By Filip Tuček. Photo: Ministry of Defense of Russia
11. Apr 2016  |  Security and Defence  |  Russia

Myths about Russia’s military might (or lack thereof – depending on the source) have flooded the public space. It is on high time to remove the cloak of mystery, analyse facts, and look objectively into how Russia has sought to rebuild its armed forces. The better understanding of both Russia’s military achievements and limitations is vital to make optimal policy decisions, not least at the July NATO Summit in Warsaw.

First, the article uncovers and contextualizes Russia’s strategic planning to explain what type of armed forces the country’s political and military leadership desires. Second, it analyses the actual reforms to provide insights into Russia’s current and future plans. Finally, the text examines whether Russia has the ability to put the reformed military into action and to carry out the envisioned plans.

Russia’s vision of its military

Russia has never ceased to perceive NATO as a threat, dangerously enlarging and unlawfully deploying equipment and forces ever-closer to the Russian borders.[1] The view is widely shared across Russia’s political, military, and expert elite circles.[2] Sergey Yermakov, Deputy Director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies tasked with providing foreign policy advice to Russia’s leadership, calls for a ‘complex response’.[3] This sought-after strategy requires a formidable military force.

In Russia’s vision, current and future both asymmetric and conventional warfare requires well-trained, rapidly deployable forces, supported by quick decision-making and inter-agency coordination. These developments indicate a shift from the old focus on mass force, to one equipped with complex systems, and capable of reacting to a diverse set of scenarios.[4]

The growing role of military power in Russia’s foreign policy thinking is supported by legislative changes. The 2009 amendment to the Law on Defence has expanded legal options for dispatching the armed forces abroad beyond counterterrorism and peacekeeping to include a response to an attack on Russian citizens abroad, and assistance to another state by request of its leadership to prevent or repel an attack.

The first justification was used by the Kremlin in Crimea, the second in Syria.[5] While Crimea demonstrated Russia’s ability to swiftly deploy special forces, airborne troops, and naval infantry, and amass between 40,000 and 90,000 troops on the border for several months, Syria points to the ability to dispatch troops and hardware on long distances and conduct joint air and naval operations.[6]

Beyond new cannons

The envisioned modern military force needs appropriate equipment. No longer should ageing tanks struggle to leave their bases and aircrafts be unable to take off from cracking runways. In the mid-2000s, much of Russia’s military equipment had become obsolete and the low level of investment into new one could not make for the attrition. The number of outdated arms grew fast. In 2006, modern military hardware represented less than a fifth, compared to NATO’s estimated 70%.[7]

As Russia politically stabilized and it’s GDP – driven up by high commodity prices – doubled, the leadership decided to reverse the trend. The restored military might should help Moscow get back where it, in its own view, rightfully belongs – among major powers.

The 2011-2020 Strategic Armament Plan (SAP) allocates $700 billion to increase the proportion of advanced weapons in the inventory of all branches to 30% by 2015 and to 70–80% by 2020.[8] Perhaps surprisingly for some, Russia has in many aspects exceeded the interim 2015 target.[9] This is true particularly for equipment for which domestic industries have mastered all technical aspects and hence have not been so badly impacted by the restricted access to Western technologies due to the sanctions.

Given the current economic slowdown, it is likely that the SAP will be underfunded, with non-critical programmes extended to the post-2020 period, scaled down or cancelled; a fact acknowledged even by the Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and hinted by the recent 5% defence budget cut proposal.[10] However, the total 2015 military expenditure of 5.4% of GDP offers space for cuts and even if the SAP remains unfulfilled, the Russian forces have already achieved strong combat capability.[11] While the ability to conduct a complex, multi-force prolonged expeditionary campaign remains unclear, Moscow has demonstrated sufficient capabilities to launch and sustain a limited campaign.

The Army is being equipped to operate in diverse and operationally challenging territories, from the Middle Eastern deserts to the post-Soviet space to the Arctic. Units are being equipped with high-tech vehicles and modern, highly maneuvarable and heavily armoured tanks such as T-14s.[12] These should make the army very mobile and capable of engaging a highly developed adversary in a conventional confrontation.

