Comparing Russia’s Military Modernization by Region-Balanced Efforts Across All Fronts

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 103

Su-34 bomber (Source: Sputnik)

Despite the relatively slow pace of Russian military modernization (see EDM, November 8, 2016), the country’s Ministry of Defense announced in May that more than 50 percent of the equipment in service with the Armed Forces will be “modern” by the end of 2018 (, May 24). Last January, the Chairman of the United States’ Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, cited these more routine changes as the key risk to European security (, January 15). Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, conversely, claimed recently that the actual destabilizing factors in European security have been the military buildups by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Baltic region (Izvestia, June 20) and in the “southwest strategic direction” or Black Sea region (RIA Novosti, June 20). Furthermore, Shoigu labeled Central Asia the main source of potential threat to Russia’s security at a meeting of the collegium of the Ministry of Defense, in Sochi (RIA Novosti, May 25), implying that military modernization efforts would be concentrated in the Central Military District (RIA Novosti, May 25).

In truth, both sides have been building up their capabilities in Europe. NATO has concentrated the bulk of its energy on bolstering the Multinational Corps Northeast (, June 15, 2017) and establishing a Multinational Corps Southeast (, December 3, 2015), based out of Poland and Romania, respectively. These formations are clearly aimed at deterring Russian military actions on the European continent. But where has Russia been concentrating its modernization efforts?

Russian defense ministry press releases on deployed technologies for the past three completed training periods in the Russian Federation (i.e., December 2016–May 2018) collectively provide valuable insights into answering the above question. And when the data is grouped by type of equipment and then divided according to the area of responsibility of the Ground Forces army or army corps, the results yield a number of interesting conclusions (, June 28, 2018)

This article groups Russia’s army areas of responsibility into the following geographical theaters:

Theater Constituent Elements
Baltics 6th Army (ZVO)
Central Europe 1st Guards Tank Army (ZVO)

11th Army Corps (ZVO)

Ukraine 20th Guards Army (ZVO)

8th Guards Army (YuVO)

Black Sea 49th Army (YuVO)

22nd Army Corps (YuVO)

Caucasus 58th Army (YuVO)
Strategic Rear/

Central Asia

2nd Guards Army (TsVO)

41st Army (TsVO)

China 29th Army (VVO)

35th Army (VVO)

36th Army (VVO)

Pacific 5th Army (VVO)

68th Army Corps (VVO)

Arctic 14th Army Corps


With these theaters established, the data comes out as follows (grouping all deliveries as a collective point of 1, excepting fighter aircraft which are counted individually):


Ground Forces Modernization, December 2016 – May 2018
Baltics Central Europe Ukraine Black Sea Caucasus Central Asia China Pacific Arctic Total #
MBTs 0% 44.4% 11.1% 11.1% 0% 11.1% 0% 11.1% 11.1% 9
AFVs 5% 0% 5% 0% 20% 45% 10% 0% 0% 20
ARTY 4.8% 19.0% 28.6% 4.8% 9.5% 23.8% 9.5% 0% 0% 21
Tactical Missiles (SSMs & Coastal Defense) 0% 33.3%[1] 0% 0% 0% 0% 16.7% 33.3% 16.7% 6
Logistics 7% 20.9% 20.9% 7% 7% 20.9% 14% 0% 2.3% 43
UAVs 0% 0% 0% 11.1% 0% 66.7% 0% 11.1% 11.1% 9
EW 0% 0% 50% 0% 16.7% 0% 33.3% 0% 0% 6


Aerospace Force Modernization, December 2016 – May 2018
Baltics Central Europe Ukraine Black Sea Caucasus Central Asia China Pacific Arctic Total #
Aircraft 21.1% 5.3% 15.8% 15.8% 0% 20.2% 16.7% 5.3% 0% 114
Helo 15.4% 11.5% 11.5% 15.4% 0% 7.7% 11.5% 23.1% 3.8% 26
AD 5.4% 16.2% 5.4% 13.5% 0% 29.7% 13.5% 5.4% 10.8% 37
Radar 20% 10% 10% 10% 5% 25% 10% 5% 5% 20


Navy, December 2016 – May 2018 (by date of commission)
Kronshtadt Kaliningrad Black Sea Caspian Vladivostok Kamchatka Arctic Total #
Submarines 0% 0% 0% 0% 50% 0% 50% 2
Missile Ships 0% 0% 50% 0% 25% 0% 25% 4
Other Ships 9.1% 13.6% 18.2% 4.5% 4.5% 4.5% 45.5% 22


