Russia’s ground forces: No return to large tank armies

Moscow’s propaganda touting the scale of its military maneuvers notwithstanding, the country does not command enough ground forces to defeat NATO. It also does not have the demographics to expand its army. However, its military planners demonstrate an impressive dexterity in finding ways to address the defense needs of Russia.

A parade of armored units at Russia’s Tsugol training range
Zabaykalsky Krai, Sept. 13, 2018: Participants go on parade during the Vostok 2018 military maneuvers. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The Vostok-2018 maneuvers involved probably some 60,000 Russian troops, not 300,000 as Moscow has claimed
  • China’s participation in the exercises, held near its border, was not proof of a Beijing-Moscow military alliance
  • The configuration of the Russian ground forces reflects the country’s changing defense needs, not attack plans

This is the third instalment of GIS Expert Prof. Stefan Hedlund’s report series on the Russian Federation’s armed forces. Following his reviews of the current status of the Russian navy and air force, this report focuses on the ground force component.

For seven days in September 2018, Russia’s Eastern Military District staged what was billed as the country’s largest military drill since the peak of the Cold War in 1981. Code named Vostok 2018 (East 2018), the maneuvers were said to involve close to 300,000 men, 36,000 vehicles (including 900 tanks) and more than 1,000 aircraft.

Fears that Russia may be preparing for a war were enhanced by the participation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which contributed 3,200 troops and 900 vehicles to the drill. The very thought of ever closer Sino-Russian military cooperation worries NATO. In a comment after the event, the dreaded word “alliance” was used. There are reasons, however, to take at least some of this with a pinch of salt.

Inflated numbers

The total size of the Russian armed forces is less than one million men, and the ground force component stops at around 350,000. The idea that Vostok 2018 could have involved a third of the Russian army, or almost all of its ground forces, is absurd.

Many of the tanks were vintage T-64s out of local storage.

A more credible estimate of the troop number involved in the September event stops at perhaps 60,000. The key to the difference lies in counting all participating units at full strength; if, for example, a division sends a battalion tactical group, then the entire division is counted. It may also be sobering to note that many of the tanks were vintage T-64s, brought out of local storage. The drill was large, but not overwhelmingly impressive.

As to the Chinese participation, given that the exercise was to be conducted close to the two countries’ border, it could have been construed by Beijing as preparation for an attack. Inviting the Chinese to take part in both the planning and the actual execution served to build confidence. This does not mean that it was a step toward alliance – Beijing does not enter into alliances.

The maneuvers’ primary aim was obviously to impress on NATO that following a decade of reforms, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have reached a level of capability in mobilization and strategic airlift that the European part of the Western alliance cannot match. The deployment of large troop numbers during Vostok 2018 followed in the wake of successful deployments to the border with Ukraine and the even more logistically challenging operations to sustain Russia’s armed intervention in Syria.

Nimbler force

There is an important message here. While much attention has been given to the numbers in Moscow’s military modernization program, listing the procurement of new and upgraded armaments, it is not the hardware but rather the software component that should be placed in focus. A decade of large drills, interspersed by numerous “snap inspections,” often at short notice, have made it possible for the Russian military machine to reach critical objectives of strategic mobility and rapid deployment. Given the size of Russia’s land mass and the low number of troops currently available for defense, it is vital to demonstrate that an attack in one region may be repelled by rapid reinforcements from other regions. This need is especially urgent in the Far East, which is home to the Pacific Fleet and thus to an important part of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence.

Some have speculated that part of Moscow’s motivation for hyping Vostok 2018 may have been to send a warning to China. Behind the happy facade of ever-improving Sino-Russian relations, many Russian military experts are quietly convinced that despite all the rhetoric about pending war with NATO, the Middle Kingdom remains the only realistic adversary.

Deploying a deterrence force in the East would require a return to the mass mobilization army of the Soviet era.

Mounting a credible defense against a Chinese military invasion may seem impossible. With no more than 17 brigades available in the Eastern Military District to face a potential mass attack by the PLA, one is reminded of the old quip that the main challenge for a Chinese invader would lie not in defeating but rather in finding the Russian defenders. Deploying an effective deterrence force in the East would require a return to the mass mobilization army of the Soviet era when troop formations were counted in armies and corps.

Reform attempt

Russia has adapted to this threat. There are only two approach routes where a large-scale invasion could occur. Both are in a sparsely populated territory, which means that tactical nuclear weapons could be used with little collateral damage to the local population. This message was explicitly sent to Beijing in the Vostok 2010 exercise, which culminated in nuclear strikes against hypothetical Chinese ground forces on Russian territory.

Accepting that Moscow and Beijing have come to an understanding of their mutual security arrangements and reduced the risk of confrontation, the key challenges to Russian military planners are reduced to the interplay of threats from NATO in the West, and from the dangerous destabilization of regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The main takeaway from developments of the ground forces over the past five years concerns this balance precisely.

The trigger for the military reforms that were launched by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in 2009 was the dismal performance of the Russian forces in minor regional conflicts. In 1999, when Chechen rebels stormed Dagestan, it took the military command three weeks to deploy troops. Reflecting on the subsequent war in Chechnya, President Vladimir Putin vented his anger over how hard it had been to mobilize and deploy combat-ready units. The 2008 war in Georgia drove home the same message.

The reason for these failures was that the Soviet military system had been designed to mobilize millions of men. Around 80 percent of all military units were constituted as skeleton units, organized to receive and arm reservists. The essence of the Serdyukov reforms was to create a defense force that was both leaner and meaner.