On the technological side, Russia has dramatically enhanced its electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, and has attained around a 1,000-strong fleet of non-lethal unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These assets strengthen the military’s ability to conduct complex operations, increase its resilience in contested environments, and enhance early warning and situational awareness. The 2008 war in Georgia in many ways revealed the insufficient technological state of the Russian armed forces. The use of critical capabilities for modern operations, UAVs and EW, was minimal and ineffective. At present, Russia’s advances and extensive use of UAVs and EW capabilities has made countering them one of NATO’s priorities to strengthen Ukraine’s resilience and prepare itself for a potential contingency on the Eastern flank.[13]

Priority is also given to advanced missile systems such as the anti-aircraft S-400s (range of 400 km) and the modernized ballistic Iskander-Ms (range of 500 km), both capable of hitting targets deep in Europe.[14] In response to NATO’s ability to conduct large scale airspace operations, Russia has been contemplating deploying S-400s and Iskander-Ms near the Baltic Sea, in Belarus, and in Crimea, where they could directly threaten NATO’s missile defence and air space.[15] Deployments of Iskander missiles configured to have a range over 500 km would violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty, which bans all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, has been considered an important, even if fragile, pillar of European security.[16]

The combined capabilities of S-400s and Iskander-Ms, reinforced by other Russian missile systems deployed in Kaliningrad, would impede theatre entry for NATO forces and compromise the ability of the Baltic States and Finland to operate within and around their respective territories.[17] The enhanced Russian capabilities and the insufficient rocket artillery systems of regional NATO Allies mean that restoring NATO’s air superiority over its eastern flank might take up to weeks and would require a highly complex multi-national operation.[18] S-400s employment during the Syrian campaign underscored Russia’s ability to counter NATO’s preponderance of power by improving its anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities.[19]

Since the early years of the Cold War, Russia deploys a triad of strategic delivery systems capable of delivering hundreds of nuclear warheads. Russia boasts intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) both in fixed-silo and mobile configurations, strategic missile submarines, and bombers capable of delivering air-launched cruise missiles.[20] Currently, Russia has been in the midst of a major nuclear modernization programme focusing on both ICMBs and submarines capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads.

Russia has recently reinforced its strategic rocket forces by deploying over 30 modernized road-mobile and silo-based Yars ICBMs, adding to the fielded Topol-M missiles.[21] To reinforce the other two components of the nuclear triad, ten bombers (TU-160s, TU-95s), and two out of the planned eight nuclear submarines have been commissioned. On the defensive side, Moscow possesses a capable early warning system (however impossible it would be for either Russia or the US to meaningfully intercept a launched massive adversarial nuclear attack).[22] A key component is the satellite nuclear warning United Space System which was fielded despite delays and technical difficulties.[23]

The arguably bigger threat is posed by Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. As early as in 2000, in reaction to NATO’s conventional military superiority, Russia embraced the nuclear arms-enabled concept of ‘de-escalation’.[24] The tactics envisions a response to a large conventional attack with a limited tactical nuclear strike. The concept requires Russia to maintain an extensive arsenal of rapidly deployable tactical nuclear weapons and suggests that the threshold for Russian use of nuclear weapons could be lower than that of NATO or the US.[25]

Worryingly, encouraged by the enhanced capabilities, the Kremlin has not hesitated to engage in nuclear sabre rattling. President Putin acknowledged that nuclear forces were on alert during the annexation of Crimea.[26] Meanwhile, Russian strategic rocket forces have conducted an increased number of exercises, and bombers have probed the air defences of NATO members.[27]

Moving and manning the reformed military

The Russian ‘complex response’ emphasizes high combat readiness. To achieve it, Moscow invests into modern command and control systems, a key component of both asymmetric and conventional warfare. The five reorganized military districts each include a joint operational strategic command to enhance decision-making. The new Moscow-based National Defence Control Centre (NDCC) should provide real-time situational awareness and facilitate centralized coordination during operations.[28] Bringing together around 50 military, police, economic, infrastructure and other authorities under the leadership of General Staff, the NDCC has the potential to be the backbone of the organizational drive towards greater flexibility, speed and inter-connectedness. The concept of unified command was for the first time tested in practice in 2015 during exercises near the Western border, bringing together land, airborne, naval, and infantry troops.[29] In practice, the NDCC played an effective coordinating role within the military command structure when Russia was dispatching its troops and aircrafts to Syria.

