The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by 44 in 2009.
Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force.
The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.
As a Eurasian land power, Russia concentrates most of its firepower in the ground force, intended to counter Western advantages in air power. The Russian army can fight alone. New families of weapon systems that were being developed by the USSR in the 1980s have been completed and are being distributed across the force, enabling long-range precision strikes, air defense and marked improvements down to the individual soldier level.
However, Russia’s ground force numbers 300,000–350,000 troops at most, and lacks an operational reserve. Since it can only field a fraction of this force, this means Russia’s military is not configured to occupy large amounts of land or replace combat losses in offensive operations. This lesson was driven home rather quickly through combat operations in Ukraine, creating strain on the Russian military rotating units through the Donbass. Practical constraints tell us that Russia’s military is not an existential threat to Europe, or even Ukraine for that matter, but that it can impose its will by force on neighboring countries and that Moscow is credible when it threatens to do so. Hence, Russia’s military is a powerful tool for coercion.
Russian doctrinal thinking, codified in a collection of concepts under the title of New Generation Warfare, shows a clear desire to advance interests through asymmetric means and subconventional approaches. Moscow is aware of its hard power limitations and prefers to avoid expensive conventional operations, instead making strategic gains through political warfare, special forces and other indirect means.
There is a strong shift towards a system of nonnuclear deterrence, based around long-range conventional weapons and domains where it can readily retaliate, such as through cyber or information warfare. These are indicative of an emergent strategy, favoring agility, speed and reserving options for escalation, in order to shape the battlefield with fairly little hard military power.
Lessons from fighting in Ukraine and Syria suggest that Russia’s “good enough” at current readiness levels is more than sufficient to take on any former Soviet Republic on its borders, and even engage a peer adversary like NATO in a short-term high-intensity fight. Russia would struggle occupying entire states, but it can crush their militaries and readily seize parcels of adjoining land.