designed for older tanks.

Though Armata's current 125mm cannon is technically a larger calibre than that carried by Western tanks, the ammunition it fires was designed for the older Soviet-designed T-72 tanks.

This means that in its current form, Armata fires shells that have shorter ranges and lower impact velocities than Western tank ammunition.

A detail that was not in the Janes article -- when the T-14 first debuted in the beginning of May, one of the tanks broke down:

Now The Diplomat writes that the Armata system is partially responsible for the significant rise in Russia's defense spending, and Russia's actual financial problems may be worse than their official numbers indicate:

According to an analysis conducted by Forbes Magazine, Russia will spend an estimated 5.34 percent of its economic output on defense in 2015. This estimate is based on the assumption that the Russian economy will contract by 3 percent and a 15 percent hike in the real value of the military budget.

However, another estimate quoted in the Wall Street Journal  based on Russian government data notes that country’s GDP may even decrease by 4.6 percent largely due to lower oil prices and Western sanctions. Consequently, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently announced that this year’s 3.3 trillion rubles military budget will need to be adjusted and cut by five percent or 157 billion rubles.

Even worse, according to newly published budget data of the first three months of 2015, military expenditure exceeded 9 percent of quarterly GDP – almost twice the amount cited in Forbes Magazine.

Read it here:

War is Boring also reported that one highly-anticipated weapon, the "Terminator? BMPT, was suspiciously absent from May 9's parades, and may have been scrapped entirely:

Appropriately nicknamed “the Terminator,” these fearsome vehicles sport a turret with two 30-millimeter cannons and four Ataka missile launchers. Further, the BMPT has a 7.62-millimeter machine gun next to the main guns and two AG-17D automatic grenade launchers in the hull.


Russia had good reasons for all this Terminator firepower. During the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Russian military realized its earlier-model BMP fighting vehicles suffered from thin armor and too few weapons.

During those wars, Russia’s foes hid in mountains or in the upper floors of buildings. As the armored vehicles passed, rebels would shoot down and blow them up — and the vehicles couldn’t aim high enough to shoot back.

“Tanks don’t have much success dealing with targets at high elevation,” Zaloga explained.

1*TU4t7V5jWvZe1YKRwfgBVA.jpegA BMPT Terminator at an arms expo in 2012. Vitaly Kuzmin photos via Wikimedia

The T-15, War is Boring writes, may be replacing the Terminator, but it boasts significantly less firepower:


T-15 Armata infantry fighting vehicle. Vitaly Kuzmin photos via Wikimedia

So as we see from just these few examples, the Armata system is somewhat less capable than it was billed, and is crowding out money for some other vehicles which are more capable. Furthermore, with costs rising and the Russian economy continuing to struggle, it's not clear that this level of defense spending is sustainable.

The final point, however, is that the capabilities of these weapons systems simply cannot be assessed until they are tested in the field, on Russia's training grounds but also in the battlefields. Until that happens, the real prowess of these vehicles may still remain in the visual display of power more than in the battlefield capabilities.

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
New Russian Law Banning Cooperation with 'Undesirable' Organizations Is Aimed at Khodorkovsky, Other Regime Opponents

As we reported, the State Duma has passed in the third reading now a law on "undesirable" organizations. The vote was 442 in favor, 3 opposed, and 1 abstention. The law still has to be signed by President Vladimir Putin to go into effect, but as the presidential administration conceives and pre-approves a lot of the legislation that is proposed in the parliament, it's likely to sail through.

Anyone found violating the law can be subjected to a range of administrative and criminal penalties. Foreigners may be barred from entry to Russia. Any Russian citizen who takes funds or property from such organizations can be subject to a fine.

The law is a complement to the "Foreign Agent" law that requires any organization found to be engaging in vaguely-defined "political activity" that receives grants or donations from abroad must register as a "foreign agent" and face additional scrutiny and restrictions. Dozens of organizations have been forcibly registered if they fail to sign up, forcing some out of business.

The new law goes after those organizations that might not have an actual grant or contributions from abroad, but are still in touch with foreign-based organizations that the Russian government finds ideologically suspect.

The question is what groups will get this designation? There was talk of having a list of the groups attached to the law as an amendment, but this was set aside, likely to leave the door open to use it against anything at all.

Already there's been analysis that this law was designed with Open Russia in mind, the organization founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which has been active inside Russian holding public discussions and debates around local elections.

(Stanovaya's article is behind a pay wall.)

In the opening of the piece available to view, Stanovaya writes (excerpt and translation by The Interpreter):

With as much success, the State Duma could have passed a draft law on combating everything bad, where the criteria for assessing "the bad" would be 'the government point of view' chiseled in the granite decisions of the Prosecutor General's Office or the head of the FSB [Federal Security Service].