In a crisis, the centralized decision-making could give Russia time advantage vis-à-vis NATO, where 28 Allies need to come together, overcome their differences, and collectively reach decisions. NATO political leaders’ refusal to preauthorize field commanders to take action under pre-defined scenarios, or to otherwise streamline the decision-making process, might decrease the Alliance’s ability to react on time when needed.[30]

To address the perceived threat posed by NATO, Russia has reinforced its Western Military District. In 2015, the new First Tank Army and around 30 new units were introduced there, increasing the number of armies in the West to three.[31] Three new divisions and related infrastructure should follow in 2016.[32] According to the Russian ministry of Defence, around 40% of the total force is based in the Western Military District – at the proximity to NATO. As a result, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania suffer from an even more unfavourable local military balance of power with Russia.[33] Combined, their armies have about 12,000 soldiers compared to the Russian ground forces of 250,000 soldiers and backed by aerial, maritime and nuclear capabilities.[34]

Russia has also strengthened its military forces in Crimea, modernized the Black Sea Fleet, and completed the integration of former Ukrainian military units there.[35] These steps, explained as a response to NATO’s military build-up in the Alliance’s East, indicate Russia’s efforts to enhance capabilities for a conventional inter-state war on its Western border.[36]

With more than 350,000 professional soldiers, Russia has for the first time achieved the ratio of 2:1 professionals to conscripts. These professionals mainly serve in elite forces such as the airborne-assault troops, special-operations forces, and submarine unites. The number of reservists declined sharply, from 20 million in 2008 to 2 million in 2014. Despite the professionalization, Russia’s armed forces still could not properly function without the draft.[37]

Frequent planned and snap exercises ensure high readiness of the modernized forces. The largest exercise in 2015, ‘Tsentr’, brought together around 95,000 soldiers, 7,000 pieces of military equipment, and 150 fighter aircrafts; the largest force massed by Russia over the last quarter of a century and a massive increase from just 9,400 soldiers exercising in 2013.[38] The trained scenarios ranged from counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, amphibious and airborne landing to conducting large-scale conventional air and ground attacks. Particular emphasis was put on enhancing strategic mobility, improving command and control, and increasing firepower.[39]

For 2016, dozens of major national multi-force exercises are planned.[40] The largest one, ‘Kavkaz’, is planned for September 2016. Its purpose will be to test the joint forces’ ability to operate and move rapidly in large distances in contested environments.[41] Finally, the practice of snap exercises, which worried NATO over the course of 2015, will continue into 2016.[42] These unannounced exercises are supposed to signal to Brussels that Russia can, in the matter of hours, mass 40,000-50,000 soldiers, something that the multi-national NATO cannot.[43] Tellingly, a special focus will be given to air-supported highly mobile ground operations in contested territories.[44]

Postscript: Implications for NATO ahead of the Warsaw Summit

NATO should not get intimidated by Russia’s military resurgence with all its strengths and weaknesses, nor should it engage in a restless competition. Instead, a two-pronged strategy is desirable.

On the one hand, NATO needs to boost defence of the contested Central and Eastern European (CEE) territories through more credible deterrence reinforced through actual capabilities deployed in the region. The proposed rotational presence of 2-3 brigade-size forces in CEE should be backed by a multi-national and rapidly deployable force in Western Europe.

Additional permanently stationed NATO troops in Europe might enhance preparedness and boost the deterrence effect.  Such strategy would in essence mirror the logic of the allied presence in Germany during the Cold War as a guarantee of solidarity and assurance against a surprise attack on an ally. NATO should also invest into infrastructure for effective quick forward movement in and between Member States; air strips, logistics and fuel depots, harbour modifications, and radars for enhanced early warning, will serve this purpose well.

NATO forces rotating in the CEE and supported from behind the front line would deprive Russia of calculating with a quick victory, achieving the dangerous fait accompli as it happened with Crimea and Georgia. The deterring forces need to be visible, at high readiness, and able to flexibly adapt to challenges from low-intensity hybrid warfare to a conventional invasion.[45]

On the other hand, the Alliance must work towards re-opening a dialogue with Russia. In the long-run, the eventual goal should be re-establishment of cooperative relations in areas characterized by shared interests. A pragmatic approach to Russia does not need to mean compromising on Western principles and values. Rather it is a matter of insightfully identifying the agenda that the West and Russia share and can work on together. Terrorism is a real threat for both Russia and the West. Similarly, tactical nuclear weapons deployed on the European territory do not ultimately leave anyone safer. While Western economies are, in general, in a better shape than the Russia’s one, many of the ongoing economic challenges will bring troubles to both Moscow and the West.  

