Imperial Ambitions: Russia’s Military Buildup

World Affairs, junio 2015
Stephen Blank, miembro de American Foreign Policy Council

In September 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that he could, at will, occupy any Eastern European capital in two days. This apparently spontaneous utterance reveals, probably more than Russia’s new official defense doctrine, Moscow’s true assessment of NATO’s capabilities, cohesion, and will to resist. In an echo of Soviet tactics, it also reflects Putin’s reflexive recourse to intimidation—e.g., unwarranted boasting about Russian military capabilities and intentions—as a negotiating strategy. In 2014 alone, Moscow repeatedly threatened the Baltic and Nordic states and civilian airliners, heightened intelligence penetration, deployed unprecedented military forces against those states, intensified overflights and submarine reconnaissance, mobilized nuclear forces and threats, deployed nuclear-capable forces in Kaliningrad, menaced Moldova, and openly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. Russian officials openly declared that the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty of 1989 was dead, and continued a large-scale comprehensive defense buildup in areas ranging from space and counter-space to submarine and ground forces as well as nuclear forces. Seeing as Norway and Estonia’s defense ministers, in separate 2014 speeches in Washington, both indicated that Russia already enjoyed superiority in the Baltic region, these gestures looked like overkill on Putin’s part, to put it mildly.

Russian sources claim that Putin manages the defense sector very closely. On his watch, Russia’s forces have allegedly increased their capability by 30 percent, received substantial weapons deliveries, and displayed innovative operational concepts of so-called hybrid war (a blend of conventional, irregular, and cyber warfare) in the seizure of Crimea. Those concepts and deployments in Crimea and the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, also reflected Russia’s improved foreign and military intelligence processes and ability to tailor a military effort to the specific requirements of disparate European fronts.

Russian defense spending since 2008 has increased substantially, and procurement has not been affected by sanctions or the current economic malaise. Indeed, Deputy Defense Minister Tatyana Shevtsova has called advocacy of defense cuts tantamount to treason. The state defense order in 2015 will grow by 20 percent from 2014, fulfilling the government’s demands that the armed forces be 30 percent “modernized” (a term that is never defined) by 2015, and 70 percent by 2020. As Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said, “[In 2015] we must supply troops with 701 armored vehicles, two brigade suites of Iskander-M missile complexes, 1545 multipurpose vehicles, 126 aircraft, 88 helicopters, two multipurpose submarines, and five surface combatants.” Russia is also planning a network of reserve armies. And this plan is separate from the nuclear weapons buildups discussed below.

Officials have also indicated that in 2015 they will concentrate on developing military capabilities in the Baltic, Crimea, and the Arctic. Moreover, Moscow is contemplating preventive operations against Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan should they threaten Central Asia, and in November 2014 Shoigu publicly advocated a Russo-Chinese collective security system (i.e., an alliance) in Asia. Officials also extol Russia’s alleged willingness to endure suffering in order to prevail as a key element in their calculation of strategic capabilities.

It is no wonder that the US Strategic Command leadership, watching these developments, now admits concern about Russia’s emerging strategic military capabilities. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of Army forces in Europe, has publicly stated that within five years Russia could run multiple Ukraine-sized operations in Europe. In rethinking the character of contemporary war, Moscow has arguably moved beyond its adaptation of the US concept of network-centric war, which drove previous defense reforms starting in 2008. It now seems to favor an approach based on hybrid or multidimensional war, similar to the Chinese concept of “unrestricted war,” embracing simultaneous employment of multiple instruments of war, including nonmilitary means where information warfare, such as mass political manipulation, is a major capability. Thus Russia’s procurement objectives range from space to submarines, from cyber information and command-and-control technologies to the formation of so-called information troops (i.e., troops whose mission would go beyond cyber attacks to include mass political manipulation on a constant long-term basis). And all the while Moscow sees itself in a permanent state of siege at the hands of a Western order that it believes is using nonmilitary as well as military forces against Russia.

Already Moscow has authorized large increases of expenditures on external and internal media outlets and reliable “trolls” and hackers (as well as “useful idiots”) abroad to influence foreign perceptions of Russia and Russian policy. Although suffering the effects of economic upheaval, Russia has increased the budget of its broadcaster RT by 30 percent and its international news agency Rossiya Segodnya by 300 percent. Rossiya Segodnya’s staff in Berlin has grown from two to 39, and the agency is reportedly preparing to open local bureaus in 29 world capitals. RT will receive a $39 million budget increase specifically for pro-Kremlin programming in French. And the new multimedia operation called Sputnik, operating under Rossiya Segodnya’s aegis, aims to produce 800 hours of broadcasting, aired daily in 30 languages across 130 cities in 30 countries.

