The ‘Russian Threat’, an assessment on the conventional aspect.

Author: Konstantinos Kyprios.

With the NATO forces constantly on deployment as part of the Operation Atlantic Resolve in Eastern Europe to counter any Russian ‘aggression’, it is valid to understand the nature of the threat presented. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed the picture of politics and military stability of post Cold War Europe. However this act of ‘Russian aggression’, as it is viewed by NATO was not the first. Indeed a few years ago in August 2008, Russia did invade this time Georgia, in order to preserve its interests in this area. So how come this response by NATO at this point? Well many reasons do drive this decision, and one might be that a “Western influenced Ukraine’ would mean getting closer to the Russian ballistic missile launching sites. This could provide better positioning of the Boost Phase Interception Anti Ballistic Missile systems. However those reasons are not part of this assessment. The focus area will be the capabilities of the Russian Federation Military Forces, and the threat they do presented.

The Soviet Bear.

A true assessment of the Russian Federation military capabilities, could not take place without a reference to the Soviet Armed Forces were they derived from. Contrary to the general perception the Soviet Army was never the anachronistic force viewed by the popular culture of the West. When the German invasion took place during 1941, the Soviet army had the largest tank force in the world, as and the largest Air Force. Further a new set of Doctrines and tactics have been perceived with emphasis at the ‘in Depth Defense and Offensive Operations’. Despite that during the first months of the war the Germans did crushed the Soviet Armed forces, the In Depth Defense proved its worth during the Battle of Moscow and later during the decisive battle of Kursk in 1943, the last major German offence in the Eastern Front. Further, incorporating the lessons taken by the German Blitzkrieg early in the war, the Offensive Operations in Depth concept took its final and most successful form at the last years of the war, driving the Soviet army all the way to Berlin and East Germany.

This concept as it was developed, remained at the core of the Soviet army through the whole duration of the Cold War era, and as such it should consider that has pass into the Russian Federation Armed Forces. What it looks at, is a set of attacks in a wider area, exploiting the immense size of Eastern Europe. Those fallowed by series of continuum engagements and offences, will drive the Soviet forces across the spectrum of battlefield and corp area to the army level, then to strategic objectives such as bridges, industries, railways and supply lines, and eventually right to the heart of the enemy political center and decision making. The Germans experienced the implementation of this concept during the Bagration offensive and the fallowing operations. The Wehrmaht was totally surprised that after the initial attacks and while they were expecting the Soviets to stop, it was always proven those were just the preliminary moves in order to secure the launching areas for the consequence operations that would drive them to the final objective, Berlin.

According to this Concept and in relevance with the German Blitzkrieg, which added the tank warfare aspect, the Air Force and Navy were suppose to support and facilitate the movement of the Soviet army towards its final goal. The In Depth Doctrine is in full agreement with the Heartland or Pivot Area Concept, which is the reference to the geopolitical weight and power of the Central Eurasian mass. The latter essentially a landlocked territory in the North closed by the ice of the Arctic sea, in the South, South East and the West closed by the land of other states, including the world third largest China, plus a number of barriers that include mountains as the Himalaya and the Caucasus and deserts. An area that it is controlled by and it is where lies the World largest land power. In this respect the establishment of the Ground forces as the main instrument of the Soviet military was as a natural evolution, in a similar way that the establishment of the Royal Navy was for the British Empire even at the cost of the other forces.

However with the end of World War 2 and the beginning of the Cold War, the USSR found herself in direct competition with a complete different enemy than the land powers of France and Germany of the past. That was the predominantly the Air and Naval power of the United States of America. As such certain aspects evolved in order to fulfill the new demands set by the new competition. One was the development of the Soviet Air Defense grid concept, which it did prove its effectives over North Vietnam as and in the first days of the Yom Kippur war, or at least until the Egyptians moved outside its protection range. A second was the development of strategic bombing offensive capabilities, with a number of quite capable airplanes entering service. In any case, the greater change did took place in the Soviet Navy, which grow to be one of the most powerful naval forces history have ever seen. However the increase in size and capabilities did not change its role, that of serving the ground forces. Quite in accordance, it was developed to an upgraded version as part of the Offensive Operations in Depth doctrine in the Strategic dimension. With an immense submarine and missile boat fleet and a large missile cruiser force, the USSR Navy was suppose to interrupt and stop the movement of troops and supplies across the two coasts of the Atlantic. At the same time, a large ASW force was meant to keep the exit to the oceans clear of enemy submarines, the Soviet coast safe, and the Ballistic missile submarines protected.

