by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Terrorism returned again to the Russian city of Volgograd despite a major security operation ordered by the Kremlin during the run-up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
But the attacks have also demonstrated a severe weakness in the ability of Russia’s security services to stop attacks, even as the military engages in a major operation in the state of Krasnodar Krai, the resort city of Sochi and the Caucasus. And despite major military reforms ushered in by Pres. Vladimir Putin, the armed forces are also facing a much longer-term problem in its ability to respond to threats along Russia’s borders and within the country.
For exhibit, see this December report from the Swedish Defence Research Agency, a Stockholm-funded institute under the Swedish Ministry of Defense, on the projections of Russia’s military strength in 2023. It’s one of the most comprehensive outlooks on the Kremlin’s armed forces over the next decade, as Russia builds—or prepares to build—a fleet of new planes and warships while radically restructuring how the armed forces are organized, staffed and deployed.
In short: Russia will have a leaner, meaner military ten years from now. It’ll be more professionalized—though smaller than the Kremlin is likely anticipating. Yet the overall picture is dire as the military struggles to staff a reformed army while its navy and defense industry continues to languish.
For one, the Kremlin “is likely to continue to perceive military dangers in all its strategic directions,” writes Carolina Vendil Pallin, a researcher at the Swedish FOI and one of the report’s co-authors. There’s a contest for control of Arctic energy resources, and strategic threats from China in the Asia-Pacific and NATO to the west. She adds: “The implication of this is that Russia will remain unlikely to deploy all of its units to one conflict.”
There’s also an internal threat: Islamist terrorism from Russia’s southern periphery. In recent weeks, some 63,000 troops and police have been stationed near the Olympics site as Russian troops in the Caucasus escalated an offensive against Islamist insurgents–leaving communities deeper in Russia vulnerable to insurgent reprisal attacks.”Already we have seen resources and officers being moved from other commands to Sochi,” observed Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a Russian security expert. Over the weekend, double bombings in Volgograd killed 34 people.
Too many borders, too few troops
These compromises are likely to become more acute. In the past, Russia could count on a large manpower base to fill a largely conscripted military to counter threats to its home territory. No longer. Owing to emigration, low birth rates, high abortion rates and bad health, Russia will “lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century,” Illan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council warned in his 2013 book Implosion. True, defending against terrorists is a different manner than defending against a military enemy. But if Russia can’t defend its cities from attack today because it’s distracted by the Winter Olympics, then a future conflict on any one of its borders could leave the rest exceedingly vulnerable.
The Russian military currently has around 700,000 soldiers on active duty, which the Kremlin wants to increase to at least one million at permanent readiness by the end of the decade. At the same time, the plan is to reduce the number of conscripts from nearly 320,000 to 270,000 by 2017. Volunteers are expected to fill the gap. But “economic constraints as well as difficulties in recruiting soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers could lead to a smaller standing organization than the stipulated figure of one million men.” The lowest likely number would be potentially 500,000-600,000, Pallin writes. That’s fewer than present.
Likewise, as Russia falls further behind the U.S. and NATO allies in key technologies like drones, precision-strike weapons and C4ISR (military lingo for linking together high-tech spying with communications), then the Kremlin’s ability to defend its home territory will stretch further to the breaking point. Russia conducted a major exercise centered around its new Akatsiya-M system in 2012, but this demonstrated “severe difficulties in employing the new command and control system at brigade level.”
But the Russian military that does exist in 2023 will still be a more professional and capable force in some respects, the report concludes. On top of the more than 90 army brigades, the Kremlin plans to add another 26 highly-maneuverable brigades equipped with wheeled and modular infantry fighting vehicles by the late 2020s, including the planned (but so far unseen to the public) Armata tank.
The Kremlin is also cutting its military airfields from a sprawling 245 to a paltry 30. “Economies of scale in maintaining aircraft and generating Air Force units seemed to be taking priority over operational needs,” Pallin writes. Estimating the types of hardware fielded by the air force is difficult. The fast, stealthy and twin-engined T-50 fighter is still being tested and the high-performance Su-35 fighter—an upgrade to the Su-27—has only now hit the factories. Russia’s strategic bomber fleet also isn’t getting any bigger; the next strategic bomber isn’t expected until the late 2020s at the earliest.
Despite the commissioning of new ballistic missile submarines—which should increase Russia’s sea-launched nuclear forces by five submarines and boost the number of nuclear warheads at sea from 448 to 480—the Russian navy as a whole is expected to remain listless even as new ships enter construction, albeit at slower rates than old ships are decomissioned.
But all of this is moot without the ability to deploy, control and maneuver these forces across Russia’s vast territory over creaky infrastructure. Most of Russia’s army moves by rail and will continue through the foreseeable future. Russia has only 100 heavy airlifters but plans to expand the number to an aspirational 170 by decade’s end. By contrast, the U.S. Air Force’s future requirement calls for a minimum of 300 heavy transport planes.
Russia sees the world as increasingly insecure and this is likely to be the dominant view in the next couple of years and will probably inform security policy making in a longer-term perspective as well,” Pallin writes. “Russia continues to prepare for a relatively large number of military tasks in all strategic directions. There is no evidence that Russia intends to make the lists of military threats shorter in the near future.” That could be a problem.