by Jonathan Masters
After years of post-Soviet neglect, Moscow is overhauling its armed forces in ways that could have regional consequences.
The Russian military suffered years of neglect after the Soviet collapse and no longer casts the shadow of a global superpower. However, the Russian armed forces are in the midst of a historic overhaul with significant consequences for Eurasian politics and security. Russian officials say the reforms are necessary to bring a Cold War-era military into the twenty-first century, but many Western analysts fear they will enable Moscow to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, often relying on force to coerce its weaker neighbors. Some say Russian interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014—both former Soviet republics seeking closer ties to the West—demonstrate that President Vladimir Putin is prepared to use military force to reestablish Russian hegemony in its near abroad.
What are Russian conventional military capabilities?
Both in terms of troops and weapons, Russian conventional forces dwarf those of its Eastern European and Central Asian neighbors (see Table 1), many of which are relatively weak ex-Soviet republics closely allied with Moscow. Russia has a military pact with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, formed in 1992. Moscow also stations significant troops in the region: Armenia (3,200), Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (7,000), Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region (1,500), Kyrgyzstan (500), and Tajikistan (5,000).
As part of defense reforms, most Russian ground forces are to be professionalized and reorganized into formations of a few thousand troops for low- and medium-intensity conflicts. But for the foreseeable future many will remain one-year conscripts with limited training (military service is compulsory for Russian men aged eighteen to twenty-seven). The Airborne Assault Forces, which comprises about thirty-five thousand troops and whose commander answers directly to Putin, is Russia’s elite crisis-reaction force. A Special Operations Command, also a reserve of Putin, was created in 2013 to manage special operators outside Russian borders.
Moscow is intent on remilitarizing its Arctic territory and is restoring Soviet-era airfields and ports to help protect important hydrocarbon resources and shipping lanes. (Russia has the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers, which are regularly required to navigate these waters.) In late 2013, Putin ordered the creation of a new strategic military command in the Russian Arctic.
Meanwhile, rearmament has been slow, and much of the military’s equipment remains decades old. The once formidable Soviet navy is now little more than a coastal protection force, experts say. All of the navy’s large vessels, including its flagship and sole aircraft carrier, the non-nuclear Kuznetsov, are holdovers from the Cold War. (By comparison, the United States has ten nuclear carriers and builds several new warships each year.) Russian air power will also be limited, at least in the short term. Aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi is developing several new advanced warplanes, including a fifth-generation “stealth” fighter (the T-50), but production has been sluggish in some cases, and most of the current air force dates from the 1980s.
Russia has made the modernization of its air and space defenses a top priority of the rearmament program, establishing a consolidated Aerospace Defense Command in 2011. The mainstay of this defense network is the S-400, a long- to medium-range surface-to-air missile system, to be deployed near Moscow and strategic positions along Russia’s perimeter. A more advanced S-500 is in development.
What are Russian Nuclear Capabilities?
Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal remains on par with the United States and is the country’s only residual great power feature, military experts say. Moscow has about 1,500 strategic warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarines, and heavy bombers. These numbers comply with the so-called New START treaty with the United States, which came into force February 2011. Russia is also believed to have some 2,000 nonstrategic (also referred to as tactical, theater, or battlefield) nuclear warheads.
Russia leaned on its nuclear deterrent as its conventional force languished in the years after the Soviet collapse. NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 added to fears in the Kremlin that the U.S.-led alliance might impede Russia’s ability to act in the region. Moscow appeared to lower its nuclear threshold in 2000, permitting the use of such weapons in response to major conventional attacks. By comparison, Soviet doctrine reserved nuclear weapons for use only in retaliation for a nuclear attack.
Much of the Russian nuclear deterrent is being modernized: a new class of ballistic missile submarine is coming into service; some strategic bombers are being upgraded; and there are plans to replace all Soviet-era ICBMs over the next decade or so.
What is the Russian Military Budget?
At close to $90 billion for 2013, the Russian military budget has more than doubled over the last decade (see Figure 2), trailing behind only China ($188 billion) and the United States ($640 billion), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute(SIPRI). (Data includes funding for armed services, paramilitary forces, military space activities, foreign military aid, and military R&D.)
Defense spending has benefited from a surge in global energy prices over the last decade, as oil and gas account for more than half of Russia’s federal budget revenues, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2014, Russia is about half way through a ten-year $700 billion weapons modernization program, with priorities given to strategic nuclear weapons, fighter aircraft, ships and submarines, air defenses, communications and intelligence.
But analysts say recent spending should be taken in context. First, defense outlays plunged dramatically during the 1990s and remain well below Soviet levels. Second, Russia still spends a fraction of what the United States and many of its allies spend per soldier. Third, high inflation rates in the defense industry as well as endemic corruption consume a large portion of newly allocated resources. And, lastly, Russian defense spending is closely tied to global energy prices, which can fluctuate dramatically. Many analysts link the two-thirds drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
What Prompted the Reforms?
The five-day conflict with Georgia in August 2008 exposed major deficiencies—in command-and-control systems, hardware, weaponry, and intelligence—and confirmed that Russia’s mass-mobilization military, where millions of conscripts could marshal to protect the motherland, remained outdated.
