Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has tried to maintain a position as a global military force. Though Russia projects the idea of being a modern military, evidence suggests that its true state is far less than what it purports to be.
In May 2018, the NATO alliance would closely monitor Russia's ongoing military drills in the Baltic Sea closely but did not want to worsen relations with Moscow that were already at a low ebb. The Russian Defense ministry said the exercises involved the firing of live ammunition at sea and air targets, shipborne helicopters conducting training flights and practicing searches for enemy submarines, with three corvettes and a frigate participating.
The Russian defense ministry said its Baltic Fleet, based out of its exclave of Kaliningrad, was undertaking what it called ‘routine training’ in the Baltic Sea. Germany's Bild newspaper reported in 2017 citing Russian sources, that the "Zapad" drills were a rehearsals in case of an invasion of the Baltic states and Belarus. Since then, Russia has undertaken numerous exercises that have served to unsettle former Soviet states and Western Europe (dw.com/a-43259850).
It has also undertaken a broad military excursion into the Middle-East with its campaigns to assist the Syrian government of the Assad regime. Russia has used these military exercises as a means to promote itself as a strong military power. However, despite the large-scale show of force, Russia’s true state of military power is far less than what it attempts to project.
In July 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Sergey Storchak admitted Russia’s Reserve Fund may be depleted in 2017. Russia’s Reserve Fund declined by 3.7% in June to 2.5 trillion rubles ($39 bln) while the National Wealth Fund (NWF) dropped by 3% to 4.7 trillion rubles ($73.4 bln). In dollar terms the funds amounted to $38.22 and $72.76 bln, respectively, as of July 2016. In May, the Finance Ministry spent $2.67 bln, €2.34 bln and £0.41 bln worth of funds from the Reserve Fund for financing the budget deficit. No disbursements were reported for June. On the whole, the Finance Ministry may spend a total of 2.2 trillion rubles ($34 bln) to finance the budget deficit, over which the Central Bank had concerns that it may cause a structural liquidity surplus of the banking sector (tass.ru/886656). This was on top of the drastic drop in energy prices that occurred at the time. These financial issues coupled with the high expenditures acquired from the excursions into the Ukraine and Syria had raised serious concern about whether Russia could afford to continue its military modernization program.
During this time most of their heavy armor tanks are still Cold War era. They still continue to use the TU-95 bombers, another cold war relic, for operations aimed at harassment of western militaries (nationalinterest.org/just-how-dangerous-russias-military-16981). By 2018, the US had an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces, including a much stronger navy and air force. Russia's battleships are old, but they are often equipped with very modern cruise missiles.
In regard to naval build up, the Chinese are now undertaking a very ambitious program of ship building and are proving more successful in developing a global blue Navy fleet than Russia. Russia is lacking in many areas of modern military technology, including drone design and production and electronic components, as well as radar and satellite reconnaissance and are still heavily dependent on foreign countries to supply such technologies.
France and Germany were making double-use satellites, which were basically military satellites and recon satellites, for Russia. This has since stopped. For example, Russia is currently producing surveillance drones under an Israeli license, and it is completely lacking in assault drone capability. The technology the Russians produce organically comes with its own problems.
The legacy of the Soviet Union is still very much present in the modern Russian army, as many of its cutting-edge systems are the development of good, old Soviet systems and the modernization of that type of technology.
Russia is also working on updating its command and control centers, which serve to process information from the battlefield then feeding it to the troops. These problems were exacerbated by the 2014 Crimean crisis, according to the analyst. In the years leading up to the showdown with the West, Moscow was spending at least $500 Million per year in the US shopping for the so-called double-use merchandise, which can be used for both military and civilian purposes (dw.com/a-43293017). In 2018, Golts says, the forces were supposed to receive 203 planes and helicopters ─ in fact, they obtained 126. Long-range aviation was supposed to acquire six new planes ─ they received five. The navy was supposed to gain 35 new ships ─ it took possession of only 25. Promised refittings were delayed. So, “in the best case,” the Russian military fulfilled only about 70 percent of its goals, and it is not just in technology and weapons that Russia is behind.
