Russia’s army largest in region but not the force of old, say analysts

Invasion of Georgia in 2008 exposed military's weakness and triggered huge rebuilding plan, but it still lacks the strength of cold war era

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 4:10am

The military forces that Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use "as a last resort" in eastern Ukraine are in the early stages of a seven-year modernisation programme that is not expected to be completed before 2020.

Starved for funds in the 1990s and early 2000s, Moscow's "troop readiness, training, morale, and discipline suffered, and most arms industries became antiquated", according to a US Congressional Research Service report released a week ago. The Congressional Research Service is a think tank of the US Congress.

Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed many operational weaknesses and triggered Putin's investment in defence spending and armed forces restructuring.

That effort, however, has been dogged by "mismanagement, changes in plans, corruption [and] manning issues," according to the report.

Considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, it is worth noting how Russians see their immediate military threats.

The conflicts that top their threat list were "both in Russia itself [in the form of separatist uprisings and attempts to secede] and similar conflicts with the neighbouring former Soviet republics," said Ruslan Pukhov, a former Russian defence ministry official and now director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian defence industry and arms trade think tank.

"Most of these republics regard Russia as the main threat to their sovereignty and are, therefore, interested in weakening Russian influence on their territory and internationally by all possible means," Pukhov wrote in August in an article on Russian defence strategy.

"The West underestimates the importance of the Ukrainian issue for Russia and the role of Ukraine as a colossal destabilising factor in Western-Russian relations in the immediate term," Pukhov wrote.

Another purpose for building Russian forces was to deter the US and Nato countries from "meddling in conflicts in the former Soviet republics or Western attempts to forestall possible Russian actions with regard to these republics", he wrote.

Personnel is a major problem for the Russian military.

Under Russia's 10-year reform programme of 2009, its military forces should have been at one million last year. A Swedish Defence Research Agency study released in December had the figure below 800,000. The Congressional Research Service report put it at 700,000. Still, it remains the region's largest force. The Russian army is at about 285,000, including conscripts, but units are being manned at 40 to 60 per cent, according to the Swedish study.

Plans for spending more than US$700 billion over 10 years on weapon modernisation began in 2011 and included US$89 billion for rebuilding "the largely obsolete defence industrial complex" along with importing weapons and technologies, the US report said.

Logistics have always been a problem for the Russian military because they were put in the hands of a state corporation, Oboronservis. The corporation contracted out modernisation and maintenance services for weapons, construction and canteens. It became "a breeding ground for embezzlement, corruption and neglect of tasks", the Swedish study said.

This is not the Russia of the cold war, and it has few allies who would join it should Putin try to move into eastern Ukraine.

As Gorenburg put it on Sunday, any such move would lead "to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict", and "even though Russia would win such a war, the result would be long-term instability on Russia's immediate border, with guerilla warfare likely for some time".

Given the current state of the Russian military, there is good reason to believe that Putin will never take that step.