Refusing to work with Russia on anything might be counterproductive. Russia’s behaviour is unlikely to positively change as a result of an increased isolation, the threat to the Alliance will not go away, and some other (that is non-Russia) threats will be harder to address.

In other words, a renewal of a full-fledged Cold War seems to bring more risks than solutions. Both Russian and NATO leaders should bear this in mind when beefing up their respective militaries.

 

Filip Tucek is Researcher at NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and external Consultant at Eurasia Group. The opinions expressed are solely his own and do not represent views of either of the two organizations.

 


[1] Ukaz Prezidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii o Strategii Natsional’noi Bezopasnosti, No. 683, December 31, 2015, http://static.kremlin.ru/media/events/files/ru/l8iXkR8XLAtxeilX7JK3XXy6Y...

[2] Sikorskyi, Dimitryi, “V poiskakh vragov: NATO kak global’nyi instrument gegemonii i agresii,” Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, November 20, 2015, http://riss.ru/smi/23064/

Polunin, Andrey, “NATO nachinaet kholodnuyu voynu 2,” Svobodnaya Pressa, February 11, 2016, http://svpressa.ru/politic/article/142145/

[3] “U Rossii budet kompleksnyi otvet na voennye ugrozy NATO i USA,” Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, September 30, 2015, http://riss.ru/smi/20962/

[4] Giles, Keir, “Russia’s ‘New Tools’ for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power”, Chatham House, March 2016

[5] Klein, Margarete, “Russia’s Military: On the Rise?,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, March 2016

[6] Klein, Margarete, “Russia’s Military: On the Rise?,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, March 2016

[7] Haas, Marcel de, “Russia’s Military Reforms: Victory after Twenty Years of Failure?,” Clingendael, Paper No. 5, November 2011

[8] The SAP funding breakdown by services is as follows: Air Force 24%; Navy 26%; Space and Air Defence 18%; Army 13%; Strategic Forces 5%; Other 14%.

[9] Klein, Margarete, “Russia’s Military: On the Rise?,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, March 2016; The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia

[10] “Minoborony RF podvelo itogi 2015 godaugrozy rastut, armia krepnet,” Tass, December 11, 2015,  http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2521727

[11] Giles, Keir, “Russia’s ‘New Tools’ for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power,” Chatham House, March 2016; Klein, Margarete, “Russia’s Military: On the Rise?,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, March 2016;

[12] The T-14s have been successfully tested and are expected to be produced from 2017.

The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia; Franko, Blake and Nicholas Varagis, “Russia's Armata T-14 Tank: A Super Weapon?,” The National Interest, May 11, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/russias-armata-t-14-tank-super-weapon-12861

[13] Giles, Keir, “Russia’s ‘New Tools’ for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power”, Chatham House, March 2016; NATO Communications and Information Agency, “NATO-Ukraine Regional Airspace Security Program progress,” March 3, 2016, https://www.ncia.nato.int/NewsRoom/Pages/160315_Ukraine-RASP.aspx

[14] Farley, Robert, “Five Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear,” The National Interest, July 6, 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/five-russian-weapons-war-nato-should-fear-10816,; “Minoborony RF podvelo itogi 2015 godaugrozy rastut, armia krepnet,” December 11, 2015,  http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2521727

[16] Woolf, Amy, “Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Office, October 13, 2015, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R43832.pdf

[17] Giles, Keir, “Russia’s ‘New Tools’ for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power”, Chatham House, March 2016

[18] Malenic, Marina, “AFA 2015: Russia has closed air power gap with NATO, US warns,” IHS Janes, September 16, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/54311/afa-2015-russia-has-closed-air-power-...

