Hybrid Power: The Limits of Russia’s Military Resurgence.
Richard Weitz |Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Russia’s military has experienced a remarkable recovery during the past decade. This is most evident in the success of Russia’s swift occupation of Crimea last year and ongoing support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Equally impressive, if less visible, is the rebound of the country’s military-industrial complex, referred to by the Russian initials VPK, which suffered heavily from the break-up of the Soviet Union’s integrated defense industries and the Russian government’s budgetary difficulties during the 1990s.
In its worst years, under former President Boris Yeltsin, the VPK was unable to manufacture more than a few weapons systems each year. Many of these were sold abroad to generate export revenue. Russia’s shipyards struggled to maintain and modernize Soviet-era vessels while mothballing plans to build new capital ships. Many defense firms either converted to civilian production or went out of business.
Yet the VPK has failed to overcome some major long-standing problems, including rising costs, outdated equipment, inferior quality control and lost funds due to waste and corruption. At the same time, new challenges have recently arisen due to the severance of defense ties with Ukraine, Western sanctions and the decline of the Russian economy thanks to low energy prices.
Notwithstanding the recovery of its military-industrial complex, Russia remains primarily a regional military power with limited global conventional power-projection capabilities. Recognizing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the Russian defense sector is crucial for reaching a balanced assessment of a potential Russian military threat.
Russian Military Power on Display
Kremlin officials initially denied that the Russian armed forces played any role in the occupation and annexation of Crimea in early 2014. But Russian President Vladimir Putin later conceded that Russian troops, dressed in civilian clothes, helped to carry out the swift occupation of key local sites and to secure the surrender of the Ukrainian military units on the peninsula. In particular, Russia’s elite special operations forces—termed “the polite people” by Russians and “the little green men” by Western analysts—skillfully applied strategic surprise, tactical deception and collaboration with local militias to paralyze a local Ukrainian force that had more troops and better equipment.
In eastern Ukraine, the Russian army generally played a supporting role, keeping its footprint on Ukrainian territory minimal by relying primarily on retired military and intelligence personnel, who helped raise and train a local proxy army of pro-Moscow separatists. Russia interfered militarily in other ways as well, including shelling Ukrainian positions from inside Russian territory, disrupting Ukrainian command-and-control systems and extending an air defense umbrella over eastern Ukraine that downed several Ukrainian warplanes and deterred pilots from flying over the region. But for the most part, Russia has relied on nonmilitary tools, such as propaganda and energy blackmail, in what has become known as a form of “hybrid warfare.”
However, as many as 10,000 Russian soldiers directly intervened in eastern Ukraine last August after Ukrainian government forces won some decisive battles and looked set to suppress the pro-Moscow separatists. The Russian forces dealt a devastating blow against the less well-trained and equipped Ukrainian units, enabling the separatists to rally and seize more territory before the current cease-fire went into effect. Since then, the Russian military has resumed its previous focus on training and equipping the separatists. The Kremlin seems satisfied with keeping a frozen conflict in Ukraine that Moscow can manipulate as a form of leverage over Kiev.
Even before the Ukraine conflict, the Russian armed forces had been conducting large-scale military exercises with little advance warning to their own troops or neighboring governments. Some have involved Russian nuclear as well as conventional forces. These “snap” drills are designed to inspect the Russian military’s day-to-day readiness to mobilize and engage in major operations. They also serve to highlight Russian capabilities to potential adversaries. Furthermore, the Russian military used such a snap drill to provide cover for its occupation of the Crimea, and later to prevent Ukrainian forces from concentrating their attacks against the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Such drills have only escalated since the start of the crisis, prompting great concern in the NATO-member Baltic states in particular.
In these drills and in the Ukraine conflict more generally, the Russian military has shown that, for perhaps the first time since 1991, it can mobilize and deploy large forces on its periphery, presenting neighbors with a credible threat of sudden attack. Yet the armed forces, despite their recent displays of new skills and capabilities, still need to strengthen their ability to engage in inter-service joint operations and coordination, better balance the use of conscripts and professionals and upgrade their command, control and intelligence capabilities.
The following sections of this article will review the specific progress and prospects of each branch of the Russian defense sector, beginning with a look at Russia’s nuclear capabilities.