Russia is also building up its military capability. To judge from its procurements, the current large-scale comprehensive buildup of weaponry through 2025 aims to acquire a multi-domain, strategic-level reconnaissance-strike complex as well as a tactical-level reconnaissance-fire complex that would together give Russia high-tech precision forces that could conduct operations in space, under the ocean, in the air, on the sea and the ground, and in cyberspace. This force would have parity with the US and NATO in conventional and nuclear dimensions of high-tech warfare, and therefore the capability to deter and intimidate NATO. It would also have strategic stability, which Russia defines to include non-nuclear strike capabilities, and therefore sustain non-nuclear and pre-nuclear (i.e., before conflict starts) conventional deterrence across the entire spectrum of conflict, including against internal threats, which now feature prominently in Russia’s defense doctrine.

By 2025, Russia’s military should contain a much larger percentage of “professional” soldiers, a reliable first- and second-strike nuclear capability to overcome US missile defenses, and a space-strike, counter-space, and anti-satellite capability. These capabilities presume a robust, as well as qualitatively and quantitatively improved, aerospace offensive and defensive capability from ground and sea to space. Russia also envisions achieving a navy and air force each capable of global power projection if necessary but certainly of global strike and defense against the US. And it aims to outfit many of its ships with long-range, high-accuracy (or precision) munitions capable of non-nuclear deterrence and of response to the United States’ prompt global strike threat.

Until 2025, nuclear weapons will remain the primary priority for procurement since they deter conventional and nuclear threats to Russia and are the great equalizer and intimidator of Europe and other potential adversaries, and because Moscow still cannot compete technologically with the US and NATO. But other areas will not be neglected. Moscow is investing heavily in unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, and in robotics. It is even assigning UAVs to forces earmarked for peacemaking operations, and UUVs to submarines. Finally, signifying its belief that future nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare scenarios are likely, Russia is equipping and training regiments, in both the Western strategic direction and the North Caucasus, for offensive and defensive capability in this style of war.

Moscow had previously planned to upgrade the Black Sea Fleet and its new Mediterranean Squadron by adding six new frigates, six new submarines, the Mistral amphibious assault ship, a helicopter carrier, and other smaller vessels. But in April 2014, shortly after the Crimea invasion, Putin directed the Defense Ministry to formulate an immediate development program for the Black Sea Fleet. Simultaneously, bombers were deployed in Crimea to intensify active monitoring of US and NATO naval operations there to neutralize current and future threats that allegedly directly threaten the functioning of Russian’s
strategic nuclear forces.

Russia has also expanded its strategic aviation patrol routes above the Black Sea, while its Su-24 fighters practice strikes against “imaginary detachments” of enemy warships together with “surface strike groups and shore-based naval missile units,” according to an official statement. Defense Minister Shoigu announced that Russia would spend $2.4 billion on the Black Sea Fleet by 2020, and give it next-generation warships and submarines, air defense systems, and naval infantry regiments by this year. Rear Admiral Anatoly Dolgov, head of the Southern Military District Staff’s naval department, cited an increased development program of 90 billion rubles (roughly $1.53 billion) until 2020 to deploy new naval and coastal units in Crimea and restore formerly reduced ones. About 30 new ships will be added. These new forces comprise a costal defense brigade, an artillery regiment, new naval aviation aircraft, and reinforcement of the Fourth Air Defense Command
and reconnaissance units.

Other sources already reported that Moscow would also deploy modernized Su-27SM, MiG-29, and Su-25M fighters, anti-submarine helicopters, the Il-38N, Ka-27, and Ka-28M enhanced helicopters, Ka-52K attack helicopters, the new Su-30M naval aviation fighters, and a regiment of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers at the Gvardeiskoye airfield. These aircraft are platforms for long-range anti-ship cruise missiles to support the Mediterranean Squadron and establish an added “deterrence potential” in southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. Ground forces will be reconstituted, redesigned, and given Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles for the defense of Crimea. Moscow will also rapidly develop as much as possible of the Crimean shore for its naval infrastructure and bases. Indeed, in early 2015 Russia reported that the Black Sea Fleet’s airborne divisions had started flying the multi-role Su-30 fighter and had acquired Orlan drones.

This buildup puts much of Turkey and our Balkan allies within range of Russian air, ground, and sea forces, as well as long-range strike capabilities. If Moscow can add its new Collective Rapid Reaction Force, which includes its airborne and Spetsnaz special forces, as an effective reserve force to conduct conventional, antiterrorist, and counterinsurgency operations, it will have a formidable strike force for the entire Black Sea zone. Beyond this, Moscow has sought naval bases in Montenegro, land bases in Serbia, and naval and air bases in Cyprus to project power throughout the Mediterranean and Balkans. In 2013, these troops and the naval infantry (the forces that led the Crimean invasion) practiced operations in coordination with large landing ships of the Russian Navy, implying the possibility of future amphibious operations, explaining why Moscow has tried so hard to buy Mistral-class ships from France.


