Russia military parade in Red Square, Moscow.

The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

February 02, 2017
Michael Kofman

This article originally appeared in The National Interest with the subheading: "What the new Pentagon needs to know."

The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.

Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.

It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.

Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.

Russia Has Been Busy

The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.

The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).

Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.

Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.

Admittedly, the size of this force is a fraction of the Soviet colossus that NATO faced in Europe. However, most of America’s allies in Europe have either let their armed forces atrophy or cut conventional capabilities entirely from their roster, in favor of niche roles in the alliance. The United States, too, has cut its navy and army to levels that are hardly consistent with the increased likelihood of interstate conflict, which portends a need to deter great powers and maintain a large network of allies in the face of revisionist ones. That concept in and of itself is likely unsustainable, requiring a rethink of long-standing policies, and the return of strategic discipline to Washington, DC.

What Can the Russian Military Do?

As a Eurasian land power, Russia concentrates most of its firepower in the ground force, intended to counter Western advantages in air power. The Russian army can fight alone. New families of weapon systems that were being developed by the USSR in the 1980s have been completed and are being distributed across the force, enabling long-range precision strikes, air defense and marked improvements down to the individual soldier level.

Today Russia can field perhaps forty or fifty thousand troops on short notice, including airborne and spetsnaz, along with armored and mechanized infantry formations. Simply put, in any contingency on its borders, Russia is likely to be there first with the decisive military power to seize the initiative and establish superiority.

However, Russia’s ground force numbers 300,000–350,000 troops at most, and lacks an operational reserve. Since it can only field a fraction of this force, this means Russia’s military is not configured to occupy large amounts of land or replace combat losses in offensive operations. This lesson was driven home rather quickly through combat operations in Ukraine, creating strain on the Russian military rotating units through the Donbass. Practical constraints tell us that Russia’s military is not an existential threat to Europe, or even Ukraine for that matter, but that it can impose its will by force on neighboring countries and that Moscow is credible when it threatens to do so. Hence, Russia’s military is a powerful tool for coercion.

Russian doctrinal thinking, codified in a collection of concepts under the title of New Generation Warfare, shows a clear desire to advance interests through asymmetric means and subconventional approaches. Moscow is aware of its hard power limitations and prefers to avoid expensive conventional operations, instead making strategic gains through political warfare, special forces and other indirect means. There is a strong shift towards a system of nonnuclear deterrence, based around long-range conventional weapons and domains where it can readily retaliate, such as through cyber or information warfare. These are indicative of an emergent strategy, favoring agility, speed and reserving options for escalation, in order to shape the battlefield with fairly little hard military power.

Lessons learned from experiences in Ukraine and Syria are being integrated into the Russian military as it develops. Russian armed forces are still in a largely experimental phase, absorbing both chaotic reforms and the high operational tempo of combat in the past two years. Modernization has yet to hit parts of the force, but in some key areas, like nuclear weapons, air defense and long-range guided missiles, Russia has invested heavily and reaped results. Mobility is also a premium. Lessons from fighting in Ukraine and Syria suggest that Russia’s “good enough” at current readiness levels is more than sufficient to take on any former Soviet Republic on its borders, and even engage a peer adversary like NATO in a short-term high-intensity fight. Russia would struggle occupying entire states, but it can crush their militaries and readily seize parcels of adjoining land.

European Security: Living in Interesting Times

Looking at military capability is enough to give anyone pause, but this is a story of potential. The new Russian army has not fought en masse against anyone. Russia is one eighth of the world’s land area, with perhaps the smallest army it has fielded in centuries. Where it chooses to place its forces matters, because it tells us whom Russia intends to fight and how. From 2009–12, Russia disbanded or moved many of its units on Ukraine’s borders, and those in closest proximity to NATO members, towards the Central and Southern Military Districts.

The Russian Navy was making preparations to eventually abandon naval basing in Crimea, while largely ignoring the Baltic region. It may be hard to imagine, but Kaliningrad was once home to hundreds of tanks, rather than the single T-72B tank battalion that currently resides there. Whether out of a desire to avoid provoking NATO, or simply due to priorities elsewhere, there has been no indication that Russia’s military transformation was spurred by being fixated on a fight in the Baltics.

There are four discernible trends in Russia’s changing military posture in the European theater: large force rebasing to surround Ukraine, the resurrection of ground and naval forces in Crimea, the revival of military operations in air and sea, and general modernization across the board now making its way towards the Baltic region.

With experience gained in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s General Staff began to rethink its force posture and structure. From late 2014 to early 2016, Russia announced the steady return of brigades to Ukraine’s borders. Moscow is creating three new divisions ringing Ukraine, in what Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu calls the “southwest strategic direction.” Although billed as a response to NATO, in reality Russia is rapidly constructing bases around Ukraine, modernizing tactical aviation, upgrading infrastructure, and putting in plans for a large permanent combat grouping, to be based around the country from the north to Crimea.