In late 2018, the Russian military announced it had formed ten new brigades and divisions and planned to form another 11 in 2019 bringing the total of new units created since 2014 to about 40. Moscow has dramatically increased the number of divisions and brigades in its Armed Forces even as it has reduced the total size of its uniformed personnel. The result is the return of the paper divisions that were characteristic of the last years of the Soviet Union. In such Soviet units, officers were in place but not the enlisted men who would have the experience and unit cohesion to make the military an effective fighting force.
Paper divisions have plagued their commands in the past. Such units sound impressive but in fact are hollow shells incapable of performing their tasks. Like former Soviet times, these new units are only being staffed by officers. Such regiments and divisions formed 80 percent of the Russian army before the former defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov’s, reforms. They were absolutely incapable of performing their mission, as anyone could see from the Chechen wars and the military conflict with Georgia. Despite their failed past, paper divisions are evidently returning, and with them, low military preparedness. In truth, since 2015, the number of professional soldiers has not increased, and the size of the draft quota in 2018 compared to the previous year was smaller by 14,000 men.
These new and under-equipped paper divisions will make the Russian military wholly ineffective, particularly against forces of Russia’s smaller neighboring countries. But it is important to underscore that those who take Russian propaganda about its military buildup at face value are deceiving themselves—which is exactly what the Kremlin hopes for (jamestown.org/). Despite the depleted state of the Russian military and the façade it presents, the Russian military shouldn’t be dismissed.
While it possesses only a fraction of the capabilities of the US military, Russia remains the dominate force in the post-Soviet countries. Its military still presents a challenge to the security of Western European countries who would be at a serious disadvantage without US support. Many Russian weapons systems, though antiquated, are still formidable in combat. Its Soviet TU-95 bombers continue to effectively run harassment operations against NATO countries.
Russia remains one of the few militaries capable of conducting expeditionary operations. In its current state, it has the capacity to undertake several small scale interventions and conduct access and area denial to the Baltic, Black Sea and Arctic Basins (nationalinterest.org/just-how-dangerous-russias-military-16981).
Russian armed forces provide Moscow with clear military superiority in the post-Soviet region, despite Russia's troops not being able to match the whole of NATO. Russia is considered one of the world's strongest nations when it comes to military power and still has plenty of arrows in its quiver, most notably the massive nuclear arsenal of some 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads (dw.com/a-43293017). On a global level it still trying to expand it parameters.
A deal between Sudan and Russia on navy port visits could morph into a permanent Russian military presence on the Red Sea coast, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee told Sputnik. The draft agreement includes security provisions for seamen who will be allowed to go ashore unarmed. Navy ships carrying weapons of mass destruction, nuclear fuel, biological weapons, radioactive substances, toxins or drugs will be banned from entering ports.
The Sudanese Navy is gaining first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment to help train its naval forces, boosting strategic ties between the two nations (sputniknews.com/201901121071422796-russia-naval-base/).
The geographical map and the Russian order of battle make the Baltics a vulnerable flank for NATO. Russia can invade and capture the Baltics, seize a small parcel of land or deploy forces between Kaliningrad and Belarus, effectively severing the Baltic States from the rest of NATO. Hence, Russia has a panoply of invasion options while NATO’s defense options are slim.
A NATO high-end fight is ultimately an airpower dependent fight. In a Russian contingency, most of NATO’s firepower is in its air force, not its land force. Taking on a large and well-equipped land army like Russia’s is impractical for Europe’s comparatively lighter forces. American land power is not substantially better positioned or equipped for such a fight either.
Russia poses both an irregular and a conventional threat, but the latter is very unlikely to materialize. The former, however, can effectively bedevil NATO, and Russian irregular capabilities remain largely unaddressed. Thus, in a plausible scenario, Russia’s conventional forces will most probably be used for diversion in support of a sub-conventional challenge to the alliance, much as they were on the eastern border of Ukraine. In other words, Russia’s army likely won’t invade, but instead will intimidate NATO, preventing a response to irregular or political warfare. A greater NATO presence does not translate into an answer for this problem (warontherocks.com/the-expensive-pretzel-logic-of-deterring-russia-by-denial/).