Russian military literature indicates the importance of the Mistral—capable of carrying 16 helicopters, four landing barges, up to 70 vehicles including a dozen tanks, and nearly 500 soldiers—in Moscow’s new forward strategy. A Mistral-class ship is a potent asset for operations in the post-Soviet space, enabling Russia to carry out amphibious landings and serving as an instrument of psychological pressure: This ship is large, and with its ability to project power on land, any small country would feel threatened if such a Russian ship, carrying naval infantry, tanks, and helicopters appeared in its vicinity during a crisis in relations with Russia. Moreover, it could do something the Russian politicians craved in vain during the Kosovo war: send a visible signal of Russia’s strong displeasure with NATO and of its ability and willingness to help its friends.

With the Mistral, Moscow could conduct an unimpeded heliborne assault over the cliffs of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts, in southeastern Ukraine, and oust the Ukrainian ground forces now defending that vital area. Polish authorities also believe Moscow could use the Mistral to land a battalion from Baltiysk, in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, on Polish soil within 90 minutes. The Mistral also could serve as a powerful command-and-control network with which Russia could detect sensors in the Baltic or Black Seas. In the Black Sea, the Mistral could protect the energy installations that Russia seized off Crimea; in either sea the Mistral could serve as part of an anti-submarine network. Russian military drills in the Baltic apparently focus on deterring hostile attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline and its infrastructure, and the Russian Navy has announced that it will deploy if necessary to resist terrorist attacks in the Baltic. The Mistral would possess equal value in noncombat evacuation operations or as manifestations of Russian gunboat diplomacy, examples of which we have already seen in Syria and Cyprus.

Comparable plans for modernization and reorganization are moving ahead throughout the services and the military districts. The armed forces will receive 5000–6000 pieces of modernized armored hardware before 2020. The air and air defense forces will combine into one aerospace force called the VKS and receive hundreds of planes. Similarly, the nuclear forces, the key deterrent, will be strengthened considerably. In 2014, 38 missiles were added and in 2015, 50 more are projected, including a new rail-mobile ICBM.

Similarly, by 2020 Russia should complete the Sarmat project to develop a new heavy liquid-fueled ICBM to replace the Soviet-era Voyevoda or Satan RS-20V missile systems along with upgrades to the Yars missile complex and its modification the RS-26 ICBM. Also, the strategic nuclear forces are tasked with replacing the existing missile complex with fifth-generation missile systems capable of penetrating US missile defenses and deterring the United States’ prompt
global strike platforms.

Even services like the Navy that are still enmeshed in the Soviet legacy will receive new missions. Moscow clearly wants to acquire new naval bases even if its primary mission remains submarine-based nuclear deterrence and homeland defense. On February 26, 2014, Defense Minister Shoigu announced talks with eight governments to establish a global network of air bases to extend the reach of Russia’s long-range maritime and strategic aviation assets, thereby increasing Russia’s global military presence. He stated, “We are working actively with the Seychelles [an African island nation in the Indian Ocean], Singapore, Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and even in some other countries. We are in talks and close to a result.” Shoigu also cited Russia’s need for refueling bases near the equator: “It is imperative that our navy has the opportunities for replenishment.”

In May 2014, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov announced that Russia is negotiating to establish support facilities in unspecified Middle Eastern countries, with Syria, Cyprus, and Egypt as the most likely candidates. In June of last year, Russian ships even deployed for the first time west of the Strait of Messina. In August, responding to NATO’s heightened naval presence in the Black Sea, due to the crisis in Ukraine, Shoigu demanded a new naval modernization plan to “improve the operational readiness of Russian naval forces in locations providing the greatest strategic threat.” These moves show why dominating the Black Sea is critical for Russia’s power projection into the Mediterranean and Middle East. However, the Mediterranean Squadron may be as much a response to declining NATO deployments that created a strategic vacuum there as it is a conscious strategy.

Likewise, Moscow seeks bases in Latin America from which it can threaten the US and its allies. In addition to Cuba, it may be talking to Argentina and Nicaragua as well. Shoigu observed that Moscow not only wanted the use of ports for its ships but also installations for the refueling of its long-range bombers. Moscow may also be seeking a base in Bolivia, which has apparently offered one for use by Russia’s Air Force. Antonov subsequently indicated that Russia plans to build up military and military-technical cooperation with Latin American countries by establishing logistic support facilities there for port calls and by using local airfields in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

To be sure, full achievement of this ambitious program is not likely, especially under the economic constraints now pinching Moscow. But what is critical here is Putin’s intentions, growing out of his perceptions of being in a state of siege with the West, and the natural proclivity of the Russian military and intelligence services to provide both worst-case threat assessments and also rosy assessments of Russian capabilities, as occurred in Ukraine. Since Russia’s media regularly reinforce these perceptions and nobody can hold Putin and those agencies to account, the potential for miscalculation, as we saw in Ukraine, is constantly high.

None of this means that war with Russia is inevitable or imminent, but it does mean that sanctions and declarations of goodwill alone will not secure Europe. More is needed to deter further Russian aggression and ensure that Ukraine and Georgia—the two states whose territorial integrity Moscow has already amputated—regain their full sovereignty. Moscow clearly believes that the Cold War continues. If so, the US and Western Europe must react to the Russian military buildup in a way that will enable them to once again achieve victory.

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