Russian division-sized formations, which will take time to fully emerge, are a useful indicator of where its military expects to conduct combat operations in the future. The Western Military District is preparing a large contingency force in the event of a significantly expanded conflict with Ukraine. This force is of course mobile, and given time can certainly deploy to the Baltics in strength.

By seizing Crimea, Russia regained the most strategically valuable territory in Ukraine. From the peninsula, it can range most of the Black Sea with antiship and, to a lesser extent, antiair weapons systems. Russia has incorporated Ukraine’s former units, the bulk of which defected, and is steadily modernizing their equipment with newer systems, such as the S-400 Triumph and Bastion-P coastal-defense cruise-missile battery. The Black Sea Fleet has been revived, receiving two new multirole frigates, guided-missile corvettes, patrol craft and six diesel-electric submarines. Not only is this fleet the dominant naval force in the Black Sea, but it is also able to project some power into the eastern Mediterranean.

Though easily bottled up by Turkey, Russia’s garrison in Syria, with its own set of offensive capabilities, means the eastern Mediterranean is no longer an uncontested body of water for U.S. naval forces. Despite the political focus on the Baltics, the most dramatic change in the military balance is on NATO’s southern periphery, with region-wide implications, since Russia’s new ship classes field long-range land-attack missiles capable of ranging most of Europe or the Middle East.

Russia’s air force and long-range bomber aviation are also benefiting from the modernization wave, but its combat operations in Syria reveal more weaknesses than strengths. Moscow has leveraged its air power for a deliberate campaign of provocation towards NATO, and even the continental United States. The intent is for Europeans to grow increasingly concerned with Russian behavior and seek engagement, while for the United States, the message is to take Russia seriously and understand the escalatory dynamics that could precipitate from an intervention in Ukraine or Syria against Russian forces there. Moscow’s intent was to deter the United States, and also incentivize the West towards negotiations.

The campaign likely achieved its desired effect, but at the same time it has precipitated a serious reorientation of the U.S. national-security establishment to begin planning for a potential war with Russia in Europe. Like a large ship, once turned about to see Russia as a genuine threat, the U.S. national-security establishment will spend the coming years leery of any move by Moscow. NATO partners like Sweden and Finland, wary of Russian behavior, are also reexamining their options to join the alliance. Russia has gotten what it wanted, and then some. Their military activity is also not without practical costs; a high operational tempo cost Russia nine aircraft in 2015 in a spate of accidents.

The most significant threat to the U.S. military (besides nuclear weapons) is Russia’s submarine force, which may be a fifth the size of its Soviet predecessor (forty-five to fifty operational), but is active after a prolonged absence from the deep. The United States is technologically dominant in the undersea domain—an important advantage for its global force, but one that is eroding and will continue to do so without investment. Russia remains the most technologically sophisticated adversary beneath the waves, and while it has relatively few operational nuclear submarines, the United States is hardly flush with capacity of its own, stretched thin by the operational requirements of different fleets.

However, NATO enjoys immense geographic advantages; from the GIUK gap to the Bosporus strait, it has natural choke points to control Russian submarine access to the deep. Reviving antisubmarine warfare capabilities among key allies, for example P-8 purchases by Britain and Norway, or reactivating Keflavik airbase in Iceland, will go a long way to reducing vulnerabilities. This is one area where technical capabilities matter. Allies can make substantial contributions to collective security, and help protect the American homeland along with their own, but it’s a case of either having them or not. For most, the answer is disappointing.

Baltic Fixation: Problem or Policy Addiction?

NATO has gotten itself wrapped around the axle of the Baltic threat, but it’s a political issue in alliance politics more than a military problem the United States is ever likely to face. There is absolutely no indication that Russia has military designs on the Baltics, and most of its behavior suggests an aversion to gambling with the prospect of large casualties and an expensive conflict. However, the reality is that if it did, NATO is ill positioned to stop it. The bigger problem lies in various types of indirect approaches and unconventional warfare, which the alliance is equally not well situated to manage.

In terms of alliance politics, the United States has thus far ticked all the boxes necessary to reassure allies and strengthen the credibility of its commitments—many of which it did not have to. Unlike in the Asia-Pacific region, American allies in Europe don't exactly have other options besides NATO. However, the United States has yet to seriously tackle the issue of deterrence. The deployment of a brigade combat team split among six countries (part of the $3.4 billion ERI package), and four NATO multinational battalions in the Baltics, are in the service of assurance, not intended to change the military balance, which is unequivocally in Russia’s favor.

