A Russian officer checks details at a parade honoring the "Great Patriotic War."
A Russian officer checks details at a parade honoring the "Great Patriotic War." Moscow, June 22nd, 2012.

The Russian Military: A Force in Transition

June 24, 2016
Michael Kofman

This article was originally published by the Center on Global Interests in the report “Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, and Threat.”

A combination of military reforms, launched late in 2008, and modernization, initiated in 2011, has transformed the Russian military. The results of these programs have been at the same time impressive and incomplete, resulting in a state of permanent change for the Russian military without an easily discernible destination. Hence, it is difficult to categorically describe the Russian armed forces today, except as a force in transition. There are discernible areas of success, failure, and continued change, as there are useful cases from recent conflicts that offer insights into what the present day Russian military can do. Arguably, any capability analysis offers a snapshot, but is the Russian military on a fixed trajectory? Can we say with confidence what its future will be?

Russia's armed forces underwent a period of chaotic reform between late 2008 and 2012 under Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov. After 2012 his successor, Sergey Shoigu, has led a phase of consolidation and incremental revision. Shoigu introduced a robust program of snap readiness checks, smaller joint force drills, and larger scale annual strategic exercises. Meanwhile, the modernization program which promised to spend $700 billion between 2011- 2020 in order to bring the overall state of equipment up to a 70-percent modernization level, began to steadily produce results. At first it was impossible for Russia's anemic defense sector to absorb the spending in the early years — and parts of the defense-industrial complex still remain woefully incapable of timely or quality production — but Russia's services began to see upticks in modernization and procurement of new equipment. The impact of these purchases can be felt in the deployment of new weapons systems that had long been in the research and A 4 development phase from the 1990s. These include Novator's family of Kalibr land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, the S-400 air defense system, and the newer lines of Su-35, Su-30SM, and Su-34 aircraft.

The State Armament Program

Russia has been purchasing hardware ranging from strategic nuclear forces, submarines and ships, to combat aviation, tactical aviation, and a host of land warfare systems. In recent announcements it is alleged that the level of modernized equipment in the force has increased from 30 to 47 percent, and will reach 50 percent by the end of 2016. Of course, the values attached to these figures are almost metaphysical. What does the term “modernized” mean? How is this quality defined? While modernization is in a general sense an improvement to the technical sophistication of forces, units, weapon systems, and equipment, there is no absolute standard to be met and success can be met relative to previous standards. It is unclear that there is any specific standard by which Russian officials will ultimately declare the force as having attained the goal of 70 percent modernization.

However, judging by upgrades to infantryman's equipment and ground combat vehicles, the improved capabilities of new air defense systems and helicopters, and the production of fourth generation fighters, Russia's armed forces have been improving at a steady pace from a procurement perspective. Almost everything is slower than expected and behind schedule; overpromising and under-delivering is often the norm in defense industries, though Russia's in particular needed a lengthy spool-up time to restore industrial production capacity.

Russia's air force has been steadily adding Su-30SM, Su-35 and Su-34 aircraft while upgrading substantial parts of the existing fleet of Su-27s, Mig-31s, Su-24s and Su-25s. The aging strategic bomber force has been given a new lease on life with modernization programs and the deployment of the new Kh-101/Kh-102 air to ground cruise missiles, maintaining its mission and extending the strike range. Despite a spate of accidents in 2015 that saw the loss of six different air craft within a few months, the air force was able to sustain an intense level of operations in Syria, at times matching the pace of Western counterparts. Meanwhile, helicopter procurement proceeded apace with Mi-28N, Mi-35 and Ka- 52 purchases, with all three being tested during combat operations in Syria. At Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, and Threat⏐ 5 first modernizations were being counted as “new” equipment, but in recent years the MoD has become more honest in procurement accounting.

Land system procurement has been fickle, focused on mobility and modernization of existing systems. Despite being much lauded in some reports for having impressive firepower, which Russian combat vehicles do have, there remain long-standing problems with munitions and the need to match the sophistication of Western fire control and sighting systems. Even though Russia has completed a new family of main battle tanks (MBT), infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) and armored personnel carriers (APC), these remain prototypes in field trials, and it is unclear whether the funding will be available to serially produce them for the force.

Today much of the Russian land force fights with heavily modernized Soviet equipment rather than newly designed or engineered vehicles. Its principal tank is not the T-90A, but the less sophisticated T-72B3, with many T-72B1 and T- 80U still present in the force. Most of the artillery, for which the Russian army is renowned, similarly dates back to the Soviet era, with longer range munitions and better barrels, but little has been done in terms of innovating designs. Russia's more important capability is its improved air defense: a host of new systems like S-400, Pantsir-S1, and modernized existing variants like the Tor-M2 continue to prove a potent shield against top tier combat aviation. However, Russia has been unable to realize more advanced designs, such as the long range missile for the S-400 (40N6), or the much anticipated S-500 Prometheus system.

