The Rise of Russia's Military

June 19, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: RussiaPutinMilitaryNATOCold War

The Rise of Russia's Military

After feeling betrayed at the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin is using the military as its premier tool to achieve policy goals and weaken the West.

Meanwhile, the modern Russian Navy’s surface fleet is mostly based around small, very-well armed corvettes such as the Buyan-m and Steregushchiy-class that can not only defend the maritime approaches towards the Russian coast, but can strike at targets across Europe and the Middle East from the Black Sea and the Baltics with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. Indeed, Russia showed off this capability to good effect against targets in Syria.

Russia still has some major surface combatants—and even a decrepit and largely useless Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier—inherited from the Soviet Union. Some of these legacy ships include the Project 1144 Orlan-class Peter the Great nuclear-powered battlecruiser, three Slava-class cruisers and a handful of aging Sovremennyy- and Udaloy-class destroyers. These ships are used mostly for show in current times. Meanwhile, Russia had developed and built new frigates—which are much smaller than previous Soviet ships—including the Admiral Grigorovich class and the Admiral Gorshkov class, which are armed with cruise missiles and other advanced weapons. While Russian ships are individually fairly capable, the Russian surface fleet is largely designed as a demonstration of national power and prestige, not necessarily for combat. The most vivid example of this was Russia’s deployment of the aging Kuznetsov and her air wing of SU-33 Flanker-K and MiG-29KRS to the Syrian coast in late 2016.

The real combat power of the Russian Navy lies in its submarine fleet. While much truncated from the massive roughly 250-submarine Soviet Navy force of 1991 down to a maximum of about fifty boats, the Russian undersea fleet is still a force to be reckoned with. Aside from the new Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, the Russians are building a new generation of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines called the Project 885M Yasen class. Russia is building up to eight Yasen-class vessels, which the U.S. Navy officials see as the most formidable enemy submarine ever developed. However, the Russians are also developing the somewhat lower cost Husky-class nuclear attack submarine to supplement the expensive Yasens. Meanwhile, Russia continues to upgrade its older submarines, which includes the massive Oscar II–class nuclear-powered guided missile boats, Akula I and II classes, the Sierra class and possibly a handful of surviving Victor IIIs.

This formidable nuclear attack submarine fleet is tasked not only with protecting Russia’s strategic nuclear missile submarine force but also with combating enemy navies and striking at land-based targets with Kalibr cruise missiles. Indeed, Severodvinsk and the rest of Yasen class—which are extremely quiet—could strike deep inside the continental United States with as many as forty nuclear or conventionally tipped Kalibr cruise missiles with very little warning.

Even Russia’s fleet of conventionally powered Kilo-class submarines are armed with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. These vessels, which have repeatedly been used to strike Syria, could also hit targets anywhere in Europe. With their quiet electric powerplants, the Kilos are extremely difficult to find and pose a significant threat to allied naval power. But at the end of the day, the problem for Russia is that its submarine fleet is roughly one fifth the size of the old Soviet fleet. As is almost always the case for the new Russian military, while it may have the capability, it often lacks capacity.

The bottom line for Russia, as its experiences in Ukraine, Georgia and beyond have shown, is that Moscow could easily defeat any of its neighbors in the post-Soviet space. The Kremlin does not, however, have the forces required to occupy those countries—its forces are simply too small and lack operational reserves. The Russian military might even be able to defeat the NATO alliance in a short, sharp, high-intensity war. It would more than likely lose a prolonged conflict—particularly against the much more powerful United States.

The Kremlin is acutely aware that it would likely lose a conventional war with Washington, but Moscow’s conventional forces could inflict significant damage to the United States and Europe. In recent years, Russia has made significant investments in long-range precision-guided weapons for its air and naval forces. Russian bombers are now equipped with long-range cruise missiles such as the KH-101/102, while Russian ships and submarines are armed with Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles, which can range most of Europe from the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea. Moscow has the demonstrated the conventional versions of these potent new weapons during the Kremlin’s campaign in Syria, likely as a signaling tool towards the United States and its European allies.

