Weekly NATO-Russia Situation Report

As a reflection of the country’s shrinking GDP and prioritization of domestic plans, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said that defense spending will be cut. Ostensibly, the aide told Russian media, the cuts are no big deal because the Russian government has “passed the peak of saturating our defense forces with new types of armaments and military equipment.” Further, according to Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, no additional spending increases are being planned. Now, Russia manages to get a little more out of its defense spending than does the United States, because weapons systems are not nearly as expensive. But the reduced expenditures often come at the price of reduced technological advancement, so when you combine that with overall reductions in spending, it seems clear that the Kremlin’s military won’t surpass the U.S. and NATO militaries anytime soon. That doesn’t mean Russia isn’t still prepared to field a capable fighting force, however.

Meanwhile, the Caspian Sea fleet held anti-drone exercises and live-fire drills as crews from more than 10 naval ships and other vessels operating in the Southern Military District. Missile ships Tatarstan and Dagestan took part in the drills as did the smaller missile boats Grad Sviyazhsk and Veliky Ustyug. The drills involved tracking imaginary enemy drones heading back towards a home station using tracking and visual surveillance technologies. The fleet’s flagship, the Tartarstan, reportedly held successful live-fire exercises against air, sea, and shore targets using missiles, deck guns, and the Palash air defense artillery system.

The Russian navy has also deployed two frigates to the Mediterranean Sea, with one of them equipped with long-range Kalibr missiles. Another frigate armed with Kalibrs was deployed to the Red Sea. Russia appears to be building up its naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean region at a time when the U.S. is making threats to intervene militarily against the Syrian government forces attacking a rebel enclave east of Damascus.

Also, Russia is preparing to test the country’s newest ICBM, according to the Russian chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. “The first launch of this missile took place at the end of December last year,” he told Russian media. “At the moment preparations are in full swing at the [cosmodrome] for another pop-up test.” The Russian military says that the ICBM, the Sarmat, has a shorter active flight phase and is better able to penetrate existing missile defenses. Plus, at 200 tons, it’s a behemoth that can carry more and larger warheads. Two major Russian naval vessels – the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Essen and the Krivak II-class anti-submarine frigate Pytivyy – have been photographed passing southwards through the Bosphorus by independent ship observers on 12–13 March. Admiral Essen is armed with Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 km (about 1,550 miles). The Russian government announced the move. The Russian naval buildup comes off the coast of Syria as tensions grow with the U.S. over the East Ghouta enclave that has been under sustained attack by government forces since February, despite the UN Security Council passing a resolution calling for a ceasefire. [source]

Russia’s new, advanced Avangard hypersonic missile system is slated to enter service in 2019, according to the Kremlin. This is a strategic intercontinental ballistic missile system that is equipped, supposedly, with a hypersonic glide vehicle; if it’s deployed as stated, it will become the first such operational system in the world, but so far not even Russian media has been able to confirm whether or not such a system is fully developed and ready to deploy. Recall this is the weapon system President Putin unveiled during his recent State of the Nation speech before the Federal Assembly on 1 March. Russia, like the U.S. and China, has an active hypersonic glide vehicle program. There are doubts among many in the U.S. intelligence community whether this system is really ready to deploy or if it is still in the developmental stages, however.

Finally, President Putin easily won another six-year term, which was expected, and one of his first orders of business was to order more Americans added to a “blacklist” in response to U.S. sanctions. This will do nothing to ramp down the tensions between Moscow and Washington, which continue to rise in the Trump era. [source] In case you missed it, I published an analysis on the Watchfloor earlier this week in which I discussed what I believe is an effort by a sort of “never Trump” faction in Washington to keep our president from being able to improve relations with Russia, which I think Trump really wants to do. None of this is to say that Putin’s a good guy or anything, but I think Trump believes he can at least achieve some level of understanding between both men that would be helpful in ramping down tensions. He can’t, however, as long as this “Russian collusion” narrative emanating from the 2016 election continues to cast a pall over his presidency. If Trump is hemmed in by this narrative, which I don’t think is real, he’ll never be able to improve relations and the U.S. will remain on a collision course with Russia, a revisionist power.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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