Given the lack of transparency by the Russian government, it is difficult to accurately measure the overall status of the military. In early December 2018, Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister gave his annual address to foreign military attachés in Moscow. His speech concluded assessing the challenges within the international security system as well as the negative roles played by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
He addressed the “main source” of destructive factors in the international security system, identified as US efforts to preserve its dominance and exclude competition by other countries. He then attacked the Transatlantic alliance: NATO’s answer to a supposedly mounting threat from Russia is to expand its military presence near our borders. He justified these assertions in terms of the “crisis phenomena” spreading within the global economy, portraying increased tensions over several types of resources, including energy and water.
Gerasimov outlined ongoing military modernization. He explained the various advances in modernizing a nuclear deterrent, enhancing aerospace defense, improving air defense with more S-400 systems and noting that work continues on modern hypersonic precision missile systems such as the Kinzhal. Also, in the conventional Armed Forces, Gerasimov noted the need to further improve command and control and Electronic Warfare capability (jamestown.org/gerasimov-highlights-the-need-to-sharpen-russias-military-dagger/). Russia’s projection of military power is part of its effort to maintain the image of being a world power or, at the very least, the dominate power in the region. It still has aspirations to recoup or at least regain dominate control over its former republics. Beyond that, it still maintains very real concerns about NATO and the growing influence of the US in the region.
Russia is trying to preserve its influence as a major global power. The prices of energy have dropped, heavily reducing its vast natural resources as a means of influence. This has caused Russia to fall back on its military force to maintain its formidable image. Its military still possesses superior strength to many of its neighbors and certainly remains one of the dominate military powers in the world. However, Russia is no longer the Soviet power of the cold war days, and its current position limits its resources. Their incursions into the Ukraine and its adventurism in Syria have deeply exhausted their assets.
Russia will continue to rattle its saber and make moves aimed at promoting the image that it still is a world power capable of serving as a direct challenge to the US. However, it would be impractical for the Russians to use direct military action toward any neighboring countries or overt military force against NATO members. Instead it will pursue a strategy of indirect operations working through its intelligence organs and military Special Forces elements using s series of proxy organizations.
Russia’s strategy will continue to revolve around the concept of trying to reassert control over the old Soviet states and intimidating Western Europe into a more submissive role while trying to maintain influence in strategically significant locations such as the Middle-East. It will attempt all this while operating at an arm’s length from anything that could place it in direct confrontation with the US.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States used arms transfers and military assistance as one element in foreign and security policies that was primarily intended to further a political and ideological competition. But with the end of the cold war, the international arms trade no longer has the same politico-military underpinning.
In the late 1980s, the changes in foreign policy initiated by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze transformed the pattern of Soviet arms exports. After 1992, decisions by Russia about foreign, domestic and economic policy altered the size and pattern of arms exports even further. According to the Office of the President, in 1996 military-technical cooperation generated $2.5 billion in revenue of which $2.1 billion was in convertible currency and the rest in currencies that could not be freely converted. Russia also delivered arms and military equipment against debts owed to several foreign countries (www.sipri.org/publications/1998/russia-and-arms-trade).
The exports of black and gray arms represent between 5-15% of total weapons exports from Russia. For example, when the official exports of weapons and military equipment from Russia amounted to $3.8 billion in the early 2000s, the black and gray export was closer to $380 million. Russian merchants of death also have a large scale operation in the Middle East. Russia was accused of supplying arms to terrorist organizations such as Hamas, IG, and Hezbollah with the ruling Assad regime in Syria acting as an intermediary.
Syria has been in a state of civil war for many years with rebels trying to overthrow the pro-Kremlin regime. Since the beginning of the war, Russian arms supplies to Syria have grown exponentially. Moscow officially claims that deliveries are made on previous contracts, but it cannot explain why the number of these contracts suddenly increased many times over. In this case, there is real doubt that the weapons contracts are paid for, since it is no secret that the Assad regime is bankrupt and unable to buy the mountains of weapons supplied over these years from Russia, including small arms, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, C-SAM (ZRK S-300), tanks T-72 and T-80, and MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. And that doesn’t even include the cost of ammunition.
