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

Armata tank in a 2016 Victory Day parade.

What the new Pentagon needs to know.

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.