Dwarfing the Giant: The Reality of Russia’s Military, Part I

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In a recent interview, Dmitri Peskov echoed a statement from Vladimir Putin, ‘the Russian armed forces had largely rearmed and spending would decrease’. This follows three years of military deployment in Syria and the Mediterranean.1.“Пик финансирования перевооружения ВС России пройден, заявил Песков” : RIA Novosti Yet veteran followers of the Russian military noted that rearmament has remained steady. Large portions of the reported rearmament included subsidies for the Russian Military Industrial Complex (OPK), in the form of yearly transfers by the Ministry of Finance. Yet Russia remains unable to maintain its level of military readiness, let alone massively rearm.

Russia and Her Navy

Russia’s naval strategy is a typical long-term build strategy, or future proofing by building today the ships you will need in twenty years. In that regard, the limitations of Russian rearmament seem clear. Of the largest vessels currently in the Russian Navy, only the submarine program has been relatively successful. The Borei-A-class submarines are currently behind schedule, however the flagship, Emperor Alexander III, will likely be handed over according to a revised schedule.2.“‘Севмаш’ строит 14 кораблей с атомными энергетическими установками” : Itar-Tass Knyaz Oleg, the second ship, remains severely behind schedule, with vital components delayed for close to a year.3.Подводный ракетоносец “Князь Олег” почти год не может получить дизель-генератор” : FlotProm Pushing the timeline for delivery of the Yasen and Borei-A boats to 2027.4.Russian MoD news briefing. Coupled with the earlier delay of 2018, this forced the design bureau to issue a statement announcing that the Borei-B subclass of submarines would have to be redesigned, as they failed to meet construction requirements.5.В ОСК рассказали о результатах проектирования подлодки типа ‘Борей-Б'” : RIA Novosti

Meanwhile the Russian Navy’s aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, is beset by issues despite being at dock. The ship’s repair yard has been the subject of scandals and lawsuits, with prosecution filings showing that old anchors were used instead of newer ones seen in other vessels. With heads of the yard embezzling the difference.6.“Северный флот рискует затонуть” : Rusplt The Kuznetsov has clear limitations that stem from its age, design choices and years of service under a crew of low quality. As far back as the 90s the poor state of the carrier was reported by the media in interviews with servicemen.7.Как устроен авианесущий крейсер ‘Адмирал Кузнецов’ : Topwar RU These issues go far beyond its much-ridiculed smoke-spewing boilers, as the ship retains an older radar and combat suite from the 80s. The control suite is, despite claims from the Zvezda publication, an analogue version of the Lesorub and not the modern digital Lesorub E.8.“Лесоруб по «Требованию»: как работают боевые информационно-управляющие системы России” : Zvezda Weekly Limited by older command and control and situational awareness enhancing equipment, Russia’s larger naval units have fallen behind in adopting modern systems. This reduces the Kuznetsov’s reaction speed, engagement range, and the ability of its crew to relay commands & information to air units. It’s utilisation of submarine based anti-ship missiles in the forward portion of the ship is equally puzzling. An appealing concept, the reality of the system is outweighed by its drawbacks. To fire, the ship has to recall its airwing, clear the forward portion of its deck, fill the launch tubes with seawater, then fire in the direction of an enemy formation. This procedure transforms the carrier into a lacklustre cruiser with an accompanying larger silhouette yet poorer reaction times.

Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), the flagship of the Northern Fleet and frequent companion to the Kuznetsov has also experienced trouble with its refit schedule. With delays due to limitations in space and other issues.9.“Модернизация атомного крейсера “Адмирал Нахимов” снова откладывается” : Korabel
The final big ship in the Russian Navy that’s generated news of late is even more troubled. The first ship of the new landing ship class, Ivan Gren, has a troubled developmental history extending over 20 years from design to commission.10.“‘Иван Грен’: проблема не решена, но обозначена” : Topwar RU It’s had trouble degaussing, travelling in reverse, suffering from a patchwork design and scope crawl over time. With the ship now twice the displacement of the hull it was based on with a new superstructure. While the lower hull has sections with few modifications to account for the upper hull’s massive changes.11.“Ivan Gren to Join Russian Navy in November 2017” : Naval Recognition12.“‘Иван Грен’: проблема не решена, но обозначена” : Topwar RU Currently only the Ivan Gren and the Peter Morgunov will be procured from that class, hampering future international deployments.

