Russia is back, but you already knew that or you wouldn’t be here.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Daniel May, a final year history student at the University of Bristol.
The precise details of how Russia has re-emerged are perhaps less clear, as is what it means for the rest of the world. Russian intelligence services have been in the news a lot, but what have the conventional forces been up to in the meantime, and how does it all fit together?
2007-2009 saw the Army enact major structural reforms, with the Navy following in 2013-2014 and the Air Force in 2015-2017. The MVD was reorganised as the National Guard in 2016. The core purpose of these reforms was to reduce the number of strategic commands of the armed forces.
This retasked the armed forces reduced in size from its Soviet era height, lowering costs and (in theory) cutting down on corruption. Divisions were reduced to Brigades, Naval Squadrons were amalgamated and Air Regiments were reordered as Aviation Base Commands.
These changes made sense for a smaller national defence budget with no need to maintain vast standing army groups capable of conquering Europe. Since 2012 these principles have changed, and the armed forces have taken an entirely new direction. 2014 brought the ceremonial refounding of the 1st Guards Order of the Red Banner Tank Army with assignment to Joint Strategic Command West. Major commands under this formation are the:
- 2nd Guards ‘Tamanskaya’ Order of Suvorov Order of the Red Banner Motor Rifle Division
- 4th Guards ‘Kantemirovskaya’ Order of Lenin Order of the Red Banner Tank Division
- 27th Independent Guards ‘Sevastopol’ Motor Rifle Brigade
- 6th Independent Guards Order of Kutuzov Order of the Red Banner Tank Brigade
- 288th ‘Warsaw Brandenburg’ Order of the Red Banner Artillery Brigade
- 53rd Order of the Red Banner Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade
- 112th Guards Missile Brigade
The concentration of commands with ceremonial names and banners perhaps indicates a desire for a ceremonial unit to act as a focus for public pride in the armed forces. It is no coincidence that these units feature on the parade bill at most years’ Victory Day. The reformed 1st Guards Tank Army also serves as a sledgehammer that could push its way past most European armies on its own, freeing up the remainder of the Russian Armed Forces for duties elsewhere. The 6th Independent Guards Tank Brigade has seemingly made quite a name for itself in Donbass, and the 53rd AA Missile Brigade can add a Boeing 777 to their trophy cabinet Being ‘elite’ units, their reputation demands only the latest and most powerful equipment
The aftermath of the Chechen Wars left the public perception of the armed forces at a low point, and the reorganisation seems to indicate an armed forces deeply concerned with its public image. In modern Russia, the military is celebrated to a degree rivalling that in the United States, including its permeation into popular culture. The recreation of famed and ceremonial units is a public symbol of the might of the new Russia, but still drawing strength from what Russia used to be capable of and may be capable of once again.
Russian procurement strategy has come a long way since the ‘Better is the enemy of good enough’ doctrine espoused by Admiral Sergei Gorshkov in the 1960s, and appears more to reflect western procurement of a smaller number of higher quality equipment. The core elements of this in the last three years have been:
- T-15 Armata IFV
- BMPT Terminator IFV
- T-14 Armata MBT
- Karakut PKG
- Gremyashchiy PKG
- Belgorod SSXN
- Sukhoi Su-57
- Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-35
- Tupolev Tu-160M2
The military lessons of the Chechen Wars were that Infantry Fighting Vehicles need to be re-evaluated as the armour of BMP and BTR series often proved insufficient, and the armament inadequate (especially the limited weapon elevation). This study has resulted in the heavily armoured T-15 IFV and the heavily armed BMPT Terminator. Both vehicles emphasize survivability in a close urban environment, intended to act in partnership with Main Battle Tanks (especially in the case of the BMPT). In a modernisation of the partnership between armoured infantry and tank units that make up most of Russia’s brigades and divisions the Terminator is also intended to act as a soft support unit for traditional armoured operations in support of the tank battalions. Under these circumstances the new generation IFVs appear intended as force multipliers for existing Russian formations.
In the T-72, the USSR and later Russia developed a versatile chassis on which a variety of platforms could be mounted, resulting in the TOS-1 thermobaric assault gun, T-90 MBT and more recently the BMPT Terminator. More recent tank developments appear to continue the lineage of the T-72 as a cheaper alternative to the more advanced T-14 Armata, the basis for the T-15 and 2S35. The T-14 was initially proposed as a wholesale replacement for the T-72 and T-80 series tanks that make up the bulk of the army’s stock (in the same way the T-72 and T-80 were for the T-55 and T-62). The sanctions installed in 2014 and the consequent fall in the Rouble appear to have caused a significant slowdown in production, with only 100-200 combat models believed to exist at present.
Development of the proven T-72 chassis has continued, from the T-72B3 variant which upgraded older B models with a more advanced electronics and targeting system, and the latest B3M (or B4) variant entering service with the 6th Independent Guards Tank Brigade with further improvements allowing for newer ammunition and reactive armour packages. Upgrading the T-72 provides a cheaper alternative to the T-14, and also reduces conversion training time for units receiving an updated model. With a reduced production, it appears in the short to medium term the T-14 is destined for the parade units of the 1st Guards Tank Army only.
Navy funding has historically prioritised submarines for the Northern Fleet. Whilst there are now three Borei SSBNs in service and the second Yasen SSN expected by the end of the year, there have been some more unusual developments going on in the background. The Oscar class Belgorod and Delta class Podmoskovye submarines have been rebuilt as support platforms for the Losharik mini-submarine, a project open to great speculation. The US Navy operated the NR-1 Nuclear mini-submarine for 30 years in a variety of military purposes which needed submarine support, but required a specialised platform that attracted less attention than a full sized SSN. The converted Oscar motherships can provide a global reach to the smaller submarines, making the Losharik an effective strategic asset.
