When Russian tanks rolled into the breakaway Georgian enclave of South Ossetia in 2008, a series of military gaffs ensued. Officers were reportedly using personal cellular phones for battlefield communication. Even basic suppression of enemy air defenses appears to have been neglected with the loss of multiple Russian aircraft to a country with no air superiority fighter and only a very limited set of air defense hardware. And for a country Russia borders, target selection for the air force was reportedly almost abysmal. The list goes on.

This is how the west has viewed the Russian invasion of Georgia – another excuse to chuckle over drinks after work. But this misses the far more important point: Russia imposed a military reality through the exercise of military force in its periphery. We can mock it, but every nation that borders Russia saw crystal clearly how a pro-American regime and an American ally that was actively contributing troops to the Iraq campaign at the time was invaded with little more than some strongly worded statements of condemnation from the global superpower. And the militaries that defend the countries of Russia’s periphery are almost universally incapable of effectively defending against a Russian onslaught.

In 2000, the Oscar-II SSGN Kursk (K 141) disaster seemed the final deathblow to the capability of the military that Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union. But it was a turning point in the Russian psyche, comparable and concurrent with the rejection of Boris Yeltsin (and with him everything that Russia did not only in the 1990s but under Mikhail Gorbachev) and the election of then-President and still-strongman now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has been reshaping its military ever since. It is important not to overstate the capability of the Russian military, but it is equally important not to understate it and to understand it in its own right and in the appropriate geopolitical context. Each country has unique military challenges. With extraordinarily long, effectively undefendable borders, Russia’s military challenges are profound. But rejecting its military because it may not be able to repel, for example, a well-planned, well-positioned conventional assault by the United States has almost no bearing on the practical, real world significance of Russian military power.

Clearly, the Russian military is a shadow of the Soviet Red Army. But though Russian flag officers have made a habit of making absurd statements and the target metrics for reform are consistently not met, that does not mean that there has not been considerable progress in reform in the Russian military. Obviously, Russia is dying demographically. But an entire chapter of history remains to be written before that happens.

And something small, but rather remarkable is happening in Russia: by the end of 2011, all outdated munitions are to have been removed from storage and destroyed. Now the target almost certainly won’t be reached, and there are almost certainly degrees of exaggeration to the official statements on the matter. But think about that for a moment: of the things that tend to characterize our preconceptions of the Russian military, improperly stored, neglected and out-of-date munitions are high on the list. Munitions factories have not shut down. And despite the fact that in many ways the Russian defense industry has survived on the laurels of what the Soviet military-industrial complex was on the verge of achieving when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia continues to manufacture some of the best air defense hardware, high-end military aircraft, diesel-electric submarines and battlefield ballistic missiles (the 9K720 Iskander or SS-26 “Stone”) available. Despite China’s advanced manufacturing capabilities, it still relies on Russian manufacturers for the most advanced military jet engines.

The Russian military of today warrants more than the off-hand rejection it came to deserve in the late 1990s. And it must be measured and understood for what it is designed to achieve, not by some abstract western standard of how it should go about achieving military objectives. Because in the American distraction with Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has not simply gotten its act together, but regained dominance over much of its periphery with real strategic and geopolitical consequences for the long term. And it is now acquiring from France modern amphibious assault ships of a caliber that it never built on its own. Not only French, but also South Korean experts (the most efficient shipbuilders in the world today) are now consulting on reshaping the Russian shipbuilding industry.

The next chapter in history will not only be a fascinating and dynamic one, but it will have repercussions long after Russia succumbs to the demographic forces that make it all too easy to reject it in the near term.

Posted by nhughes in Army, Foreign Policy, History

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  • Bucherm

    Comments about Goliath stomping on David aside(Seriously, Russia could invade Georgia with nothing but T-34s and Mosin-Nganats and win), Russia never had local superiority in numbers of ground troops over Georgia. That Russia was able to quickly meet its objectives over a US-trained and equipped country speaks volumes about the overall competence and capability of the Russian military.

    Some of the biggest whoopsies on behalf of the Russian Military come from a lack of assets that we(America) takes for granted. Lack of UAVs meant Russia was using heavy bombers for recon missions, which of course is what caused them to lose a Tu-22. Since Russia is currently spending beaucoup money on Israeli UAVs, that seems to be a lesson taken to heart.

    All that said, my sympathy for Georgia rates exactly zero. To put it bluntly, it is not our job to ride to the rescue of a country that decided to pick a fight with freakin’ Russia. I am convinced ol’ Saakashvili(who was spending more of his GDP on the military than any other country besides Oman, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia) would not have fired missiles into a Russian Barracks if it had been clearly enunciated to him that the US is not going to fight a war for him.