[19] Gressel, Gustav, “Lessons from Russia’s intervention in Syria,’ European Council on Foreign Relations,” February 5, 2016, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_lessons_from_russias_intervention_in_syria5085#

[20] Colby, Elbridge, “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S.-Russian Relationship,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 26, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/02/26/role-of-nuclear-weapons-in-u.s.-russian-relationship/iujk

[21] The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia; Eurasia, 9;

 “Minoborony: Perevooruzhit’ vse divizii RVSN na ‘Yars’ I RS-26 planiruetsya v 2021 god,” Tass, July 21, 2015, http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2132865

[22] Colby, Elbridge, “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S.-Russian Relationship,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 26, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/02/26/role-of-nuclear-weapons-in-u.s.-russian-relationship/iujk

[23] The first satellite was launched in November 2015 and the second should follow in 2016.

[24] Bartles, Charles K., “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Military Review, January-February 2016

[25] Pifer, Steven, “The Future of U.S.-Russian Arms Control,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 26, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/02/26/future-of-u.s.-russian-arms-cont...

[26] Withnall, Adam, “Vladimir Putin says Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons 'if necessary' and blames US for Ukraine crisis,” The Independent, March 15, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putin-says-russi...

[27] Pifer, Steven, “Overblown: Russia's empty nuclear sabre-rattling,” Brookings, March 17, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2015/03/17-russia-nuclear-wea...

[28] The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia; Eurasia, 9 February 2016; The Kremlin, “Poseshchenie Natsional’nogo tsentra upravlenia oboronoi,” May 8, 2014; http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20979; “Minoborony RF podvelo itogi 2015 godaugrozy rastut, armia krepnet,” Tass, December 11, 2015,  http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2521727

[29] The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia; Eurasia, 9

[30] Giles, Keir, “Russia’s ‘New Tools’ for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power”, Chatham House, March 2016

[31] “Protivoyadie dlia zapadnykh rubezhei: chem RF otvetit na usilenie baz NATO v Vostochnoi Evrope,” Tass, January 14, 2016, http://tass.ru/opinions/2586466

“V Zapadnom voennom okruge vozrozhdena legendarnaya 1-ya gvardeiskaya tankvaya armya,” Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, February 2, 2015, http://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12076048@egNews

[32] “Shoigu: Minoborony RF v 2016 godu sformiruet tri novye divizii na zapadnom napravlenii,” Tass, January 12, 2016, http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2579480 http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2579480

[33] Conley, Heather A., Kathleen H. Hicks, “Evaluating Future U.S. Army Force Posture in Europe,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Phase I Report, February 2016

[34] “The Military Balance,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2015

[35] The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia

[36] “Protivoyadie dlya zapadnykh rubezhei: chem RF otvetit na usilenie baz NATO v vostochnoi Evrope,” Tass, January 14, 2016, http://tass.ru/opinions/2586466

Klein, Margarete, “Russia’s Military: On the Rise?,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, March 2016

[37] The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia

[38] Proshkin, Ivan, “Uchenia ‘Tsentr-2015’ stali krupneishimi v Rossii,” Politicheskaia Rossiia, September 16, 2015, http://politrussia.com/vooruzhennye-sily/tsentr-sily-510/

[39] Klein, Margarete, “Russia’s Military: On the Rise?,” Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, March 2016

[40] “Kakie uchenia ozhidaut Rossiiskuyu armiu v 2016 godu,” Tass, January 29, 2016, http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2621999#A

[41] Proshkin, Ivan, “Uchenia ‘Tsentr-2015’ stali krupneishimi v Rossii,” Politicheskaia Rossiia, September 16, 2015, http://politrussia.com/vooruzhennye-sily/tsentr-sily-510/

[42] “Putin: VS RF na ucheniakh podtverdili gotovnostobespechitbezopasnost’,” Tass, February 11, 2016,

http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2659370http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2659370

[43]Ot armii 2015-go, k armii 2016-go,” Tass, December 25, 2015, http://tass.ru/opinions/2556775

[44] “Shoigu: Minoborony RF v 2016 godu sformiruet tri novye divizii na zapadnom napravlenii,” Tass, January 12, 2016, http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2579480 http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/2579480

The Military Balance 2016, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia

[45] Conley, Heather A., Kathleen H. Hicks, “Evaluating Future U.S. Army Force Posture in Europe,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Phase I Report, February 2016

Ries, Tomas, “Baltic challenges for NATO’s VJTF,” Atlantisch perspectief, Vol. 39, No. 6, 2015