The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration
What the new Pentagon needs to know.
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.
With experience gained in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s General Staff began to rethink its force posture and structure. From late 2014 to early 2016, Russia announced the steady return of brigades to Ukraine’s borders. Moscow is creating three new divisions ringing Ukraine, in what Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu calls the “southwest strategic direction.” Although billed as a response to NATO, in reality Russia is rapidly constructing bases around Ukraine, modernizing tactical aviation, upgrading infrastructure, and putting in plans for a large permanent combat grouping, to be based around the country from the north to Crimea.
Russian division-sized formations, which will take time to fully emerge, are a useful indicator of where its military expects to conduct combat operations in the future. The Western Military District is preparing a large contingency force in the event of a significantly expanded conflict with Ukraine. This force is of course mobile, and given time can certainly deploy to the Baltics in strength.
By seizing Crimea, Russia regained the most strategically valuable territory in Ukraine. From the peninsula, it can range most of the Black Sea with antiship and, to a lesser extent, antiair weapons systems. Russia has incorporated Ukraine’s former units, the bulk of which defected, and is steadily modernizing their equipment with newer systems, such as the S-400 Triumph and Bastion-P coastal-defense cruise-missile battery. The Black Sea Fleet has been revived, receiving two new multirole frigates, guided-missile corvettes, patrol craft and six diesel-electric submarines. Not only is this fleet the dominant naval force in the Black Sea, but it is also able to project some power into the eastern Mediterranean.
Though easily bottled up by Turkey, Russia’s garrison in Syria, with its own set of offensive capabilities, means the eastern Mediterranean is no longer an uncontested body of water for U.S. naval forces. Despite the political focus on the Baltics, the most dramatic change in the military balance is on NATO’s southern periphery, with region-wide implications, since Russia’s new ship classes field long-range land-attack missiles capable of ranging most of Europe or the Middle East.
Russia’s air force and long-range bomber aviation are also benefiting from the modernization wave, but its combat operations in Syria reveal more weaknesses than strengths. Moscow has leveraged its air power for a deliberate campaign of provocation towards NATO, and even the continental United States. The intent is for Europeans to grow increasingly concerned with Russian behavior and seek engagement, while for the United States, the message is to take Russia seriously and understand the escalatory dynamics that could precipitate from an intervention in Ukraine or Syria against Russian forces there. Moscow’s intent was to deter the United States, and also incentivize the West towards negotiations.
The campaign likely achieved its desired effect, but at the same time it has precipitated a serious reorientation of the U.S. national-security establishment to begin planning for a potential war with Russia in Europe. Like a large ship, once turned about to see Russia as a genuine threat, the U.S. national-security establishment will spend the coming years leery of any move by Moscow. NATO partners like Sweden and Finland, wary of Russian behavior, are also reexamining their options to join the alliance. Russia has gotten what it wanted, and then some. Their military activity is also not without practical costs; a high operational tempo cost Russia nine aircraft in 2015 in a spate of accidents.
The most significant threat to the U.S. military (besides nuclear weapons) is Russia’s submarine force, which may be a fifth the size of its Soviet predecessor (forty-five to fifty operational), but is active after a prolonged absence from the deep. The United States is technologically dominant in the undersea domain—an important advantage for its global force, but one that is eroding and will continue to do so without investment. Russia remains the most technologically sophisticated adversary beneath the waves, and while it has relatively few operational nuclear submarines, the United States is hardly flush with capacity of its own, stretched thin by the operational requirements of different fleets.
However, NATO enjoys immense geographic advantages; from the GIUK gap to the Bosporus strait, it has natural choke points to control Russian submarine access to the deep. Reviving antisubmarine warfare capabilities among key allies, for example P-8 purchases by Britain and Norway, or reactivating Keflavik airbase in Iceland, will go a long way to reducing vulnerabilities. This is one area where technical capabilities matter. Allies can make substantial contributions to collective security, and help protect the American homeland along with their own, but it’s a case of either having them or not. For most, the answer is disappointing.
Baltic Fixation: Problem or Policy Addiction?
NATO has gotten itself wrapped around the axle of the Baltic threat, but it’s a political issue in alliance politics more than a military problem the United States is ever likely to face. There is absolutely no indication that Russia has military designs on the Baltics, and most of its behavior suggests an aversion to gambling with the prospect of large casualties and an expensive conflict. However, the reality is that if it did, NATO is ill positioned to stop it. The bigger problem lies in various types of indirect approaches and unconventional warfare, which the alliance is equally not well situated to manage.
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.