When considering how strong modern Russia is, the first thing to remember that it is Russia, not the Soviet Union, and not even the Tsarist Empire.
The resources available to Moscow today are far less than those that the Soviet Union commanded, and it controls much less territory than the Tsarist Empire. However President Vladimir Putin’s regime has stabilised the country politically and economically.
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Viewed against the backdrop of Russian history over the past 700-odd years, during which the government of Russia has taken the form of autocracy interrupted by periods of chaotic anarchy (1), Putin has provided the average Russian with a significant degree of personal freedom within a framework of a significant degree of stability.
Putin’s Russia does not meet Western democratic standards, but it remains, for the average Russian, an improvement over the disorganisation of the immediate post-Soviet years and a great improvement over the Soviet period.
This has been a source of strength for Putin that seems rarely to get the attention it deserves in Western analyses. (This is not to deny increasing dissatisfaction with his regime, which is not surprising given that he has ruled Russia for some 22 years now, as Prime Minister or President, but it is not clear if this dissatisfaction is strong enough yet to force him out of office.)
In purchasing power parity terms, Russia has the world’s sixth largest economy, with a value of $4.016-trillion. However, its exports are dominated by petroleum, petroleum products and natural gas. Any falls in world oil and gas prices severely affect the country’s economy (2). Russia is also suffering from demographic decline. Its population is expected to fall by 5.4% between 2018 and 2040, from the current 142-million to 134-million. But this would still make it by far the most populous country in Europe (with Turkey in second place, with a population of just over 89-million forecast for 2040) (3).
Putin has clearly restored the effectiveness of Russia’s conventional armed forces (or of most of them), maintained and is modernising the only nuclear arsenal in the world that is on a par with that of the US, and has reasserted Russia’s status as a major power, through carefully chosen military interventions and actions.
He and his advisers have done this through a mixture of ruthlessness, shrewdness, unscrupulousness and, yes, daring. Also, Russian military interventions have been kept close to home. As the eagle flies, Syria, Moscow’s most distant intervention theatre, is not far from Russia.
And Russia is of course also a major cyber power, at least in terms of offensive capabilities, both official and unofficial. (Hopefully, the hacking of the Colonial Pipeline in the US, which disrupted nearly 50% of the US east coast fuel supply, has finally driven home the fact that cyber attacks can have severe kinetic effects.)(4)
Regarding the Russian armed forces (5), these are today organised into three services and two major independent commands or branches. The services are the Ground Forces, the Aerospace Forces (not Air Forces) and the Navy. The two independent commands are the Strategic Rocket Forces and the Airborne Forces (often referred to in English as the VDV, from the Latinised version by their Cyrillic abbreviation).
The Russian ground forces and VDV have been significantly modernised over the past decade (especially their artillery, an arm in which Russia has always excelled), and their operational performance has clearly improved. The ground forces are reported to number 280 000, of whom 55% are 12-month-service conscripts, while the VDV total 45 000, of whom some 30% are believed to be conscripts. There are also about 17 000 Spetsnaz, of whom some are conscripts. (The Spetsnaz are really equivalent to Western Rangers and Commandos, not Tier 1 special forces, but that means that they are still formidable.)
The VDV and Spetsnaz naturally get the pick of the conscripts.
The fact that the Russians still have conscription means they can mobilise impressive numbers of reserves. Assuming 150 000 conscripts are trained every year, mobilising all the conscripts trained over the past decade would bring 1.5-million men back to the colours! And none of them would be older than 30. Of course, many would need refresher training, but would likely to be a matter of weeks, not months, and Russia is known to have large stocks of war equipment – tanks, other armoured vehicles, artillery and much more – held in store. The Russian steamroller is not dead, it is just sleeping. This fact puts the arguments about the size of the British Army into perspective.
The Russian Aerospace Forces have been significantly modernised. Reportedly, 71% of their warplanes are now modern types. After a number of reorganisations since the end of the Cold War, the Russian Aerospace Forces are currently composed of the Long-Range Aviation (LRA – strategic bombers), Frontal Aviation (tactical air forces) and Aerospace Defence.
The LRA is believed to be composed entirely of Tupolev designs: 72 Tupolev Tu-95 Bear turboprop bombers, 16 Tu-160 Blackjack and 63 medium-ranged Tu-22M3 Backfire jet bombers. All are being modernised. In a major war, they would execute stand-off attacks using long-range cruise missiles.
Russia has invested heavily in such weapons, with the Tu-95 Bear-H type able to carry the Kh-555 subsonic, turbofan-powered conventional cruise missile. This has a 400 kg warhead and a range of 3 500 km. Kh-555s launched from Russia’s western border could reach most of the UK (Wales and south-west England would be out of reach)(6).