Many observations from this arrangement of the data are worth focusing on. Perhaps most notable is the relative dearth of new naval vessels—only 2 submarines, 4 missile ships and 22 other vessels—despite efforts to raise the Military-Maritime Fleet’s (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot—VMF) visibility from its nadir in the 1990s and early 2000s. Furthermore, one of the two submarines “delivered” (in the Arctic) was simply the completion of the refurbishment of the old cruise-missile submarine (SSGN) Orel (Voennoe Obozrenie, April 11, 2017). Efforts to improve the Russian navy’s global standing have involved both increased international exercises (, November 29, 2017) and deployments (, December 13, 2017) as well as comparable domestically focused measures (, November 23, 2017). Yet, the low number of ships entering service over the past year and a half can be partly attributed to the completion of deliveries of three Varshavyanka-class (Improved Kilo) diesel-electric submarines (SSK) to the Black Sea Fleet shortly before this data set starts (TASS, May 6, 2017). Two further keels for these SSKs for the Pacific Fleet were laid on July 28, 2017 (, October 4, 2017), but they will not be completed for some time.

Another critical observation is that the distribution of equipment is currently being apportioned largely evenly across the Russian Federation’s vast territory. Only the Caucasus theater appears relatively neglected, having received no new main battle tanks (MBT), tactical or coastal-defense missiles, drones, air defenses, or aircraft. This region had previously been prioritized for modernization. But efforts there are now mainly concentrated on carrying out active two-sided multi-domain exercises under the direction of the most-publicized currently active Russian commander, Colonel-General Aleksandr Dvornikov of the Southern Military District (, June 1, 2018).

Shoigu’s comments about the defense ministry’s focus on rearming the Central Military District ring true regarding non-MBT armored fighting vehicles, including Typhoon-K Spetsnaz (special forces) vehicles (, December 22, 2017), 30-millimeter cannon-equipped BTR-82As (, January 9, 2018), and guided missile–equipped BMP-2Ms (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 30, 2018). The Central Military District has also received many varieties of unmanned aerial vehicles (, November 2, 2017, May 17, 2018). The 2nd Guards Army headquartered in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, even formed a new motor rifle brigade in late 2016 (, December 14, 2016). Otherwise, however, the Central Military District does not stand out.

The European front taken as a whole (i.e., Russian regions facing the Baltics, Central Europe, Ukraine and the Black Sea) represents a significant portion of Russian Armed Forces modernization, but not disproportionately so, owing to how many armies are stationed there relative to the rest of the country, Russia’s concentrated population west of the Urals, and ongoing unrest in Ukraine. The western region does feature a relatively high concentration of MBTs, Electronic Warfare (EW) complexes and air assets of all varieties. Tank deliveries during December 2016–May 2018 took the form of T-72B3s being sent in four installments to fill out the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, near Moscow (Novosti VPK, January 12, 2018). Electronic Warfare buildup on the Ukrainian border took multiple forms, including a Leer-3 complex delivery in Kursk (, March 2, 2018) and the equipping of Su-34 fighter-bombers with Khibiny EW systems in Voronezh (, May 4, 2018). Many different air assets have been delivered to the European front, but the most notable have been Su-35 4++-generation fighters deployed to Karelia (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, November 29, 2017) and Su-30SM fighters to Kursk (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, April 29, 2018) and Kaliningrad (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, August 28, 2017).

Russian military modernization has been prone to setbacks: the large amphibious Project 11711 ship Ivan Gren was only commissioned in late June 2018, nearly 14 years after first being revealed to the public (, June 20, 2018). Estrangement from the Euro-Atlantic community and Ukrainian technologies long embedded in the Russian military-industrial complex have likewise delayed some aspects of modernization, such as the desired An-124 heavy transport plane reboot (TASS, June 3). Nevertheless, this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin proudly declared victory against a Western “blockade” designed to constrain Russian military technological development (RIA Novosti, May 25).

The most important lesson of this comparative assessment seems to be that Russia is committed to modernizing its Armed Forces in nearly every geographical front and across multiple domains. Characterizations of Russia solely building up its forces along its European frontiers or only to secure the country against potential instability stemming from Central Asia are, thus, both inaccurate.

[1] Reports of Iskander deployments in Kaliningrad notwithstanding. It is not yet definitively proven that they have actually been deployed.