The Nuclear Deterrent: Russia’s Claim to Great Power Parity
The Russian government continues to prioritize support for the country’s nuclear forces. Putin and his advisers consider preserving a strong nuclear deterrent an existential requirement for Russia’s national security and sovereignty. Despite the recent improvements in conventional forces, it is only in the nuclear domain where Russia retains comprehensive military equality with the United States and its NATO allies, and superiority over China and other Asian countries. Although Russian military doctrine refers to nuclear forces as defensive weapons of last resort, Russian leaders continually reference their nuclear capacities whenever they discuss foreign threats, and the Russian military conducts many large-scale military exercises that simulate the use of nuclear weapons.
Despite the enormous sums that Russia has invested in reviving its nuclear forces, its arsenal still strongly resembles the one that the Russian Federation inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia continues to maintain a strategic triad consisting of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic submarines (SSBN) with long-range sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and a few long-range bombers equipped with gravity bombs and short-range nuclear-armed missiles. For Russia, the logic of strategic diversity seems compelling. Despite its tremendous financial costs and other complexities, this strategic mixture provides the Kremlin with a stronger deterrent and more warfighting options. It also challenges any adversary hoping to neutralize all these systems.
Moscow still concentrates its nuclear firepower in its enormous land-based ICBM fleet, which is controlled by the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN in Russian). Many of the large missiles have multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) for carrying more than one warhead to several targets, and a diverse set of decoys and other penetration aids to overcome ballistic missile defenses. The RVSN also has smaller solid-fuel missiles that can move on roads or railways to change their location.
Although it is more costly and complex to operate, Russia’s fleet of missile-launching strategic submarines is less vulnerable to pre-emption when underwater, enhancing Russia’s assured retaliatory capacity. Russia’s bomber force continues to lag behind the other two legs of the triad, but it can perform important conventional roles as well as raise Russia’s strategic profile through long-range global patrols.
Following years in which the Russian military struggled to upgrade the major components and subsystems of its nuclear forces, Russian defense companies are now designing, developing and deploying next-generation delivery vehicles to replace the retiring Soviet systems. However, Russia has been retiring its older ICBMs and strategic submarines faster than the VPK can provide new ones. It has only been in recent years that the VPK has been fielding dozens of new strategic delivery systems, such as the more than 50 new ICBMs the RVSN is acquiring this year.
Pending renewal of the ICBM force, strategic submarines will carry a growing share of Russia’s nuclear warheads for a few more years due to the retirement of the Soviet-era ICBMs. Until recently, the VPK struggled to provide the navy with new missile-launching submarines, instead leaving Russia with a hodgepodge of remnants from the Soviet strategic fleet. But the VPK has recently developed and manufactured several fourth-generation Project Mk 955 Borey-class SSBNs, equipped with new RSM-56 Bulava SLBMs. The Bulava’s terrible test record at times cast doubt on the ability of the Russian defense industry to make complex modern weapons systems. But the enormous expenditures in researching, designing and developing this new SSBN-SLBM combination have paid off, and Russia is creating a fleet of missile-launching submarines that will remain the bedrock of the country’s maritime strategic deterrent for decades.
Of course, Russia’s nuclear forces have always been a formidable tool for deterring major foreign aggression against Russia, but they have not proved especially useful in helping the Kremlin fight the kinds of local conflicts that Russia has actually engaged in for the past two decades. That is why the recovery of Russia’s conventional military power is so important.
Ground Forces: From Continental Power to Limited Engagements
As in the United States, much of the money spent on the Russian army goes to pay for military personnel and modern combat gear. Recruitment and retention issues have kept Russia’s troop strength well below the desired million-man force. However, the VPK is now providing the ground forces with hundreds of weapons systems each year, including tanks and other armored vehicles. According to the State Armaments Program for 2011-2020, the VPK will supply the Russian army with 2,300 main battle tanks, 2,000 self-propelled artillery systems and 30,000 other military vehicles.
This year will see the Russia’s new T-14 Armata heavy tank enter into service to replace the T-90. This 50-ton system, developed and designed by the same UralVagonZavod industrial conglomerate that also made the T-90, has more advanced technologies on paper than any foreign competitor, including a remotely controlled 125-millimeter smoothbore cannon and both reactive and composite armor. As in the past, the VPK also intends to produce a suite of different vehicles based on the tank’s chassis, including a self-propelled artillery system and an infantry fighting vehicle. The plan was originally to produce more than 2,000 T-14s by the end of this decade so that the army could retire all its Soviet-era T-72s by 2020, as well as many of the older T-90s.
However, even before the recent Ukraine crisis, the Ministry of Defense was complaining about the tank’s enormous costs and threatening to stick with the T-90. The expectation is that Russia will offer the T-14 for export in order to help defray the tank’s development costs and to achieve economies of scale from serial production. Even so, it will likely take the VPK, which so far has received only a dozen prototype T-14s, about two decades to acquire the 2,300 tanks on order.