The Navy’s newest destroyer is 19 years old, with progress on the Lider class replacement for the
Sovremennyy and Udaloy destroyers and the Slava class cruiser moving at a glacial pace. Russia has been building smaller ships, especially corvettes at a rapid rate. 3 frigates have entered service in the last two years, with another five expected by the end of 2020. 14th July brought the commissioning of three Karakut frigates, successor to the Buyan-M. Another Buyan-M entered service earlier this year with another 6 planned by 2022, along with 4 of the larger Gremyashchiy class in the same time period. Such vessels seem to prioritise offensive capacity over individual survivability, typically carrying two quadruple P-800 Oniks or 3M22 Zircon anti-ship missiles and a battery of S-400 long range anti-air missiles. Such a design appears to be built around large quantities of these ships acting in a swarm. Volleys of hypersonic missiles would pose significant problems for NATO shipborne air defences, whilst S-400s are built around the strategic denial of airspace – the ideal weapon for countering aircraft from a supercarrier.
The long time required for the rebuilding of the ‘battlecruiser’ Admiral Nakhimov may suggest a change in function. In their original form the Kirovs were intended as the centrepiece of battlegroups designed to attack and destroy American Carrier Battle Groups at long range. Current assumptions incorporate the replacement of the processing systems, replacing the P-700 with the P-800 and the S-300 with the S-400. Why this has taken over 15 years could be explained in one of two ways. The first is that the fall in the Russian economy (exacerbated by sanctions) has sapped resources away from the maintenance and overhaul budget, with priorities going into bringing new ships into service. The second option is that the delays have been managed to incorporate new generation weaponry, such as the 3M22 Zircon anti-ship missile with twice the range and 50% greater speed than the P-800.
This more powerful weaponry would allow the Nakhimov to become a fleet in being almost on its own, with a more powerful offensive striking power than most surface action groups and three layers of air defences to protect itself from attack.
Although Russian aircraft have resumed patrol flights around the borders of European airspace these have been conducted almost entirely by Tu-95MS and Tu-142M aircraft. Despite extensive modernisation these airframes are old and will be under the strain of long years in and out of mothballs. Rather than develop an entirely new aircraft, production has resumed on the Tu-160 with the first Tu-160M2 completed earlier this year, seemingly incorporating lessons learned from the Tu-22M3M.
The introduction of the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal stand-off missile could diminish the need for large heavy bombers, being small enough for a single unit to be carried beneath a MiG-29 or Su-27 sized aircraft. As with the army, large aircraft are a symbol of national strength and a potent comparison to the United States Air Force, one of the few major air forces that still operate dedicated heavy bombers, and at a fraction of the cost of the B-21 Raider project.
The introduction of the Su-34 provided Russia with a new generation fighter-bomber, much as the introduction of the Su-35S raised the hopes of the Air Force with a new generation of fighter aircraft. Issues with manufacturing lead to production of only 109 Su-34 and 71 Su-35S airframes. With the Russian economy in a weaker position that it was in 2012, it appears likely that the much celebrated Su-57 will see even fewer units enter service, again only with highly publicised elite units.
Although the MiG-35 is no real competitor to the F-35 B and C variants entering naval service it serves the double purpose of replacing the problematic Su-33 in carrier service and also providing the Mikoyan-Gurevich division of UAC with a real project to engage with, furthering the perception of an actual united aircraft corporation as opposed to just Sukhoi taking over the competition. The Russian UAV industry appears to have made considerable strides in recent years, experience in Syria proving the need for UCAVs in asymmetrical warfare both as reconnaissance and strike units. The Mikoyan-Gurevich ‘Skat’ project has recently been taken over by Sukhoi, and is believed to be heading in the direction of a stealthy Suppression of Enemy Air Defences UCAV, clearing the way for manned fighter-bombers. A stealthy aircraft could replace the reliance on long range stand-off missiles for a swarm of smaller missiles launched at closer range, giving the opponent less time to react.
Putting all the changes to its armed forces together with the actions of its intelligence services a picture begins to emerge. When on the attack, the new units appear to prioritise a ‘Shock and Awe’ approach, followed by a second wave of lower cost area denial units to prevent a counter-offensive by Western powers. By co-ordinating this strategy with support for anti-establishment politics in western democracies (Trump, Five Star) resulting in a dumbing down of strategy to sound-bites, western policy ends up fixated on memories of failures in Iraq and Libya.
Anti-establishment politicians spurn established alliances and Realpolitik, and either respect the strong-arm tactics of the Russian state or have spent so long opposing their own countries foreign and military policies that the combination of military deterrent and ideological barriers prevent western powers from forming an effective unified counter-strategy, as has been the case in Syria and Ukraine. This approach is compatible with smaller numbers of units equipped with better equipment acting as a force multiplier for a larger army equipped with ‘good enough’ equipment.
This entire strategy indicates a move away from the Soviet model of trying to emulate the global reach of the USA whilst simultaneously maintaining dominance over its own sphere of influence. Simple geography has meant that America has needed to focus less on domestic defence, allowing it to focus on its power projection assets. The new Russia sees itself as needing to reassert itself locally, allowing the fear of Russia, and a system of expanded alliances with Syria, Iran and India to extend its reach further when needed. Not only does this show to the domestic audience that Russia cannot be pushed around by external forces, but it shows foreign powers that Russia regards the ‘Near Abroad’ as its exclusive buffer zone once again.