18 November 2019

The Putin State, between geopolitics, anti-regime protests and failures with new weapons

Cristian Eremia

President Putin had a hot summer this year. And this is not only about the tragic fires in Siberia, but also about the fact that Russian leader was simultaneous caught between dealing with the special problems generated by current geopolitics – problems he plays with ability – and the effort to find solutions to the drawn-out protest movements in Moscow and other places. Besides all this, there were internal security incidents which happened in the worst way for Putin, caused by experiments with new weapons – or unique weapons in the world, as he prefers to label them – which he had put his hopes on for several years to help take the lead in the geostrategic competitions with the US.

Image source: Mediafax

Adapted tactics to counteract internal political dissidence

The protest movements against the regime held by the political opposition were initiated due to the hardliner moves by the power in Moscow, which illegally blocked the road of independent and opposition candidates towards the Duma, by preventing them from registering in September’s local elections. The D.S.M. Weekly Report presented how these protests unfolded.

What is interesting is that, only several months before the repression against Russian citizen protests in Moscow, a report titled “The Kremlin’s political prisoners: advancing a political agenda by crushing dissidence”, signed by several non-government organizations. The report (1) presented a documented account of how measures which banned or blocked civil assemblies from citizens, as well as their freedom of expression during protest, were intensified. It was estimated that the number of political arrests in Russia grew in the past four years from 50 to over 250. The report incriminates the fact that the “Putin State” is once again involved in arresting activists who oppose the regime, its adversaries, but also the representatives of a disadvantaged minority. It also talks, alongside many other points, about extending the special law drafted to enable the possibility of sentencing any free citizen action, from ad-hoc protest demonstrations to simple anti-regime posts on social media.

On the other hand, a succinct analysis should be made on the manner in which the Kremlin acted to end the protest crisis in Moscow, which according to some authorized observers had turned into a Russian crisis. From the beginning, it could be concluded that Russian authorities opted to handle these prolonged protests by force – sanctioning unauthorized protests, arresting demonstration leaders, criminal cases and selective actions against protesters.

But things have gradually become way more complicated. It was not clear who or what unit was coordinating the actions of the political power. Even the Russian Foreign Ministry got directly involved by launching accusation towards the US, Germany and other Western forces, which it blamed of being behind protest movements aiming to destabilize Russia’s political situation. The protesters were labelled by authorities as “adventurous militants” sponsored from abroad. In this context we must mention that among the protesters there were both simple citizens who are discontent with Russia’s internal policies, even offended by the behaviour of the official political opposition, which preferred to not become involved, at least visibly, in the street protests.

During all this period, there were talks and statements in Kremlin on any subject, but almost no word on the protests or any actual involvement from the president in acts to end the street movement, on the crackdown against the protest or restabilising internal order. This brings a perception that the necessary mass of critical pre-conditions for a possible decisive intervention from Putin was not met, obviously without repercussions on his image as absolute political leader.

Therefore, the authorities, from structures of forces up until the mayors, were implicitly given an “unrestricted green-light” to act towards ending the protests. Furthermore, there are already talks on a gradual, but certain distancing of Putin from the ruling Russia United party. This would not be the first time when the current president distances himself from the party, as it is clear that he was not content with its results at the successive 2018 local elections in the subjects of the Russian Federation.

Putin’s indirect involvement motivated some analytical circles to reach the conclusion that the “Putin State”, concerned with geopolitics, started to lose “initiative on the internal agenda”. But conclusions of this type are hard to accept, because Putin proved in numerous delicate situations the fact that he is a very fine connoisseur of the Russian society’s mentality, and of the possibilities of “street leaders” which could endanger his political calculations appearing.

Therefore, this apparent lack of involvement could be a case of “adapted tactics” of managing the internal political situation, with being exposed to image risks. The proof for this also stands in the fact that President Putin expressed (August 26) in a meeting of economic problems with members of the Russian Government his concern on the slow growth of the population’s salaries. (2) After this, the Central Bank immediately announced that wage increases of between 3 and 3.5% of the annual salary are expected until the end of the third trimester, after other increases of 2.9-3.5% were already applied in the past two months. The wage increase would be extremely necessary, because there is currently an unprecedented rise in the Russian population’s bank debts. (3)

At the same time, the Russian president noted that in the first part of 2019, the country’s GDP increased by 0.7%, and industrial production for the first seven months was up 2.6%. Although this is a positive economic growth, Putin reminded the government that “the overall dynamic cannot be satisfying. A more durable and dynamic economic growth is necessary”.

When the regime’s propaganda replaces the publicity of the defence industry’s new products

The pressures exerted by the “Putin State” on Russia’s military industrial complex (MIC) and its force structures, especially the military institution, are very high. They have also been expressed most clearly in the president’s speech towards the nation in spring this year. And when the defence industry works at maximum speed on the fundamental and experimental research of a new cutting-edge technology under the pressure of the political factor and time, failures and incidents should be expected. In this case, unfortunately, it resulted in the loss of many lives among scientists, military engineering personnel or even troops who took part in experimenting the new weapons.

By piecing together Russia’s official statements on the results of tests made with new technologies, it is clearer that there are certain difficulties in drafting top-tier military technologies and implementing them. Especially in the case of developing new weapons for naval and air-space forces, but with a negative impact on the developments of the nuclear triad.