In the meantime, and fortunately for Moscow, the T-90 should prove adequate for the limited plausible scenarios in which the Russian army is likely to engage in large tank battles. The challenge for the Russian ground forces lies more in improving its use of noncommissioned officers and moving away from a reserve mobilization system that implausibly envisions calling up millions of reservists to support a replay of World War II, rather than supplying individual replacements for the kind of modest losses the Russian armed forces would likely experience in a more-limited conflict such as that in eastern Ukraine.
The Air Force: Still Moving Beyond the Cold War
Russia has the second-largest fleet of combat aircraft in the world, but many of these planes were designed and built during the Cold War. Although robust export sales of excess Soviet planes during the 1990s and 2000s allowed the VPK’s aviation design bureaus to create new planes on paper, the government could not afford to buy more than a few prototypes. For this reason, the Ministry of Defense is eager to upgrade the Russian fleet with more and better planes, with a $130 billion modernization effort through 2020.
According to the latest edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Military Balance, Russia’s air force and naval aviation should acquire more than 800 fixed-wing planes, including around 450 combat aircraft, under the 2011-2020 procurement program. These include the Su-34, Su-35S, PAK FA, MiG-35S, Su-25SM, An-70, Il-76MD-90A. The program also calls for buying another 1,100 helicopters, approximately 350 of which will be combat helicopters, including the Mi-26, Mi-8MVT-5, Mi-8MTSh, Ka-52 and Mi-28NM.
Production of airplanes under the procurement program initially lagged behind schedule, but the VPK has met its goals in recent years. The Ministry of Defense has announced that it will obtain 126 new aircraft and 88 helicopters this year. The coming years should bring more fourth-generation Su-35 multipurpose fighters and Su-34 strike aircraft, transport and refueling planes, multirole helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Although plans for a new long-range strategic bomber, a long-range supersonic transport and a sixth-generation fixed-wing fighter remain sketchy, the VPK is upgrading earlier model Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers and other planes.
The Russian air force is following the pattern of other great powers by shrinking in size while increasing its capabilities. However, it is unclear whether the high-visibility upgrading of warplanes is being matched by a necessary modernization of critical supporting capabilities, such as electronic warfare and surveillance planes or logistical and other facilities at airbases. Furthermore, the planned acquisition of Russia’s first fifth-generation PAK-FA T-50 fighters remains in flux. The military recently announced that it was deferring the fighters’ date of entry beyond 2017 and reducing the scheduled buy rate by 2020 from 52 to 12, in favor of acquiring more Su-35s.
Russian defense industry representatives have cited development of the Sukhoi T-50 as proof that the country’s military aviation complex has recovered from its post-Soviet collapse. That such a high-priority procurement is experiencing funding—and perhaps technological—problems is a worrying indicator for the success of lower-priority purchases. However, the Russian air force enjoys special funding advantages due to the priority the government places on civilian aviation and the status of military aircraft as Russia’s main arms export item by value. Even China buys Russian engines to power its top-line fighters.
Russia’s Navy and the Continued Importance of Sea Power
According to the 2011-2020 procurement plan, the Russian navy is supposed to obtain some two-dozen nuclear- or diesel-powered submarines by the end of this decade. In addition to the Borey SSBNs, Russia is also acquiring more attack submarines. The pride of the fleet is the new Project 855 Yasen-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), which has many automated subsystems and other cutting-edge capabilities that have impressed even U.S. admirals. But the Yasen’s enormous costs have led the navy to focus on buying cheaper multipurpose submarines in the coming years.
In terms of surface vessels, the procurement program provides for 50 new warships by 2020. But the navy’s plans to standardize its wide assortment of ship designs to save money on maintenance and training has been thwarted by the limited capacity of the VPK to produce enough new systems to allow for the comprehensive replacement of older models. For example, the dozen multipurpose Admiral Grigorovich-class and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates that will enter the fleet this year will merely supplement, rather than replace, the navy’s aging Soviet-era cruisers and destroyers.
Plans to acquire larger ships through domestic production, such as aircraft carriers and amphibious helicopter carriers, have been repeatedly thwarted due to budgetary shortfalls and the continuing problems faced by Russian shipbuilders. The latter are struggling to overcome years of underfunding, an aging workforce and technology base and the loss of Ukraine’s shipyards following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
To overcome domestic bottlenecks, as well as to help modernize Russian shipbuilding, the government had negotiated with France to buy two large amphibious Mistral-class warships while co-producing several others in Russia. However, international pressure after the downing of a Malaysian commercial jet over eastern Ukraine has compelled the French government to suspend this contract, pending resolution of the Ukraine crisis.
