Friday, January 28, 2011

The Russian army sucks. But should we care?

Last week the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, an establishment-connected Moscow think tank, published a series of reports on the state of Russian defense reform in a book called The New Russian Army (pdf). It's available online, but my Russian was crap even when I was studying it, so I'll just trust Pavel Felgenhauer's analysis.
The book lists a number of technical, strategic and personnel problems that bedevil the present Russian armed forces: including a lack of modern weapons, vague military doctrine that does not distinguish precisely what threats Russia faces and the military means that must be developed to counter them. Russia is an isolated power with no significant allies, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, depends on Russia’s limited defense resources. According to CAST experts, CSTO allies are weak and disloyal and unprepared or able to support Russia politically or militarily, while these countries require constant commitment and investment. Additionally, an acute manning crisis has diminished the combat readiness of the so called “permanent readiness brigades.”
Felgenhauer's summary focuses on the personnel aspects of the book, recognizing that Russia's other strategic challenges are of secondary importance when viewed in light of an army that can neither deploy nor fight effectively.
According to “The New Russian Army” authors, the main strategic mistake was the transition to one year conscript service in 2008 from the previous two year term. The idea of the reform was to man combat units mostly with contract soldiers or kontraktniki, while conscripts form a trained mobilization reserve are also used as a pool for recruiting additional kontraktniki.  From 2005 to 2007 more than 50 percent of the defense budged was reportedly spent on the federal program to form a contract armed force, which was later declared to be a failure: the number of recruited kontraktniki was inadequate and their quality – dubious. In 2009 and 2010 contract units were replaced by a predominantly conscript force – mostly to save money.
Today, officially the Russian armed forces have 85 brigades, but according to the “New Russian Army” authors their combat readiness is dismal. Sergeants and specialists are 3-months trained conscripts. Unit combat readiness fluctuates twice a year as during the spring and fall drafts trained soldiers are discharged after one year service and units are left with six-month serving badly-trained conscripts and fresh recruits with no training. These brigades are officially fully combat ready, but in reality they may send into combat one or two battalion tactical groups of six-month-trained conscripts.
The crux of all this: the Russian army has perhaps five battalions that can fight worth a damn. What's it to us?, you might be wondering. Well, fair question. NATO's force-sizing construct was based for nearly half a century on the eastern threat, and some folks would still base U.S. military force structure and concepts on a country they view -- along with China -- as a military (if not economic) peer competitor. And for the purposes of our new-ish NATO allies, this may be a noteworthy revelation: Poland and Estonia, for example, will welcome Russia's struggles to field capable expeditionary landpower, and a better understanding of a potential adversary's capabilities can help them to tailor their own forces within a broader NATO defensive framework. But what about for the U.S.: should signs of Russian military weakness meaningfully inform our strategic approach vis-a-vis Russia? As far as I'm concerned: not a bit.

First of all, the way the U.S. understands and behaves toward Russia as an international actor has never been about landpower capabilities -- at least not since the demise of the Soviet Union. Force projection and deterrence are a job for the navy, the air force, and the strategic missile fleets, not conscript infantry battalions. NATO's responsibility for territorial defense still holds, and those nervous smaller states only recently emancipated from Warsaw Pact serfdom are of course interested in Moscow's ability to send an armored column over the western frontier. As a matter of force planning for the Big One in Europe, latent capability is perhaps just as important as who's currently in uniform and manning the guns, and Poland will never be sanguine about Russia -- underpaid, underfed, over-officered conscript force or not. And these revelations aren't exactly earth-shattering or surprising, either: the poor performance of Russian troops in Chechnya and, more recently, Georgia justifiably posed questions about whether the bear had lost his fangs.

So: if the Russian army's weak, it's time to press for advantage, yeah? Time to add more members to NATO, push 'em around on the Caucasus and central Asia, bully them in the near abroad and disregard their red lines, right? Not exactly. Moscow still bears influence far out of balance with its expeditionary landpower capabilities by dint of nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and Russia's status as a willing partner and supplier of armaments to a great many states in both the developed and developing worlds. Medvedev, Putin, and their successors can still exert a great deal of pressure on U.S. interests both in Eurasia and elsewhere, as Russia's shifting relationship with Iran has clearly demonstrated. NATO still depends on Russia and her one-time vassals for logistics cooperation in OEF, not to mention the affinity our little counterterrorist and counterinsurgent buddies have for Russian helicopters.

What does all this mean to us, then? Not very much. Russia still swings a big stick, and it doesn't mean much that in an imaginary battle for Antarctica, we could put roughly nine times as many well-trained, well-equipped ground forces in place. Russian weakness will perhaps pose a greater problem to western interests than strength would: instability in the north Caucasus or elsewhere on the southern periphery is probably our biggest security worry with regard to Russia, and a state that's not capable of conclusively settling its own border troubles and insurgencies is more likely to take unsettling and destabilizing actions than one that's geographically and demographically secure. Beware of those who celebrate this trend: over the long term, a worried, impotent Russia makes for a worrying, unstable Eurasia.


  1. I remember hearing that the year long service was an effort to stop the hazing that goes on in the army and leads to something like 500 recruits killing themselves each year. The idea being that if there are less soldiers who have seniority over each other, there would be less hazing. I guess it hasn't worked as well as they thought.

    Russia's insurgency experience is also an interesting counter point to the people who argue that if only we took the metaphorical gloves off in Afghanistan or Iraq victory would follow shortly thereafter. Russia has been pretty brutal to the people in Chechnya/Daegestan/Ingushetia for years and it hasn't worked for them. Whether you're doing "PC-coin" or "going Roman" it seems like there's no easy solution.

  2. You forgot to mention Russias greatest strategic point of leverance: They supply Europe with a lot of its gas. The whole former soviet sphere is to varying degrees totally dependent on this, as is Germany. Xcept for that, interesting article.

  3. To go Roman one gotta be Roman. Roman as Mongolian experience cannot be repeated by outsiders.

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