Russia’s military forces have steadily deteriorated since the early 1990s and Moscow is trying to compensate by building up its nuclear forces and commando troops, according to military specialists.
Moscow’s military and policy leaders are focused on countering what they view as the threat from the United States and NATO, but they are missing the dangers posed by Islamist extremism and the rise of China, the specialists say.
“The Russian military all these years has learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” said Heritage Foundation specialist Ariel Cohen. “They’re still in the Soviet mode of preparing for a global war.”
Russia’s emphasis on amphibious forces, interoperability with Chinese forces, building more submarines and test firing ballistic missiles has very little to do with its stated military goal of countering terrorism, Mr. Cohen said.
“For them, it is about deterring the main adversary, the United States,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow is building up its conventional and nuclear forces because it was premature to speak of an end to the arms race with the U.S.
The comments followed harsh criticism from Vice President Dick Cheney who warned in a speech in Lithuania that Russia is turning away from democratic reform and moving toward becoming a hostile power.
Christopher Swift, a specialist with the Center of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, said Moscow is heavily investing in strategic nuclear forces and special operations forces until it can reform its conventional military.
The enlisted troops are in bad shape with low morale and problems linked to hazing, he said, while the officer corps is good but lacks resources.
“Their best military forces are locked down in the Caucasus,” Mr. Swift said, noting that Russia is losing the war against insurgents in Chechnya. “They have not produced any new planes or ships in the last five years. All the money they are investing is being put into the Topol [multiple warhead] missile system.”
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russia has some 1.2 million regular army troops and 360,000 interior ministry and federal security troops.
The armed forces, which are transforming from a conscript force to a more professional volunteer army, are fragmented into three conventional armies vying for limited resources: the former Red Army, the MVD interior ministry troops and the federal security troops under direct command of Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer.
Mr. Putin’s comments appeared in part to be a response to a recent Foreign Affairs journal article that said the United States is nearing “nuclear primacy” over Russia and China, the capability to launch a crippling nuclear first strike against its strategic rivals.
The two authors, professors Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, say Russia’s nuclear forces, land-based missiles, strategic bombers and missile submarines, have so deteriorated that they are vulnerable to a surprise attack.
With a rapidly declining population, Russia will be unprepared to deal with a possible land grab by China in the Russian Far East in the coming decades, Mr. Cohen said.
Russia has deployed more than 36 new Topol-Ms, also known as the SS-27, in the past two years to replace aging missile systems, the IISS said in its latest annual report “The Military Balance.”
It also is building a new class of missile submarines known as the Borey that will carry a new missile called the SSN-30, a submarine-launched version of the Topol.
According to U.S. officials, some of the new missiles are equipped with maneuvering warheads that are designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses.