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.
Unsurprisingly, the Russians were not satisfied with Talbott’s methods. “You know it’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not,” Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister at the time, told Talbott during a private meeting about Kosovo in 1999. “Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey your orders.”
Western leaders—particularly Clinton—believed that their intentions would be seen as benign by the Kremlin. The Russians, however, saw actions by the Americans and Europeans in a far different light due to their realist outlook. Moscow viewed NATO’s expansion as a threat—especially when combined with the alliance’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 in contravention of the UN Security Council.
While Clinton set the stage for a confrontation with Moscow, it was George W. Bush and his so-called “Freedom Agenda” that brought relations to what was then a post–Cold War low (until Ukraine). Bush continued Clinton’s push to expand NATO into key republics of the former Soviet Union—Ukraine and Georgia. That ran afoul of Moscow’s red lines—thus provoking a conflict in Georgia and later in Ukraine. Clinton’s policies effectively guaranteed a confrontation with Russia down the line—exactly as George F. Kennan predicted. Bush’s drive for consolidating democracy in Europe was simply the last straw for Russia.
Failure to integrate Russia into the transatlantic security structure and the expansion of NATO has had dire consequences. And it was entirely avoidable. Yeltsin himself had warned that forcing Russia to accept NATO expansion would lead to a “Cold Peace.” As Kennan had predicted, the Kremlin began to push back against Western encroachments as it regained its strength. Indeed, Russia appears intent on rewriting the post–Cold War settlement—which is part of a Moscow’s efforts to reassert itself as a great power.
Moscow’s fears of foreign intervention are only heightened by perceived Western involvement in so-called “Color Revolutions” in Russia’s near abroad—former constituent republics of the Soviet Union—which the Kremlin believes it must dominate in order to secure a strategic buffer zone and protect its borders.
Washington’s denial of Moscow’s “privileged space” inside what was formerly the Soviet Union has created the impression that the United States does not respect what the Kremlin see as its “legitimate interests.” That has been further compounded by NATO expansion, which from the Russian perspective is a zero-sum game—and Moscow is the loser. As Dimitri Trenin notes, the Kremlin saw that the West rapidly consolidated its gains as the Soviet Army withdrew from Eastern Europe. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States took advantage of Russia when it was at its weakest. “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much,” Putin reiterated at a recent Valdai Club meeting. “And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.”
Russia’s weapon of choice against what it sees as Western encroachment into its former territory has been its military—the Kremlin’s most reliable instrument of national power in this new Cold War. Unlike the Soviet juggernaut, today’s much truncated but modernized Russian military is not an existential threat to Europe—or even Ukraine for that matter. Instead, the modern Russian military is primarily a tool of coercion designed to impose the Kremlin’s will by force on Russia’s newly independent post-Soviet neighbors that were once Moscow’s imperial possessions.
While the Soviet military could expect to count on its sheer mass and firepower to streamroll opponents, Russia today—with its much smaller forces operating under the New Generation Warfare doctrine—tends to try to avoid costly conventional military operations in favor of asymmetric means that fall below the threshold of war whenever possible. Thus, the Kremlin focuses on achieving its victories though political warfare, special operations and other indirect means—resorting to conventional military operations only if there is no other option.
The reason for Moscow’s reluctance about engaging in major conventional military operations is simple—the Russian military is not able to sustain a prolonged conflict. Russia dispensed with the Soviet Union’s mass mobilization military, which proved to be ineffective in the post-Soviet era, and instituted a major overhaul of its forces following their less-than-optimal performance during the 2008 conflict in Georgia. The resulting force—coupled with Russia’s 2011 military modernizations effort—is far more capable and ready than the old mass mobilization force, however, it is also much smaller than its predecessor, numbering roughly 900,000 men under arms in total (including all branches of the service), about half of whom are so-called “contract” soldiers rather than conscripts.
Today’s Russian Ground Forces number between 300,000 and 350,000 soldiers and lack any sort of operational reserves. During any sort of contingency on Russia’s borders, the Kremlin could deploy a force of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 troops including airborne, armor, mechanized infantry formations and Spetsnaz (special operations forces) in very short order. Moreover, Russian ground forces are designed to fight alone and are equipped with formidable mobile air defenses that are intended to counter Western advantages in air power.
