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.

This concerns NATO a great deal. The North Atlantic alliance’s ability to conduct “out-of-area” operations, combined with the decision by most European countries to significantly reduce their defense spending, was predicated on an assumption that Russia no longer poses a threat. While no one is anticipating Russian tanks again poised to rush through the Fulda Gap, the American expectation that Europe could become a “security exporter” to other, more troubled parts of the world must now be revisited, since Russia is effectively reversing its “disarmed” condition of the 1990s upon which such calculations were based.

At the same time, however, the buildup will not be smooth sailing for the Russian government.

The first issue is whether Russia’s defense industry can actually produce the tools called for in the new defense strategy. Dmitry Gorenburg of the Center for Naval Analyses has noted that the plans released by the Ministry of Defense rely on overly optimistic assessments of how quickly Russian factories and shipyards can turn out new equipment—assuming that there will be no delays, technical or design problems, or bottlenecks. Design problems have already forced a two-year delay in implementing a state procurement order for thirty-seven Su-35 aircraft, which will not be fulfilled until 2016. Gorenburg and other experts argue that it is highly unlikely that the buildup will come close to meeting the stated targets.

Moreover, the Russian military-industrial complex is far from achieving a “zero-defects” standard when it comes to producing equipment. A string of missile failures (particularly with the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile), delays in releasing new ships (or in getting the retrofitted aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov/Vikramaditya ready for service in the Indian Navy), and issues with quality control in vehicles have all raised questions about the reliability of Russian-made military products.

There is also real concern about the health of Russia’s research and development sector and whether or not Russia can indigenously produce many of the technologies needed to produce fifth-generation weapons systems. Former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov strongly resisted pressure to simply order slightly-newer variants of older, Soviet-era equipment, even though Russian industries were lobbying for increased state orders, and sought to import defense items from abroad, including drones from Israel, the Iveco light multirole vehicles from Italy, and the Mistral amphibious assault ships from France, as a way to equip the Russian military with newer technologies that could not be produced by domestic sources. (Finding ways to license or reverse-engineer foreign military technology will be one of the Russian defense industry’s major tasks in the coming decade). Discontent with Serdyukov’s willingness to turn to foreign suppliers, however, was one of the contributing factors in his removal as defense minister last year.

Serdyukov also attempted to reform the manpower structure of the Russian military, again arousing significant opposition by his efforts to reduce the size of the officer corps (especially the number of general and flag officers) and to push the Russian military away from reliance on the draft towards the development of a volunteer, professional force. But announced plans to increase the size of the standing army run up against Russia’s demographic realities. Russia has a labor shortage; the recovery of the Russian economy has diminished the surplus pool of excess labor that in years past would have been absorbed by the draft. Between deferments and the increase in health problems among some segments of the Russian population, some 60 percent of the draft-age population of young males is now ineligible for service. Efforts to make contract service more appealing (following some of the reforms undertaken in the United States in the shift to an all-volunteer force back in the 1970s) have had some successes, but while the Russian military has announced it will create forty new brigades (to augment the some seventy brigades already in existence) by 2020, it must also deal with the reality that many existing units are 25 percent or so understrength. Shoigu must continue reforms of how the Russian military recruits (and treats) its personnel—the compulsory draft and the harsh conditions created by the so-called dedovshchina system (the hazing of new recruits by their non-commissioned officers and other superiors) do not lend themselves to creating a more professional military force capable of attracting and retaining volunteers. The amount that must be spent—on increased salaries, perks and incentives—to attract more Russians to contract service may also be more than what the defense establishment is willing to pay.

Much will depend on several factors. The first is whether the Russian treasury will hang on to the same expected level of funds from the export of oil and natural gas to support the military transformation; any major collapse in the price of energy imperils these plans. The second is whether the Russian defense industry can become more agile and adaptive. Will they use increases in state spending to successfully unveil new products? This will be important not only to fulfill Putin’s requirements but also to retain Russia’s traditionally lucrative overseas markets for sales of military goods. Russia will lose its competitive edge not only to American and European competitors but also to Chinese firms if it cannot keep pace with newer developments in defense technology. A third point is whether the Russian military can obtain the manpower it needs, whether by offering better terms of contract service or being permitted to recruit among Russian-speaking populations elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.