  • Ben Wachendorf, RADM, USN (Ret)

    Interesting post.

    I agree with much of what you say, but not with your recommended lack of sympathy for Georgia. As you point out, Georgia had committed military forces in support of coalition forces in CENTCOM. Georgia is investing in defense on a percentage basis more than many NATO members who have not met 2% GDP defense spending goal.

    Security restrictions do not allow a full discussion of what lead to the Russian invasion of Georgia, but suffice it to say the cause of this violence was not a decision by Georgia to pick a fight with Russia.

    Culture is a hard thing to change. Georgia was the home of Joeseph Stalin, depending on your point of view, one of Russia’s greatest heroes in the Great Patriotic War (WWII) or one of the greatest mass murderers in human history. In any case, Georgia has made great progress in reducing rampant corruption, improving its economy, and establishing a democracy in a very challenging environment.

    Your comments on Russia are very good. I would add we should not underestimate the patriotism and courage of Russian people. The extraordinary dedication reflected in many WWII engagements remains today in the Russian population, independent of their political leadership.

    Note that by UN population predictions, Russia will have fewer people than Vietnam by the year 2040. I quick look at same scale maps of those countries shows this significance of this. This population decline has many implications for Russia. One factor you did not mention which I believe will influence future Russian defense spending and foreign policy decisions is Russia’s enormous energy reserves. Note that the majority of these reserves are not in easy to access areas like around the Caspian Sea, they are in Eastern Russia (Siberia). Note also the rapidly growing energy demands of China with a very large population on Russia’s border. Last time I checked, there were about 10.6M Russians east of the Urals, an area bigger than the United States. Annual immigration to eastern Russia from China was about 200,000 per year legal immigrants with probably at least that many illegal immigrants. In my view, these facts represent the greatest threat to Russian security for the foreseeable future.

  • Paul

    The Russkies seem to understand that for them what happens on the other side of the world is abstract, but what happens next door is real. Being able and willing to project power just over your border carries more weight for the immediate security of Russia than for something with Chavez. This does not bode well for the US– Russia has sent a message to all of it’s neighbors that it will use military force to exert it’s will if it feels the need to. Couple that with the radiation poisoning of people who disagree with their government in foreign lands and there’s a lot to be concerned with.

    Russia may not have the chops to go toe to toe with the US, but then it doesn’t have to. It does have the chops to go to war with our theoretical allies in the region– and that’s all that matters to them and to those countries.

    Capability is one thing– but will to use is another.

  • Paul


    Tom Clancy’s book from years past envisioned a military take over of Siberia by China for resources. Seemed like fantasy to me at the time but what you’re putting out there gives me cause for concern and wonder.

    The book was “The Bear and the Dragon”– any thoughts on that possibility?

  • Matt Yankee

    Intereting post and comments…

    I had the same thought regarding the future of Russia and China which we hear positive things about now but with China becoming more and more strong and Russia becoming the size of Vietnam that would seem like a recipe for US to leverage. We should be doing everything we can to drive a wedge into the Russo-Chinese relationship.

    I still do not understand the exact beginings of the Russo-Georgian War so I’m hesitant to give Georgia any tools that would give them any ideas. Stationing a few hundred troops for training and holding the line on any additional land grabs with very good defenses should hold Russia at bay.

    Poland is the ally I think we are screwing up the most. Our position should be unequivacal on them. I find it unbelievable we are apparently showing explicit weakness to the Russians regarding Poland’s defense when we send Patriot missile launchers for limited (not permanent) deployments and then don’t bother to send the missiles…so it’s a very weak show of solidarity with Poland. With their history so intertwined with our own in both WWII and the Cold War I think it is high time to send real weapons and station real numbers of troops within their borders. We don’t have to station troops in every periphery nation but picking a few would help the whole situation. Russia’s attention could be swung China’s way if they had less weak periphery nations to envy. We should take them off their wanted list through decisive defenses including our own assets and troops.

  • Forrest Cantrell


    I agree that the US must stand firmly behind Poland. We should never be like Britain and France in 1939, making commitments to Poland but without the ability to back it up.

    But unlike Georgia, Poland is a member of NATO, and is very much aware of the history of Russian invasions. I don’t believe Poland’s close allies, such as Germany, would tolerate any Russian aggressive moves westward. Poland also has a much larger and more sophisticated military than Georgia, with modern fighters and MBTs. The Poles are no pushover.

    The Baltic states, however ….

  • Derrick

    This post only talks of Russia’s army and its ability to interact militarily with neighbours which border by land.

