Russia's Deceptively Weak Military

"Despite the technical improvements and selective increase in operational capability, the Russian military remains a shadow of its perceived capability."

Professional soldiers, equipped with the latest weaponry and body armor, quickly and efficiently seized Crimea. A rebellion, with “indigenous” rebels suddenly equipped with heavy weaponry and sufficient coordination, quickly metastasized into a full blown insurgency. New, modern and impressive equipment paraded before Moscow and the world in the largest Victory Day Parade since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The recent activities and public displays of modern equipment leave the impression that Russia has begun fielding a first rate military again, commensurate with its aspirations of being a global power. The role and visibility of the “little green men” in recent months leave an impression of a well-trained and coordinated Russian military, increasingly equipped with state of the art equipment. The takeover of the Crimea peninsula was supremely impressive. It was well executed with professional units. The Airborne (VDV), Naval Infantry and Spetsnaz that were responsible for seizing the initial key points around Crimea were impressive not only for their coordination but their professionalism in the face of journalistic interest. The seizure of Crime was shocking both for the audaciousness of the Kremlin, but also in terms of military capability. Few realized that Russia had the capability to conduct an operation like Crimea. And with increasing concern over the potential return of fighting in Eastern Ukraine, the fears over a resurgent Russian military continue to menace.

Yet, little attention has been paid to what actually constitutes the Russian military. Indeed, many commentators lauding the return of the Russian military have pointed to the plans and statements of the Russian military, focusing on the toys used more than actual capabilities.

Beyond the public displays lays a more complicated view with more nuanced realities. While Russia has produced new technological toys (such as the Armata series tanks and armored vehicles), Moscow’s ability to pay and sustain modernization efforts leaves lingering doubts about a resurgent Russian military. Despite the almost ebullient hysteria surrounding Russia’s new equipment and capabilities, its military is still hampered by structural, economic and strategic constraints that not only limit its evolution and growth, but also threaten its current progress.

The “New Look” modernization effort Russia began in 2008 has created two militaries; an elite (or more professional) force capable of conducting rapid, complex operations with generally modern equipment; and the rest of the military, which still relies upon conscription, mass mobilization and mixed levels of modern equipment.

Even among the “little green men,” the outlook is far more mixed than the Crimea annexation would suggest. Most spetsnaz are actually conscripts on one year terms, although they do get the pick of the conscription call up. As Mark Galeotti notes, “the bulk of spetsnazovets may arguably best be compared with the French Foreign Legion, the British 16th Air Assault Brigade or the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment, in that they are elite, mobile light infantry able to function in a range of operations and climates, and optimized for interventions, but not a 'Tier One' special operations force.” Moscow does retain around 500 tier one troops (equitable to Delta or Seal Team Six) in a separate force, which were utilized in seizing the Crimean parliament.

And while the more elite units of the military are starting to embrace small unit independence and rapid deployment, the conventional Russian military continues to be influenced by the old Soviet structure of numerous under-manned units, pre-positioned with equipment to be brought up to full staffing levels during times of conflict. The drawbacks of this design were laid bare during the 2008 war with Georgia, where airborne units (VDV) were able to deploy faster from interior Russia than those units stationed in the Caucasus. The 2008 modernization effort sought to replace this unwieldy division structure with smaller, more agile and autonomous Brigades. Although, the efforts to reduce the reliance upon mass mobilization and undermanned units continue, this trend has been somewhat reversed as some divisions have been brought back.