That may all be for the best, given that the specter of Russia attempting a fait accompli seizure of the Baltics is a decidedly contrived scenario. The U.S. policy establishment is a large solution always in search of a problem, and while pragmatism dictates contingency planning, the threat to the Baltics is distorted by alliance politics, poorly grounded in sound military analysis of Russian force posture. Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad is quite vulnerable from Moscow’s perspective, while any large-scale U.S. ground presence could prove an intolerable threat, given the proximity of St. Petersburg just outside “NATO’s borders.” Russia is likely no less worried about Kaliningrad, behind NATO lines, than NATO is about its Baltic members.

Given the proximity to one of Russia’s most important cities, there is no prospect of establishing deterrence by denial without deploying a force on Russia’s borders so large that it results in a bidding contest and precipitates the very war it was meant to prevent. The good news is that Russia takes NATO guarantees rather seriously—perhaps much more so than its own members, which is why it has invaded both Georgia and Ukraine to keep them from joining the alliance. Contrary to popular belief, for many years not only was there no Baltic military buildup in progress, but the region had been fielding aging Russian units with poor readiness. The wholesale sacking in June 2016 of the Baltic Fleet command, including ground force officers, is an objective indicator of what the Russian General Staff thinks about the fighting readiness of its forces in Kaliningrad.

It is difficult to assert that a Russian invasion of the Baltics is coming by looking at the meager steps the country’s armed forces have taken to enable it. That said, this is a snapshot what was, not of what will be.

Russia may have saved the Baltic region for last, but an expanded force posture and deployment of new capabilities are in the works. The establishment of the Eleventh Army Corps in Kaliningrad indicates that existing units will be expanded in size, some companies turned into full battalions, and more. As Russia retires the last of its SS-21 Scarab units in Kaliningrad, the dreaded Iskander (SS-26) will take its place in the next year or two, especially given that there are only two units in all of Russia left to rearm with this system. The same can be said for air defenses, with standardization around the S-400 and later models of S-300 systems, combat aviation and fixed-wing aircraft. This is the logical evolution of Russia's modernization program to replace old Soviet workhorses with newer designs.

New units positioned in the Western Military District may not be arrayed against the Baltics, but they are of course mobile, and likely intended to intervene in Belarus. This means they are also able to punch through Lithuania to link up with Kaliningrad if needed. Russia’s Sixth Army around St. Petersburg, and the nearby airborne division in Pskov,are more than enough to roll through the Baltic states. Although there is little to suggest Russia is building a strike force for the Baltics, even if unchanged, the existing units are sufficient for the task. As the wave of modernization approaches, together with the growing size of Russian armed forces, its combat grouping in the region will only grow stronger relative to NATO’s.

The next U.S. administration must think about the right strategy to address deterrence in Europe without being consumed by it, especially given that the Obama administration has already done much to reassure allies. Burden sharing should be at the forefront of that approach, in part because it’s a perennial problem, but also because Russia sees U.S. military presence near its borders as provocative, using it in domestic political propaganda to mobilize the population.

Russian Power in Perspective

Despite Russia’s restoration of its military, the United States remains a far stronger power. Even if it were interested in fighting NATO over the Baltics, Moscow is not able to sustain a prolonged conventional conflict with the United States, lacking sustainment, reserves and most of all having too small a force to withstand a war on several fronts. Thus, the costs and risks of escalation have grossly outweighed any imagined benefits. The United States is a superpower with a global force; Russia is not, and is not keen on contests where it stands a real chance of losing.

Moscow may match the United States in nuclear weapons, and is a real competitor in the cyber domain, but Russian military strength lies close to its borders. It is also a lonely power, with weak allies like Belarus and Armenia. The United States, on the other hand, benefits from a vast network of allies, contributing military assets or strategically positioned territory, both of which offer advantages over revisionist challengers. Taking this into account, here is how the United States should structure its approach.

Fixing deterrence in the Baltics is an arduous task. It would require not just a tripwire force, but follow-on forces somewhere in theater, to make deterrence by punishment more credible. This means a gradual transfer of combat aviation, air power and naval power to the European theater—close enough to be credible, but based far enough away from Russia’s borders as not to be escalatory. There is no credible deterrence in Europe without visible American commitment, which means a force on the continent capable of fighting wars, and not just cheerleading allies. That said, there is little sense in expanding ground forces for a large footprint in Europe. The strategy should be based on punishment, leveraging advantages in the air and sea domain. This also keeps the costs to the United States minimal, and retains flexibility to pursue contingencies elsewhere.

