How Do U.S. and Russian Defense Sectors Influence Policies?

Fall 2021

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Whenever Washington or Moscow unveils a new weapon, ears in the other capital perk up and analysts try to divine how the new system fits into U.S. or Russian military strategy—not least of all, strategy toward its Cold War-era nemesis. But how often do decisions related to national security arise because of institutional forces only tenuously related to states’ strategic planning? More specifically, how do the countries’ respective defense industries influence policy? The Belfer Center’s Russia Matters project asked two scholars—one American, one Russian—to investigate the latter question. Their recently published articles (linked below) reveal fascinating differences and similarities in the way this influence is exercised in countries with vastly different political and economic systems.

In his examination of the U.S., researcher Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, describes a situation familiar to students of U.S. policymaking: The United States’ competitive but fragmented political system affords enormous power to interest groups, in this case defense contractors. The levers of influence will come as no surprise—lobbying and campaign contributions chief among them. These mechanisms, Korda writes, are strengthened both by the highly consolidated nature of the U.S. defense sector—a result, paradoxically, of the Soviet collapse—and by the so-called revolving door for lobbyists, who work alternately for government and for the private sector.

One telling example cited by Korda involves attempts to replace the Minuteman III ICBM force with a new $264 billion Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent: When Congress considered analyzing the cost savings to be had by extending the life of the Minuteman force, which some analysts believed might be substantial, dozens of ICBM contractor lobbyists worked together to quash the initiative.

The channels for defense sector influence in Russia’s case are quite different, even if outcomes are sometimes similar, writes Pavel Luzin, a political scientist focusing on global security and space policy. One key difference is that Russia’s defense companies effectively belong to the state and their board members and executives often hold government posts; this gives them direct access to state decision-making and eliminates the need for American-style lobbyists. All the players in Russia’s defense sector compete in a so-called administrative market, Luzin explains, jockeying for government resources. But the relationship is not a one-way street: The Kremlin needs the sector too, not just to project power worldwide, but to continue conferring benefits on various groups whose loyalty helps bolster today’s authoritarian political order—from the millions of ordinary workers to the political elites who help run the sector or rely on it for clout. This dependence constrains Moscow’s ability to reform a sector plagued by inefficiencies and inflated costs, leading instead to the partial restoration of a command economy.

One example given by Luzin concerns the Sarmat, a liquid-fuel ICBM now in development—and described in The National Interest as “Russia’s doomsday weapon,” which makes the Minuteman “look like a rocket-propelled toothpick.” Initially, Russia had planned on replacing all its liquid-fuel ballistic missiles with new, solid-fuel ones. But it reversed course and launched the Sarmat program essentially to avoid shutting down a large facility that had for decades done little but make and modernize liquid-fuel missiles. In a comparable case involving a major aircraft manufacturer where layoffs led to backlash, the Russian military was forced to commission 28 more Su-34 fighter bombers than initially planned, presumably at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

At Russia Matters’ request, both authors also offered recommendations, suggesting how to regulate the respective defense sectors’ influence on state defense strategy and procurement policies so that governments can better choose cost-effective ways to ensure the robustness of their defenses.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"How Do U.S. and Russian Defense Sectors Influence Policies?" Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. (Fall 2021)