Russia has been displaying its military might lately, with war games and weapons shows. Even though his country is the midst of a recession, President Vladimir Putin is pushing ahead with a costly plan to modernize the military.
Top U.S. and NATO officials have identified Russia’s war-making potential as a greater threat than Islamist terrorism, but is the hype justified?
There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Winston Churchill: “Russia is never as strong as you fear or as weak as you hope.”
Russia showcased some of its strengths at a big exposition this summer. “Army-2015,” a four-day event in June, featured some of the country’s most potent armaments, including the latest tank, artillery and missile systems. Crews demonstrated the speed and firepower of their war machines in field maneuvers.
The display was intended to impress potential arms buyers from other countries, but possibly also to reassure the Russian public, which is told by state-controlled media that it’s under threat from the West.
Although experts say Russia has made progress in professionalizing its military, it doesn’t have enough of those advanced weapons or trained personnel to match NATO.
“What we’re seeing is really a show of force, rather than force itself,” says Mark Katz, a George Mason University political scientist and an analyst of Russia’s military policy. “I think that it would be very difficult for them to sustain a conflict. And this is a pattern we saw in the Soviet days as well, that the Soviet and Russian military have a lot of teeth but very little tail.”
Katz says the Russian military is capable of rapid, ferocious attacks but couldn’t maintain a prolonged struggle.
The Russian military has shown strong improvement in recent years, says Russian defense analyst Alexander Golts, a columnist for the Moscow Times — especially when compared with its performance in the Chechen wars or in its brief conflict with Georgia in 2008.
Last year, for instance, Russia was able to mobilize more than 40,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian border in just two days, Golts says.
“That might look like modest progress for any modern army, but for the Russian army, it’s a fantastic success,” he says. “Now the Kremlin has several dozen combat-ready formations that are capable of going into action within hours after getting an order.”
But Golts says Russian successes against the Ukrainian army are a special case, because both sides rely heavily on Soviet-era equipment — and Russia’s happens to be more up-to-date.
A similar fight with NATO would likely involve air power and sophisticated antitank weapons, he says, a situation in which NATO would have the advantage.
“Then all this would look quite different,” he says. “I don’t think the Russian army is even setting such a goal — to confront NATO forces.”
Defense analyst Pavel Felgengauer, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, says Russia’s plan to fully re-equip its military with modern weapons isn’t intended to be completed for another five years, and it’s been delayed by recent problems.
“The price of oil has fallen, there’s less money,” he says. “And also, this mass production of new weapons would have been produced using Western components and Western know-how” — technology that is now denied to Russia because of sanctions.
Golts says that Russia’s inability to achieve its military ambitions may pose another kind of threat for the West.
“It’s obvious that Russia doesn’t have the resources the Soviet Union had,” he says. “It doesn’t have allies or a young population from which it could form a 5 million-person army or industry that’s capable of equipping an army of millions. What’s left? Nuclear weapons.”
Golts says that if the Kremlin pursues a strategy of hinting that it’s prepared to use nukes, the risk of confrontation with the West could be a lot higher.