Russia’s Military: On the Rise?
After the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia started its most radical and comprehensive military reform in several decades. It is aimed at transforming the outdated mass mobilization army into combat-ready armed forces that are able to pursue a broader set of functions — from nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence to conventional warfare in local and regional coflicts to non-linear warfare to combating terrorism. The results are mixed. On the one hand, Russia was successful in streamlining command and control structures, improving training, increasing the number of professional soldiers, and strengthening elite forces. Moscow consequently enhanced its capability for joint operations, inter-agency coordination, and strategic mobility. Furthermore, Russia made progress in modernizing weapons and equipment. On the other hand, structural problems still set limits to Russia’s military development. They consist of the inability of the defense industry to deliver the requested amount and quality of modern weapons in due time and to agreed cost, demographic problems, and — most notably — insufficient financial means against the background of declining oil prices and the effects of Western sanctions.
Despite these impediments, Russia’s operations in Ukraine and Syria clearly demonstrate that its armed forces are able to fulfill an increased set of functions even with limited means. Particularly in regard to its post-Soviet neighbours, Russia can rely on its vast arsenal that, although stemming from Soviet times, can still be used in combat operations. The intervention in Syria shows that Moscow is able to quickly deploy troops and hardware beyond the post-Soviet space and pursue limited expediationary warfare based on air power. While Russia still lags behind NATO in quantitative and qualitative terms, it enhanced its military capabilities on its western frontiers and can benefit from asymmetric strategies, quick decision-making processes, and strategic surprise. NATO should react with a double strategy. The Atlantic Alliance has to improve credible military reassurance for its Eastern members, and NATO should promote confidence-building measures to avoid unintended military confrontation and maintain chances for cooperation with Russia in areas where the interests of both sides overlap.