Assessing the Russian Military

15 July 2009

During the Cold War, the Russian – then Soviet – military was the West’s worst nightmare. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the once-mighty military machine fell on extremely hard times. Starved for funds, its equipment deteriorated as its armies fell back from Western Europe. By the time Vladimir Putin took over, the Russian military was a shell of its former self.

“Today, the Russian military is one of the largest military establishments on the planet,” says John Pike, director of the intelligence site GlobalSecurity.org. “But there has been almost no modernization in the a past two decades, so their equipment is worn out and obsolete.”

Under Putin, the Russian military is trying to reform. These moves include a reduction in size from 1.2 million to 1 million men, the halving of the conscript’s required serving time from two to one years, the phasing out of older, obsolete equipment, and an evolution into a smaller, more professional force operating on the principles of agility and fast response.

Most of these reforms have yet to be finished. Still, improvements that have been implemented helped the Russian military perform far more effectively in its 2008 war with Georgia, than it did fighting Chechnyan separatists in the 1990s.      
“The current Russian government has made sustaining Russian military strength a priority, including for budgetary allocations,” says Dr. Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. “The Russian military could still win a conventional war with any of its neighbors, expect perhaps China. Its nuclear forces are continuing to become stronger and should be able to deter/defeat a NATO/US attack or one from China.”   

Yet the generous financial support of the glorious Soviet days are long gone. Today, much of Russia’s military funding is being used to address social problems like inadequate soldier/officer housing, medical care, and pensions. Add the world recession’s impact on oil revenues – on which Russia depends – and cash remains tight.

“The military isn’t in very good shape; it’s not getting enough equipment and it doesn’t look like this is going to change anytime soon,” says Sergei Balashov, a defence writer at Russia Profile magazine. “Russia was even forced to scrap the new military uniforms because of the financial crisis. Right now it looks more like a huge bureaucratic structure that consumes significant funds but doesn’t operate with enough efficiency.”   

Strength and Funding
According to The Military Balance 2008, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Russian military currently has 1,027,000 people on strength. The army accounts for 360,000; the navy for 142,000, and the air force has 160,000. The command and control structure utilizes another 250,000; 80,000 are attached to its strategic nuclear missile force; and 35,000 to its airborne units. The IISS says that 419,000 additional troops are assigned to interior security, border security, and various specialized government units.

Analysts agree that, of Russia’s various military branches, only the strategic missile force has remained adequately funded since the fall of the Soviet Union. This fact reflects the importance Russia places on its nuclear deterrent: Even as its conventional forces decline, having such a deterrent at hand protects the country from invasion. And make no mistake: From Russia’s viewpoint, invasion remains an ever-constant threat. Understanding this fact is thus key to understanding their security concerns, and how the country is committed to meeting them.

As for its military budget: “In 1988 military spending was a single line item in the Soviet state budget, totaling 21 billion rubles, or about US$33 billion,” according to Pike. “Given the size of the military establishment, the actual figure was at least ten times higher. Western experts concluded that the 21 billion ruble figure reflected only operations and maintenance costs.”

After falling catastrophically during the post-Soviet years, the defence budget has been constantly boosted by Putin and his government. Analysts predict that defence spending, including arms purchases and pay raises, will reach 1.28 trillion rubles ($50 billion) in 2009. Much of this money will go towards boosting salaries and improving living conditions.   

“The military budget has been growing like a soap bubble but there isn’t much to show for it on the military side,” says Balashov; “it’s been more about the social side of things, veterans and servicemen have to get new housing and other social benefits. Russia has also strived to cut the length of mandatory service for conscripts. It’s no secret parents often pay large bribes to prevent their children from getting drafted, and they often run the risk of getting abused or even maimed while in service. I personally saw a conscript who was shot in the head by his own comrades and left disabled.”

Context: A State Under Constant Threat
Russians fear invasions. They fear them now as they have for centuries. Examples are solidly grounded in history. Time and again, Russia and its political predecessors have suffered from invading armies – from the Mongols centuries ago, to Napoleon and Hitler. In their wake have come death, destruction and oppression. The memory of these calamities allowed Stalin to inspire his brutalized subjects to fight so hard against the Nazis, at such great personal cost to themselves. It’s a memory that Westerners have a hard time comprehending; especially in North America where such wide-scale invasions have never happened (except to the native population).

Russia proper has few natural defences such as mountains, deserts or seas to defend from, opening it up to invasion. Armies are able to roll in from the east or west. Russian leaders have tried to offset this weakness by creating buffer zones along their ­borders; usually by conquering and then controlling their neighbours’ lands.   