Russia also has the KH-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. Russian reports, however, suggest that the missile itself has a range of only about 1 000 km. Russian open-source reports claim that the Kinzhal could reach a range of 3 000 km if carried by a Tu-22M3 Backfire, that range being a combination of the bomber’s range and the missile range. But so far the weapon, which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, has only been fitted to modified Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound heavy interceptor fighters, which also suggest that it is actually a tactical weapon.(7)
And regarding tactical aviation, Russia’s Frontal Aviation is also being modernised, with upgraded and new types in production. The Aerospace Defence Forces include interceptors and surface-to-air missiles, again with modern and upgraded systems coming into service. The evidence is that training has also been significantly improved. In terms of combat aircraft, these two forces combined deploy a reported 255 MiG-29s/MiG-35s, 131 MiG-31s, 274 Sukhoi Su-24s, 342 Su-27/Su-30/Su-35s, and 124 Su-34s (as well as 193 Su-25 attack planes that would not be survivable in a peer-on-peer conflict). These are backed by just 19 tankers, by US standards a tiny force. There is a large transport fleet, and a huge helicopter fleet.(8) And a most formidable force of surface-to-air missiles, in addition to those serving with Russian Ground Forces and VDV units (9).
The Russian Navy, although formidable in certain sectors, is no longer a full-spectrum ocean-going force. While its coastal and offshore (roughly, out to 200 nautical miles from the coast) forces are strong, with impressive new designs of corvettes, missile boats and mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) entering service, its ocean-going force has not only declined, but continues to decline. Its one and only carrier might return to service (it is currently under repair) but, even if it does, it is unlikely to be able to execute sustained high-tempo operations.
Sensibly, the Russian Navy is focusing on modernising its submarine force, with new designs being built. However, Russia’s submarine force today is less than 20% of the size of that of the Soviet submarine force near the end of the Cold War. Russia now has about ten SSBNs and 20 SSNs and SSGNs, but these forces being split between two fleets, the Northern and the Pacific. (Russia’s total submarine fleet has alternatively been listed as ten SSBNs, 14 SSNs, nine SSGNs and 22 conventional submarines – SSKs.)
The surface fleet has shrunk even more severely. Russia’s ocean-going surface fleet is believed to comprise one nuclear-powered “battlecruiser”, three cruisers, five guided missile destroyers, eight large ASW frigates, four guided missile frigates and four smaller ASW frigates, a total of 25 major combat surface warships, split between four fleets. Ship-board aviation is now restricted to helicopters. All fixed-wing naval fighter and strike aircraft are shore-based, and none is long-ranged. The only long-ranged fixed wing aircraft now possessed by the Russian Navy are ASW aircraft (about 24 Tu-124 Bear-F, and some 21 Illyushin Il-38 “May” aircraft). Long-ranged shore-based anti-shipping strike missions are the responsibility of the LRA’s Backfire force.
Faced with difficulties in maintaining the current sizes of its submarine and ocean-going surface fleets, Russia has (also most sensibly) investing in cruise missiles for both surface and submarine forces. For submarines, the conventional-warhead version of the subsonic RK-55 Granat has been developed, which can carry a 410 kg for a range of 2 400km. And then there is the better-known 3M-54 Kalibr land-attack cruise missile, which can be launched from ships or submarines. It has a range of between 1 500 km and 2 500 km. Granat missiles launched from submarines in the Barents Sea can reach the northeastern half of Scotland, while Kalibr missiles launched from vessels in the Baltic Sea can cover the whole of the UK. (10)
Despite its limitations, Moscow extensively uses its fleet for diplomatic and presence purposes, frequently sending out small task groups (task units, really) of three or so vessels, usually a major surface combatant and two auxiliaries, one of which is usually a tug. It has significantly increased ‘forward’ patrols by its submarine force. The navy also organises and runs supplies to Russian and allied forces in Syria, and guards the “maritime flank” of the Syrian operation.
However, these facts should not obscure a very important development in Russian policy – its increasing focus on Eurasia. Thus, in 2011 Russia spearheaded the creation of a Eurasian customs union, which became the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.
Today, its membership comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. In 2016 Putin launched the idea of a Greater Eurasian Partnership or GEP. (Moscow and Beijing are seeking to align GEP and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to ensure they do not clash.)(11)
What this all means is that Russia is again a most formidable neighbour – whether as a potential foe or friend – for those countries with which it shares borders (excepting only China) and for other near-by but not adjacent countries. But, in conventional terms, Russian military power declines rapidly the further away you go from the country.
From a British perspective, in conventional warfare terms, Russia is again what is was in the 19th century: a formidable land power (including today its strong tactical aviation and air defence power), too strong for the UK to confront on land without major allies, but a limited naval power, focused on guarding the Russian army’s sea flanks and protecting the approaches to Russia’s coasts, with a certain ability to undertake raiding forays on the high seas. In Tsarist times, that raiding capability was provided by a limited number of big, fast, armoured cruisers.
