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Don’t buy the hype: Russia’s military is much weaker than Putin wants us to think


Today is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia, a public holiday and a celebration of all things military: triumphalism about the latest weapons, about operations in Syria, about the seizure of Crimea. Meanwhile, from the West we hear bloodcurdling warningsabout the threat posed by the Kremlin’s war machine.

Perceptions matter, though: Arguably being thought to be dangerous is actually a more powerful geopolitical asset than actually being it. So long as the West believes Russia could surge into Ukraine, escalate in Syria, or even roll into the Baltic states, it inevitably feels a greater pressure to make concessions and invite Vladimir Putin to the table.

No one seems willing to question just how formidable Putin’s new military really is — and he seems to be counting on that.

Ever since he first strode into the Kremlin, at the end of 1999, Vladimir Putin has beenpouring money into his military. But he was trying to modernize a military that was in a truly catastrophic state after not just years but decades of underfunding and neglect. It had performed abysmally in the first Chechen War. Draft dodging, embezzlement, and corruption were rife.


Certainly Russia’s military has lifted itself up from this pitiful state, but it’s still very much a work in progress.

Today, Russian military might as we know it is halfway between a fact and a psychological warfare operation.

Russian special forces seized Crimea in February 2014 with respectable precision and discipline, and looked the part of cutting-edge soldiers. But they were among the very best Moscow can muster, and faced no opposition.

Russia has been able to turn the tide in Syria — and the politics of that war — with its bombers. But in order to keep up the tempo of operations in Syria, Moscow has had to send its best pilots, and even buy old Turkish ships to supply them. Besides, bombing a disorganized rebel force with no meaningful air defense is hardly much of a test of the new Russian air force.

In Ukraine, where Russia has had units deployed since summer 2014, Moscow has had to send improvised “battalion tactical groups” patched together from the best companies of soldiers across the country. After all, almost half of Russia’s soldiers are conscriptsserving just a single year. Russian officers speaking off the record admit that between their training and their final demobilization month, the majority are only usable for maybe three months of that year.

In order to send naval squadrons flying the flag across the globe, Moscow has not only to accompany them with tugs for when they break down, it then has to put the ships in dock for months after fixing them. And while Russia had great plans for new warships, the gas turbines most would have used came from Ukraine, and so it’s back to the drawing board.

In other words, so far, we have seen the very best of the Russian military in the ideal conditions but not the rest of the force, or how they would cope facing a real threat. It is a little bit like assuming you can judge all of US education by visiting Harvard, or its health care from the Mayo Clinic.

As a result, we mistake Russia’s still large but overstretched and only partly reformed armed forces for a terrifying threat to the West and to the global order as we know it — and we (over)react accordingly, giving the Kremlin far more leverage than it actually deserves.

So why is the West so worried? In part, this is the usual human habit of overcompensation. After Crimea and Syria showed unexpected Russian capabilities, assessments, once more measured, swung to the other extreme.

There are also vested interests at work. Industries talking up the Russian challenge as a way to justify more defense spending and new weapons systems. Front-line nations wanting to assert their pivotal role, their need for


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