Rebuilding armed forces decimated by post-Cold War cuts, Russia has poured hundreds of billions of rubles into a military modernization program over the past 10 years.
Today, Moscow’s armed forces may still be no match for U.S. and NATO power, but analysts say that is exactly the way Kremlin wants it.
Although a decade of heavy, targeted investment has put the Russian force on perhaps its strongest footing since the days of the Soviet Union, specialists argue that measuring it against the U.S. military in traditional terms is a waste of time and fundamentally misreads Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 21st-century strategy.
Russia’s revamped approach has produced tangible results, such as its widely hyped hypersonic weapons program, the popular S-400 missile defense system, advanced artillery and even an Iron Man-style exoskeleton for soldiers that seems on par or perhaps beyond similar U.S. programs. Still, analysts stress that each project or military advancement must be viewed through a broader lens.
Every step the Russian military takes, they say, is designed to fit into the “hybrid war” model that has delivered success in Syria, Crimea and elsewhere. The Kremlin uses its more effective, better equipped armed forces in conjunction with paramilitary mercenary groups for limited missions to accomplish specific strategic goals.
“Yes, absolutely, the Russian military is more effective than it was five or 10 years ago,” said Mason Clark, Russia lead analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “But it’s really important to keep in mind that while the Russian military is not in any way a match for NATO … they’re not trying to be.
“There are these fascinating internal discussions [among Russian leaders] warning themselves of falling into the trap that ‘If we get this new fighter jet, we’ll be able to compete’ or ‘If we get this new exoskeleton, we’ll be able to compete,’” Mr. Clark said. “They are aware that they are not going to be able to go toe to toe with conventional NATO units, and so there’s a lot of emphasis on ways to get around this.”
Fixing its problems
Mr. Putin’s hybrid warfare approach includes disinformation campaigns, political pressure, online operations and other steps short of military conflict but central to Moscow’s effort to widen its sphere of influence and weaken Washington’s hand in key battlegrounds.
But specialists stress that a capable, nimble military remains an irreplaceable component of that bigger scheme. Russia’s ability to conduct limited but highly effective military or paramilitary operations in Syria, Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere is necessary to achieve larger aims. In Syria, for example, a relatively small contingent of Russian forces has been able to turn the tide of the civil war in favor of the regime of its key regional ally, Bashar Assad, and in some ways has allowed the Kremlin to politically outmaneuver the U.S. in the war-torn country.
In Libya, Russia’s leading private paramilitary arm, the Wagner Group, is aiding rebel forces led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who is battling the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli. Russia’s approach to Libya offers a window into how the Kremlin believes it can expand its influence with a relatively modest commitment of material and manpower.
Russia’s limited military action last decade in Crimea, which resulted in the annexation of a Ukrainian peninsula, is another instance of Moscow’s reliance on calculated geopolitical gambles with limited military engagement, all while getting minimal pushback from the West.
Fifteen years ago, specialists say, such moves would have been all but impossible. A Russian military built around the idea of fighting a world war against the U.S. and its allies struggled in the 1990s to subdue a poorly armed force of separatists in Chechnya.
That bloody conflict exposed many underlying problems and planted the seeds for reforms.
Even Russia’s 2008 brief border clash with Georgia, specialists say, was plagued by missteps, including an underwhelming performance by its air force and a command-and-control structure that failed to keep all Russian units coordinated against a much smaller and weaker foe.
The brief war in Georgia led Mr. Putin and his commanders to reevaluate their priorities and military structure, and to ramp up spending.
“I think it’s tough to overstate the level of modernization, improvement they’ve made to their land forces since the 1990s. Post-Cold War, that military was an absolute disaster,” said Gil Barndollar, a former infantry officer in the Marine Corps and now a senior research fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. Many of those systemic shortcomings left over from the Cold War, Mr. Barndollar said, “got exposed in Chechnya” and remained embedded within the Russian military through the next decade.
“They were kind of a mess going into Georgia in 2008,” he said.
Unlike its unwieldy post-Cold War behemoth, Moscow’s force today is much smaller, more flexible, better trained, better equipped and better suited to smaller-scale operations.
“They’ve shrunk the military and made it higher readiness,” Mr. Barndollar said. “In a lot of ways, they got away from a mass-conscript army model to what in some ways resembles more closely what we do in the West.”
Russia has about 1 million active-duty service members.
Researchers say that Russia’s political leadership, and Mr. Putin in particular, deserve credit for the changes.
“Without Putin and his political associates, it is at the very least debatable whether Russia’s armed forces would have recovered to the extent they have from the vicissitudes of the 1990s,” according to a study of Russia’s military modernization by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
In 2010, Russia was spending under $50 billion each year on its military. That number grew steadily until 2016 and topped out at around $70 billion, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The figure has dropped to $60 billion to $65 billion each year since, but analysts say that’s partly because of a 2016 budget allocation for past deliveries of military equipment that drove up the numbers.
In 2019, Moscow spent about 3.9% of its gross domestic product on its military. During the current phase of Russia’s military modernization plan, from 2018 through 2027, the Kremlin will spend about $330 billion on its military, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Those numbers put Russia fourth in military spending, behind China and India, and miles behind the world’s leader, the U.S. The most recent Pentagon budget came in at $732 billion, a whopping 38% of all global military spending, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Russia’s nuclear arsenal remains a key financial priority, as it has been since for decades. Specialists say the nuclear stockpile was one of the few military sectors that received adequate funding in the immediate post-Cold War years.
Russia has struggled to rebuild all dimensions of its military but has made strategic investments elsewhere to offset its flaws. Although it still has just one aircraft carrier, Russia has a fleet of more than 40 icebreakers capable of operating in frigid Arctic waters and giving Moscow a serious advantage in a theater expected to become a geopolitical battleground over the next decade.
The U.S. has two just functional icebreakers, one of which is out of service because of a fire.
Russia has far fewer military aircraft than the U.S. but has an impressive array of artillery and tanks, though such assets may be of limited use in a new era of warfare.
Russia also has reorganized its command-and-control structure and has made major investments in electronic warfare, reconnaissance, communication systems and other modern elements.
At the end of the day, virtually all analysts agree there is little comparison between the U.S. and Russian militaries when it comes to overall capabilities and the ability to wage and win conventional wars. The problem, they say, is that Washington hasn’t fully come to grips with Moscow’s new approach and how to combat it.
“I think we, the U.S., have a problem in the way we have framed the Russia challenge,” said Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “We identify our objective as preventing great-power war. And the problem is … the Russians share that objective. They also desire not to fight a great-power war.
“We’re doing all the stuff to deter something the Russians don’t intend to do,” he said.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Click to Read More and View Comments
Click to Hide
Please read our comment policy before commenting.