Today, it is provided by the Russian Navy’s SSN and SSGN force (Russian SSKs can of course reach British waters, but their slow transit speed means that they cannot be ‘surged’ forward and once on station, are pretty much restricted to that station), as well as by LRA bombers.
But the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would, acting together, be able to handle these, even without the support of other allies.
Thus, the two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers give the RN, on its own, massive superiority over the Russian surface fleet, even if the latter’s solitary carrier ever returns to service, and also provide protection from any anti-ship threat from the LRA. RN and RAF SSNs, ASW frigates, Merlin helicopters and P-8 Poseidon ASW aircraft would pose a formidable threat to Russian SSNs and especially SSGNs (who would ‘break cover’ every time they fired a missile). And the RAF Typhoon force is large enough to deal with any LRA threat to the UK itself.
The one problem would be Kalibr missiles launched from Russian warships in the Baltic. And this justifies the British Army deployment in Estonia. As long as NATO holds the northwest coast of Estonia, the Russian Baltic fleet would be unable to undertake sustained operations, split between its forward operating base at Kaliningrad and its dockyards at St Petersburg and unable to move between the two.
This suggests that Estonia should be the British Army’s main focus in Nato, a place where a small force can exercise great strategic effect.
- See, for example, Richard Pipes Russia Under the Old Regime, 2nd edition, Penguin, London, 1995.
- CIA The World Factbook 2020, (Russia) www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/, accessed 10/05/2020.
- James Dobbins, Howard J Shatz, Ali Wyne “Russia is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China is a Peer, Not a Rogue” in Perspective: Expert Insights on a Timely Policy Issue, Rand Corporation, October 2018, www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE300/PE310/RAND_PE310.pdf, accessed 10/05/2020; “List of countries by past and projected future population” Wikipedia, https://enwikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_past_and_projected_future_popultion, accessed 7 March 2021 (Wikipedia used because it proved to be the only convenient and straightforward source I could find in the time available to me).
- www.bbc.com/news/technology-57063636, accessed 30/05/2021.
- This discussion of the Russian Armed Forces is based on Keith Crane, Olga Oliker, Brian Nichiporuk Trends in Russia’s Armed Forces: An Overview of Budgets and Capabilities, Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, 2019, www.rand.org/contant/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2500/RR2573/RAND_RR2573.pdf, accessed 9/05/2020; Michael Kofman “The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy” (Russian Military Analysis, March 12, 2020) https://russianmiitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/2020/03/12/the-role-of-nuclear-forces-in-russian-maritime-strategy/, accessed 9/05/2020; Dmitry Gorenberg and Kasey Stricklin “A Guide to Becoming an Admiral in the Russian Navy” (War on the Rocks, August 20, 2019) https://warontherocks.com/2019/08/08a-guide-to-becoming-an-admiral-in-the-russian-navy/, accessed 9/05/2020; the (US) Office of Naval Intelligence “Russian Federation Navy 2019 Recognition and Identification Guide”, www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel_agencies/russia/Russia_Ship_Silhouettes-Unclassified.jpg?ver=2020-02-19-081844-763, accessed 9/05/2020; David Axe “Is Russia’s Submarine Force Dying?” in The National Interest January 20, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/russias-submarine-force-dying-115406, accessed 16/05/2020; “Russian military forces dazzle after a decade of reform” www.economist.com/europe/2020/11/02/russian-military-forces-dazzle-after-a-decade-of-reform, accessed 13/03/2021; “Russian Armed Forces: Capabilities” (Congressional Research Service—In Focus June 30, 2020), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IF11589.pdf, accessed 13/03/2021; and www.everycrsreport.com/reports/IF11603.html, accessed 13/03/2021 (crs standing for Congressional Research Service).
- www.economist.com op. cit., map showing range circles; Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) “Missile Threat” https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/kh-55/, accessed 05/04/2021 – note that the Kh-55 is the nuclear armed cruise missile on which the Kh-555 is based.
- CSIS ibid, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/kinzhal/, accessed 10/04/2021; The Barents Observer, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2019/12/russias-top-general-indirectly-confirms-arctic-deployment-unstoppable-missile, accessed 10/04/2021.
- “World Air Forces 2021”, Flight International.
- “The World Defence Almanac 2016”, Military Technology, Vol. XL, Special Issue
- www.economist.com op. cit., map; https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/ss-n-21/, accessed 05/04.2021; https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/ss-n-30a/, also accessed 05/04/2021.
- Nadege Rolland “A China-Russia Condominium over Eurasia” in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 61, 2019, Issue 1, pp 7-22, published online 29 January 2019, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00396338.2019.1568043, accessed 9/05/2020.