Head of a Russian military aircraft design team stands against the backdrop of a computerized display system during a presentation

GIS Dossier: Effects of Russia’s military modernization

  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military was reduced to such a sorry state that the country is essentially defenseless against a foreign attack
  • While official targets of the Kremlin's rearmament plans are impressive, President Putin's stated ambition to build a force in par with that of the United States is not realistic
  • Even if Russia remains weak on offense, it has developed a number of weapons systems that make it very strong on defense

This is the third in GIS’s new “Dossier” series, which aims to give our subscribers a quick overview of the analyses we have provided on key topics, regions or conflicts. The material seeks to illustrate the evolution of Russia’s remilitarization process, based on a selection of four years of Professor Stefan Hedlund’s GIS reports. Its added value lies in putting things into a crisp perspective and the not so obvious conclusion. For more insight, we encourage readers to click through the linked reports.

President Vladimir Putin is being given grudging respect in the West and a lot of credit domestically for his drive to upgrade the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. A decade ago, Russia’s military machine was in shambles and most Western experts doubted that the country’s withering military industrial complex was at all fit to modernize it. Has the Russian leader proven these experts wrong?

According to Professor Hedlund, not really. The Kremlin, he shows, has played a weak hand with admirable political skill. It has created an image of a reborn, major Russian military threat to NATO while in fact largely exploiting serious shortcomings on the side of the West.

1. Low point of departure

“The once-mighty Soviet military-industrial complex (MIC) produced everything from bullets to intercontinental missiles,” the expert remarked in July 2011, when Russia appeared to be reduced to aspiring only to the position of an “energy superpower.” “But the infrastructure no longer exists. … At the time of the Soviet collapse in 1991, there were 2,200 defense enterprises. Many were sold or went bankrupt. Now there are about 1,200 in varying states of health.”

2. A wake-up call

In August of 2008, war broke out between Russia and Georgia. In his report three years later, Professor Hedlund summarized the clash: “The conflict was a sheer disaster from a Russian military point of view. Its obsolete equipment, chaotic logistics and an inability to conduct combined arms operations meant that only overwhelming numbers achieved victory. Georgian snipers were delighted that only Russian officers wore proper uniform, making them easy targets.”

“The Russian military has been reduced to such a sorry state that the country is essentially defenseless against a foreign attack,” the expert opined in his Dec. 27, 2011 report.

Tank shell casings inside a Russian munitions plant
Armor-piercing tank shells manufactured at a plant near St. Petersburg. Russia’s once mighty military industrial complex deteriorated significantly after the collapse of the Soviet Union (source: dpa)

3. Kremlin’s bluster

From the beginning of Mr. Putin’s ascent to power, Mr. Hedlund recounted, the Russian leader “spoke about restoring Russia to her rightful status as a great power/ … The ambition was to achieve a full-spectrum fifth generation military which would be on a par with the United States military.”

This benchmark, he concluded, reflected an ambition that was “clearly not within reach. … Much of the increase in defense spending has gone to social objectives, such as pay and housing. The amount of hardware delivered has been minute, and what has been delivered has been of poor quality. Around 90 percent of the equipment in ground force brigades is said to be obsolete.”

The expert listed the key roadblocks in front of Russia’s military reformers.

The foremost was corruption. “In an interview in May 2011, the chief military prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky, claimed that a fifth of defense spending simply disappears. … Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said: ‘The scope of pilfering I uncovered left me speechless. ... Financial irregularity and impunity of the people whose performance had never been inspected became a way of life.’ ”

4. Investment and propaganda

In a March 2012 report, Professor Hedlund wrote: “After years of neglect, Russia’s large-scale rearmament of its military is now well underway, with a massive procurement budget of $646 billion (19.4 trillion rubles) until 2020. … The scale of the program officially launched in 2011, was such that Russia’s long-serving Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin resigned in September 2011, “citing that part of his reason for going was disagreement over the rapid escalation in military spending.”

There was no shortage of other doubts. Another March 2012 report’s headline summarized them succinctly: “Will Russia’s rearmament program be too little and too late to return it to superpower status?

As Professor Hedlund saw it, there was “little, if any, hard evidence to suggest that Russia will be capable any time soon of projecting serious military force outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. The size of the funds allocated for rearmament may seem impressive … but compared with other major military powers, Russia’s defense budget remains small. In 2010/2011, the United States allocated $692.8 billion for defense. China allocated $76.4 billion and Russia only $41.4 billion.”