In Syria, the Russian armed forces have struggled with the logistical challenges of their deployment, resorting to second-hand civilian freighters, utilised with underwhelming results. While the possibility of upgrading or refurbishing older landing ships has been discussed, it should be noted that there are limits as to how much you can overhaul a ship that has already seen 35 or more years of service. That the Russian navy will not be able to conduct amphibious landing operations of more than a handful of companies is becoming increasingly probable for the future.

Another indication of the decline in Russian Naval capabilities can be seen in the core ships commissioned as part of its build strategy. A smaller class of vessel, these ships are mostly corvettes and frigates. While the new corvettes may be suitable for the Black and Baltic seas, the suggestion that eight of these ships will be deployed to the Pacific is telling.13.“Тихоокеанский флот получит восемь корветов ‘Совершенный'” : RIA Novosti The ships are more than sufficiently armed for their displacement, but at the price of seaworthiness. Essentially the ships have traded space that should be used for storage of perishable goods and other crew comforts for the sake of installing weapons and systems. Russia is in the process of abandoning a major navy in the Pacific and is scheduled to fall behind Taiwan and Singapore in this theatre. Should the submarine procurement program be delayed or cut further, it would become a coastal force in the world’s largest ocean. The Pacific fleet may again be reduced to squadrons confined to shore patrols and installations. The Baltic fleet is also a weak link in the system. Readiness is still a problem and in 2018, the military prosecution started 15 cases for embezzlement and theft of military equipment during 2017 against senior Baltic Fleet officers.14.“Береговая оборона попалась на распродаже” – Kommersant This is on top of the 2015 purge when the entire senior command was removed on equally substantial charges, from embezzling state funds to forging readiness records. There were even reports of armed forces property sales conducted with the help of local crime syndicates.15.“За что Шойгу зачистил Балтфлот” : Fontanka While the armed forces grouping in Kaliningrad is often portrayed as a possible beachhead for strikes against the Baltic states, Germany and Poland. The Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD) found that corruption had left it ineffective. And following significant action, the situation has yet to improve.

Navies compete in a constant race of readiness, posture, and innovative capability for future ships. While the current, more aggressive posture of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean might be swaying opinions, it should be seen through the eyes of naval professionals. Apart from a handful of larger ships which have a guaranteed place in the Russian Navy, the rest of the combat ships will be compromised variants of questionable performance. Some will fall into disrepair and have to be withdrawn. Moreover, sometimes the active fleet roster is advisory and not indicative of actual ship strength. For example, the Admiral Makarov was accepted into the Black Sea fleet in late December 2017, yet spent the next 7 months at the shipyard for final fittings.16.“Черноморский флот получит третий фрегат «Адмирал Макаров» в 2018” : Rambler In a similar vein, two of its sister ships are now being sold to India after completion instead of being kept in the Russian Navy.17.“Модернизация атомного крейсера “Адмирал Нахимов” снова откладывается” : Korabel Compounded by favouritism for shipyards, such as St. Petersburg’s Pella Yard and United Shipbuilding Corporation, the continued decline of the Russian navy appears inevitable.

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Land Strategy

Land strategy is a strategy of sustainment, with land forces dependent on long-term servicemen, kept in positions which may have little application to civilian life.
Commentary often focuses on equipment for specific services, such as the number of tanks listed as active or the current roster of operating divisions. Often overlooking basic factors such as crew-to-vehicle ratios, staffing levels, or the availability of basic gear. Over the past decade, Russia’s armed forces have struggled to meet expectations in these areas.

The value of basic equipment to a soldier is measured throughout a campaign. Rather than fighting an enemy, soldiers usually perform monotonous activities, like marching or drilling. Such activities require satisfactory auxiliary gear, yet Russian procurement departments have had issues with obtaining quality gear.18.“Новые армейские ботинки оказались хуже кирзачей” : VZ A major complaint by current and former servicemen, Russian blogger Denis Mokrushin has written extensively on the problem over the years.19.“Про военную обувь” : Twower Blog While soldiers themselves have resorted to buying their own boots when they can no longer repair their own, ironically the cheap and durable alternative is usually decommissioned NATO surplus. Uniforms of adequate quality may be found amid older stocks, but newer uniforms are in short supply.20.“Про военную обувь” : Twower Blog This problem impacts all sectors of equipment and sustainment purchases, with the budget for those being drastically cut.21.“Про военную обувь” : Twower Blog
As a result, dissatisfaction with the service and demoralisation among troops has already begun to occur without having met an enemy other than the bureaucracy that is expected to support them. In regions less often reviewed in the choreographed videos typical of Russian military propaganda, even more jarring problems are on display, such as key facilities being left without electricity.22.“Объекты Минобороны рискуют остаться без электроэнергии” : V-Murmansk News23.“Дальневосточные военные рискуют остаться без электричества” : Newsland
 The one positive is the success of the MoD to retain military pensions and healthcare in funds separate to civilian ones.24.Russian MoD report. Given the salaries upon which contributions for servicemen are calculated and the lower general health issues the younger men in the service have, these funds have a greater rate of accumulation per insured individual. This will likely be lost if they are merged with the civilian pools which are already limited due to a steep deficit.25.Вячеслав Володин — новый спикер Госдумы” : Meduza26.“Пенсии: повысят или отменят?” – Banki.ru There is again an issue with this, as the military pensions have not been adequately adjusted to account for inflation over the last four years.27.Twower Blog

Another area where Russia’s military remains behind its own goals is the recruitment of contractees. The Russian MoD tends to report the number of newly signed-on contractees, yet there’s very little data on the number of paid enlistees who do not renew their contract at the end of the 3-year term or drop out. Thus people have looked for other ways to count enlistees, such as looking at the number of contractees at the start and end of a year and then subtracting that from the newly signed contracts announced for a yearly rate of unretainable manpower.28.“Adding (and Subtracting) Contracts” : Russian Defense Policy Blog Another approach used is to compare the percentage of conscripts to contractees and gauge by that what the actual numbers are.29.Twower Blog A final approach that was attempted after MoD specific insurance data was revealed was to count the number of insured people based on the insurance specifics.30.Twower Blog However, regardless of how you look at the data, the Russian military is behind by anywhere from 70 to 120 thousand contractees from its own planning. To cover this slack some units have taken unorthodox approaches such as advertising in the local papers of small towns for positions like recon specialists, crew of a BMP-2, or snipers.31.“Воинская часть подала объявление о поиске снайперов и разведчиков” – Life News

To further cover the gap, Russia still relies on conscription. Draftees shouldn’t be seen as the backbone of the active duty service as they have a lot less experience and training and familiarity with the equipment, but they are essential simply because there’s more than enough tasks to go around. The problem is that the Russian MoD in its own assessment found a looming problem on the horizon; the changing demographics of the 90s and early 2000s would greatly diminish the number of boys available for conscription.32.Svynarenko, Arseniy. “The Russian demography problem and the armed forces.” Finnish Defence Research Agency. In 2017 and 2018 the effects were finally felt, with the number of people drafted falling below 240,000, given that only 72% of the spring draft target was met.33.“Более 102 тысяч призывников отправлены в войска” : Itar-Tass The result is that the number of Russian servicemen has not really changed much in the last 4 years, and, depending on the accuracy of the data staffing levels, could have stagnated or even decreased once the expanded portfolio is taken into account, like manning additional installations in Crimea.

Additionally, existing commitments further dilute the available manpower. Operating at 70-75% of paper strength with only two-thirds of that as salaried officers and enlisted men, even small deployments become burdens. If the Russian state wishes to utilise the MoD to raise tension or pressure via posturing, there are units and deployments it can no longer utilise. The Voronezh based group that serves as an army in being, that is a stationary force that by its presence dissuades an adversary from conducting offensive operations, to shore up the LNR and DNR in Donbass. The deployments in Syria, Armenia, Transnistria, Georgia and the troops stationed in Crimea are similarly unmovable at least in the short term. There are also existing security commitments with the Central Asian former Soviet states. This coupled with the vastness of domestic space which the Army has to cover with installations, like depots, bases and logistical hubs leaves little in terms of forces available for new deployments, commitments or aggressive posturing.

The vehicles the troops use are also becoming more unorthodox. There have already been 3 brigades partially equipped with UAZ patriot vehicles.34.Russian MoD news release. 35.“В десантно-штурмовые подразделения ВДВ в Новороссийске поступило более 30 пикапов на базе УАЗ” – CAMTO While the use of pickups in light infantry units is common, the issue, in this case, is the vehicle itself. Newer vehicles of the UAZ line lack serviceability with the addition of SUV-like exteriors and the complexity that such additions introduce. It is essentially a lesser vehicle for military purposes than its UAZ Hunter counterpart and would likely spend more time in the shop than on the field regardless of its on paper specs. 

Offroad enthusiasts are known for heavily modifying the chassis of UAZ Hunters or older UAZ-469s but they generally avoid the Patriot. Yet the Russian MoD is introducing into a role where older Nissan and Toyota trucks with a lot of mileage on them can easily outperform it, likely to the frustration of Spetznaz troops.

In regards to procurement, it has to be said that the situation is far from enviable as well. While the T-72B3 program has gradually improved to the point where it’s not mocked as defenseless or lacking in more robust upgrades it is still an upgrade program to improve the existing fleet.36.“Т-72Б3… что это за зверь? Часть 2” : Topwar RU Similarly announced are upgrade programs to the T-90s and T-80 tank lines, but new tank lines have been put on hold for the most part.37.BMPD blog. New orders for the army have amounted to 11 total tanks since 2000, with one of them going to Armenia and the other 10 being a recent order for 10 T-90M tanks.38.“Armenia Wins Tank at Russian Competition” : Asbarez 39.BMPD blog. At the same time new tanks such as the Armata have been pushed back several years and the final production run could be a little over the initial test run.40.“В правительстве объяснили нежелание армии массово закупать танки «Армата»” : IZ.ru

The platform has seen a lot of trouble with two of its main producers, KMZ, producers of the heavy tracked IFV, and UVZ, producers of the tank variant, both being haunted by bankruptcy and restructuring.41.“‘Ростех’ собирает танковую монополию” : Kommersant42.“Чемезов предложил Рогозину обанкротить и передать «Ростеху» Курганмашзавод” : Vedomosti Additionally the third vehicle has been troubled by an engine that runs too hot for a modern battlefield where thermal optics are readily available.43.https://twitter.com/Russian_Defence/status/863871412653752320 All of this points to a family of vehicles which are either not ready for adoption in the short term or unnecessary to the point that their producers can be thoroughly neglected.

Where Russia’s army has been more effective has been in promoting its modernisation programs, generating a lot more headlines when it announces upgrades or showcases prototypes on the annual Victory Day Parade. The Leopard, Challenger, Abrams and Leclerc modernisation programs of the past decades have seen less public interest and have attracted less industry attention. As to the overall tank numbers, there are other reasons why Russia’s forces might not look as impressive upon second and third viewing. Those 3,000 to 4,000 modern tanks have to be spread over four distant Military Districts and three fleets. Given the distances involved and the inability to reinforce the Eastern military district, the Pacific fleet and to an extent the Central military districts forces stationed there are usually not moved or can only contribute a portion of their strength. The task of relocating them to Europe in detail takes weeks or even months when you factor in planning the trip. In a European centric beancounter comparison, Russia is effectively at a numerical disadvantage in tanks when compared to the combined tank strength of Poland, Finland and Germany. It does have additional tank strength but those are units outside of the board gated by the time they need to relocate, readiness and that if they depart an attack from the east could be at Baikal before they can even organise the trip back.

Read part 2 here.

Stanimir Dobrev

Stanimir Dobrev is a writer for the International Review, he has a BSc in Computer Science and has attended a Masters Degree class in Innovation and Technology from Sheffield University. He has ample experience working with clinical trials and telecom operations on multiple levels and his primary work focus is business process optimisation and enterprise software solution integration. Organisational structures fascinate him, bar the dysfunctional ones which infuriate him.


1 “Пик финансирования перевооружения ВС России пройден, заявил Песков” : RIA Novosti
2 “‘Севмаш’ строит 14 кораблей с атомными энергетическими установками” : Itar-Tass
3 Подводный ракетоносец “Князь Олег” почти год не может получить дизель-генератор” : FlotProm
4 Russian MoD news briefing.
5 В ОСК рассказали о результатах проектирования подлодки типа ‘Борей-Б'” : RIA Novosti
6 “Северный флот рискует затонуть” : Rusplt
7 Как устроен авианесущий крейсер ‘Адмирал Кузнецов’ : Topwar RU
8 “Лесоруб по «Требованию»: как работают боевые информационно-управляющие системы России” : Zvezda Weekly
9 “Модернизация атомного крейсера “Адмирал Нахимов” снова откладывается” : Korabel
10, 12 “‘Иван Грен’: проблема не решена, но обозначена” : Topwar RU
11 “Ivan Gren to Join Russian Navy in November 2017” : Naval Recognition
13 “Тихоокеанский флот получит восемь корветов ‘Совершенный'” : RIA Novosti
14 “Береговая оборона попалась на распродаже” – Kommersant
15 “За что Шойгу зачистил Балтфлот” : Fontanka
16 “Черноморский флот получит третий фрегат «Адмирал Макаров» в 2018” : Rambler
17 “Модернизация атомного крейсера “Адмирал Нахимов” снова откладывается” : Korabel
18 “Новые армейские ботинки оказались хуже кирзачей” : VZ
19 “Про военную обувь” : Twower Blog
20, 21 “Про военную обувь” : Twower Blog
22 “Объекты Минобороны рискуют остаться без электроэнергии” : V-Murmansk News
23 “Дальневосточные военные рискуют остаться без электричества” : Newsland
24 Russian MoD report.
25 Вячеслав Володин — новый спикер Госдумы” : Meduza
26 “Пенсии: повысят или отменят?” – Banki.ru
27 Twower Blog
28 “Adding (and Subtracting) Contracts” : Russian Defense Policy Blog
29 Twower Blog
30 Twower Blog
31 “Воинская часть подала объявление о поиске снайперов и разведчиков” – Life News
32 Svynarenko, Arseniy. “The Russian demography problem and the armed forces.” Finnish Defence Research Agency.
33 “Более 102 тысяч призывников отправлены в войска” : Itar-Tass
34 Russian MoD news release.
35 “В десантно-штурмовые подразделения ВДВ в Новороссийске поступило более 30 пикапов на базе УАЗ” – CAMTO
36 “Т-72Б3… что это за зверь? Часть 2” : Topwar RU
37, 39 BMPD blog.
38 “Armenia Wins Tank at Russian Competition” : Asbarez
40 “В правительстве объяснили нежелание армии массово закупать танки «Армата»” : IZ.ru
41 “‘Ростех’ собирает танковую монополию” : Kommersant
42 “Чемезов предложил Рогозину обанкротить и передать «Ростеху» Курганмашзавод” : Vedomosti
43 https://twitter.com/Russian_Defence/status/863871412653752320
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