The Bear Awakens: Russia's Military Is Back

A million men under arms. Thousands of new tanks and planes. A hundred new satellites. Next-generation weapons. Inside Vladimir Putin's massive plan to restore Russian might.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Vladimir Putin’s presidency has been his commitment to revitalizing Russia’s military. Putin, who has noted that Russia’s perceived weakness makes it vulnerable to external pressure and internal disruption, is pushing for increased funding to transform the Russian armed forces from the debilitated remnants inherited from the old Soviet superpower military machine into a smaller, but more modern, mobile, technologically advanced and capable twenty-first century force.

In 2013, in an address delivered on the day devoted to the “defenders of the Fatherland,” the Russian president proclaimed: “Ensuring Russia has a reliable military force is the priority of our state policy. Unfortunately, the present world is far from being peaceful and safe. Long obsolete conflicts are being joined by new, but no less difficult, ones. Instability is growing in vast regions of the world.”

This is not empty talk. The rhetoric has been matched by a concurrent allocation of resources; Russia is now engaged in its largest military buildup since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, with major increases in defense spending budgeted each year to 2020. Putin has pushed for this program even over the objections of some within the Kremlin who worried about costs and the possible negative impact on Russian prosperity; opposition to the expansion of military spending was one of the reasons the long-serving Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin left the cabinet several years ago.

The rest of the world is taking notice.

After years of thinking of Russia as “Upper Volta with missiles”—a nation which possessed a sizeable strategic nuclear stockpile but whose conventional forces had not particularly covered themselves with glory in their post-Soviet operations—Russian plans for military reform and rearmament have generated some concern, particularly in the U.S. national-security establishment, which had assumed that Russia would not be in a position to project much power across its borders. The resumption of bomber patrols in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the dispatch of task forces (particularly to the Caribbean), the 2008 campaign against Georgia, and the growing size and sophistication of the yearly joint maneuvers with the Chinese army and navy have all worked to resurrect the image of Russia as a military threat. Justification for U.S. defense expenditures, which previously focused largely on increases in Chinese spending, now take into account Russia’s military buildup as well.

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Perusing budget reports and position papers, Russian plans—spearheaded by the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry—certainly look impressive—and ominous. If, only a few years ago, the shipbuilding budget for the Russian navy was less than 10 percent of the U.S. Navy, the Russians have now closed the gap and the Russians are, in terms of budgetary outlays, spending about half of what will be allocated to the U.S. Navy for new ship construction. By 2020, the Russian army will be structured around combat-ready and easily deployable brigades, with a goal of having those forces be at least 70 percent equipped with next-generation weaponry and equipment. If all goes according to plan, the Russian military, by 2020, will return to a million active-duty personnel, backed up by 2300 new tanks, some 1200 new helicopters and planes, with a navy fielding fifty new surface ships and twenty-eight submarines, with one hundred new satellites designed to augment Russia’s communications, command and control capabilities. Putin has committed to spending billions over the next decade to fulfill these requirements.

And a growing number of Russians support the military buildup. A Levada Center poll found that 46 percent of Russians were in favor of increasing military spending even if it led to an economic slowdown (versus 41 percent opposed if defense increases caused economic hardship). This is in part due to a growing fear that Russia’s vast natural resource endowment, particularly in the Arctic, is vulnerable if the country lacks the means to protect it. Rogozin himself has continuously warned that without a modern military force, Russia is liable to be “looted” in the future.

Yet there is often a noticeable gap between declared Russian intentions and executable results. To what extent are these ambitious goals realizable?

Some observers have been prepared to write off these plans as Potemkin posturing—or new and creative ways to transfer more of Russia’s state funds into private hands through creative, corrupt schemes. Certainly, any expansion of the military budget represents enormous opportunities for graft. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the clear evidence that this buildup is restoring capabilities to the Russian armed forces that had been lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last eighteen months, Russia conducted military exercises on a scale not seen since the end of the Cold War (such as the recently concluded military trials in the Far East). While still highlighting problems with command and control systems and with equipment, these nonetheless have also demonstrated that the reforms are starting to have an impact, and that Russia is capable of fielding a more mobile, effective force.

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