State-of-the-art weapons pose a real problem for both Russia and the West regarding their use in Ukraine. There are too many in the West, but on the Ukrainian battlefield, older technology weapons, mainly artillery ammunition, are much more needed. On the other hand, there are simply no super-modern weapons in Russia. Except in the statements of state leaders, which serve to motivate a demotivated army and instil hope among depressed population.
Last week, Dmitry Medvedev continued a long series of announcements about a mysterious new, state-of-the-art and terrifyingly deadly weapon that had just arrived at the front. “We are increasing the production of the most powerful means of destruction, including those based on new principles,” Medvedev announced on Telegram. It goes without saying, without further explanation. For example, if that production is “increasing”, it means that it exists at some level, and then why those already produced systems are not used on the Ukrainian front. Or – what are the “new principles” on which the new weapons are based, which Medvedev aims mainly at Western enemies.
Clearly, there are no new weapons or new principles of warfare. Russia is already using all the latest weapons it possesses in its aggression against Ukraine. And the “latest” weapons are so outdated that Western support for Ukraine has to wander in the dark and forgotten corners of its warehouses to find a counterpart to Russian firepower. Some of the most modern and effective weapons from the arsenal used or to be used by the Ukrainian army have long ceased to be produced in the West. The HIMARS system, for example – in 2008, and the Patriot air defence systems between 2014 and 2018. They exist only in warehouses, not in factories.
So what is the purpose of persistently repeating the same story about the Russian super-weapon, waiting for the right moment to be used? This anomaly is not new in Russia, and it is not even its exclusivity. The myth of a single, all-powerful weapon that would change the course of war in an instant is as old as warfare itself. There was always hope that a superpower would appear from somewhere (that’s why Medvedev mentions “new principles” of warfare) and wipe out the enemy. Such myths could only appear and live among the ranks of losing armies, when they were faced with ruin.
Hitler and his followers were convinced that their V-1 and V-2 missiles would turn the course of war and bring victory to the Reich. And when that did not come true, they were convinced that a turnaround would have been possible, if only the missiles had arrived earlier. During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Serbian conspiracy theorists, when invited to speak on television and published in the circulation press, assured the people that “Tesla’s secret weapon” exists, some kind of beam that would destroy the enemy forever when the time came.
Putin, Medvedev, and all the others have been talking about an invincible new Russian weapon since they came to power more than 20 years ago. In a subservient political culture, such as Russia, this type of propaganda has a strong mobilising effect. This narrative is the main foundation for the story of the nation’s invincibility and its righteous goals. If the goals were set high, and Putin has set them high with the concept of Russian World, the main tool for its realisation is – an invincible weapon.
Russia, however, never had one. Russia only had stories about hypersonic missiles, underwater drones, and satellite blinders. Even when it produced some modern weaponry, it collapsed at the first step. The Armata tank, for example, had a debacle during its debut at the Red Square parade in 2015 – it stopped and was towed away. And when they produced something modern, the Russian army did not buy those weapons. Of the approximately 2,300 Armata tanks announced to be purchased for the Russian army, as the backbone of the tank forces, only 132 were purchased by 2020.
The aggression against Ukraine was the moment of truth for the long-standing narrative of Russian arms supremacy. Not only was there nothing close to what Putin and friends have been talking about for years, but there were too many humiliating moments. In the cockpit of the crashed modern Su-34 plane at the beginning of the aggression, a civilian GPS device was found, attached with duct tape, because the pilot knew very well that he could not rely on the factory installed navigation. In the destroyed Russian armoured personnel carriers, Ukrainians usually found paper maps from the 1980s with the terrain that the aggressors came to “liberate” in 2022. The logistics trucks of the “second army in the world” were lined with wooden logs as protection against shell impacts. The bandage used by the Russian wounded and thrown in the fields was produced in 1978.
Dmitry Medvedev’s fairy tales about super-weapons will not stop. He and his president and everyone around them will continue to tell those stories. They simply have no other way to bridge the gap between the reality and the fiction which they used to raise the nation to a war of conquest. The effect of fear that they always wanted to achieve in the Ukrainian and Western enemies stopped a long time ago, and during the aggression against Ukraine, it completely disappeared. But there is still a lot of room to “sell” the narrative of victorious Russian weapons at home, as a hope that can maintain support for aggression for a few more weeks and a few more months. The victorious weapon will never appear, because it does not exist and Russia has never come close to making one. Even after the collapse of the campaign in Ukraine, many will believe that victory was within reach, if only there was still a little time for the systems that Putin and Medvedev talked about so much to appear on the front. They wouldn’t lie to their own people, would they?