Under the new model, the bulk of the old division-sized units were unceremoniously scrapped, defying the anger of top military brass that were demoted from division to mere brigade commanders, or simply made redundant. The replacement “readiness brigades” were to be fully staffed, equipped for autonomous action, and ready to deploy “within one hour.”

Reality check

If the next conflict had been another war in the Caucasus, or in Central Asia, then the readiness brigades would likely have performed as intended. But instead, it turned out to be an open-ended, low-intensity war of attrition in Ukraine. The initial experiences of this commitment raised the specter of a full-scale war with NATO and served to turn the tide in Moscow against the Serdyukov reforms.

Recent trends have shown a focus on rebuilding the old force structure. The classic 1st Guards Tank Army has been resurrected, and a host of other divisions are being organized. (The elite airborne divisions were never downgraded to brigades.) NATO is especially concerned that new divisions are being formed on the border with Ukraine – a motorized rifle unit is to be set up near Rostov-on-Don and two more divisions in the Smolensk and Voronezh regions. The immediate impression is that Russia is again preparing to fight a large scale war.

A picture of conscripts at weapon training in Russia’s Central Military District.
Russia’s huge land mass and the low number of troops currently available for defense make the Kremlin unlikely to contemplate challenging NATO in the Cold War-style. © dpa

The fault in conjuring up a threat of war with NATO lies in simple demography. The Russian military has shown great dexterity in adapting to the historically small cohorts of draft-aged males, mainly by restricting deferments and relying on contract soldiers. But this only goes so far. Staffing all the new units that are mushrooming in policy documents is a demographic impossibility.

The conflict in Ukraine did bring home that the structure of readiness brigades was unsuited for a sustained war of attrition. As the initial deployment needed to be rotated out, commanders from units across the country were called on to deploy battalion tactical groups. That made them responsible not only for ensuring logistics via remote control, they also have to prepare to rotate in new troops and to deal with returning demoralized units. The scheme was both disruptive and ineffective.



The current move to establish division headquarters units along the borders is a step toward resolving this problem. The creation of a dedicated command structure close to the theater of operations should be viewed as a sign that the military is preparing for a long commitment rather than for invasion. This is an essential aspect to grasp.

Any realistic assessment of the danger of a full-scale military confrontation between Russia and NATO must depart from the fact that if push came to shove, Russia would not be able to mobilize and deploy more than around 50,000 men with few, if any, strategic reserves. It is for precisely this reason that Russia has evolved its doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” i.e., that in the case of severe reversals in a conventional conflict it will resort to limited nuclear strikes, counting on NATO to back off.

Beyond all the fiery rhetoric about a pending war, the Russian military does realize it cannot sustain and win a conventional confrontation with NATO. This is the key to understanding why currently it tends to settle for solutions that are only “good enough.”

The Russian Navy has wisely scrapped plans for building carriers and heavy destroyers, opting to build smaller frigates and corvettes that may serve as platforms for advanced cruise missiles. Similarly, the ground force is scaling back plans to mass-produce the new and supposedly highly advanced T-14 Armata battle tank. Of the initially envisioned procurement of 2,400, only 200 will be built. The “good enough” substitute is various upgrades of the venerable T-72.

Claims that Vostok 2018 successfully mobilized 300,000 men represent geopolitical grandstanding. It is vintage Kremlin image-enhancement to try to intimidate and sow dissent within NATO. The realities that Russian ground forces will be called on to deal with do not include invasion and occupation of foreign territory. Their primary tasks will be to provide strategic defense, to sustain existing “frozen conflicts” and to stand ready for rapid expeditionary deployment, and limited incursions.

The lessons to be drawn from the commitments in Ukraine and Syria are linked to rapid mobilization and deployment. Russian manuals on strategy and tactics are also beginning to emphasize the experiences of warfare under conditions of plausible deniability. These lessons range from the deployment of special operations forces and mercenary forces to the evolving “shock tactics” of close coordination between artillery and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

It is symptomatic that the experience of the United States from training Ukrainian soldiers has proven to be a two-way street. While U.S. personnel are proving valuable instructions on operations, they are also absorbing from their students equally useful feedback on the nature of combat with first-rate military power. The Americans’ challenge is to unlearn urban combat and desert warfare where suicide bombers and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are the main threats. The lethality of the war in Donbas derives from massed artillery that fires cluster bombs, thermobaric weapons and a reformulated, nastier form of napalm.

The U.S. decision to provide the Ukrainians with advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles was a highly political decision with little military significance. If Russia were to launch a full-scale invasion, the Javelins would be overwhelmed. But the armored attack is not the main threat to Ukraine.

One might have thought that sophisticated counter-battery radars would better serve the Ukrainians. This has been tried, however, and the experience has been that the Russian side is very good at electronic warfare: as soon as a radar lights up, it gets struck by artillery receiving real-time targeting information from drones.


While the numbers on hardware procurement and wargaming may show, for example, that a Russian invasion of the Baltic states could be a walk in the park, such exercises fail to consider just how vulnerable the Russian ground forces are. Provoking NATO into a war would be an extremely high-risk proposition. The commitment of a large troop number in one theater would leave other theaters exposed to a degree that appears unacceptable.

The wars in Ukraine and Syria have been valuable learning experiences for both Moscow and the West as they enhanced and demonstrated the skills of Russian ground forces in limited and deniable low-intensity operations against weaker opponents. This underscores why attacks by huge, Soviet-era tank armies should not be high on the list of scenarios that NATO must be ready to face.

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