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.

In terms of alliance politics, the United States has thus far ticked all the boxes necessary to reassure allies and strengthen the credibility of its commitments—many of which it did not have to. Unlike in the Asia-Pacific region, American allies in Europe don't exactly have other options besides NATO. However, the United States has yet to seriously tackle the issue of deterrence. The deployment of a brigade combat team split among six countries (part of the $3.4 billion ERI package), and four NATO multinational battalions in the Baltics, are in the service of assurance, not intended to change the military balance, which is unequivocally in Russia’s favor.

That may all be for the best, given that the specter of Russia attempting a fait accompli seizure of the Baltics is a decidedly contrived scenario. The U.S. policy establishment is a large solution always in search of a problem, and while pragmatism dictates contingency planning, the threat to the Baltics is distorted by alliance politics, poorly grounded in sound military analysis of Russian force posture. Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad is quite vulnerable from Moscow’s perspective, while any large-scale U.S. ground presence could prove an intolerable threat, given the proximity of St. Petersburg just outside “NATO’s borders.” Russia is likely no less worried about Kaliningrad, behind NATO lines, than NATO is about its Baltic members.

Given the proximity to one of Russia’s most important cities, there is no prospect of establishing deterrence by denial without deploying a force on Russia’s borders so large that it results in a bidding contest and precipitates the very war it was meant to prevent. The good news is that Russia takes NATO guarantees rather seriously—perhaps much more so than its own members, which is why it has invaded both Georgia and Ukraine to keep them from joining the alliance. Contrary to popular belief, for many years not only was there no Baltic military buildup in progress, but the region had been fielding aging Russian units with poor readiness. The wholesale sacking in June 2016 of the Baltic Fleet command, including ground force officers, is an objective indicator of what the Russian General Staff thinks about the fighting readiness of its forces in Kaliningrad.

It is difficult to assert that a Russian invasion of the Baltics is coming by looking at the meager steps the country’s armed forces have taken to enable it. That said, this is a snapshot what was, not of what will be.

Russia may have saved the Baltic region for last, but an expanded force posture and deployment of new capabilities are in the works. The establishment of the Eleventh Army Corps in Kaliningrad indicates that existing units will be expanded in size, some companies turned into full battalions, and more. As Russia retires the last of its SS-21 Scarab units in Kaliningrad, the dreaded Iskander (SS-26) will take its place in the next year or two, especially given that there are only two units in all of Russia left to rearm with this system. The same can be said for air defenses, with standardization around the S-400 and later models of S-300 systems, combat aviation and fixed-wing aircraft. This is the logical evolution of Russia's modernization program to replace old Soviet workhorses with newer designs.

New units positioned in the Western Military District may not be arrayed against the Baltics, but they are of course mobile, and likely intended to intervene in Belarus. This means they are also able to punch through Lithuania to link up with Kaliningrad if needed. Russia’s Sixth Army around St. Petersburg, and the nearby airborne division in Pskov,are more than enough to roll through the Baltic states. Although there is little to suggest Russia is building a strike force for the Baltics, even if unchanged, the existing units are sufficient for the task. As the wave of modernization approaches, together with the growing size of Russian armed forces, its combat grouping in the region will only grow stronger relative to NATO’s.

The next U.S. administration must think about the right strategy to address deterrence in Europe without being consumed by it, especially given that the Obama administration has already done much to reassure allies. Burden sharing should be at the forefront of that approach, in part because it’s a perennial problem, but also because Russia sees U.S. military presence near its borders as provocative, using it in domestic political propaganda to mobilize the population.

Russian Power in Perspective

Despite Russia’s restoration of its military, the United States remains a far stronger power. Even if it were interested in fighting NATO over the Baltics, Moscow is not able to sustain a prolonged conventional conflict with the United States, lacking sustainment, reserves and most of all having too small a force to withstand a war on several fronts. Thus, the costs and risks of escalation have grossly outweighed any imagined benefits. The United States is a superpower with a global force; Russia is not, and is not keen on contests where it stands a real chance of losing.

Moscow may match the United States in nuclear weapons, and is a real competitor in the cyber domain, but Russian military strength lies close to its borders. It is also a lonely power, with weak allies like Belarus and Armenia. The United States, on the other hand, benefits from a vast network of allies, contributing military assets or strategically positioned territory, both of which offer advantages over revisionist challengers. Taking this into account, here is how the United States should structure its approach.