Holding On: Russian Military Modernization Versus the Declining Force-to-Space Ratio

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 160

(Source: Sputnik News)

Last month, at the Halifax Security Forum, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, known for his strong anti-Russia stance, restated his claim that Russia and Belarus’ joint strategic exercise Zapad 2017 was a preparation for an offensive against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (naTemat.pl, November 19). Considering the geographical scope of the exercise (Naviny.by, September 20), this hypothetical offensive would cover at least Lithuania, southern Latvia, and northeast Poland. The 2008 Russian-Georgian War, and in particular Russia’s war against Ukraine, which began in 2014, have raised significant attention in the West about the extent of Russian military modernization (see EDM, October 7, 2014; July 20, 2016; October 25, 2016; November 8, 2016). But however impressive that modernization might be, one fact cannot be ignored: post-Soviet Russia has yet to illustrate it is able to score a large geographical military victory against any opponent. If Russia were to hypothetically attack the Baltic States for whatever reason, it would be facing a task much larger than it has yet accomplished.

Neither Westerners nor Russians tend to think of the Baltic States as large areas, but they are nearly triple the size of all the so-called “frozen conflict” territories now under Russian occupation. The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) comprise 175,225 square kilometers relative to 61,223 in the frozen conflict areas (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea and Donbas). While Russia has finally regularized its flow of military support into eastern Ukraine such that it is no longer a prohibitive drain upon its most professional soldiers, as it was in 2014 and 2015 (Colin Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds., Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine, 2015; UNIAN, January 25, 2017; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 9, 2017), the fact remains that a hypothetical drive into the Baltic States would require an operation dwarfing the scale of those that delivered the frozen conflict prizes. In other words, the numbers of available Russian military forces to cover and occupy the large geographic spaces that would be involved in a potential war scenario in the Baltic region of Europe are insufficient for Moscow to hold these territories for longer periods.

The issue of a declining force-to-space ratio in Europe is not news. And it can be observed on both sides. Compared to the Central Front between NATO and the Warsaw Pact at the end of the Cold War, NATO’s current presence in the Baltic States represents a 15-fold drop in manpower (IISS, The Military Balance, comparing 1989 and 2017). Calculating the similar drop on the Russian side is more difficult because of the increased frequency of Russian exercises featuring rapid reaction teams mustered from across the country. Russia today has about 70 maneuver brigade equivalents, but not all of these are combat capable (see EDM, September 13, 29, 2016) and perhaps a little over half are combat deployable based upon the frequency of Russian exercises. Russia’s overall military numbers have decreased from 3,400,000 in 1991 to 831,000 today (IISS, The Military Balance, comparing 1991 and 2017), another considerable reduction.

Contemporary Russia is training to address the force-to-space issue with both rapid reaction teams and improved targeting and reconnaissance technology. In 2014, both Russia and Ukraine stunned Western observers with their large-scale mobilization on a relatively quick scale (Euromaidan Press, March 18, 2014; see EDM, March 7, 2014). Since then, the Russians have sporadically practiced rapid deployments of their Armed Forces to retain these skills, especially among the Airborne Troops (see EDM, February 11, 16, 2016; September 8, 2016). In addition, Russian exercises have featured an increased number of battalion tactical exercises aimed at preparing units to maximize their firepower on a minimized footprint (Mil.ru, October 10). In September and October of 2017 alone, the Russians held 18 of these exercises with an additional 7 at brigade (2), regiment (2) or company (3) level (WarVsPeace.org, November 14).

Overlooked by most Western observers is the increasing frequency of exercises of Russian National Guard special rapid reaction teams (Rosgvard.ru, October 24). In a hypothetical Russian offensive against the Baltic States, the Russian Armed Forces would have little manpower to leave behind and conduct rear-area operations and occupation tasks across the vast space they would have covered, especially considering the likelihood of continued combat with NATO troops on other fronts. Instead, the National Guard would be necessary to maintain control in rear areas.

The National Guard consists mainly of small police units, but it increasingly practices deploying mobile spetsnaz (special forces) and motorized units to support local police and reinforce special rapid reaction cadres around the country. This was practiced about 20 times during September and October 2017, enabling limited occupation resources to be optimally deployed to control regions as sparsely populated as the territories along Russia’s borders (Rosgvard.ru, September 15–October 31).

The other great equalizer is Russian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to locate targets for battalion-deployed firepower. UAVs have been incorporated into all manner of artillery and maneuver exercises (Mil.ru, October 19, 21) in order to broaden the reconnaissance capabilities of a unit without having to deploy additional manpower. This has done much to correct Russia’s historical problem with targeting its massed guns (Voennaya Mysl, 1986).

Yet, despite these tactical and organizational innovations, Russia’s Armed Forces will continue to face the force-to-space ratio problem in a hypothetical large-scale war because the Russian military relies on classical massed attacks bent on encirclement when it confronts difficult opponents. The battle around Debaltseve (eastern Ukraine), in early 2015, is a particular case in point of this war-fighting mentality (Kyiv Post, February 15, 2015). In Syria, the Russians have kept their footprint as small as possible. But Moscow’s success in large part had to do with using the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and Iranian proxy militias as the foot soldiers to consolidate the gains made by Russia’s aerial precision strikes (see EDM, October 6, 2015; December 15, 2016).

Thus, while Russia can be observed to be improving when it comes to maximizing the capabilities of its units to cover larger geographic spaces, it has not yet overcome some of its basic manpower issues.