If the U.S. spends nearly 17 times as much as Russia on its war machine and if American technology remains far more advanced than Russia’s, it takes a pretty long stretch of the imagination to conjure up Russia as a military threat to the U.S.

While the list of intended procurements was impressive – it included building six new aircraft carriers, 100 other warships, 600 aircraft and 1,000 helicopters – the plan was obviously not realistic. “[F]unding alone will not solve Russia’s problem,” Professor Hedlund concluded. “The question is where all this technologically advanced hardware is going to be produced.”

By July 2012, the questioning of Russia’s military buildup had shifted from whether to why. As Professor Hedlund pointed out, the facts suggest that President Putin’s goals “have more to do with his own image and desire to stand up to NATO than with any real threat to his country.”

5. The fateful dismissal

In early November of 2012, Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and a top general are suddenly dismissed. This comes as a surprise, because Mr. Serdyukov’s team appeared to have been quite successful implementing an essential part of the military reform – a force restructuring. “The Soviet-era mass mobilization army, which could field 203 divisions and theoretically have 20 million men under arms, was to be transformed into a leaner and meaner force, based on 83 fully-staffed permanent-readiness brigades,” wrote Mr. Hedlund. This transformation was nearly completed, but following the minister’s replacement by Sergei Shoigu, an experienced administrator and Mr. Putin’s long-time collaborator, the reform was largely reversed.

The Russian leader with top officials of the country’s defense ministry in September 2012
Sochi, Sept 2012: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (right) and his deputy, Gen. Nikolai Makarov; soon after, the minister and the general were dismissed (source: dpa)

The reason of the abrupt purge, explained the expert in his January 2013 report, had to do with Mr. Serdykov’s efforts to create a semblance of competition in Russia’s military procurement by purchasing military hardware abroad. The minister was defeated, argued Mr. Hedlund, “by the supporters of the traditional state-owned weapons manufacturers.”

This was the end of Russia’s ambition to use outside competition as a means by which to increase efficiency and cut corruption in military procurement. Corruption has since only increased.

6. Problematic military kit

In February 2013, the issue Professor Hedlund tackled was the quality of Russian-made arms. “When Moscow launched its massive State Armament Program (SAP), covering the period 2011-2020, a big question mark was raised over whether its military industries were good enough to meet the new demands,” he wrote. “The answer appears to be divided.”

There have been doubts over both the new Bulava ballistic missile and the Sukhoi PAK-FA fifth generation stealth fighter. Only the outlook for the Sukhoi T-10 platform, producing the classic SU-27, SU-30, SU-34 and SU-35 warplane designs, remains positive. Russia’s prospect for achieving “fifth generation” technology remains bleak, the expert noted, in sharp contrast to China, “which does give the Pentagon a serious headache.”

Mr. Hedlund continued, “[T]he SAP also calls for a substantial upgrading of ground forces, including the delivery of some 2,300 tanks. … In March 2011, General Alexander Postnikov, then the commander of Russian ground forces, caused an uproar when he said armored hardware produced by the Russian defense industry could not compete against NATO or even Chinese weapon systems.… More specifically, he maintained that it would be preferable for Russia to purchase German Leopard tanks, which were both cheaper and better than the T-90.”

In the summer of 2011, Professor Hedlund recalled: “Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced a five-year moratorium on state orders for the T-90, repeating that it would be better to buy Leopard tanks. And in November that year, General Nikolai Makarov, the chief of general staff, publicly called the T-90 ‘out of date’, claiming that its gun had barely half the range of the comparable Israeli Merkava MK4.”

Following the subsequent dismissal of both the defense minister and General Makarov, “the airing of open criticism of Russian weapons has ceased … Prototype testing of a new, lighter T-99 Armata tank will begin in 2013.”

The jury is still out on whether the Armata really is a good design. It is part of the game that every new design rolled out in Russia is presented as superior to its Western competition. The Russians have made a few notable breakthroughs that give Western military planners cause for concern, but the overall picture of the federation’s war machine is not impressive.

7. Game changer

In July 2013, the expert warned that the former superpower, recognizing the sorry state of its conventional armed forces, was making “an all-out wager on regaining respect by upgrading all aspects of its nuclear triad - air, sea and land-based assets. The current State Armament Program (SAP), which covers the period 2011-2020, is heavily geared towards supporting this ambition.”