Russian failures in experimenting with new weapons

On July 1, tragedy struck when a fire broke out on a nuclear submarine in the Russian waters of the Barents Sea, which ended with at least 14 dead among highly specialized military personnel. Individuals who, according to their ranks, were obviously military specialists coordinating and executing important experiments and measuring activities at very low depths. It resulted that the submarine belonged to the 29th Submarine Brigade, which was deployed at one of the most secretive Russian military bases, the naval bases Gadzhievo in the Olenyaya Guba Gulf. This base has several nuclear submarines with specific purpose (developed mostly on the nuclear submarine platform Orenburg), which are capable of sinking to very low depths. The base is stated to be subordinated to a military deep waters research department, including scientific research.

What actually happened is, of course, shrouded in mystery, but it highlights at least very serious technological deficiencies. A first version talks about the fact that everything was caused by damage to nuclear station of a submarine which operates at depths of over 3,000 meters, where the ship, unofficially known as Losharik (4) would allow experimentation with the help of an underwater drone. Some military analysts presume that this a ship which is capable of various underwater diversions. Others add information that the submarine, apparently without weapons on board, would be capable of launching deep water mines, including nuclear ones, as well as carrying out actions to research and destroy underwater cables. Another version says that the submarine was attached to the Orenburg platform, a ship which can transport spherical vehicles for deep water operations and which, despite the damage which flooded some compartments, would have reached the Port of Severomorsk. Other theories refer to various other underwater platforms and destinations, which are impossible to verify with open sources. In any case, several weeks later, President Putin evoked the memory of heroes on this submarine during the grand festivities celebrating the Russian Navy Day.

Only one month following the security incident mentioned earlier, there was a new failure in technical experiments carried out at the Naval Experimental Military Range (August 8) near Nenoksa, 30 km from Severodvinsk, in the Archangelsk region of the White Sea shore. The experiments were stopped by a powerful nuclear explosion, followed by other explosions with unspecified sources. This incident also had to be addressed by the Kremlin, due to the fact that it was visible in the open, and because the alarming increase in radioactivity over the European continent following the explosion. Again, mystery shrouded the entire event, with the official number of victims reduced to one which could not be contested by Russian authorities until measures to classify everything that happened there were taken. The premise that a new missile engine/propulsion system with liquid fuel was tested, with an experimental infusion of isotopes from a powerful nuclear energy source. The result was a failure due to the fuel being set alight and the resulting explosions. The Russian RIA Novosti agency quoted Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom, which said that “a maritime platform missile” was tested. The real number of victims is uncertain – at least six initially, as well as the real consequences regarding the excessive growth of radioactivity in the mentioned region.

The other certain thing is that, several hours after the incident, the Western Arctic Ports Administration in Murmansk closed, at the behest of Moscow’s Defence Ministry, naval traffic in the area of the Dvinsliy Gulf in the White Sea between August 8 and September 9, which multiplied the panic instated among communities in the region.

President Putin gave assurances during an official visit in Paris that there is no radiation danger following the nuclear incident. Without detailing what exactly happened, he overvalued the results of Russia’s scientific research and defence industry in the competition with the US for progressing the development of unique weapons.

Probably in order to cover up how serious these tragic experimental failures were (and of course to score some serios points in the post-INF competition with the US), on August 24, two Russian nuclear submarines launched Sinava and Bulava ballistic missiles in the Arctic Area, with targets in the “Chija” firing range in Archangelsk and the “Kura” firing range in Kamchatka. The first of them is the Tula strategic submarine – Project 667BDRM Dolphin, which has 16 Sineva ballistic missile launchers onboard. This was the submarine’s first mission following modernization works. The second is the Yuri Dolgoruky – the first Project 955 Borey ship, which has the necessary equipment to operate Bulava ballistic missiles.

We should mention at this point a small aspect regarding the Bulava missile. This experiment has been underway for several years, with a high percentage of failed launches (at one point, 11 out 25 launches were failures). Russian military observers predicted since 2009 that the missile’s development will be a “long difficult road”, as it presumes the development of new intercontinental ballistic missile technologies for the naval forces. Which also happened, the failures being mainly attributed to the lack of some essential modern technological elements. To the disappointment of Putin’s regime, which wanted to have new ballistic missiles to replace the old and near the end of active cycle RSM-54 missiles (Sineva and Liner) as fast as possible (5). The Russian Defence Ministry established in 2013 that five consecutive successful launches are need for the rocket to be green-lit, a request which was later reduced to two, so that it could become operational during 2018. The political propaganda was at increased levels again in this case, instead of leaving way for the normal defence industry publicity, which would have certainly been more credible regarding the real consolidation of Russian military power.

Translated by Ionut Preda


(1) https://www.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/04/The-Kremlins-Political-Prisoners-May-2019.pdf

2) http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/61373 and https://nsn.fm/society/sobyanin-prinyal-reshenie-o-povyshenii-gorodskih-doplat-k-pensiyam?utm_medium=more&utm_source=rfinance

(3) On the other hand, it is stated that the population’s general mortgage debt reached an absolute record of seven trillion roubles, three times higher than in 2014. A third of these debts are registered in Moscow and Sankt Petersburg, which are also the most economically developed regions of Russia. Experts from the international analysis and consultancy network FinExpertiza warned that these numbers have never been registered in Russia’s history, and is caused by low level of citizen “financial literacy”, with the latter unable of managing long-term financial risks.

(4) The submarine is made out of several spherical compartments which allows resistance to high pressure.

(5) It is estimated that the Project 557BDRM submarines, armed with RSM-54 missiles, can be deployed in active duty until 2025-2030, as part of the North West Naval Strategic Force Group. The 2016 establishment of the North East Strategic Naval Forces was depending on the successful development of Bulava missiles. Further information can be accessed at http://nvo.ng.ru/armament/2016-05-20/8_bulava.html