According to George Friedman, CEO of STRATFOR Global Intelligence, Russia’s defence dilemma is based on geopolitical instability. In addition to its lack of sea access, says Friedman,“Russia’s essential economic weakness is due to its size and lack of ability to transport agricultural produce throughout the country. No matter how much national will it has, Russia’s inherently insufficient infrastructure constantly weakens its internal cohesion.”   

Russia’s military, and the Soviet military before it, must be viewed against this backdrop.  It exists to defend a perpetually unstable Motherland, come what may. This is why the empire-building ambitions of Stalin, while inhumane and brutal, are militarily understandable. By increasing the buffer zone of subjected states – particularly in eastern Europe – the Soviets were pushing back the defensible line between them and the rest of the world.

Unfortunately for Vladimir Putin, “Russia’s western boundaries have been pushed back to within a few hundred miles of Moscow,” says Nathan Hughes, STRATFOR’s military analyst. “From a defensive standpoint, Russia has not been this vulnerable to attack, geographically speaking, for hundreds of years.”

Understanding the Russian Military’s Likely Direction
The Russian military, as it now stands, is trying to adapt to the 21st century. In doing so, it is moving from quantity to quality; trying to leave behind the country’s historic reliance on masses of conscripted infantry for smaller, more agile and technologically advanced professional units.

Making these changes is no easy matter; even for someone as relentless as Prime Minister Putin. For one thing, there is real resistance from senior officers being put out to pasture, as Moscow tries to rebalance the military’s top-heavy command structure. For another, the sad state of compensation, medical and social support for Russia’s troops makes Canada’s look magnanimously generous by comparison. Years after the retreat from the former East Bloc, many Russian soldiers and officers continue to live in substandard housing, and have to seek second jobs to pay their living expenses.

Dealing with the political fallout from such ill-treatment has become a priority for the Russian government. This focus on rectifying social issues has meant funding is not available for equipment. As a result, “There has been almost no procurement since the end of the Cold War,” says Pike. “Everything is getting a year older every year. Their plans are overly ambitious relative to financial resources, and are totally inadequate to modernize their current force structure.”   
So is the Russian military a paper tiger whose only claim to real strength is its nuclear deterrent? No, say the experts, but Russia is certainly not the perceived menace to western Europe that it once was.
“It is certainly able to accomplish the assigned tasks of handling small peripheral contingencies like Chechnya or Georgia, but really cannot do much more,” says Pike. “It is not actually required by their doctrine to do more than two simultaneous Lesser Regional Contingencies. They do not have the sort of ‘two nearly simultaneous Major Theater Wars requirement’ that the U.S. has.”       
Add falling oil revenues, increased expectations for a better life, and other political pressures, and one can see why the Russian military is not the behemoth that its Soviet predecessor was.

The political will that saw 15 to 17% of the USSR’s GNP going to military expenditures is no longer there. Today, Russia reportedly spends about 2.7 percent of its GDP on defence, according to GlobalSecurity.org. Even though Russia’s economy has improved substantially over the Soviet era, times have changed when it comes to military funding – much in the way that the current U.S. space program is nowhere as well-funded as the Cold War-motivated Apollo program was.

That said, it would be wrong to mistake the changes in Russia’s military reality as indicating a lessening of resolve. Russia’s unwavering support of its nuclear arsenal is a measure of how seriously the country takes the threat of invasion. Meanwhile, Moscow’s move to reform the military into a professional 21st century force shows that it understands how the world has changed since the Cold War, and how the Russian military must change as well.

But will it be enough? Dr. Weitz isn’t sure. “Russia’s problem is that their leadership plans to fight against many possible targets,” he explains. “This requires them to disperse their efforts across many different scenarios: mass insurgencies in the northern Caucasus; military intervention on behalf of allied governments threatened by domestic unrest (especially in Central Asia); possible limited conventional wars with Georgia or Ukraine; major conventional wars with NATO and the United States; and possible nuclear wars with NATO/U.S. and perhaps at some future point China.”
Clearly, Russia’s military has its work cut out for it. This is why Global Security’s John Pike doesn’t take current military reform efforts too seriously. “It is entirely a facade in the sense that Russia’s military is very large and very weak, but it is completely serious in that the Russian leadership understands that if they do not resume force modernization they will be a laughing stock, since their military is starting to look like the Pope’s Switzers,” he says. “Operationally, they must be able to prevent peripheral secession, and they are in pretty good shape for this task. Politically, they must not appear pathetically weak in the eyes of the West, and here they have fallen and can’t get up.”   
The Russian military has a long way to go in recovering from its post-Soviet collapse. However, it has recovered to some extent and remains a force to be taken very seriously.

James Careless is a defence writer.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009