“The Georgian war was arguably the last war of the twentieth century for Russia’s armed forces; in the sense that it was largely fought using organizations, tactics, and equipment designed in the last century,” wrote Roger N. McDermott, a Eurasian military expert at the Jamestown Foundation, in 2009.
In the weeks after the conflict, Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, a powerful reformer appointed by Putin, recommitted the military to a lengthy overhaul involving massive personnel cuts (from 1.2 million to 1 million), rearmament, and reorganization into a professional force capable of responding quickly to acute crises.
Experts assessing the status of reform in late 2013 say it has lacked strategic direction and suffered from major planning failures, and they forecast a number of challenges related to personnel, funding, and procurement in years ahead. However, they conclude the overhaul has made tremendous strides. “It is undoubtedly the case that post-[military] transformation Russia will have a very different force available from the one that went into action in Georgia in 2008, and one that is more effective, flexible, adaptable, and scalable for achieving Russia’s foreign policy aims,” wrote coauthors of a Strategic Studies Institute report.
What does Russia consider threats?
Russian leaders acknowledge that there is now little threat of a large-scale NATO land invasion— a top concern of the Cold War—but they repeatedly criticize the bloc’s eastward expansion, including its plans to roll out a ballistic missile defense shield across Europe. The United States, which developed the technology, says the system is only designed to guard against limited missile attacks from “rogue” states like Iran, but Moscow believes the technology could be updated and may tip the strategic nuclear balance. Putin and his military leaders have also frequently expressed concern with conventional precision strike weapons being developed by rivals.
Moscow believes the so-called color revolutions—a series of popular uprisings in former Soviet satellites—were concerted attempts by the United States and its allies to erode Russian influence in the region. “Russian foreign policy appears to be based on a combination of fears of popular protest and opposition to U.S. world hegemony, both of which are seen as threatening the Putin regime,” writes Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on the Russian military at CNA, a Virginia-based research institution.
But many western and Russian analysts say Moscow’s concerns with NATO are often overstated and divert attention from more practical threats like those looming on Russia’s southern periphery, including ethnic insurgencies in the North Caucasus region, weapons proliferation, and a potential resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
What are Russia’s Strategic Objectives in the Region?
Military modernization will enable the world’s largest country by far (and one of the most sparsely populated) to better defend its vast territory and national interests. But the conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia have aroused concerns about Russian aggression, namely Putin’s willingness to use military force unilaterally to preserve Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
Shortly before annexing Crimea in March 2014, Putin said he would defend the rights of Russians abroad, and in April he referred to a large swath of Ukrainian territory as Novorossiya (New Russia), a term used during imperial Russia. According to NATO and Ukrainian officials, Moscow has provided ethnic Russian insurgencies in Eastern Ukraine with training, personnel, and heavy weapons, including battle tanks and antiaircraft missiles. In November, Russia acknowledged rebel elections in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, a move that echoed Russia’s unilateral recognition of separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after its conflict with Georgia in 2008.
But Russia’s assertiveness has come with a cost. The Group of Eight (now G7) cut Moscow out of its elite club in March, and top Russian officials, banks, and businesses face an array of Western sanctions that may push the economy into recession. The Russian military will also suffer: France has delayed delivery of the first of two Mistral-class amphibious warships, and Russia’s extensive defense-industrial cooperation with Ukraine is in jeopardy.
Experts say that there may also be domestic political consequences down the road. “[Putin]’s brand of ethnic geopolitics, redolent of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, is a double-edged sword,” wrote Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, in August 2014. “It could shrink Russian territory, since vast parts of that country are populated by non-Russian ethnic groups who are unlikely to welcome or, over the long run, tolerate a Russian chauvinist in the Kremlin.”
What is U.S. and NATO strategy toward Russia?
Alliance leaders are reassessing defenses in Europe, particularly in the East. Since the annexation of Crimea, NATOhas quadrupled (to sixteen) the number of warplanes policing the Baltics, which have witnessed a major surge in provocations involving Russian planes. NATO also announced plans for a new rapid reaction force—the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF)—of about five thousand troops. Officials say the VJTF should be fully operational in early 2016 and will serve as an elite subset of the NATOResponse Force composed of thirteen thousand troops.
Some analysts recommend the alliance adopt a strategy of containment not unlike that of the Cold War. “Give up any hope of a return to business as usual; Boost the defense of Baltic states and Poland; Expose Russian corruption in the West; Impose sweeping visa sanctions on the Russian elite; Help Ukraine; and Reboot the Atlantic Alliance,” writes British journalist and Russia expert Edward Lucas.
CFR’s Janine Davidson, an expert on military and defense strategy, says that NATO members need to prepare for the type of guerilla tactics Russia has used in eastern Ukraine. “NATOmust consider what happens if and when these well-armed, unmarked, [Special Operations Forces]-like, suspiciously disciplined masked men turn up in a NATO nation, such as Estonia or Latvia (respectively 24 and 27 percent ethnic Russian) and commence another creeping invasion,” she writes.
At the same time, CNA’s Gorenburg says Baltic governments should be wary of Russian subversion. “There is a danger that in focusing too much on strengthening military defenses, the Baltic states and NATO will neglect the non-military tools in Russia’s toolkit, including promoting and funding Euroskeptic political movements, encouraging radical groups to commit violent acts to create an environment of disorder, and using information warfare techniques to strengthen anti-government and anti-EU attitudes among minority populations,” he told CFR.