Moscow Aims to Have One of World’s Top Five Militaries

Andriy Tsintsiruk /

Moscow recently announced its aspirations to have one of the five best militaries in the world. This ambitious plan will require that Russia replace 70 percent of its military materiel with modern military equipment by 2020. Such optimistic statements are not a rare occurrence, as the Kremlin has made similar statements on numerous occasions in the past.

According to Sayid Aminov, editor of the Russian air force magazine, “missile troops are the cornerstone of Russia’s defense capability.” As such, Russia’s Ministry of Defense plans to acquire 36 ballistic missiles, 20 airborne cruise missiles, 5 spacecraft, 35 jets, 109 choppers, and 21 air defense systems. Aminov also states that the Russian navy will obtain eight Borei-class nuclear submarines configured to deploy Bulava missiles. However, the plans for modernization will cost the Kremlin a quarter of the state subsidies allocated toward Russia’s defense.

Nevertheless, there is a long way to go before Moscow develops and deploys professional armed forces with modern intelligence-gathering; command, control, and communications systems; and precision-guided military systems on the level of modern Western armies. These challenges are further hampered by the need to reform a Soviet-era military bureaucracy, which is plagued with corruption and opposes the necessary reforms.

As noted by participants in a recent Jamestown Foundation event regarding the Russian military, even though Russia’s main military focus has been NATO, it has become increasingly concerned with China’s military resurgence in the past few of years. The Chinese military exercise in 2008–2009 postulated projecting a military force 2,000 kilometers. The scope of power project suggests the Russian Federation and/or Central Asia as a target. In 2010, Russia responded with its own exercise aimed at countering a hypothetical move by China.

The Russian military is focused on how China’s massive army and military modernization is surpassing Russia’s overstretched military, especially compared to those forces east of the Ural Mountains. Russia is seeking to have a military with 40 brigades in a rapid deployment mode, which will be the focus of future modernization.

However, observers note that the state of conventional Russian military units in the Far East is poor and that the Kremlin continues to place heavy emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons. Russian military doctrine calls for initial strikes with tactical nuclear weapons on enemy command-and-control sites.

Despite popular slogans and well-publicized efforts to reform the Russian army, the Russian media is full of allegations of rampant corruption, hazing of recruits, and human rights abuses by Russian servicemen, which continue to occur on a regular basis. Yet Russia’s generals and senior military officials frequently attempt to downplay these abuses. At the same time, top political leadership in the Kremlin remains reluctant or lacks the political will to fight hazing and violations of the law by the Russian military and security forces.

Not surprisingly, the conflicts in Chechnya (1994–1996, 1999–2004) and Georgia (2008) demonstrated low level of preparedness and effectiveness in Russia’s military forces. In the future, Russia’s ability to fight even limited, regional wars depends on successful modernization. Moreover, Russia’s military spending fluctuates and is dependent on revenues from energy and raw materials exports.

Russia’s current military doctrine envisions military conflicts in the “near abroad”—the areas that the Kremlin considers to belong to its “privileged sphere of influence.” Indeed, Moscow claims that Russia maintains the right to engage in armed conflicts on its borders or in the event of “aggression against its citizens.” In addition, in a recent report released by Russia’s security council, President Dmitry Medvedev envisioned possible future military conflicts over energy resources and emphasized Russia’s need to modernize its armed forces.

Rampant corruption, an obsolescent science and technology base, and poor quality of both conscripts and contract personnel—including poor physical and mental health, alcoholism, and drug abuse—pose serious obstacles to building the modern and professional army that the Kremlin is seeking to achieve. The Russian government might be throwing petro-rubles from high oil prices to fulfill its military reform aspirations, but both strategy and implementation are badly lacking. There is a long list of serious structural problems that will require long-term commitment.

Andriy Tsintsiruk currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation.