The purpose of this article is to investigate the factors driving Russian military reform, how the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces have changed in the last ten years, and how they could change through 2030, based on the latest state armaments program. The first part was about the consolidation phase after the end of the Cold War; the inadequacies that became apparent during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and finally the Serdyukov reform. This part deals with the progressive improvement of the Russian armed forces as a consequence of the military reform, which became evident in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and the major exercises of the last two years.
The wars in Ukraine and Syria
Following the removal of Russian-supported Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February 2014, masked soldiers without insignia, but equipped with the green Ratnik infantry combat system appeared in Crimea (Maria Martens, “Russian Military Modernization“, Science and Technology Committee, NATO Parliamentary Assembly, 11.10.2015, p. 9). The Ratnik infantry combat system is made of breathable reinforced-fiber fabric of polymeric compounds, which protects against open fire and minor splinters/ballistic shrapnel. The body armor vest, reinforced by ceramic and hybrid inserts, is effective against small arms, including armor-piercing bullets preventing penetration and trauma. Additionally, the soldiers were equipped with modern communication means, which could be based on Glonass. In a third edition, Ratnik aims to increase the connectivity and combat efficiency of all ground forces after 2020 (“Ratnik Russian Future Soldier Modern Infantry Combat Gear System“, Army Recognition, 31.03.2018).
These “little green men” most likely belonged to the 45th Guards Independent Spetsnaz Brigade and the 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade. In addition to their modern equipment, the soldiers stood out for their self-confident, disciplined, though determined demeanor. In April 2014, similarly equipped and disciplined soldiers appeared in eastern Ukraine (Hannes Adomeit, “Die Lehren der russischen Generäle“, NZZ, 18.07.2014).
In contrast to the annexation of Crimea and interference in the war in Ukraine, the military operation in Syria took place from late summer 2015 at the request of the Syrian government. Since then, Syria has been an important training, testing, and demonstration ground. A total of around 250 systems, including 160 new or modernized weapon systems, are said to have been tested, with around 1,200 civilians from 57 Russian companies and research and development organizations accompanying the deployed units in order to draw lessons for further development (Julian Cooper, “The Russian State Armament Programme, 2018-2027“, NATO Defense College, Mai 2018, p. 3; “Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance, vol. 118, 2018, p. 170).
The military operation in Syria certainly required certain funds, however the main part of the funding came from the Defence Ministry, their resources. Some 33 billion rubles were earmarked in the Ministry’s 2015 budget for military exercises. We simply retargeted these funds to support our group in Syria, and there is hardly a better way of training and perfecting combat skills than under real combat conditions. In this sense, it is better to use motor operating time and combat stock in combat than at a testing range. You, professionals, know this better than anyone else. — Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking to 700 officers of all branches in March 2016 (Vladimir Putin, “Meeting with Russian Armed Forces Service Personnel“, President of Russia, 17.03.2016).
The units deployed in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria have made significant progress in terms of leadership, training, equipment and operational readiness. Electronic warfare and logistics capabilities have also improved (“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance, vol. 115, 2015, p. 159). With the operation in Syria, the Russian forces have shown that they have sufficient sea and air transport resources, respectively that they can procure them quickly in unconventional ways (renting and reflagging Turkish merchant ships as Russian naval vessels), to carry out a minor operation outside its actual sphere of influence and to be able to maintain logistical support. The Russian forces are able to jointly cooperate (in particular between the Air Force and the Navy), as well as with foreign partners. Russian warplanes, for example, have given Syrian and Iranian ground forces close air support in offensive operations. This represents significant progress compared with the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Furthermore, the new Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bomber and in February 2018, two pre-production models of the Sukhoi Su-57 including a deployment of a Kh-59MK2 cruise missile were tested (“Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jets successfully tested in Syria“, TASS, 01.03.2018).
The first precision weapons were already tested with the Kalibr in 2011 with the Navy and the Kh-38 in 2012 with the Air Force, but operationally, these new weapons systems have only been deployed by both branches in Syria. For example, in October 2015, 26 Kalibr cruise missiles launched from three Buyan M-class corvettes and one Gepard-class frigate in the Caspian Sea destroyed 11 targets in Syria (Dmitry Gorenburg, “What Russia’s Military Operation in Syria can tell us about Advances in its Capabilities“, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memos, no. 124, 18.03.2016, p. 2ff; “Russian missiles ‘hit IS in Syria from Caspian’“, BBC News, 07.10.2015). The following December, another Kalibr was launched from a submarine in the Mediterranean. To date, the Russian armed forces fired 90 Kalibr cruise missiles in the Syrian war. In so doing, Russia is primarily pursuing political goals, because there was no tactical need for it. It is a show of force in the direction of NATO, the USA, and neighboring states. The message is clear: Russia is back as a superpower! Production and financial means, however, limit the use of precision weapons: around 80% of the dropped munitions in Syria included old, unguided “dumb” bombs (Gorenburg, “What Russia’s Military Operation in Syria can tell us about Advances in its Capabilities“, p. 3f).
The annexation of Crimea and interference in the war in Ukraine has negative consequences for the Russian defense industry, which will influence the modernization of Russian forces in the future. The sanctions made it impossible to acquire Western arms and related technology transfer. The Navy particularly felt this as the purchase of the two Mistral ships were reversed by France and ship propulsion systems from Germany and Ukraine were held back. The missing ship propulsion systems had delayed the planned construction of new destroyers, corvettes, and frigates. Ukraine was also an essential supplier of aircraft and helicopter engines, and the state-owned Yuzhmash company ensured the maintenance of the currently 46 SS-18 Satan ICBMs. Starting this year, the SS-18 Satan will gradually be replaced by the new, entirely Russian-made RS-28 Sarmat.
Another problem is the sanctions on dual-use goods, including in particular electronic components in satellite technology and drone development. Russia tries to cushion the effects of Western sanctions as much as possible by import substitution from Belarus and Asian countries. However, this is not possible in all areas in the medium term, incurs additional costs, and leads to delays in the construction of modern weapon systems (Julian Cooper, “Russia’s State Armament Programme to 2020: A Quantitative Assessment of Implementation 2011-2015“, Swedish Defence Research, 2016, p. 37ff).
According to the latest Russian military doctrine issued at the end of 2014, the expansion of NATO military infrastructure within the Eastern European Member States, possible NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia, and political and military pressure within them, pose a threat to Russia. From a Russian point of view, the US and its allies are trying to use hybrid warfare to prevent Russia’s influence over its neighbors. They are willing to spread chaos in the Russian neighboring states, in order to form a basis for intervention in these states and to be able to install a pro-Western government (Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russia’s Strategic Calculus: Threat Perceptions and Military Doctrine“, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memos, no. 448, 11.11.2016, p. 2).
Since 1999, the perceptions of threats have run like a thread through the Zapad exercises, with the emphasis of the scenarios being on conventional operations in regional conflicts with possible escalation with a conventionally equal opponent (Stephen J. Cimbala and Roger N. McDermott, “Putin and the Nuclear Dimension to Russian Strategy“, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, October 2016, p. 536).
Soldiers who bore no insignia and refused to say whether they were Russians or Ukrainians patrolled the Simferopol International Airport after a pro-Russian crowd gathered near Simferopol on February 28, 2014.
After Vostok 2010, in which a fictional conflict with China Russia had foreseen a regionally limited nuclear strike in the end, however, further fictional nuclear strikes in response to a conventionally overpowering opponent were largely dispensed with . This coincides with the availability of precision weapons, which can be equipped with conventional warheads (Roger N. McDermott and Tor Bukkvoll, “Tools of Future Wars – Russia Is Entering the Precision-Strike Regime“, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, April 2018, p. 192). In other words, the better Russia is conventionally equipped, the less likely it is to use nuclear weapons. The 2013 Zapad, for example, was about defending Belarus against Baltic terrorists, resulting in extensive operations in overbuilt terrain, resulting in a mix of counterinsurgency and conventional operations. Towards the end of the exercise, an enemy amphibious landing on the Baltic coast was defeated by conventional means (Stephen Blank, “What Do the Zapad 2013 Exercises Reveal? (Part One)“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, 04.12.2013). However, this does not change the fact that the use of nuclear weapons in the context of an “escalation to de-escalate” is still doctrinal – for example, most recently, this approach was part of the 2017 Russian Navy doctrine (Katarzyna Zysk, “Escalation and Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Military Strategy“, The RUSI Journal, vol. 163, no. 2, March 2018).
The last Zapad exercise in 2017 was about defending against a hybrid opponent. Three coalition states bordering on Belarus took advantage of the worsening economic situation in Russia and Belarus in order to sow discord between the two states with the use of information operations. The first 48 hours of the exercise were mainly devoted to combating terrorism and containing hybrid warfare on Belarusian territory. It corresponds to the time required by the Russian armed forces in the ideal case for their mobilization. Thereafter, an enemy invasion by the three fictional states was prevented, with their impressive military potential reminiscent of NATO. Finally, the Russian forces in Belarus struck back. On the last day of the exercise, the scenario escalated in the Barents Sea and the Black Sea (Pavel Felgenhauer, “Lukashenka and Russian Officials Part Ways During Zapad 2017“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, 22.09.2017). The Northern Fleet also had 20 warships and 5,000 men in action. In addition, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome deployed two RS-24 Yars ICBMs (one from a silo, one from a mobile platform), which engaged targets on the Kamchatka Peninsula, East Asia, 6,000 km away. The use of the RS-24 Yars was a test and at the same time a show of force against the US (Daniel Brown, “Russia just finished the Zapad military exercises that freaked out NATO – Here’s what we know“, Business Insider, 25.09.2017; Alex Gorka, “Russia tests Yars RS-24 ICBM as part of its Nuclear Modernization Effort“, Strategic Culture Foundation, 03.10.2017).
Zapad 2017 demonstrated that Russia is able to defend its territory and that of its allies effectively. With its air defense, Russia is prepared for the initial phase of a military operation, which is characterized by massive firepower from the US and NATO the air forces. The S-400 Triumf already stationed in Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg, as well as the S-300 systems in Belarus were quickly supplemented by further S-400, S-300, and Pantsir-S1 systems during Zapad 2017. The Baltic Fleet can additionally strengthen air defenses and engage enemy targets in the air, in the water, and on the coast. At the same time, the Russian air force can combat ground targets outside of Russian territory with escorted bombers and/or tactical missiles. During the exercise, an Iskander-M (which can be equipped with a nuclear or a conventional warhead) from the Central Military District was used successfully to destroy a target 480 km away in Kazakhstan. At Zapad 2017, Su-27, Su-35S, Su-30SM, and MiG-31 were used to combat enemy fighter aircraft, Su-34 bombers, Su-24MRs, and tactical levels around 30 different drone systems for reconnaissance and targeting (Michael Kofman, “Zapad Watch – Summary of Day Four“, Russia Military Analysis, 18.09.2017). The C2 capabilities allow units to be deployed all over the territory and along a front that is over 600 km long. During Zapad 2017, ground forces were supported by Mi-35M, Ka-52, Mi-28N and Mi-8AMTSh helicopters (Roger N. McDermott, “Zapad 2017 and the Initial Period of War“, The Jamestown Foundation, 20.09.2017). Logistically, the Russian forces are able to move at least one armored division by rail over long distances and deploy at least one light battalion rapidly by air transport (Michael Kofman, “Zapad Watch – Summary of Day Five“, Russia Military Analysis, 19.09.2017; Sergey Sukhankin, “Zapad-2017: What Did These Military Exercises Reveal?“, ICDS, 24.10.2017).
These findings were confirmed in last year’s Vostok exercise. The main objectives of the exercise consisted of reviewing the armed forces preparedness, the ability to transport units over long-distances union operations using civilian infrastructure, and coordination between ground forces and naval fleets. In addition, the Chinese armed forces took part for the first time in a Russian exercise, which is also to be taken as a political signal to the US. The exercise adopted an entirely new approach: Central Military District units were tasked with invading the Eastern Military District. The necessary units were moved by means of 1,500 freight cars and 50 transport aircraft from the Central Military District to the east – in the case of the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade up to 4,500 km (Miko Vranic and Samuel Cranny-Evans, “Analysis: ‘Vostok 2018’ a Window on Russia’s Strategic Ambitions“, Jane’s Defence Industry and Markets Intelligence Centre, 2018). At the same time, the Northern Fleet moved to the Pacific, trying to fight the Pacific Fleet. For defense purposes, the Eastern Military District was reinforced with around 3,500 men and 24 helicopters, as well as six fighters from Chinese units and a smaller number of Mongol troops. The actual combat exercises by the air and ground forces were conducted in the Tsugol area in the Transbaikal region near the Russian-Chinese-Mongolian border triangle. Russia used 25,000 military personnel, 7,000 pieces of equipment, and 250 fighter aircraft and helicopters (Michael Kofman, “Vostok 2018 Strategic Maneuvers: Exercise Plan“, Russia Military Analysis, 10.09.2018). In airborne exercises, more than 700 soldiers and 51 BMD-2 airborne tanks were deployed by parachute (Michael Kofman, “Vostok 2018 – Day 3 (September 13)“, Russia Military Analysis, 14.09.2018). Precision ammunition was hardly used during the exercise, which suggests that the Russian forces have limited reserves and are therefore conserving them for use in Syria rather than during exercises (Michael Kofman,
“Vostok 2018 Days 5-6 (September 15-16)“, Russia Military Analysis, 17.09.2018).
In 2013, but not during the Zapad exercise, a fictional nuclear attack was simulated on Sweden, with two TU-22M3 Backfire-C bombers, escorted by four Su-27 Flanker, approaching to about 30-40 km off the Swedish island Gotland. However, these are not unusual technical exercises and therefore cannot be overstated (David Cenciotti, “Russian Tu-22M Backfire Bombers Escorted by Su-27 Flankers Simulate Night Attack on Sweden“, The Aviationist, 22.04.2013; Zysk, 2018, p. 9).