In authoritarian regimes, the law does not regulate anything, this is done by the political elite acting according to unpublished rules which are impossible to formulate. It was impossible in 2003 to pass a law "on the criminal sentence of Mikhail Khodorkovsky" and imprison him on the basis that, for example, he challenged Vladimir Putin. The State Duma can't pass a law to ban everything connected to Alexey Navalny or ban Navalny himself. Under such a law, it is quite legal to ban his Party of Progress and not think up some excuses in the form of incorrectly formed commas and periods in registration documents. But to fabricate criminal cases against Navalny himself and his colleagues.

As Stanovaya points out, while the Putin regime does this sort of thing already; "there isn't a difference between a voluntaristic decision of the Prosecutor General's Office without this law and under this law."

But making up criminal cases is work -- that have to prove the case and deal with lawyers and so on. This law makes it easier to deal with any undesirables instantly with just a fine. "The purse is not to jail everybody, but only block certain action. For now."

While the law is undoubtedly intended to address any organizations related to Khodorkovsky, it strikes us that it could also be intended for organizations already addressed by the "Foreign Agents" law like Greenpeace or Transparency International or Amnesty International, which have Russian chapters, or groups like Freedom House or National Democratic Institute, which don't have Russian chapters.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović issued a statement today saying that the new law would have "a negative effect on freedom of expression, media freedom and pluralism of opinions."

“The broad and imprecise wording of this legislation would impose serious restrictions on a wide-array of important democratic rights, including freedom of expression and media freedom,” Mijatović said.

Mijatović also pointed out that the new law suspends the right of such banned organization to be among the founders of Russian media outlets, or to disseminate publications, or to get assistance from banned foreign counterparts.

(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia, funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.)

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
State Duma Deputies Contemplating Dissolution of Parliament and Early Elections in September 2016

Yesterday there was a lot of speculation as to whether some members of the State Duma were calling for it to be dissolved. This was dismissed as rumor.

But this afternoon at 15:57 Moscow time comes evidence from that in fact there is a formal call for an early dissolution of the State Duma from the notorious ultrarightest Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ill-named Liberal Democracy Party of Russia. He made a statement on the radio station Russian News Service (RSN).

Zhirinovsky elaborated that if the deputies announced self-dissolution next year in June 2016, then the next day the president can issue a decree to hold elections in the State Duma on September 11, 2016.

"That would be our own initiative," he said.

He also suggested that an amendment to the law on elections was another option, to say that elections occur every five years on the same voting day, the second Sunday in September (translation by The Interpreter):

"We must consult, there is still time, and at the end of the year make a decision. Either an amendment to the law, or a decision of the self-dissolution of the Duma in May or June 2016. This is a technical procedure."

Yesterday May 19, several deputies told about changing the elections to the State Duma from December to September 2016, so as to have them on one election day.

Both the Kremlin and State Duma have confirmed the discussion of moving the parliamentary election date, although the discussions are in closed faction meetings, with no official documents yet, reported.

Yury Shuvalov, head of the Duma communications department, said "There are no official documents or initiatives. We are proceeding from the norms of the legislation which define the work of the parliament."

Shuvalov said he refused to "fantasize" on the possible turns this discussion might take but said that the condition for calling early elections is defined in the constitution.

Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the Duma's Constitutional Committee siad there were no "formulated proposals."

Garri Minkh, the president's representative at the State Duma said "rumors are going around" but that "there are no ground for raising the issue on a practical plane."

Dmitry Peskov, presidential spokesman, rebutted claims that the Kremlin was involved in the Duma discussion although he acknowledged that there was such talks under way in the Duma.

The point of the move would be to put the national parliamentary elections on the same date as regional and municipal bodies. Authorities are also thinking that the turnout for September elections is low, as people are just getting back from long summer vacations. Evidently that suits the government, i.e. the less chance for alternative candidates to the government's ruling party or machine candidates is better for Moscow. By December 2016, people may be experiencing the economic difficulties more acutely, and vote for alternatives, they reason.

Ilya Shablinsky, a professor of constitutional law at the Higher Economic School believes that early elections can't be done without dissolving the State Duma. He outlined the three conditions for dissolution:

1. The Duma thrice turns down a candidate for chairman of government [prime minister] nominated by the president;
2. The Duma expresses a vote of no confidence in the government --and the president dissolves it;
3. The government initiates the issue of no confidence in itself, the State Duma expresses no confidence and the president dissolves it.

But sources close to the Kremlin, among supporters of the idea of changing the date, say otherwise: only an amendment of the law is required and a passage of a decree by the Duma. The decision for early elections is already made, but the mechanism for realizing it is not clear, said the source.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick