Military capability of Russia

Defense Forces of Russian Federation

Historical overview 1990-2019

Turbulence years 1990-1999

Following the collapse of the USSR 1990-1991, for the newly-formed Russian Ministry of Defense, the most immediate challenge was to relocate military equipment and personnel from emerging independent states of the former USSR and countries of the disbanded Warsaw Pact into a new Russian Federation. The assets of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal were of particular importance. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, the four states with nuclear weapons in their territory, eventually reached an agreement to dismantle all tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in the non-Russian republics or return them to Russia. The issue of conventional military forces was much more problematic.

Returning military forces from Eastern Europe were often shipped piecemeal back to unprepared bases in the Russian Federation. Some units located in the territory of the former Soviet Union were absorbed by the newly independent states but certain units actively resisted the attempts by the Soviet successor states to absorb these forces locally creating various regional problems.

The Russian Federation emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union with a much smaller military and an entirely new set of security challenges. Russia’s new military faced dramatic budgetary restrictions and personnel shortfalls as well as uncertainty of its role as Moscow struggled to determine its place in the post-Cold War world. Russia cut military spending drastically during the first decade of post-Soviet economic and political turbulence. Besides, the local conflicts and unrest in border regions like those in the North Caucasus were apt to add general chaos.

Reform endeavors

There was a recognized need to reform and modernize the Russian military suffering from the readiness and manpower shortfalls and the cumbersome Soviet-era organization. The 1990s and first decade of the 21st century saw a series of military reform efforts announced, discussed but only partly implemented, under Russia’s first Minister of Defense, General Pavel Grachev, (1992–1996), under Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev (1997–2001) and Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov (2001–2007). By the late 2000s, these reform plans remained partly unimplemented or were abandoned.

The Russian military was still entering the first decade of the 21st century with a Soviet-era mobilization force structure and largely equipped with dated Soviet-era equipment. Shortfalls in modern command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment and capabilities were particularly notable. Russian military limitations were fully on display during the August 2008 “five-day war” with Georgia, which was the first post-Cold War case, where Russia projected military power outside its borders (although regionally in the near-area).

Transition to the New Look Program, 2008

The New Look Program was a comprehensive and massive effort, aimed to change the Russian military from a Cold War-style mobilization force to a more ready, modern, and professional military able to respond to 21st century conflicts.

Partially-manned Soviet-style divisions were reorganized into what were planned to be fully-manned brigades; officer ranks were trimmed from 350,000 to 220,000; the contract manning effort was reshaped and reinvigorated, with a goal of 425,000 professional enlisted personnel in the force by 2017; the six extant military districts were reshaped initially into four joint strategic commands, which controlled all military assets in their areas in peace and war; and lastly, a massive state armaments program was initiated, allocating 1.1 trillion rubles over 10 years, aiming at fielding a Russian military with 70% new or modernized equipment by 2020.

The New Look Program was controversial and painful for many in the Russian military establishment. Even military education and medical support organizations became targets for major reductions. In late 2012, the unpopular Minister of Defense associated with the reform effort, Anatoliy Serdyukov, left office and the former head of the Emergency Situations Ministry, Sergey Shoygu, took over. Shoygu proved adept at easing some of the most unpopular aspects of the New Look while largely retaining and refining the essence of the reform program.

The years of Shoygu’s tenure have seen the New Look military engaged in a series of active operations. In early 2014, Russian naval infantry, special forces and airborne troops rapidly seized control of the Crimean Peninsula. While they faced almost no opposition, the operation gave the world its first look at a military that appeared surprisingly disciplined and well-equipped. Although their presence was denied by Moscow, Russian special forces and troops operated to mobilize, lead, equip, and support separatist militias in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine from spring 2014 to the present.

In September 2015, Moscow launched its first expeditionary operation since the Soviet era, deploying fixed-wing and helicopter aviation assets to Syria. Combined with other military support to the Assad regime such as intelligence information, advisors, ammunition, and artillery, Russian action arrested the decline in the Syrian regime’s military position. This was the first post-Cold War case where some other country than the US projected extensive military power far outside its borders, without support from another country.

By the end of 2019, only the US and Russia have done this kind of expeditionary operations unassisted far beyond their borders.

The Russian military today is not as the same Soviet force that faced the West in the Cold War depending on large units with heavy equipment but as a smaller, more mobile, balanced force rapidly capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare in countries along Russia’s periphery or as far away as the Middle East, Africa or Asia. The new Russian military is a tool that can be used to underpin Moscow’s stated ambitions of being a leading force in a multipolar world.

Since returning to power in 2012, President Putin has sought to reassert Russia’s great power status on the global stage and restructure the world order as a multipolar instead of the US led unipolarity. Putin sees that multipolarity is based on state sovereignty, non-interference in other state’s internal affairs primacy of the United Nations and a careful balance of power preventing one state or group of states from dominating the international order. To support these great power ambitions, Moscow has sought to build a robust military capacity able to project power, add credibility to Russian diplomacy and ensure that Russian interests can no longer be summarily dismissed without consequence.

Perceptions of Russian political and military leadership on security and threats

The Russian political and military leadership’s security policy goals and threat perceptions are the most directly influential factors shaping the development of a strategy for the armed forces. A relatively coherent and consistent understanding of Russia’s security policy goals currently exists, unlike in the 1990s and even the 2000s when views within the establishment diverged sharply. The consensus is usually called as the “hard realist” school.

The top security policy goal is stability, both domestic and near-border external stability, a concept that is far broader in Russia than in the West. It entails a broad sense of predictability and minimization of uncertainty about the future. Economic stability, avoidance of sharp downturns, is a means to political stability.

A second security policy goal is retaining and increasing Russia’s influence in its “near abroad

that is, to be the political, economic, and security center of gravity in the region that consists of the former Soviet republics (non-Baltic). This goal entails minimizing the influence of the West in the region, since the West’s involvement there is seen not only as leading to “color revolutions” but also as increasing the integration of Russia’s neighbors into Euro-Atlantic institutions leading to the potential placement of NATO forces and infrastructure closer to Russian borders.

A third security policy goal: to enhance and reinforce Russia’s great power status.

Moscow wants a say on all matters of global importance and to be taken seriously as a truly independent player with its own voice.

  • Reinforcing the centrality of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the UN system generally, given Russia’s veto power there.
  • Pioneering Russia-led, or heavily Russia-influenced international organizations, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
  • Maintaining nuclear parity with the United States
  • Having the ability to project military power outside Russia’s immediate near abroad, that is military expeditionary operations in out of near-areas.
  • Russia should be able to work on equal base with other great powers, the United States, Europe, China and others on shared challenges.

Derived from those security assessments, the main threat perceptions can be summarized in the following way:

  • While domestic stability is the country’s top security priority, thus domestic instability is the number one threat.
  • A second and related set of threats emanates from Russia’s near abroad. The nature of these threats varies along various sub-regions.
  • Islamic extremism and terrorism represent a third source of threats to Russia, given its past extremist terrorist attacks and greater risk of terrorism at home due to ties between Muslim communities in Russia and Central Asia and extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
  • The West and more specifically the United States, represents a fourth category of threat.  The United States itself is now seen as the single gravest source of global instability and unpredictability, which will continue to threaten Russia directly and indirectly.

Strategy for the Armed Forces

The Russian leadership appears to have developed a political-military strategy for the armed forces based on its security policy goals and threat perceptions. This strategy involves the military carrying out five key tasks: strategic deterrence, regional dominance within Russia’s near abroad (the non-Baltic former Soviet Union), expeditionary operations, preparedness in case of major war and domestic stability.

Strategic deterrence is critical to this strategy and dates from Soviet times. It has gained new salience as Russia has developed more acute threat perceptions regarding Western intentions and fielded its own new weapons classes. Strategic deterrence calls for nuclear weapons, non-nuclear strategic weapon and air defense to prevent any aggression on the Russian homeland.

The second critical element is regional dominance within Russia’s near abroad (the non-Baltic former Soviet Union): to be able to respond rapidly to any form of instability, terrorism or conflict that may emerge within its near abroad and to have escalation dominance over both regional actors and other external powers.

Third, Russia aims to be able to engage in out-of-area expeditionary operations to respond to terrorism, instabilities and humanitarian disasters and thus bolster Russia’s role as a great power. Russia’s capability for expeditionary operations is still quite limited, especially in comparison to the United States. Russia lacks a strong network of bases and allies to support expeditionary operations but nevertheless, Russia’s robust engagement in Syria, its efforts to cultivate its expeditionary capabilities through extensive development of offshore military network indicate that Russia does seek to develop the potential to use its military overseas in the future. While these activities are expected to be largely in the MENA region, they may also occur on many other places in Africa, Latin America and in Asia.

Fourth, Russia’s strategy calls for preparedness in case of major war, largely through mobilization. As can be seen in relative resource allocations, preparation for a land war with NATO does not appear to be a top priority in developing the military since the likelihood of such a conflict is viewed as remote. Still, the possibility of protracted ground conflict with a peer competitor remains an important consideration in the minds of Russian strategists, particularly given the enduring legacy of World War II.

Finally, Russia wants its armed forces to play a role in maintaining domestic security and stability. This priority is seen in the strong financial and political support for many internal security agencies.

National Strategy, Threat Perceptions

Russia’s current National Security Strategy (NSS 2015) was signed by President Vladimir Putin on 31 December 2015 as an update to the previous National Security Strategy published in 2009.

The National Security Strategy is the Kremlin’s foundational planning document and is intended for domestic and external audiences. It codifies Moscow’s strategic interests and national priorities for at least the next 6 years. The national priorities were consistent with those identified in previous strategies; however, the tone of this update was harsher than the 2009 strategy, reflecting Moscow’s view of worsening relations with the West.

Unlike the 2009 version, the new NSS 2015 directly accuses the United States and NATO of pursuing actions that cause instability and threaten Russian national security. The importance of a strong military for a leading world power is acknowledged; the strategy states that “the role of force as a factor in international relations is not declining.” The new strategy reiterated key concepts outlined in Russia’s 2014 military doctrine on the importance of deterrence and conflict prevention, nuclear and nonnuclear deterrence, and the need to improve Russia’s mobilization process. The NSS 2015 reflects Russia more confident of its ability to defend its sovereignty, resist Western pressure and contribute to the resolution of conflicts abroad.

The 2015 strategy identifies Russian national interests as strengthening the country’s defense, ensuring political and social stability, raising the living standard, preserving and developing culture, improving the economy and strengthening Russia’s status as a leading world power. These national interests are to be achieved through concentration on eight strategic national priorities: National defense, State and public security, Economic growth, Science, technology, and education, Healthcare, Culture, Ecology of living systems and rational use of natural resources, Strategic stability and equal strategic partnership.

Moscow undoubtedly views the United States and its NATO partners as the main principle threat to Russian security, its geo-political ambitions and most importantly, the Kremlin’s continued hold on power. This perception of vulnerability vis-à-vis the United States is most clearly evident in the latest NSS. The document accuses the West of pursuing a deliberate policy of containment against Russia to sustain its domination of the post-Cold War international order and deprive Moscow of its rightful place on the world stage.

The Strategy explicitly states, “The Russian Federation’s implementation of an independent foreign and domestic policy is giving rise to opposition from the United States and its allies, who are seeking to retain their dominance in world affairs.” The security strategy also cites the buildup of NATO military capabilities closer to the Russian border, the deployment of US missile defense capabilities in Europe and the ongoing US pursuit of strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems as a serious threat to Russian security. This hardening Russian stance coincides the shift of US security strategy from counterterrorism to inter-state competition with China and Russia.

Russia also has a deep and abiding distrust of US efforts to promote liberal democracy and other American values around the world. Moscow worries that the US attempts to dictate a set of acceptable international norms threatens the foundations of Kremlin power by giving license for foreign meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. In other words, Russia is well aware of those problematic paradigms (liberalism-realism-nationalism and their interactions in international politics) presented by Mearsheimer in his recent book (2018).

NSS 2015 warns of the importance of preserving traditional Russian spiritual and cultural values against foreign Western ideas and influences aimed at undermining Russia from within. Russia is convinced the United States is the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and the Arab Spring as well in a long-established pattern of US-orchestrated regime change efforts, including the Kosovo campaign, Iraq, Libya, and the 2003–05 “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian threat perceptions are not limited to the United States only but Moscow views the danger posed by Islamic militants and terrorists with grave concern. The Kremlin is particularly sensitive to the growth and spread of these ideologies and their potential to further radicalize Russian Muslims in the turbulent North Caucasus and other Muslim areas of central Russia. Russian military operations in Syria are also intended to eliminate jihadist elements operating there that originated in the territory of the former Soviet Union, to prevent them from returning home and posing a threat to Russia.

Military doctrine and strategy

Russia’s leaders realized the need to develop its military doctrine and strategy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, the Russian perception of the nature of modern armed conflicts and wars has evolved a lot. Wars are often undeclared, fought for relatively limited political objectives and occurring across all domains, including outer space and the information space. Russia has noted the tendency for crises to arise and develop quickly and potentially escalate from local wars into global ones. In modern cyber-enabled information and battlefield spaces, this destructive initial period can be reduced to milliseconds.

1993 Military Doctrine

The first Russian military doctrine was formulated in November 2, 1993 presidential decree No. 1833 “On basic provisions of Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation” which specified the main domestic instances to be acted upon by Russian Federation forces:

– “illegal activity of nationalist, separatist and other organizations aimed at destabilizing the Russian Federation internal situation and violation of its territorial integrity by use of armed violence”,

– any “attempt to forcibly overthrow the constitutional order or disrupt functioning of organs of state power and control”.

These provisions were developed for the next Russian Federation military doctrine which was approved in 2000.

2000 Military Doctrine

The exacerbation of traditional threats and the emergence of terrorism and armed separatism in the North Caucasus region were important reasons for adopting the new Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation approved in the presidential decree No. 706 from April 21, 2000, “On approval of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation”. This doctrine characterized the global political and military situation and highlighted changes after the Cold War, was the first officially published military doctrine in the country’s history and its structure comprised three main parts: (1) “Political Basis of the Military Doctrine; (2) Military Foundations of the Military Doctrine, and (3) Military-Technical Cooperation between the Russian Federation and Foreign Countries”.  The Russian authorities emphasized that terrorism and the threats to public safety and natural and technical disasters were the most important dangers for the Russian internal security.

2010 Military Doctrine

After 10 years, Russia’s budget becomes surplus, the country began to revive, its authority in the world grows and accordingly the policy and the nature of the threats to its military security changed. Military doctrine shall take into account new national security strategies, Russian socio-economic development, new cooperation formats like CIS, CSTO, SCO and BRICS. These factors strived to build new balanced security systems with the interaction of all key players and matters. Particular attention focused on post-Soviet space and aim to enhance cooperation in international security in the CIS&CSTO framework and increasing the capacity of collective security treaties like NATO and the EU. The Military Doctrine of 2010 thus sought to introduce Russian national security interests in the changing international context and guarantee national interests while facing both old and new threats. The 2010 doctrine made no significant changes to its defense policy. Russia has continued to perceive NATO and the US as potential opponents.

2014 Military Doctrine

The structure of threats to Russia’s national interests changed significantly and counteraction was approved in the “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation” by Presidential Decree No. Pr-2976 from December 25, 2014. The 2014 Military Doctrine marked a qualitatively new stage in Russia’s relations with the external world. At the outset, the document lists and defines various terms and concepts used in the Doctrine. The second chapter contained a description of military risks and threats encountered by Russia and finally in the third chapter, there was a detailed presentation of the military policy of Russia.

There is radically altered assessment of the current global situation and emerging threats. The NATO’s power capacity and its infrastructural approach to Russian borders is presently the main external threat.

The 2010 military doctrine mentions NATO as organization that Russia could work with to strengthen the system of collective security but this was nullified in the new document. The 2014 doctrine text implies that the NATO is the main geopolitical opponent because the current relations between Russia and NATO are wavering on the brink of armed confrontation. Obviously, the relationship between Russia and the West mentally returned to the situation of the Cold War. Both sides view each other as a probable adversary.

The treatment of threats from global terrorism has been expanded. It is combined with the risks of extremism and the risks of carrying out terrorist acts with the help of radioactive and toxic chemicals are outlined. For the first time, the Military Doctrine had mentioned the challenges posed by transnational organized crime in the sphere of illicit trafficking in arms and drugs.

For the first time Russia had stated its position on the legality of using force to repel aggression against it or its allies and this includes actions countering the decisions of the UN Security Council or other collective security structures and the protection of its citizens residing outside the country. Attacks or manifestations of aggression against the Union state and CSTO member states are deemed equally as an attack on Russia.

The use of military force in the territories of states adjacent to the Russian Federation and its allies, in violation of the Charter of the UN or other norms of international law, is a fundamentally new threat. This may concern both the risks of a rapid US / NATO response to threats from the Islamic State in Central and Middle Asia or of NATO contingent entering Ukraine or other perimeter countries. It is also possible that the Libyan scenario had an impact on Moscow’s assessment of the actions bypassing the Russian veto in the UN Security Council.

Priority in cooperation in military-political and military-economic spheres is provided to CIS countries. Doctrine confirms that NATO’s extension to the East and the strengthening ties between the Alliance and post-Soviet States pose a distinct threat to Russian national interests. Doctrine’s points are related to Russia’s preference for a stronger CSTO and to confirm that Russian military-political priorities remain unchanged.

An interesting detail in the text was the statement regarding modern military conflicts “…massive use of high-precision and hypersonic weapons, means of electronic warfare, weapons based on new physical principles that are comparable to nuclear weapons in terms of effectiveness, information and control systems, as well as drones and autonomous marine vehicles, guided robotic weapons and military equipment”… “… exerting simultaneous pressure on the enemy throughout the enemy’s territory in the global information space, airspace and outer space, on land and sea”. These visions became materialized by the speech of Putin in March 1, 2018.

The military doctrine attempts to elaborate also new forms of warfare, the utilization of information and communication technologies for military and political purposes, in other words informational warfare, asymmetric warfare, concept of non-nuclear deterrence and hybrid wars. These subjects, under cover “New Generation Warfare”, have been under intensive research, discussion and even deployment in Russian military and security circles during last ten years. Western analysis of Russian military strategy and doctrine can be found here.

The Basics of Russian Nuclear Doctrine

The strong renewal and recovery of Russian nuclear capability after the collapse of Soviet Union has been based on the military and security doctrine and strategy. According to a long tradition, Russia’s full nuclear doctrine remains secret. Nonetheless, as far as American nuclear experts understand, this doctrine has gone through many changes and turns during the last 50 years.

Although the US had repeatedly declared its nuclear strategy to be based on the deterrence, the Russian military leadership did not believe this. From their point of view, the US strategy was consistent with preparations for the first strike and Russia’s own doctrine was based on this premise. Soviet nuclear doctrine was to respond with a full nuclear attack even to a single hit but later this policy was rejected and a more controllable way of conduct of nuclear war was called for, even limited nuclear war was accepted.

Rough parity in the strategic weapons and systems characterized the period of 1975-1990. Preemptive strikes were rejected as the only option and retaliatory strikes gained in importance. The prevailing military situation was defining the preferred scenario of nuclear use globally or regionally.

The perceptions of the utility of nuclear weapons changed gradually when coming to early 1990s. This led to doctrinal changes. Russia did not retain the Soviet “no first use” policy but revised its nuclear doctrine several times to respond to risks of its security environment and the capabilities of its conventional forces.

Russia may have placed a greater reliance on nuclear weapons even on regional conflicts and therefore some US analysts conclude that Russia has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, where Russia might threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were losing a conflict with a NATO member, in an effort to convince the US and its NATO allies to withdraw from the conflict. Russian officials along with some analysts in the West, dispute this interpretation, however the latest Nuclear Posture Review 2019 of the US takes per se this concept, in the overall outlook.

The new military doctrine 2014 allows Russia to continue developing and modernizing nuclear capability and reserves the right to use nuclear weapons when the existence of the state is in jeopardy, in other words Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons in global and in regional conflicts. The statement is the following:

“The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”

Russia’s current extensive modernization cycle for its nuclear forces began in the early 2000s and is likely to conclude in the late 2020s. In addition, in March 2018, President Putin announced that Russia was developing new types of nuclear weapon systems, among others: a heavy ICBM (Sarmat), a hypersonic glide vehicle, an autonomous underwater vehicle, new hypersonic missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads and a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Some of those new weapon systems have entered combat service in late 2019.

Russian military structure 2018

Geographically Russian Federation has been divided in five military districts, which form present Russian Joint Strategic Commands (Western, Southern, Northern, Central, Eastern, shown in the map below).

Functionally, Russia’s military includes three services and two independent branches. The three services are the Ground Forces, the Aerospace Forces, and the Navy. The two independent branches are the Airborne Forces (air-landing forces, VDV) and the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF). The Russian military remains still in a period of transition, further changes to its force structure and unit organizations are likely, although much seems to have stabilized since the reforms were instituted in 2008.

The land component of the Russian military includes both the Ground Forces and the Airborne Forces VDV. The Ground Forces are consisting of 12 Army headquarters and approximately 40 brigade-sized formations across the four military districts (Western, Southern, Central, Eastern).

Since 2015, the Russian government has been reconstituting divisions and creating more armies, in the process of which it has been putting less emphasis on the brigade structure, which was part of the 2008 reforms. Both the Ground Forces and the VDV train and deploy units in task-organized, tailored battalion tactical groups (BTGs). These are battalion-sized formations with integrated combined arms. They have become the unit of measurement for Russian conventional ground combat capability, based on statements by both analysts and senior officials referring to Russian operations in Ukraine.

The Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation include three main elements: Long-Range Aviation (LRA); the tactical fighters and attack aircraft known as Frontline Aviation; and the air defense units that operate Russia’s integrated air defense system. As of 2015, this service has also included the formerly independent Aerospace Defense Forces, which consist of space and missile defense forces.

Russia maintains an extensive air defense network with dense defenses around key military zones and major cities. The Aerospace Defense Brigades that are equipped with Russia’s most advanced strategic surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems form rings around Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Rostov and Vladivostok, among other Russian cities. The integrated air defense system developed for the defense of Russia is formidable and one of the capability areas where Russia has invested a lot of the resources. Given the emphasis in Russian statements and doctrine on defending against strategic attacks using conventional precision strikes, this is clearly an area of emphasis for the Russian armed forces.

The Russian Navy has experienced somewhat of a rebirth since 2008, after 15 years of decline due to the economic problems and political turmoil experienced by Russia during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Russian Navy today has strong capabilities in a few key mission areas; however, it is a long way from being a full-spectrum, oceangoing navy that can exercise sea control in distant regions of the globe.

At present, the Russian Navy is able to effectively conduct three major missions: strategic deterrence, coastal defense, and short-term ocean presence operations. The highest priority for Russian naval investment is modernizing the ballistic missile submarine force (new Borei-class submarines and new submarine-launched ballistic missiles, SLBM). Russia’s navy possesses some advanced technology, like in anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-surface weapons (new hypersonic Zircon missile) that are present on Russia’s new coastal defense platforms.

Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces include not only nuclear weapons and the delivery systems of the Russian nuclear triad, but also long-range conventional strike, national-level cyber, electronic warfare, space, and intelligence capabilities. The strong renewal and recovery of Russian nuclear capability after the collapse of Soviet Union has been based on the military and security doctrine and strategy.

Military Doctrine 2014 defined the use of nuclear weapons: the new doctrine allows Russia to continue developing and modernizing nuclear capability and reserves the right to use nuclear weapons when the existence of the state is in jeopardy, in other words Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons in global and in regional conflicts.  While Russia is developing its long-range conventional strike capabilities (both supersonic (Iskander, Kalibr) and hypersonic missiles (Kinzal, Zircon)) at rapid pace, its nuclear forces remain yet its core military strategic asset.

The Russian way of enlarging its military might abroad

Instrumentation of military assistance

The operation in Syria since September 2015 has proved that today’s Russia is capable of providing rapid and effective military assistance to its partners and allies in dire straits. Such support involves several components: deploying troops to take part in combat; supplying weapons, munitions and spare parts; and training the national military. Russia was capable of rapidly deploying a powerful task force of about 50 aircraft (planes and helicopters) that provided effective support to ground troops.

