President Vladimir Putin spent this past week vacationing in Sochi, just as this southwestern Russian coastal city was hit by an autumn storm and heavy rain. Russian government officials were forced to struggle to reach Sochi despite local flash floods because the president likes to combine rest at the Black Sea resort with important meetings that sometimes turn into multiday marathons. Notably, a three day-long defense policy meeting or “sovestchaniye” continued from November 9 to 11. It was, of course, top secret, but journalists were allowed in at the start of each day to hear Putin’s introductory speech. The first day, Putin praised the growing battle readiness of the Russian military, as demonstrated by the massive Tsentr (Center) 2015 exercises last September, which involved some 95,000 servicemen, as well as by the efficient deployment of and bombing campaign by Russian jets in Syria. At the same time, the Russian military is procuring new jets, armor, missiles and submarines, including nuclear; while the Russian defense industry is high-tech, Putin boasted. The Russian arms industry’s success is important for the entire nation and will be supported despite “the economic downturn,” he declared (Kremlin.ru, November 9).
On the second day, Putin blasted Washington for continuing to develop and deploy a global ballistic missile defense system (BMD), disregarding Moscow’s objections and “cooperation offers.” According to Putin, the United States is using the presumed North Korean and Iranian missile threats as a cover, while in fact “their [US] main aim is to militarily overwhelm Russia.” Moscow will respond by developing its own BMD and by “strengthening its nuclear offensive strategic forces that must be able to penetrate multilayer BMD.” Advanced strategic nuclear weapons are already being procured and deployed, the president stated (Kremlin.ru, November 10). Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov later told journalists: “Our BMD-related systems will be much cheaper than the American ones and more effective” (Interfax, November 10).
The bombshell fell on the third day, as Putin routinely read out his introductory remarks. The president announced that Russia is not trying to overcome anyone in some new arms race, but is merely rearming to catch up and compensate for time lost in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, when there was no money to procure new weapons or properly exercise troops. Today is different, and new weapons are being procured, but not always on time; more effort must be made in replacing foreign-made components as part of so-called “import-replacement,” which may, according to Putin, stimulate the innovation of the entire Russian industrial base (Kremlin.ru, November 11). As Putin continued to read from his stack of written notes, the audience’s attention shifted briefly to one of the generals present, who had lifted up from the table a large piece of paper with drawings and text. A TV cameraman, perhaps somewhat fatigued with constantly filming the same frame of Putin’s dull read-out, shifted the camera and shot a close-up of the chart in the general’s hands.