Other new capabilities can be seen in areas such as unit communications, improved guided munitions, a range of electronic warfare systems, battlefield reconnaissance, and targeting. Although for years Russia failed to develop drones and was forced to license and produce Israeli designs, it has handily adapted the technology to enhance its ability to deliver more accurate and timely Today much of the Russian land force fights with heavily modernized Soviet models rather than new equipment. 6 offensive fires, as demonstrated both in Syria and Ukraine. Slowly but surely the Russian military is adapting to a more information-driven battlefield, attempting to incorporate technologies effectively demonstrated by U.S. forces in combat operations in the 1990s and early 2000s. It remains unclear how widely distributed the effects are throughout the force, but it seems that elite infantry and select combat units are substantially better equipped when it comes to communication equipment. Supporting companies of engineers, electronic warfare, and special forces reconnaissance now augment some of the brigades.

The Russian Navy has seen an outsized amount of spending, given that the country is primarily a land power. This is due to the navy’s importance in strategic nuclear deterrence, power projection, and equally important status projection. The Russian leadership sees the navy as core to the country's image of a great power, able to operate outside its region and project power abroad. In practice the Russian Navy is becoming a green water force, focused on sea denial in maritime approaches and coastal defense. Its new platforms are much smaller, but they are multipurpose and far more capable when it comes to firepower, packing anti-ship and land attack capabilities in a corvette class vessel. Submarine production is in substantially better shape, with three out of eight new Borey-class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines in service and one Yasen-class multipurpose submarine in sea trials, of which six have been laid down. Russia's improved Kilo submarines are stout performers, yet new diesel designs are not ready, and air independent propulsion seems to be nowhere in sight.

Due to the woeful performance of many shipyards and several high profile cases of corruption, most items for the Russian Navy have taken years longer than expected to build, complete sea trials, and put into service. As Soviet platforms are modernized, and new smaller classes of ships are built, the navy still suffers from a proliferation of ship classes. Russia's navy has a case of distributed “classisity,” whereby there are only two to three ships within every class and few unified platforms. New ship classes are announced regularly. Despite these shortcomings, Russia's navy is largely staffed by contract servicemen, and the submarine force has demonstrated renewed life after years of being parked at the pier. Meanwhile, the Black Sea Fleet is being wholly revived from its grave and will be able to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly if upgrades to Syria's port infrastructure in Tartus are successful. These upgrades will enable ships from other fleets to rotate through the squadron and maintain a permanent presence in the Mediterranean Sea.

The two main threats to the Russian military’s modernization program are budgetary constraints and Western sanctions. Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, and Threat⏐ 7 “classisity,” whereby there are only two to three ships within every class and few unified platforms. New ship classes are announced regularly. Despite these shortcomings, Russia's navy is largely staffed by contract servicemen, and the submarine force has demonstrated renewed life after years of being parked at the pier. Meanwhile, the Black Sea Fleet is being wholly revived from its grave and will be able to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly if upgrades to Syria's port infrastructure in Tartus are successful. These upgrades will enable ships from other fleets to rotate through the squadron and maintain a permanent presence in the Mediterranean Sea. The two chief threats to Russia's modernization program are budgetary constraints, largely caused by the steep fall in oil prices and Western sanctions following its war with Ukraine. Russia's defense budget has increased in recent years and reached a peak in 2015 of 3.3 trillion rubles, or 4.2 percent of GDP. Due to the economic crisis and sanctions, such spending levels cannot be sustained in real terms, with the MoD budget witnessing a contraction of likely close to 10 percent, much of it in the state armament program responsible for procurement of new weapons. Meanwhile, severing defense cooperation with Ukraine has dealt a body blow for at least five years to anything dependent on Ukrainian engines, which unfortunately for Russia is most military helicopters, both new frigate classes, some existing ship classes, and heavy air lift. Similarly, being cut off from Western chips and circuitry boards has sent Russia searching in the Asia-Pacific region for advanced electronics manufacturers.