The most common maneuver unit within the Russian Ground Forces is the motor rifle brigade (MRB). Each motor rifle brigade consists of roughly 4,500 troops. In each brigade, there are three motor rifle battalions with 510 soldiers and forty-three MT-LBV, BMP-2 or BMP-3 armored personnel carriers and eight 2S12 120mm towed mortars. There is also a armor battalion consisting of forty-one tanks and two self-propelled artillery battalions, each with eighteen self-propelled guns—such as the 2S19 Msta-S. Those are accompanied by significant air defenses in the form of a battalion of Tor-M2 or Buk M2 or M3 air defenses and another battalion of shorter-range point air defenses including the Tunguska M1 missile and gun system. Those are backed by a support battalion, which includes formidable electronic warfare capabilities and BM-21 multiple launch rocket artillery systems, and another battalion of towed artillery. Essentially, each MRB is a self-contained battle group that can fight completely independent of air support.
The problem for Moscow is numbers—the Kremlin simply does not have the sheer mass of troops that the Soviet Union had. Russia would be able to decisively intervene during a contingency on its borders and win a short sharp war. However, Moscow’s forces would have difficulty sustaining a prolonged conflict. “Russia’s military is not configured to occupy large amounts of land or replace combat losses in offensive operations,” military analyst Michael Kofman has observed. “This lesson was driven home rather quickly through combat operations in Ukraine, creating strain on the Russian military rotating units through the Donbass.”
The Russian Ground Forces are equipped with formidable artillery and air defenses because of Western air dominance—those troops cannot count on support from the skies. While the Russian Aerospace Forces have improved markedly as new aircraft such as the Sukhoi SU-30SM Flanker-H, SU-34 Fullback and the SU-35s Flanker-E and new precision-guided weapons have entered service, Moscow’s airpower lags behind the West despite their impressive performance during the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria. Specifically, the Russians are lagging behind on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities—which precludes real-time targeting of moving targets—and the overwhelming majority of Kremlin’s aircraft lack targeting pods. The Russians are also well behind the West—particularly the United States—in coordinating between air and ground forces, lacking procedures, training and hardware to effectively coordinate close air support.
The Russian Air Force is improving thanks to its experiences in Syria. The Russian Air Force is developing new tactics, training and procedures and is trying to develop targeting pods that would improve its ability to coordinate with ground forces. But the Russians still need to develop small precision-guided weapons that can hit small moving targets. However, Russia has proven that its latest KH-101/102 series cruise missiles, which can be launched from its upgraded Tupolev TU-95 Bear and TU-160 Blackjack bombers, are able to make precision strikes at long range. While that capability is not needed against targets in Syria, that ability to strike from extended ranges affords Moscow the option of striking across the globe, including inside the United States.
Indeed, long-range precision guided weapons—or noncontact warfare—will be Russia’s primary means of using airpower against NATO. Against a high-end threat, the Kremlin’s air forces would not make penetrating strikes without incurring serious losses against superior Western warplanes. Despite the formidable capabilities of newer Russian warplanes, such as the su-30sm and the su-35s, the Kremlin’s fighters remain at a distinct disadvantage against NATO and American jets such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Moscow invests very heavily in advanced air defenses due to the West’s air dominance—and it is the reason why Russian ground forces are accompanied by their own organic area air defenses. The most potent of these is the S-400 system, which will eventually be able to engage targets at ranges of 250 nautical miles. Russia intends to field fifty-six battalions of S-400s and thirty-eight battalions of the developmental S-500, which could be the most capable air and missile defense system ever developed when it is fielded.
However, air defenses are only part of Russia’s anti-access/area denial strategy. The Kremlin is well aware that its naval forces are only a fraction of what the Soviet Union once possessed, thus it devotes much effort to protecting the maritime approaches towards its shores. The Russian military has invested in the K-300P Bastion coastal defense system, which can fire a Mach 2.8–capable P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missile at ranges of 370 nautical miles. The weapon, placed in a region like the enclave of Kaliningrad, could effectively hit any maritime target in the Baltic Sea.