This remains the most important part of the Russian military upgrade, an issue that gives NATO a genuine headache.

8. Securing Russia’s defensive perimeter

An Oct. 20, 2014 report by Professor Hedlund brought GIS readers’ attention to the issue of the military importance of who controls the Crimean peninsula: “Russia’s lightning operation to seize and annex Crimea … will have a formative influence on security arrangements in the wider region, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. … NATO can no longer count on ruling the waves of the Black Sea, or being uncontested in the Mediterranean.”

His conclusion: Russia is securing its defensive perimeter, expecting that it will raise the cost of a NATO offensive to a level that the alliance’s member governments would not be ready to stomach.

9. Political warfare

On Feb. 26, 2016, the headline over Professor Hedlund’s entry alarmed: “New doctrine shows Russia willing and able to use force.” He reported: “On New Year’s Eve, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on an updated national security strategy. Its tone matches the deterioration in Russia’s relations with the West. Compared with the 2014 version, two features stand out. NATO is now presented as an adversary rather than a rival, and the instigation of so-called ‘color revolutions’ has been elevated to the status of a national security threat.”

10. Where are we now

A November 21, 2016 Hedlund report frontally attacked the key issue: “What Russia’s military is good for:” “Given the serious nature of the issue, it is disturbing that experts produce … widely divergent assessments. One camp highlights Russian strength, pointing to the recent series of large ‘snap inspections’ involving tens of thousands of troops, the lightning grab of Crimea, the speedy and orderly deployment of some 40,000 troops to the Ukrainian border, and the smooth handling of logistics in the Syrian air campaign.”

“The other side counters that Russia’s armed forces remain vastly inferior. Despite a recent boost, military spending is dwarfed by that of the United States. … The Russian navy is more rust than ready, the avionics of the Russian air force is inferior, the bombs dropped in Syria have been mainly of the dumb variety, demography and health issues constrain manpower for the ground forces, and broken supply chains – either domestic and from Ukraine – constrain industry’s ability to implement plans for modernization.”

Mobile launchers of Russia’s newest air defense system
Kaliningrad region, Jan. 26, 2017: An exercise by the Russian Baltic Fleet’s air defense units involving S-400 state-of-the-art air defense missile systems (source: dpa)

“What should one make of these diametrically opposed accounts? A major conventional war with NATO would undoubtedly end very badly for Russia. But that is small comfort. Even if Russia remains weak on offense, it has developed a number of weapons systems that make it very strong on defense. “[T]hese weapons systems add up to a robust anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capacity, or what military men call ‘bubbles.’ At the NATO Summit in Warsaw, much of the discussion revolved around how to deal with such ‘bubbles’ in places like the Kola Peninsula, Kaliningrad, Crimea and Syria. Alliance members are convinced that these defenses can be suppressed, but the effort would be costly. The main implication is that by investing in A2/AD capabilities, the Kremlin has expanded its theater of operations while keeping NATO at arm’s length.”

This is the main conclusion that can be drawn from Professor Hedlund’s four years of analyzing the Russian military. By defending its perimeter, Russia is raising the stakes for the West in challenging its claims to a sphere of interest in Ukraine and the Caucasus – and perhaps in Syria too, if that game can be kept together. In this sense, one could argue that Russia has already won its war, and NATO is left to choke on it. But it does not mean that Russia is a threat to the West – unless the West lets it be one.

11. The world has become a volatile place

GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein reflected on how the weakness of European defense repeatedly forces NATO into panicky escalation simply to retain balance in his Nov. 21, 2016 comment: “Tensions between Russia and the West are mounting. NATO is beefing up its presence in Norway, in Central Europe and in the Baltics. The European Union is strengthening the sanctions it imposed on Russia in 2014 in response to the situation in Ukraine – now the EU is reacting to Russian moves in Syria. Russia has responded by placing Iskander tactical ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and by sending its squadron to the Mediterranean.”

The prince concluded: “Such hotspots make the breakout of a real, global military conflict possible, if not imminent. During the Cold War, the fear of assured mutual destruction prevented an outbreak of war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Nuclear deterrence worked in a bipolar world. In today's multipolar system, it has lost a good deal of its importance.”

That is why the risk of even a limited conventional standoff rapidly turning nuclear must be taken very seriously.

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