Russia actively used Special Ops Forces (SSO) to direct air strikes, conducted reconnaissance, hunt down field commanders and provided support to the government forces.  Equipment delivered by Russia made it possible to create 3D digital maps of the area, with which it was possible to effectively use the high-precision weapons. Russia’s electronic warfare (EW) and Radio Electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems significantly limited the enemy’s ability to use navigation and communication equipment. The capabilities of Russia’s satellite network were also extensively used, ensuring communications and intelligence gathering.

In a few months, Russia deployed up to 10,000 troops with modern equipment at a remote theatre of operations. Russian military instructors and advisors participated actively in restoring the combat readiness of the Syrian Armed Forces, which had essentially fallen apart by 2015. In addition, the “Case Syria” has enabled Russia to rotate troops on a regular base so that a large number of troops from army, special forces, navy and air forces have received practical combat experience. Syria’s experiences have been largely utilized already in military management, training and education as well as in R&D and product testing and product development in the Russian military-industrial complex.

Besides Syria, there is a list of 14 potential countries where Western military analysts see the opening or possibility of opening a Russian military base: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Myanmar, Vietnam, Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, the Seychelles Islands and Egypt. In many cases, preparatory work has been already started.

Military-technical cooperation (MTC)

After the end of the Cold War, Russia lost its standing in the weapons market everywhere but especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, in the 21st century, it became once again an important supplier of weapons and military equipment to the region. Russia has adopted a formula of military-technical cooperation in its framework of arms sales business.

In addition to the direct economic benefits, military-technical cooperation gives Russia a powerful leverage, since without repairs, maintenance, spare parts and munitions, equipment quickly loses its combat readiness. Therefore, Russian MTC entails long-term partnership relations.

Crisis situation of Syria gave a powerful impetus to Russia’s MTC with MENA countries. Several states launched additional military procurement following the start of active fighting (Syria and Iraq) or when tensions began to increase (Qatar and the United Arab Emirates).

Finally, those states that usually consider weapons contracts as a reward for political support or security guarantees (Bahrein and Saudi Arabia) are now showing an interest in Russian weapons. The armies of more than ten states in the region are now in Russian MTC-program: Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Bahrein, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Sudan.

Similar formations Russia has nowadays organized worldwide in Africa, Latin America as well as in Asia, the number of MTC-agreements totaling up to 39 by the end of 2019.

Conclusion of capabilities

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has gone through a series of reform efforts with two broad purposes: Firstly, the reforms intend to improve the military effectiveness and secondly, somewhat less well-defined goal has been to build a military force for the future meeting the requirements of twenty-first-century wars, as defined by Russian needs. Some Western views can be found here.

In addition to these long-held views, some new concepts have emerged more recently. These include nonlinear warfare, non-contact warfare, and the “informationization” of warfare. These ideas do not appear as integrated system but rather, they reflect a variety of considerations, a coordinated employment of social media, propaganda, electronic warfare, and cyber tools in support of military actions.

Recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of trained personnel had been major challenges for the Russian military; a combination of contract / conscription services has made possible the quality increase in personnel. In recent years the true number of Russian military personnel has been estimated at around 900,000, thus approaching the targeted force of one million.

Simplification and responsiveness were at the core of the biggest changes as well as improving Russia’s capacity for combined arms operations. Modernization of technology and equipment has been the most worrisome shortcoming in the Russian military forces. However, in recent years the pace of renewal has been such that on the average 70-80% of equipment has been updated in all forces by 2020.

According to Western analysts (e.g. RAND, CSIS) Russia possesses some formidable capabilities in key areas:

  • advanced nuclear capability (full nuclear triad) in parity with the US,
  • ability to quickly generate and deploy ground forces,
  • extensive capability to defend its airspace (A2/AD) and to strike, using conventional or nuclear weapons, targets at strategic distances as well 
  • focused military R&D and procurement generating some top-quality weapons systems: hypersonic missiles and gliders, submarine technology, robotics and military AI, EW and ASAT

However, a lot of development and modernization work is left in 2020s, especially in the Navy and Aerospace Forces as well as extending procurement of modern weapon systems and other hi-tech equipment.