Reviving allied capability and U.S. military presence will take years, and so in the interim it would do Western officials well not to panic publicly over the vulnerability. It’s not getting fixed anytime soon, and NATO’s track record of follow-through on military spending is terrible. Reviving NATO’s war-fighting capability is a generational project. Emphasizing how easily Russia could seize the Baltics is hardly going to help restore deterrence. If the United States wishes to project strength, it must stop incessantly highlighting its weakness in the face of credible adversaries.

To deal with Russia, the United States needs a much better sense of itself. America is not weak. It’s just that Washington, DC is not particularly smart in its use of military power, and often unable to corral a disparate policy establishment into a coherent response to long-term threats. Distant from its problems, American leadership is vulnerable to manipulation by adversaries and allies alike. Outpacing the decisionmaking in our policy establishment is no great feat; Russia has done exceptionally well in setting the negative agenda. European allies are also well practiced in the “damsel in distress” act. A few speeches about America’s indispensable leadership is usually all it takes to get DC to open up its pocketbooks and pay to defend the world’s richest economies.

Weakness, Real and Imaginary

America’s primary weakness is not in its lack of economic or military power, but in a failure to formulate strategy and, frankly, poorly informed decisionmaking, even when faced with a peer nuclear power. Military capability in and of itself will not fix these cardinal weaknesses in judgment, nor make up for a lack of vision and political will to see hard choices through.

Russian leadership takes the long view—a luxury of being in charge for sixteen years. The current conflict may seem local to Ukraine, or regional to European security, but the evaluation in Moscow is systemic. The problem this administration must solve is one of strategic insolvency in the eyes of powers like Russia. If the United States continues to cut its force size and defense spending while expanding its alliance network, all while the military utility of its allies continues to decline relative to the power of adversaries, then the proximate cause of a challenge is irrelevant. Eventually, an unsatisfied power will do the math, reaching the verdict that America lacks the ability and resolve to meet its alliance commitments. The odds are higher it will be China, not Russia. The problem is not the military balance in the Baltics, but Russia’s perception that the U.S. position in the international system is declining in large part because of decisions made by its policy establishment.

Prevention means investing in the foundations of military and economic power, not just plugging gaps. The United States cannot just procure its way out of this problem with new batches of missiles and increasingly exorbitant military toys. At the top of the agenda should be capacity in sea power, capability in the land and air force, and a modernized nuclear force structure better able to deal with nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Today the United States is shuffling an increasingly smaller deck of cards. Furthermore, it means stabilizing relations with some adversaries in order to better pursue confrontation with others. The Obama administration chose to rethink Iran, but the challenge from Russia was arguably no less important. It could not be abandoned to wishful thinking that Russia is a “regional power in decline.”

Negotiating from strength also means figuring out what America wants from Russia and seeking to establish leverage. In the post–Cold War world, the U.S. national-security establishment typically does not negotiate from strength; it builds strength so that it doesn’t have to negotiate, and then just sits there, hoping the other side will expire. The foreign-policy elite is unwilling to set priorities or make trades, and thus falls back on sticks or on “do something” solutions. Exhibit A: the current policy consensus to confront Russian influence everywhere, absent a real strategy. This has resulted in plenty of hand wringing, and bureaucratic activity without any achievement. Russia respects U.S. military strength, but has no regard for American leadership. The approach has also been objectively unsuccessful, with Moscow consistently beating the United States in contests from Ukraine to Syria, or the latest hacking scandal.

If the goal is simply to stabilize relations with Russia, then the new administration can no doubt reach an accord to curb aggressive military activity. That will satisfy European allies, but marginal improvements in atmospherics will not survive inevitable crises in relations. Washington must determine the best way to end Moscow’s rebellion against the international system and align resources to that strategy. A NATO policy is not a Russia policy. A Russia strategy should consider the interests and concerns of allies, and not abandon them, but be based on American national interests. That is a balancing act in which deterrence, coercive credibility and deal making will all play a role.

The days of simply dismissing Russia as a nonentity are gone. America’s credibility in retaliation has diminished, as has its demonstrable resolve, enabling Russia to feel it can establish escalation dominance cheaply. Today, Moscow has every reason to judge that the United States fears escalation more than it does American retaliation, which means it may treat any U.S. diplomatic efforts as negotiating from a position of necessity much more so than strength. That should not be a discouragement from pursuing diplomacy, but it is an unfortunate reality any policymaker must deal with. The previous administration found this problem vexing, and consistently punished Russia in the international system in the hope that retaliatory measures would prove coercive. They did not.

The new president has certain advantages. Russia will no longer assume that it can easily threaten escalation until it gets the measure of the new administration. If the president chooses to pursue strength and credibility, he should do it as part of a coherent strategy that brings Moscow back into the fold, rather than a means by which the American policy elite can once again recuse itself from making any choices.


Michael Kofman

Michael Kofman is a research scientist at CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Photo credit: Wikicommons photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.