Israeli intelligence agencies have repeatedly implicated the Kremlin in the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, including rockets, ammunition, and small firearms. In fact, the IDF has actively prevented completion of several Kremlin plans for the armament of Hezbollah brokered by Assad. Israeli aircraft have repeatedly destroyed the anti-aircraft missiles S-300, anti-ship missiles Yakhont, and ground-to-ground missiles on Syrian territory that were intended for Hezbollah. Israeli forces seized Russian-made weapons, the ATGM Cornet, from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Russian smuggling in the Middle East is not limited to the supply of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. There are reasons to believe the Kremlin is also supplying weapons to the terrorist group ISIS. Russians could not transfer weapons to militants openly, because it officially recognized ISIS as a terrorist organization. Then there was a scam—a series of staged assaults by militants on the bases of Syrian government troops. Assad’s army retreated without a fight, leaving the entire base along with loads of weapons. Hence, this was a way to deliver arms under the guise of trophies. It is noteworthy that when the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime went sour, attacks on government troops became violent and the weapons were destroyed (informnapalm.org/).
By 2015, the US was first in value of all arms deliveries made around the world, at a value of $16.9 billion or 36.62% of the total. The US and Russia made up just over half of all arms transfer agreements to developing world countries. Each year, between 2008 and 2015, two or three major suppliers made most of the arms transfers to that market. It was the eighth year in a row that the US was first in this category, and Russia was second in each of those eight years.
Russia is able to offer a variety of munitions, from low-tech gear to advanced weapons systems. It has sold combat aircraft and main battle tanks to China and India and made arms deals with the likes of Malaysia, Burma, and Algeria. Moscow has focused its recent arms-sales efforts on Latin America, where Venezuela has been a principal buyer. Russia has also worked to make it's weapons deal terms more flexible and to improve its follow-on services to clients (www.businessinsider.com/us-russia-global-arms-sales-2016-12).
Recently the issue that has come between the US and Russia is the sale of the S-400 air defense system. The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) is an air defence missile system developed by Almaz Central Design Bureau of Russia. The S-400 Triumph air defence system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre. It is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. The system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets. The S-400 is two-times more effective than previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes. It can also be integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the Air Force, Army, and the Navy. Russia intends to supply export versions of the S-400 Triumph system to the armed forces of China. Turkey also expressed interest in purchasing S-400 air defence systems (www.army-technology.com/projects/s-400-triumph-air-defence-missile-system/).
Russia’s ability to sell its S-400 air defense system to several different countries in different theaters illustrates the geopolitics of this particular system. Despite US sanctions on the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey, Moscow is offering or has sold the S-400 to a number of countries, including NATO member Turkey. The US is also watching closely for other S-400 sales to countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran, and Vietnam, thus reducing the American sphere of influence and boosting Russia’s ability to arm, equip, and train other countries’ air defense capabilities regardless of the theater. The key issue here is what the US will do given the defense requirements of other countries who want to continue to do defense business with Moscow. Both Turkey and, in particular, India now stand out (www.arabnews.com/node/1390056). The U.S. aggressive stance has also set it at further odds with China.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military on Thursday for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia in breach of a sweeping US sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 US election. The US State Department said it would immediately impose sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the military branch responsible for weapons and equipment, and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter. The sanctions are related to China’s purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department. In Beijing, the Chinese government expressed anger and demanded the sanctions be withdrawn (www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/u-s-sanctions-china-for-buying-russian-fighter-jets-missiles-idUSKCN1M02TP).
This intelligence site has previously reported that Russia is building its economic base and influence in the world by availing itself to countries under US or UN sanctions as a viable trading partner. Based on this strategy it is using its arms business to further undermine the effectiveness of US sanctions and bolster its own position as a sphere of influence in the world.
It is also a source of revenue for the Russian economy they will continue to foster through both legitimate sales and black-market deals. In the long run, Russia’s arms sales will constitute a serious threat for the United States. In addition to eroding the effectiveness of US sanctions, technology such as the S-400 changes the battlefield dynamics by enhancing the defenses of hostile countries. The fact that Russia has been willing to turn a blind eye or actively encourage an illicit market to further their customer base explains how important the arms market has become for them.
The US needs to recognize that Russia’s arms business is only going to expand and proliferate, especially to countries and groups that are sanctioned by the US. Russia has grown to become the second largest arms merchant in the world just behind the United States. In time it is capable of becoming the largest, thus Russia will remain a significant threat to US authority. In response, the US needs to start developing more diverse measures and threats to deal with foreign adversaries; measures that do not rely solely on sanctions. It will also have to deal with adversaries that will be able to obtain more sophisticated weapons because of this.