The Armed Forces

The Russian military went through a dramatic period of consolidation and reorganization in 2009-2012. Its most significant achievements are: abandoning the Soviet mass mobilization model, incrementally reducing the conscript share of the force, and improving readiness across military districts as well as mobility within Russia. The overall force continues to increase in size and is perhaps 900,000-strong today (some argue closer to 850,000), with the army, airborne and naval infantry constituting perhaps 300,000 of that force. Russia's plan to add 50,000 “contract service members” per year to the armed forces appears to be on track, encouraged by the economic crisis, which makes military service a relatively attractive option. Thanks to strategic exercises featuring more than 50,000 servicemen and numerous joint force trainings conducted throughout the past year, Russia's force has become a much more reliable instrument of 8 national power. Through the establishment of the National Defense Management Center and other capabilities to improve command and control at the senior decision making level, Russia's military is able to respond much faster to decisions made by the political leadership. While successes here should not be overstated, a percentage of the Russian force is now able to respond quickly to national decisions, deploy to Russia's borders in the event of a contingency, and likely be “the first with the most” in any part of the former Soviet Union. This force may be improvised, and task-organized in nature, but could well number 30,000 or more troops depending on time available for force generation.

Russia's force posture is indicative of the government’s shifting priorities. There is a revival of bases in the Arctic, a network of military outposts from which Russia can control the Northern Sea Route, maintain visibility, effect area denial at key chokepoints and restore presence in its part of the high North. This includes 13 airfields, 30 border guard stations and 10 search and rescue bases, along with a radar network. Less prominent is the slow trickle back of units to Russia's Western borders. Under Serdyukov's reforms, which created four military districts, the Western Military District saw a drawdown in strength, perhaps from 50 battalions around Moscow down to 22. As a result, in early 2014 there were very few units near the Russian border with Ukraine, no established command staff to integrate planning, and no command above the brigade level to assemble units arriving from other military districts. The 40,000-50,000 troop deployment on Ukraine's borders between late February 2014 and March of 2014 was done competently, and quickly, given it was an improvised staff of the 58th and 20th Army working to piece tactical battalions from their respective armies into two strike groups.

Since November 2014 Russia's General Staff has been slowly announcing the formation of additional divisions: two on Ukraine's Eastern borders and one between Ukraine and Belarus. The restoration of the 2nd and 4th divisions, even though they are more honorific titles for what are really half-divisions, along with a number of independent brigades has bolstered the Western Military District outside Moscow. These changes indicate Ukrainian and Belorussian Russia’s military is likely to be “the first with the most” in any part of the former Soviet Union. Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, and Threat⏐ 9 contingencies in mind, along with a partial reversal from brigades to a mixed force organization of divisions, brigades, battalions and regiments. From Russia's force posture we can infer the following priorities: first, the need for permanently stationed units and a higher level command staff on Ukraine's borders in case of a second war; second, a mobile and elite force able to intervene in Central Asia in the event of a crisis or political instability in one of the former Soviet Republics; third, a force to deter a potential color revolution in Belarus; and, finally, territorial defense against NATO or China.

Despite loud pronouncements from senior Russian officials, there is little indication of a force posture designed for an offense against NATO in the Baltics, or General Staff planning for large scale conventional conflict, given the absence of a functioning reserve or capable mobilization system to support the current standing force. New units being created in the colossal Western MD are reviving permanent military presence, but being positioned on southern vectors of attack towards Ukraine. However, Russia has drawn important lessons from U.S. use of military power, particularly the combination of special forces and high end conventional capability. Hence Russia stood up its own version of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 2012, titled Special Operations Command (KSO), which performed quite capably during the seizure of Crimea in February-March 2014, and subsequently in Eastern Ukraine and in Syria. One of the few known combat casualties in Syria was a KSO operator who was killed in combat in a reconnaissance role, supposedly designating targets for Russian air launched cruise missiles.

Lessons from Recent Wars  

The annexation of Crimea is not a useful case study to judge the impact of reforms on the Russian military as a whole, but there are valuable lessons from the February-March 2014 operation. First and foremost, it was a debut for the much more responsive military, able to get underway on short notice of a political decision by the national leadership. Compared to the three weeks it took for the first units to deploy at the outset of the second Chechen War, the ability to start moving major pieces around Russia is a notable leap in responsiveness and readiness. Next, it demonstrated the capability to use tier one special forces for extraterritorial operations, one that requires not just the force component, but advanced communications. The military accomplishment reflected developments 10 in a select slice of Russia's force, namely elite infantry and special forces, which confirmed their readiness, competence and mobility. The seizure of Crimea was an effective use of military power to achieve political objectives, combining the speed and deniability of special forces together with the compelling power of a large conventional show of force.

In contrast, the operation in Eastern Ukraine followed a messy conflict escalation cycle, in which Russia attempted several approaches: political warfare, irregular warfare, a hybrid mix and ultimately conventional warfare. In Ukraine, the Russian army did not fight as an army, instead sending in organized tactical battalion groups from a host of units spread throughout the country. These formations were used decisively in two battles: in Illovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltseve in February 2015. Russian special forces, airborne, and other units were combined into rotating battalions. This approach did not reflect how Russia trains to fight a conventional adversary, or how its armed forces are structured. The fight against Ukraine, the best conventionally armed former Soviet Republic (although this is not a high bar), revealed that much of Russia's modernized Soviet equipment was more than capable to quell likely adversaries on its borders. Russian T-72b1 and T-72b3 tanks were more than able to take on Ukraine's T-64 variants, while artillery dominated the battlefield.

