Key point: Russia needs arms sales to help its beleaguered economy.
Back in May, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s IL-96-300PU presidential plane was flanked by no less than six Su-57 stealth fighter jets while en route to the 929th Chkalov State Flight-Test Center in southwestern Russia.
Video footage of the flight shows the Su-57 fighters grouped in what better resembles a parade column than an escort formation, suggesting a soft-power intent behind Putin’s trip. There are several factors at play. First and perhaps least significant, this footage of six functional Su-57’s heads off any and all speculation that the 2019 Victory Day Parade airshow was called off for any reason other than the Defense Ministry’s cited weather concerns.
Other coverage has focused on the political connotations, noting that the Chkalov Center trip took place shortly before Putin’s Sochi meeting with Pompeo. While partially convincing, this line of reasoning cannot explain the timing. If Putin wanted to stage a diplomatic show of force, why now and not during his prior meetings with President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton? After all, Russia’s strategic approach vis-a-vis the US has remained largely consistent over the past several years.
Rather, the unprecedented decision to utilize six of Russia’s most advanced fifth-generation fighters—approximately half of the currently available roster—in a VIP escort mission is the latest step in Russia’s ongoing Su-57 branding campaign. Unsurprisingly, Putin has repeatedly showered the Su-57 with adulation over the past several years; it was only several months ago that he referred to it as the best fighter in the world. But as high-stakes Su-57 export talks with Turkey, India, and China continue to unfold, Putin is adopting what appears to be an increasingly proactive role in advertising the Su-57 to prospective buyers.