With a frozen frontline inside of Ukrainian territory, the successful annexation of Crimea, and an ongoing intervention in Syria, Russia’s military prowess appears to be firmly established.
But despite the Kremlin’s recent successes, the Russian military faces two deep structural problems that could prove disastrous if it ever faced off against another large conventional force.
According to Dave Majumdar of The National Interest, Russia’s military is facing deep manpower and hardware shortfalls.
Conscription is a big part of Russia’s military shortfall. A vast majority of military personnel, outside of the Strategic Missile Forces, airborne forces, and naval infantry, still rely on unmotivated conscripts that receive little training.
“Only about a quarter of Russian ground forces are fully staffed, well-trained professional troops,” Majumdar notes. “Those professional soldiers — who are not quite trained to Western standards — are part of a corps of rapid reaction forces.”
The remainder of Russian forces still rely on the draft to fill their ranks. That dependence, and the resulting lack of professionalism through much of the military, is readily apparent in the Kremlin’s latest adventurism.
“[I]t doesn’t seem like we’re fighting something big, just some alcoholics and homeless guys,” First Lieutenant Alexey Chaban, of the Ukrainian army’s 17th Tank Brigade, told War Is Boring. “Despite the fact that there are Russian soldiers fighting us, they don’t have experience and make huge mistakes. Dying by the hundreds — they’re not even real fighters.”
Chaban claims that Isa Munayev, a Chechen ex-military commander who went to Ukraine to help fight against the Russians, said that while Russia’s elite troops were effective, the majority were untrained and unprofessional.
“Isa always told me that the Russian fighters were just a bunch of drunks, but that if I ever saw [Chechen president Ramzan] Kadyrov’s men, then you should be very afraid. These are professionals, they have been fighting for their whole lives. The same goes for Russian Spetsnaz, GRU. If you see any of them, just leave,” Chaban told War Is Boring.
Russia’s conscription cycle makes it easy to build up a quantitatively impressive army, but hard to build it into a formidable fighting force. Conscripts serve for only one year within the military before being allowed to return to civilian life. This consistent turnover makes it difficult for the Kremlin to maintain a well-trained standing force as soldiers are constantly rotated out.
Recent reforms have attempted to shift Russia’s military away from a conscription force towards one consisting of “contract-employed” soldiers. These reforms have been slow in coming, and the Russian military still relies on the draft to fill its ranks.
The second major problem facing the Russian military is the state of its hardware and its faltering procurement process. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost a good portion of its industrial and technological base, something that weakened the country’s defence industry.
“The country fell behind in many crucial technological areas, particularly during the 1990s,”Majumdar writes. “For example, the Russians are well behind on key technologies for building precision weapons, targeting pods and active electronically scanned array radars — which are just a few examples.”
Shipbuilding was another area where Russia began to fall behind. “Russia no longer has the capability to build large warships the size of a carrier and it uses antiquated construction techniques,” writes Majumdar.
Russian soldiers are continuing to use Soviet-built hardware. And while Russia is investing in new hardware, overall procurement is likely to be difficult for Moscow because of Russia’s continuing economic difficulties.
These difficulties have led the Kremlin to delay or scale down several major defence projects. A new fifth-generation bomber, the PAK DA, was intended to enter service in 2023. The plane’s development has been pushed back and Russia will instead focus on production of an updated version of the Soviet-era Tu-160 supersonic nuclear bomber.
This isn’t the only recent instance of Russia having to scale back on its military modernization ambitions. The Kremlin is also having problems financing its hulking third-generation Armata tank. Dmitry Gorenburg of Harvard University estimates that Russia will only be able to field a maximum of 330 Armata tanks by 2020, a fraction of the 2,300 originally planned.
Russia may have a proven ability to take limited territory and sustain multiple small operations. But with its manpower and procurement problems, the Kremlin would struggle in a long war against a major rival military.
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