Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the launch of the Avangard hypersonic missile at the National Defense Control Center via a video conference. Photo: Mikhael Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the launch of the Avangard hypersonic missile at the National Defense Control Center via a videoconference in late 2018. Photo: Mikhael Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the potential of a new, hypersonic missile on Wednesday, following a successful test just days after Israel had, yet again, defied Moscow and penetrated the Russian-supplied air defense system of key ally Damascus.

With Moscow-Washington relations deep frozen, Russia – despite an enormous disparity in national wealth between itself and the United States – has invested massively in high-tech weapons. More broadly, Putin has made upgrading the Russian military’s capability, morale, public profile and hardware a key priority.

2018 has seen a number of high-profile successes for Moscow in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, Syria and the Far East. But the year has also seen the vulnerabilities of Russian systems exposed, while the reputation its most vaunted espionage units looks red-faced after operational embarrassments.

‘New Year’s gift’

On Wednesday, the Avangard missile, one of a new suite of nuclear weapons designed to overcome US missile defense systems, was tested.

The weapon reportedly has an intercontinental range and can fly at hypersonic speeds – 20 times the speed of sound – enabling it to outpace any existing missile defenses. It was launched from the Dombarovskiy missile base in the southern Urals and, according to Russian sources, it hit a target on a range in Kamchatka, Siberia, 3,700 miles distant.

“The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary,” Putin, who watched the test from the control room, said afterward.

He said the new weapon would be added to Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces in 2019. Noting that no other country has hypersonic weapons, Putin described the Avangard as “an excellent New Year’s gift to the nation.”

YouTube video

Black Sea and Med

In November, Moscow’s military muscle was successfully flexed when Russian ships fired upon and seized three Ukrainian vessels and their crews in the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Kiev, which enjoys verbal and diplomatic support from the EU and US, but has no military alliances with the Western democracies, proved incapable of responding.

The seizures are just the latest in a series of Russian moves to dominate the Black Sea and thrust into the Mediterranean.

After annexing Crimea – a naval base of tremendous historical and strategic significance to Russia – from Ukraine in 2014, Moscow built a 19km bridge over the Kerch Strait. The road bridge, which links Crimea to Russia proper, opened in May 2018. Rail operations are expected to commence in 2019.

Although Ukraine has long coastlines on both the Black and Azov Seas, the events last month starkly demonstrate that both bodies of water are now effectively Russian lakes. Still, the Kremlin’s actions may backfire by buoying anti-Russian candidates in Ukraine’s elections in March.

Meanwhile, thanks to cosy ties with Ankara, Moscow has vaulted the Bosphorus, the classic strategic bottleneck which links the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, making it a new player in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it now operates from Syrian bases. The Russian Navy drilled in these waters in September with some 25 vessels and 30 aircraft; similar drills had been held in 2013.

In Syria, Putin’s long-term strategy appears to have won him control of the battlespace, following US President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw US troops, a pullout likely to affect the British and French presence in the region.

The Kremlin also displayed its prowess and intent with Vostok 2018, a huge multi-faceted military exercise in the Russian Far East. This was the largest military drill held by any nation since the end of the Cold War, involving 300,000 personnel and 36,000 vehicles, plus small contingents from China and Mongolia.

Yet the year has not been a total success for Russian hardware, or its Russian military.

Syrian mishap

In September, a Russian surveillance aircraft was shot down by its Syrian allies during an Israeli air force strike on Syria. All 15 crew members on board the plane were killed.

Relations with Israel were strained as a furious Moscow accused Tel Aviv of using the Russian aircraft to shield its planes that staged the raid. Shortly after, the Kremlin said it would offer Damascus its cutting-edge S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), as well as related electronic warfare capabilities. Now, from the Russian base in Khmeimim in Syria, S-400 “Triumf” SAMs cover most of Syria, Lebanon, and even northern Israel.

All these air-defense systems were fully deployed by early December, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. And The Jerusalem Post noted that the new missile system would “severely limit Israel’s ability to launch strikes against Iranian forces in the country.”

Yet Israel, which wields one of the most formidable air forces on earth, called all bluffs on Tuesday when it unleashed air strikes on what are believed to have been Iranian targets near Damascus.

Syrian media claimed their air-defense network shot down many of the surface-to-air missiles fired, while Moscow accused Israel of putting civilian airliners in peril. However, neither Moscow nor Damascus claimed that any Israeli aircraft had been downed, while Syrian media admitted that a military base had been hit. Russian sources said that Syria had not fully activated its air-defense net to avoid endangering airliners – a statement that appears to reveal gaps in the system.

Bungling spies IDed, captured

Also in 2018, the Kremlin’s once-feared military intelligence arm, GRU – a unit believed to have played a central role in the highly successful and virtually bloodless Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 – emerged red-faced from botched operations in Western Europe.

Following months of angry, vocal and often derisory denials by Moscow of any responsibility in the unsuccessful nerve agent attack on double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in the UK in March, two Russian nationals were identified by British police as suspects, in September. After, Moscow presented the two as innocent sightseers in a TV interview, only for their identities as GRU officers to be revealed by investigative website Bellingcat. That expose was subsequently confirmed by journalists in Russia, who visited the home villages of both men.

Then, in October, four GRU agents were arrested by Dutch police in a car near the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague. Their car was packed with hacking gear, but when it came to sanitizing their equipment, the agents had been extremely unprofessional. One of the captured men had a cellphone that had been activated at GRU Headquarters in Moscow, and a taxi receipt from GRU Headquarters to Moscow Airport was discovered by Dutch authorities.

These operations follow a botched coup in Montenegro in 2016, in which GRU was allegedly implicated.

The blunders by GRU, believed to be the largest and most powerful of Russia’s spy agencies, caused national damage, given the expulsion of Russian diplomats from multiple countries. They also embarrassed Russian media outlets, which had backed their government and denigrated British claims of GRU involvement in the Skripal case.

The fate of recent chiefs of the agency suggest that heading GRU is a stressful job.

On 21 November, Russia’s RT media outlet reported that GRU’s chief Igor Korobov, 62, had died after a “long and serious illness,” having headed the agency for just two years. It noted that his predecessor Igor Sergun, 58, had also passed away, reportedly of a heart attack, after running the agency for five years.

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