Russia, the birthplace of the AK-47, announced last week that it had selected two new assault rifles for integration into its front-line units. For the Russian military, the introduction of those rifles marks a key moment in its attempts to modernize — but also highlights broader weaknesses plaguing Russian forces, experts say.
The strength of the Russian military is being watched closely in the West, with growing concerns not only about its intervention in Ukraine but also its posture elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Russia is five years into a modernization plan that envisages spending more than $700 billion on rebuilding over the course of a decade.
The new rifles — the AK-12 and the AK-103-4, manufactured by Kalashnikov Concern — are a part of the Russian Army’s Ratnik program: a suite of equipment that is meant to increase the effectiveness of the Russian soldier. Besides the new AKs, the Ratnik program includes the introduction of more modern communications and navigational equipment, some of which was on display when Russian troops entered Crimea in early 2014.
The Ratnik program “should provide a significant improvement of the individual Russian soldier that uses these systems,” said Nick de Larrinaga, the Europe editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Russia is trying to overhaul a force whose troop readiness and discipline were in steep decline in the early 1990s and early 2000s, and despite some advances, many experts remain skeptical about its ability to do so. Alexander Golts, an expert on Russian military affairs and current deputy editor in chief of Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, said President Vladimir Putin is attempting a “do-it-all” approach that has overextended his country’s manufacturing capabilities.
“A lot of people here agree that the rearmament program in general cannot be fulfilled,” Golts said. The army’s goal “is not to get new Kalashnikovs … the goal is just to feed Putin’s nuclear electorate.”
“They want to produce all spectrums of military systems: from small guns to Topol missiles,” Golts added, referring to the massive truck-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles. “It means no one program will have enough funding.”
Russia’s military will have to continue with its efforts under the weight of U.S. and European sanctions stemming from its intervention in Ukraine. But there is little evidence that those sanctions have undermined Russia’s determination to modernize.
“In spite of the oil prices, in spite of the ruble value, in spite of the sanctions, that remains a strategic priority,” Marine Lt. General Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “I don’t see any time in the near term that the effects of the sanctions or effects of the economy will change their desire to build strong strategic forces that will counter our efforts across the globe.”
Experts agree that Russia’s commitment to modernization is evident in the amount of money it is willing to spend. But that doesn’t mean that sanctions and global isolation are not taking a toll, said Colby Howard, a defense analyst and editor of “Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of Ukraine.”
France, for instance, declined to deliver two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for the Russian navy last year. Smaller contracts from the West have also been canceled or put on hold. These include diesel engines for Russian ships made by the German company MTU Friedrichshafen GmbH, as well as a $100 million infantry-training complex that was to be built by another German company, Rheinmetall.
“Russia’s prior defense minister really tried to open some roads that would have helped with some training aids and would have helped close some technical gaps that the [Russian] military is subpar in,” Howard said.
“It’s some very little components and very vital pieces that are going to slow down the works.”