The state of the Russian navy will be a major factor in determining Moscow’s global power. Having the ability to project sea power is critical to realizing Russia’s ambitions in several domains, ranging from energy to economics to security. Following the near collapse of the navy in the 1990s, the Russian government has made progress in stabilizing the fleet and resuming a modest global presence.
Conclusion: Challenges Old and New
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s VPK has been plagued with budgetary shortfalls; underfunding of research and development; obsolete equipment; poor quality-control procedures; inefficient resource allocation; pervasive and deep corruption; a paucity of young specialists to replace retiring experienced personnel; and systems-integration challenges due to the inability to secure and coordinate high-quality inputs from newly independent subcontractors. It has made progress in overcoming some, but not all, of these problems.
A new challenge is that Western governments, along with the post-Maidan government in Kiev, have suspended defense industry cooperation with Russia due to Putin’s actions in Ukraine. In March 2014, the state-owned Ukrainian armaments conglomerate Ukroboronprom suspended deliveries to Russia. Other Ukrainian companies and the Ukrainian government have announced similar sanctions. The break, especially the severed access to Ukraine’s aircraft and ship engine manufacturers and military aviation firms such as the Motor-Sich plant in Zaporizhia, will delay Russia’s upgrading of some older planes and its acquisition of some auxiliary vessels like frigates.
However, since the USSR’s demise, Ukraine’s military-industrial complex has experienced even more severe problems than the Russian VPK, decreasing the value of this partnership over time. Ukrainian defense companies have mostly supported production of the Soviet-era systems that the Russian armed forces, especially the strategic and air forces, have increasingly been moving beyond. After a short transition, the Russian VPK should prove able to obtain domestic substitutes for the lost Ukrainian defense imports.
Making up for the loss of Western imports and technologies will prove more challenging, since the Kremlin was counting on these cutting-edge goods and services to fill VPK capacity gaps. Major foregone foreign acquisitions have included many specialized components for new weapons systems, as well as the French Mistrals and Israeli drones.
In addition to buying products that the Russian defense industry is unable to make on its own, the Kremlin had sought to incorporate Western technologies and managerial know-how into domestic production and, through foreign competition, to coerce domestic manufactures to become more efficient and globally competitive. For example, the authorities have been demanding that defense companies cover more of their research and development costs. Russia may be able to acquire some low-cost substitutes from China to make up for lost Ukrainian imports, but Chinese defense firms are technologically inferior to Russia’s own producers, let alone European ones.
In addition, the fall in global oil prices and the resulting drop in Russian government revenues have renewed the specter of budgetary shortfalls. For now, Russia has protected military spending from government-wide spending cuts, but the 2011-2020 procurement plan had envisioned double-digit annual increases in defense expenditures in order to make up for the procurement holiday of the 1990s and to sustain national rearmament. Besides citing foreign threats, advocates of higher defense spending argue that it would help sustain domestic employment, production and innovation at a time when other economic sectors are failing, though the Soviet experience would seem to disprove this argument. The government has also faced resistance in its push to consolidate and nationalize formerly private defense firms into larger, state-owned conglomerates in the hope of making them more efficient.
Faced with these new challenges, the government will probably defer some purchases, relax requirements and reverse planned salary and benefit increases, on the presumption that the deteriorating civilian job market will maintain recruitment and retention. The Kremlin will likely continue its support for boosting defense exports to cover research and development costs, as well as to achieve economies of scale from mass manufacturing. For example, Russia aims to market the T-50 as a low-cost competitor to the F-35. Russian leaders may also back away from plans to rely more on non-nuclear means of deterrence in order to sustain the country’s nuclear buildup, though the applicability of nuclear weaponry to the peripheral local conflicts the Kremlin now faces is questionable.
Despite these challenges, Russia’s saving grace is that even a constrained VPK should prove sufficient, if not to realize the Kremlin’s aspirations to become a near-peer competitor of the United States, then at least to meet the country’s limited strategic needs: deterring an improbable major Western or Chinese attack against Russian territory and providing the military wherewithal to enable Moscow to rely primarily on nonmilitary tools to sustain its sphere of influence over the former Soviet republics. The latter will likely remain a Russian strategic priority for the foreseeable future.
The author would like to thank Joe Kusluch for his research assistance with this paper.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.