In Ukraine, Russia applied new technological capabilities, such as drones and electronic warfare upgrades, together with traditional doctrines of position and maneuver warfare, resulting in a capable economy-of-force effort. Although Russia may not have been able to lock in political gains, it did achieve several decisive battlefield victories and kept costs low to its own force in what was effectively an inter-state war, however undeclared. The reason for battalion rotations remains unclear; some suggest the strain on the overall force was too great, thereby requiring units from all over the country, while others indicate that this was all part of a strategy to maximize unit experience in battle and distribute casualties among different brigades, in an effort to minimize the political cost of sustaining the conflict. The larger lesson for the Russian General Staff was that permanently based units were needed on Ukraine's borders, and division-level staff is required to take in and support supplied battalions in war, even when it is an economy-of-force approach.

Syria represents the first Russian expeditionary operation since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a daunting task for a military that appeared ill-suited to Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, and Threat⏐ 11 sustain such operations abroad. Despite limitations in air and sea lift, with Russia's landing ships being on average well over 25 years old, the military was able to sustain a high intensity of air operations. At peak times Russia conducted more than 80 sorties per day, with multiple flights per aircraft, matching Western capacity. Syria was not just a military operation with political objectives, but a debut for a series of new capabilities and platforms. These included strategic bombers, land and air launched cruise missiles, new helicopters, tactical aviation, and electronic surveillance aircraft. Combat sorties were integrated with special forces that provided targeting information and drones, as part of a more information-driven approach to warfare.

Remarkably, none of Russia's legacy Soviet aircraft fell out of the sky, or were shot down by enemy fire, with the exception of the incident with Turkey in which Russia lost a Su-24 and a Mi-8 helicopter. This was surprising given the Russian air force’s terrible performance in the 2008 war with Georgia, when seven aircraft were lost within five days, and most to friendly fire. By contrast, in Syria the Russian air force demonstrated it could effectively conduct a campaign with modernized aircraft and largely unguided munitions. However, weaknesses can be seen in the accuracy of Russia's new line of KAB precision guided munitions, as well as in the absence of targeting pods for aircraft. Russia did lose 4 of its new Ka-52 helicopters in what appeared to be a refueling accident at a forward operating Syrian base (T4).

The Russian air force was able to achieve desired effects in shaping the battlefield, but in technical sophistication it visibly lags behind Western analogues. Russia's Navy showed that it now had comparable land attack capabilities to the United States, albeit in smaller numbers, and smaller class vessels could project long range firepower. The combat experience will undoubtedly drive further Russian research and development, particularly into munitions, which are a handicap both for the Air Force and Army. Shortages of The costs of being in Ukraine, Syria, and retaining a high operational tempo of exercises is still a manageable feat for the Russian military. 12 sea lift were exposed as well, forcing Russia to purchase and reflag older Turkish cargo vessels, and repurpose other transport ships.

Syria is considered to be a relatively cheap deployment, officially listed as costing 40 billion rubles ($500-$600 million), although the true figure is unknown. In large part it has also been used as an advertisement for Russian equipment, perhaps able to pay for itself having generated new arms sales discussions with Algeria, Indonesia, India and Iran, among others. The intervention was launched at the same time as Russian forces were still present in Ukraine, and the annual strategic exercise, Tsentr-2015 was being held, which in total amounted to an significant investment of operational capacity. This suggests not only that the force is not as overstretched as some have argued, but that the costs of being in Ukraine, Syria, and retaining a high operational tempo of exercises is still a manageable feat for the Russian government.


How long this operational tempo can be sustained is uncertain, as financial constraints will ultimately force Russia to choose between the quality and readiness of the force, or procurement of new and modernized equipment. It is safest to describe the Russian military as a force still in transition, with new units being formed, reorganized, and reorganized again in an ongoing quest to balance competing internal equities, service interests, and warfighting needs.

Russian armed forces have abandoned their Soviet past of mass mobilization, but they are only part way down the path towards developing a high readiness military staffed by contract soldiers and specialists. Whether Russia's leadership stays the course, or chips away at the accomplishments of recent years with changes to accommodate those in the armed forces who wish to return to the way things were, remains in question. In the coming years the Russian military will remain a place where the Soviet past of the 1980s and a partially realized Russian force of the present coexist together.


Michael Kofman

Michael Kofman is a research scientist at CNA and a global fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Photo Credit: Flickr photo by Mariano Mantel shared under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.