Russian Scientists in Military Uniforms
One of the distinctive features of a highly militaristic state is that it is ready to propose a military response to any challenge. While addressing the Federal Assembly (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) on March 1 (see EDM, March 1, 5, 8), President Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia faces a technological gap that could push it to the margins of world development. And already on June 25, the Russian President signed a decree on the creation of a military innovation complex called Technopolis “ERA,” located in the Black sea resort town of Anapa (Izvestia, June 25).
The construction of this military “Silicon Valley” is occurring at an unprecedented pace. Less than a year ago, in September 2017, Putin instructed the Ministry of Defense to “study the issue.” And by February 22, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu showed the president a model of the Technopolis complex. Shoigu, who has worked professionally as a construction engineer, regularly travels to Anapa to monitor the progress of the 17-hectare military innovation park. According to the defense minister, the first stage of construction will be complete and ready for use by September 1 of this year. Functioning structures will include an assembly hall and life support facilities, a residential unit for soldiers of the military’s “scientific companies,” a sports and health complex with a swimming pool and fitness equipment, as well as a number of technical facilities and sites (RBC, May 10).
In total, according to defense ministry officials, Technopolis “ERA” will accommodate 18 laboratories with 800 pieces of advanced equipment. The complex will also feature pilot production facilities as well as test stands. Multistory residential buildings will feature about 1,400 apartments. Approximately 2,000 scientists will work onsite. The choice of location was not accidental. The Black Sea coast climate provides the most comfortable living conditions in Russia (RBC, May 10).
The cost of building the Technopolis site is unknown but will undoubtedly be huge in order to “ensure” breakthroughs in military technological advancements. Putin is extremely keen on this and, last year, asserted that Russia had become a global leader in artificial intelligence development (TASS, September 1, 2017). The military is also on board when it comes to boosting indigenous research and development of new weapons. Therefore, Putin’s suggestion that such Russian scientific achievements will be shared with other countries is highly unlikely to come to pass. According to the acting chief of the defense ministry’s Main Department of Research and Technological Support of Advanced Technologies, Major General Roman Kordyukov, researchers working at Technopolis “ERA” will develop “innovative projects in four basic scientific and technical areas: IT and automated control systems; information security; robotics; [as well as] energy, technology and life support machines.” The breakthroughs will be transferred to domestic industry players (Voenno-Promishlenniyi Kurier July 10). The chief of Technopolis “ERA,” Colonel Fyodor Dedus, has promised the military research complex will shorten the time needed to design and test new weapons from ten years down to three (Krasnaya Zvezda June 8).
Considering the Technopolis complex’s planned super-modern laboratory facilities, comfortable housing and the agreeable Вlack sea climate, many scientists will undoubtedly clamor to work there. Of the 2,000 scientists working onsite, about 200 young scientists in military uniform will take part in the research—working for one of the four “military companies” there. The scientific work at Technopolis “ERA” will be supervised by the president of the Kurchatov Institute national research center, Mikhail Kovalchuk, whose billionaire brother is close to President Putin (Izvestia, June 25). Clearly, the Kremlin is paying special attention to this project.
The popular comparison of the Technopolis military innovation center to Silicon Valley—a dynamic place of knowledge-sector cross-pollination, where high-tech independent startups fail more often than succeed—is rather misleading. The scheme perhaps more closely resembles the model of the Manhattan Project—that is, with the state willing to invest massive sums of money to achieve a result on which the country’s existence seemingly depends. However, Russia’s financial resources pale in comparison to its potential adversaries. The United States’ military budget is more than ten times bigger than Russia’s. At the same time, in the US today, breakthrough advanced technologies are frequently born not in military laboratories, but in the civilian sector, where research-and-development costs far exceed the government’s investment in military technologies. As such, the Russian innovation military center resembles organizational models used half a century ago. Illustratively, Major General Kordyukov noted recently, “The difference between […] Technopolis ‘ERA’ and similar organizations is in a clear focus on products and technologies of military and dual-use, ensuring defense capability. The solution of this problem does not involve the commercialization of research and development. Each project has its customer and consumer [presumably the Russian state]” (Voenno-Promishlenniyi Kurier July 10).
Based on this approach, any breakthrough technology, if it is developed at Technopolis “ERA,” could put an end to further advances. Lack of state funds could hamper the development of a useful product based on such a breakthrough. Another negative feature of this set-up is the state formulating its expected requirements for the research results in advance. In the relationship between the bureaucrat (in this case, a military bureaucrat) and the scientist, the bureaucrat’s expectations drive the course of scientific research, thus significantly limiting its future possibilities. And indeed, the Ministry of Defense years ago made sure to declare ownership of all future inventions and discoveries made at its research facilities (Voenno-Promishlennyi Kurier, March 16, 2015). In some sense, therefore, the Technopolis innovation military center resembles a highly refined and extremely comfortable version of Joseph Stalin’s “sharashkas”—scientific centers inside relatively comfortable prisons, where scientists convicted on false charges would be forced to work. The “sharashka” functioned based on fear: scientific failure would result in transfer to a hard-labor camp or even outright death. But by removing the fear factor, while not allowing for a profit motive (the defense ministry owns all the patents), the main driving force for carrying out further research becomes pure scientific interest. However, scientific research in and of itself will not satisfy the bureaucrat, for whom tangible products are the primary measure of success.
Thus, Putin’s hopes for game-changing technological breakthroughs to come out of the military innovation center on the Black Sea coast are unlikely to be justified.
Aleksandr Golts was born in 1955. In 1978, he received an M.A. in journalism from the Department of Journalism at the Moscow State Lomonosov University. From 1980 until 1996, he worked with the “Krasnaya Zvezda” (“Red Star”) editorial board, a Soviet and then Russian military daily based in Moscow. In 1996-2001, Mr. Golts served as military editor of “Itogi” (Moscow), a premier Russian news magazine. In 2001-2004, he worked for the Moscow-based magazine “Yezhenedelnyi Journal” (“Weekly”) as deputy editor-in-chief. He currently works as a deputy editor for the website EJ.ru.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.