The Kremlin hopes to conventionally deter Washington with its new long-range precision-guided weapons—particularly its air and submarine launched missiles. The idea, from Moscow’s point of view, is to forestall or deter any Western intervention during a conflict in the post-Soviet space. The implicit message is that a Western intervention against Russia will result in retaliation not just in the immediate theater of operations but also at home. Indeed, when Russian chief of the general staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov promised that Moscow would retaliate against both “missile and launch systems” targeting the Kremlin’s forces in March, Russian experts suggested that Russia could strike back at American bases in the Middle East with long-range precision guided missiles. The threat of “deterrence by punishment” has worked quite well for Moscow thus far: Washington has gone out of its way to avoid striking at the Kremlin’s forces in Syria during its April 13 missile raid on Damascus. The fear in the White House was that striking at Russian forces directly would result in a massive escalation—exactly what Gerasimov was signaling.

However, if a standoff were to escalate into a war with the West, Russia ultimately relies on its nuclear arsenal—both strategic and nonstrategic—to offset NATO’s conventional military superiority. Though Russia’s conventional forces are being modernized, they are still weak compared to the United States and NATO. “Russia’s conventional forces are incapable of defending Russian territory in a long war,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, says. “It would lose and as a result of that, they have placed more emphasis on more usage of tactical nuclear weapons as a leveler.”

In effect, the Russians have adopted NATO’s Cold War strategy. Soviet conventional forces outgunned NATO, and the alliance thus had to rely on nuclear weapons. “The Russians are doing the same thing,” Kristensen said.

There is much debate about exactly how and when Russia might use its nuclear weapons—particularly its nonstrategic warheads. The real answer, as Kristensen explained, is that Western analysts simply do not know. “Russia has some vague statements about its mission with weapons in various regions—so to speak,” Kristensen said. “Their public doctrine does not help us a whole lot because it has two giant categories in which it comes down to the survival of the state.”

Modern Russia renounced the Soviet Union’s no-first-use policy in 1993 due to the shabby state of its armed forces. In 2010, it was suggested that Russia would issue policy guidance that would lower its nuclear threshold, but that did not exactly happen.

The consensus among arms control experts is that Russia will reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons as more long-range conventional precision-guided weapons enter its inventory. “It’s not going to do away with it, of course, but like in our military—once we got more advanced conventional weapons—our planners reduced reliance on tactical nuclear weapons,” Kristensen said. “It’s likely we will also see that happening to some extent in the Russian military forces.”

Former Soviet and Russian arms control negotiator Nikolai Sokov, now a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told the National Interest that he agreed with Kristensen’s assessment. Sokov comments,

Conventional missions for these assets (Iskander, KH-101/102 etc.) are, in my view, more important than nuclear ones. Nuclear missions are a ‘back-up’ for the case of a really big bad conflict, which has extremely low probability—basic deterrence in several variants. Conventional missions are about actual use in support of foreign policy—Syria is the example of the main role of these assets.

Sokov believes that Russia is fundamentally changing its nuclear posture as its long-range conventional precision strike capabilities improve. “I believe that we are dealing with a fundamental, long-term transition in Russian posture and strategy with the introduction of long-range precision-guided conventional assets,” Sokov said. “Nuclear missions will decline in relation to conventional—that is, in relative, not absolute terms.”

Indeed, it is very unlikely that either Russia or the United States will ever eliminate their strategic nuclear weapons since both nations see their respective arsenals as the ultimate guarantor of their security. Moscow and Washington currently maintain parity in strategic nuclear arms. However, Russia is now running somewhat ahead of the United States in modernizing its aging Cold War arsenal.

Ultimately, Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons depends on policymakers not in Moscow, but in Washington. How the United States alters its posture to rely more on nuclear weapons (or not)—now that precision weapons are no longer the sole purview of the Pentagon—will determine to what extent the Russians will rely on their own nuclear forces. Sokov argues,