Assessing the Russian military as an instrument of power
t has been a quarter of a century now since the fall of the Soviet Union and yet the memory of the Soviet Armed Forces is still vivid in the minds of many of those who lived through the Cold War or even remember WWII. The NATO-sponsored elites of eastern Europe still continue to scare their citizens by warning of a danger of “Russian tanks” rolling down their streets as if the Soviet tanks were about to advance on Germany again. For a while, the accepted image of a Russian solider in the West was a semi-literate drinking and raping Ivan who would attack in immense hordes with little tactical skills and an officer corps selected for political loyalty and lack of imagination. Then the propaganda narrative changed and now the new Russian bogeyman is a “little green man” who will suddenly show up to annex some part of the Baltics to Russia. Putatively pro-Russian “experts” add to the confusion by publicly hallucinating of a Russian deployment in Syria and the Mediterranean which could wrestle the entire region away from Uncle Sam and fight the entire NATO/CENCOM air forces and navies with confidence. This is all nonsense, of course, and what I propose to do here is to provide a few very basic pointers about what the modern Russian military can and cannot do in 2016. This will not be a highly technical discussion but rather a list of a few simple, basic, reminders.
Russia is not the Soviet Union
The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that the Russian military is truly focused on the defense of the Russian territory. Let me immediately say that contrary to much of the Cold War propaganda, the Soviet military was also defensive in essence, even if it did include a number of offensive elements:
1) The military control of all of Eastern Europe as a “buffer zone” to keep the US/NATO away from the Soviet Union’s borders.
2) An official ideology, Communism, which was messianic and global in its stated goals (more or less, depending on who was in power)
3) A practice of global opposition to the US Empire anywhere on the planet with technical, political, financial, scientific and, of course, military means
Russia has exactly zero interest in any of these. Not only did the nature of modern warfare dramatically reduce the benefits of being forward deployed, the messianic aspects of Communism have even been abandoned by the Communist Party of Russia which is now focused on the internal socio-economic problems of Russia and which has no interest whatsoever in liberating the Polish or Austrian proletariat from Capitalist exploitation. As for a global military presence, Russia has neither the means nor the desire to waste her very limited resources on faraway territories which do not contribute to her defense.
But the single most important factor here is this: the overwhelming majority of Russian are tired and fed up with being an empire. From Peter I to Gorbachev, the Russian people have paid a horrific price in sweat, tears, blood and Rubles to maintain an empire which did absolutely nothing for the Russian people except impoverish them and make them hated in much of the world. More than anything else, the Russians want their country to be a “normal” country. Yes, safe, powerful, wealthy and respected, but still a normal country and not a global superpower. Many Russians still remember that the Soviet Politburo justified the occupation and subsequent war in Afghanistan as the completion of an “internationalist duty” and if somebody today tried that kind of language the reply would be “to hell with that”. Finally, there is the sad reality that almost all the countries which were liberated by Russia, not only from Nazi Germany, but also from the Turkish yoke show exactly zero gratitude for the role Russia played in their liberation. To see how our so-called “Orthodox brothers” in Bulgaria, Romania or Georgia are eager to deploy NATO weapons against Russia is nothing short of sickening. The next time around, let these guys liberate themselves, everybody will be happier that way.
It is a basic rule of military analysis that you do not look at the intentions but primarily at capabilities, so let us now look at Russian capabilities.
The Russian armed forces are relatively small
First, the Russian armed forces are fairly small, especially for the defense of the biggest country on the planet (Russia is almost twice the size of the USA, she has a about half the population and land border length of 20,241km). The total size of the Russian Armed Forces is estimated at about 800’000 soldiers. That puts the Russian Armed Forces in 5th position worldwide, somewhere between the DPRK (1’190’000) and Pakistan (643’800). Truly, this kind of “bean counting” makes absolutely no sense, but this comparison is useful to show something crucial: the Russian Armed Forces are relatively small.
This conclusion is further bolstered if we consider the fact that it is hard to imagine a scenario in which every Russian solider from Kalinigrad to the Kamchatka will be engaged at the same time against one enemy. This is why the Russian territory has been broken up into five separate (and, de facto, autonomous) military districts (or “strategic directions): East, Central, Northern, Western and Southern.
[Sidebar: it is also interesting to know that when Putin came to power the Western military district was almost demilitarized as nobody in Russia believed that there was a threat coming from the West. The aggressive US/NATO policies have now changed that and there now is an major program underway to strengthen it, including the reactivation of the First Guards Tank Army.]
There is no US equivalent to the Russian military districts. Or, if there is, it is very different in nature and scope. I am talking about the US Unified Combatant Commands which have broken up our entire planet into “Areas of Responsibility”:
Notice that all of Russia is in the area of “responsibility” of only one of these commands, USEUCOM. In reality, however, in the case of full scale war between Russia and the United States USCENTCOM and USPACOM would, obviously, play a crucial role.
The Russians are *not* coming
The size and capabilities of the Russian Military Districts are completely dwarfed by the immense power and resources of the US Commands: in every one of these commands the USA already has deployed forces, pre-positioned equipment and built the infrastructure needed to receive major reinforcements. Furthermore, since the USA currently has about 700 military bases worldwide, the host countries have been turned into a modern version of a colony, a protectorate, which has no option than to fully collaborate with the USA and which has to offer all its resources in manpower, equipment, infrastructure, etc. to the USA in case of war. To put it simply: all of Europe is owned by the USA who can use it as they want (mainly as canon fodder against Russia, of course).
It is important to keep this immense difference in size and capabilities in mind when, for example, we look at the Russian operation in Syria.
When the first rumors of an impending Russian intervention began flooding the blogosphere many were tempted to say that the Russians were about to liberate Syria, challenge NATO and defeat Daesh. Some had visions of Russian Airborne Forces deployed into Damascus, MiG-31s criss-crossing the Syrian skies and even Russian SLBMs cruising off the Syrian coast (though they never explained this one). At the time I tried to explain that no, the “Russians are not coming” (see here, here, here, here and here), but my cautionary remarks were not greeted with enthusiasm, to put it mildly. A Russian task force did eventually materialize in Syria, but it was a very far cry from what was expected. In fact, compared to the expected intervention force, it was tiny: 50 aircraft and support personnel. What this small force achieved, however, was much more than anybody expected, including myself. So what happened here, did the Russians really do everything they can, or did they get cold feet or were they somehow pressured into a much less ambitious mission than they had originally envisioned?
To explain this, we now need to look at the actual capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces.
The true “reach” of the Russian armed forces