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Russia resurgent? Russian military performance in Crimea and its implications on Western defence requirements

By Bettina Renz

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent developments in East Ukraine prompted much speculation in the West about Russia’s ‘new military prowess’. Many analysts and decision makers, including in NATO, concluded that modernisation efforts over the past few years had transformed the Russian military into a force that now posed a real threat to European and transatlantic security. Serious discussions are already underway about what this might mean for Europe’s and NATO’s future defence capabilities and requirements. There seems to be much agreement that Russia’s new-found military strength needs to be met with more military spending in the West. Sweden has announced an increase in its defence budget in response to the Ukraine crisis. This will include the expansion of its fighter jet fleet from 60 to 70 aircraft as well as the procurement of two new submarines. A UK Parliamentary Defence Committee report concluded that events in Crimea and Ukraine were a ‘game changer for UK defence policy [that] provoked a fundamental re-assessment of both the prioritisation of threats in the National Security Strategy and military capabilities required by the UK’. Is this a realistic assessment? What can the conflict in Ukraine really tell us about Russian conventional warfighting capabilities?

In terms of sheer numbers the idea that Russia now can rival NATO’s conventional warfare capabilities needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt. Although Russian defence spending has gone up considerably in recent years and continues to grow, its budget of $ 90 billion spent on the military in 2012 is dwarfed by a combined NATO military spending of over $ 1 trillion in 2013. In terms of troop numbers, too, Russia is far from competitive, trailing with its approximately 800,000 service personnel far behind NATO’s potential numerical strength of over 3.3 million. The majority of the Russian armed forces are still made up of poorly trained conscripts. Such conscripts will have accounted for the bulk of the 70,000 troops deployed during the much discussed Zapad 2013 exercise and the reportedly up to 150,000 Russian troops engaged in war games near the Ukrainian border in spring 2014. Whilst the latter was certainly intimidating in terms of the sheer size of troops deployed, the undertaking did not allow for conclusions about the combat skills of the soldiers involved and should be seen, in the words of the Swedish defence analyst Johan Norberg, mainly as a diversion: ‘The Russians appeared to want the world to focus on the scale of the exercise…But there was little detail about, for example, how many readiness-checked troops actually undertook field exercises.’

It is also clear that the impressive performance of Russian troops in Crimea was entirely down to small units of professional special forces – termed the ‘Little Green Men’ – which make up for less than one percent of Russia’s overall military strength. The operations in Crimea demonstrated that the Russian 2008 military reform aims of increasing mobility and rapid reaction capabilities were achieved more thoroughly than many analysts had previously assumed. The special forces troops were well trained and coordinated, exercised restraint and were also equipped with modern kit, such as encrypted radios, navigation technology and night-vision aids. This showed that Russia now has the capacity for well-coordinated special operations work, at least in other former Soviet states that do not have similar capabilities. Having said this, as the Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg argued, it is important to bear in mind that there was no actual fighting in Crimea. From this point of view the operations there tell us little even about the combat skills of these special forces and how they compare to similar units in the West, let alone about the capabilities of the Russian military as a whole

It is also highly doubtful whether the modern equipment carried by Russian special forces operatives in Crimea has been rolled out across the entire Russian military. After all, it is well known that in terms of high-tech equipment, the Russian armed forces are lagging decades behind their Western counterparts. The Russian defence industry is lacking the expertise and technology to compete in the production of advanced systems, such as information technology, autonomous systems and precision-guided munitions. Up until the Crimea crisis Russia tried to close technology gaps by the way of Western defence imports with the view to developing deeper collaboration, such as knowledge transfer and the future production of foreign technology under license in Russia. The defence sector sanctions imposed by the US and EU in the aftermath of the MH17 disaster have closed Russia’s access to Western advanced technology in the long term. There is no scope for diversification in this regard, as neither Russia’s allies in the former Soviet space, nor China can deliver the required goods. Even if very serious financial and political efforts are made to diminish the Russian defence sector’s reliance on foreign technology and know-how, this will not be achieved quickly.

All of this is not to say, of course, that the Russian military has not improved its conventional warfighting capabilities in recent years. Clearly, the 2008 reform programme’s structural and organisational changes as well as significantly bigger military spending overall have borne fruit and these efforts will continue to make the Russian military increasingly more ‘modern’. Russia is again able to stage well-coordinated and large-scale military exercises like Zapad 2013, which not only serve as a show of force to its neighbours and the West, but also will increase its capacity to stage complex combined arms operations in the future. However, it simply does not follow to conclude from the Ukraine crisis that the Russian armed forces which, according to many observers were close to ruin less than ten years ago, turned into a conventional military rival to NATO in the matter of only a few years. As I argue in my recent article on Russian military capabilities after 20 years of reform, this conclusion might be inconvenient to those with a vested interest in increasing European spending on defence. But it is also realistic given the multitude of problems the Russian military continues to face.

Bettina Renz is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Nottingham. Her research areas include Russian security & defence policy, the use of air power and strategy.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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