    What about the Russian navy? Is it still a blue water navy? How many carrier battle groups do they possess? Could the Russian navy interfere with the US navy’s current supremacy of the world’s oceans?

  • Paul


    No carrier battle groups– one carrier– the Kusnetzev in the northern fleet and I am not sure if it’s operational. Many modern subs are tied pierside and their surface fleet is a shadow of it’s former self.
    Took all they could to send the Peter Veliky and an Udaloy class antisub cruiser to Venezuela last year. That’s hardly power projection.
    However, with mines, and the odd attack sub rather than sea control, the Russkies could practice sea denial and make areas we transit hazardous to the health of our ships. In the end it doesn’t matter if they’re sunk, but just so long as they can keep us out of a range to influence event then they can win.

  • Ben Wachendorf, RADM, USN (Ret)


    I have no crystal ball, but I spent the better part of three years as senior US military officer in Russia (Defense Attache at US Embassy Moscow, 2003-2005) after about eight years of my life (day for day)underwater in the Cold War doing everything that can be done in a US nuclear submarine. Can’t say more than that on this subject, but there is a short list of people who can make that statement.

    I do not see a military conflict between China and Russia (as has occurred in decades past along river border boundaries) as likely. My sense is the world in which we live in today, and likely to live in for the foreseeable future, is one where resolution of differences of national political opinion will involve economic and other powers at least as much as traditional military power. This is reflected in current discussion of Soft vs. Hard Power in Washington now as well as US Navy TV commercials). If I am correct, this will give Russia great leverage in the supply of energy resources (not limited to China) and China great leverage in owning large portions of international debt (esp US) as well as other very influential factors in our globalized economy.

    Again, just to be clear, these are my own personal opinions and do not represent any official positions of US government.


  • Paul


    Thanks– and actually the application of soft power in this venue seems to be a bit more threatening as it hits countries where it hurts the most– in the pocketbook. Owing China so much money, to me, is more of a threat than say, a couple of CVBG’s flying the PLAN flag. Sure, they’re pretty but as one of your flag colleagues essentially once said– in a war it gives us something to shoot missiles at.

    Didn’t think about Russia and the energy angle. Was underreported here in the west, but the blackmail a few years back with natural gas to western Europe was frightening. There’s a difference between having a power to do something (turn off the taps) and then the will to do so (they did!). We tend to lean more towards the threats while Russia doesn’t seem to have a problem to actually carry out those threats.

    As a Russian expert– what do you think of Putin?

  • Matt Yankee

    China owns a minority share of US foreign debt and TOTAL foreign debt is a minority of total US Debt…We the people of the US own the bulk of our own debt or I should say the Fed. Reserve owns the majority of our debt.

    A very common misperception flying everywhere is that China owns us and it is simply not the case. Japan is right behind China and many more other countries own sizable stakes but not even the majority when you combine all of them.

    I am also interested to know about Putin’s intentions and was the Georgia War in fact a well planned intentional invasion of a foreing country to seize the land Czar Putin wanted. If so what does that mean for the future with the return (or continuation) of Putin’s reign for the rest of his life.

  • Ben Wachendorf, RADM, USN (Ret)


    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Was attending West 2011 in San Diego. Two good posts above on that.

    In my view Putin, not the current Russian President, is the real political leader of Russia. The Russian Constitution required a slight of hand to change job titles to allow Putin to remain in the driver seat. Putin is very smart, came up through the KGB in the Cold War. Putin KGB background should not be surprising as in the Communist days, and to a lesser extent today, the KGB (now FSB) were the only one’s who had access to the truth in international and domestic reality. That gives a great political advantage to those who have accesss to that information. My assessment of Putin and Russia’s other government leaders biggest failure is that they saw the end of the Warsaw Pact and the Cold War, but they did not see the end of the USSR (Baltics in NATO, very strong anti-Russia popular opinions in Georgia and the Ukraine). This mistake has contributed to many tragedies like the recent Moscow airport terrorist attack.

    It is not for me to say who is the best leader for Russia. I do not see any chance of a return to Soviet Union structure for Russia. This is primarily due to the growing middle class of Russian population who has seen the vast opportunities that democracy and a free market economy offer in Eastern Europe. In the Cold War, Russians looked down on Warsaw Pact countries like Pland mentioned above. Now many Russians envy the quality of life that these former Warsaw Pact nations enjoy. While progress is being made, it would be a mistake to describe Russia today as either a democracy or a free market economy. As an example, I monitored a Russian national election. In one mental hospital, not only did every one of the 2000+ patients vote, they all voted for Putin. Sort of reminded me of the old days in Chicago where they said, “Vote early and often.”

    With respect to China, see West 2011 discussion of ADM Keating panel in today’s blog.