The heritage to the Russian Federation

In order to facilitate the implementation of this doctrine, the USSR had construct and maintain an immense arsenal and array of weapons. When it did collapse its Ground Forces had 55.000 tanks, 50.000 towed, self propelled and rocket artillery, 70.000 APCs and over 4.000 Anti aircraft missile systems. Its Air Force some 500 tactical and strategic bombers, with 3.500 fighters, 2.200 attack fighters and some 1.500 support airplanes as tankers, AEW, ECM, ELINT and reconnaissance airplanes. The Navy 271 conventional and nuclear power submarines of all types, 7 Carriers of all types, 33 cruisers, 150 destroyers and frigates, a similar number of corvettes and some 450 missile and patrol boats. This was indeed a force to be recon with! A tremendous military machine, design and muster in order to support the operations of the Ground forces mainly in Europe within the Concept of Offensive Operations in Depth.

The following breakdown and financial collapse of the former Soviet republics saw this force disband, divided among the successor states and slowly turn to obsolete. Although that indeed a number of those units, as the 20.000 T54/55 tanks should be considered obsolete even before the collapse. However most of those weapons ended at the hands of the Russian Federation. Those were not maintained accordingly, while others as the Kiev’s, a number of Sovremennyy and Varyag were sold to other nations for various purposes including study. In any case and surprisingly a great number of those weapons are still in the Russian arsenal, while a great number of those weapons supposed to be scraped are still in army depots, although many of them in various statuses, some rather dubious. As such it is hard to calculate the real numbers and strength of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Despite the depriving status of the Russian material due to the financial collapse, the technological advance in the West over the Russian military might not been as wide as it is thought. The end of Cold War as and the rise of intra state conflicts and international terrorism show a reduction in mainstream military, further the new environment demanded a new force structure to fulfill different threat assessment and operations with different capabilities driving the Western forces away from the conventional concept of warfare.

As such, the Russian ground forces, the main military instrument of the Pivot Area, remain superior at least in numbers, as the case of Western technological superiority still looms over. However having a second look, the issue can be placed in codex by starting with considering that the USSR weaponry was meant to deal with those systems. To second it and add the financial dimension, the post Cold War era have also seen many reductions in R&D, weapons procurement, development and upgrades in Western States as in Russia. This while at the same time main funds have been diverted to develop capabilities against low level threats, peacekeeping and peace enforcement and anti terror operations. Finally, Russia still maintained some military spending even during the hardest of years in critical military infrastructure and R&D. Plus the Russian military industry involve its self in partnerships with many Western European firms and Israelis in creating systems for Developing States as and upgrades for former Soviets weapons, companies that also included Lockheed Martin. As such the Western technological gap over Russia might not be as wide as it is generally consider.

The Russian military forces today.

The Russian Doctrine has not change allot compare with the former Soviet, despite calling for more rapid deployment units. The Offensive Operations in Depth as and the Defense in Depth was developed in 1920s – 30s and placed in practice during World War 2 in agreement with the special geographical circumstances and parameters of USSR and the adjust states. Not in accordance with any specific demand at the time or threat. As such its application of major Ground Force actions across immense territories with the support of the Navy and the Air Force remains always valid. Further as the concept always looked to airborne and amphibious forces to secure in Depth strategic objectives, the evolution of Rapid Reaction forces can be consider a part of it, and not against the nature of the concept by securing strategic locations in immediate time.

In those regards, the Russian federation still maintains an enormous force of some 15 to 20.000 tanks of the T80/90 and T72/64 types armed with 125 mm gun, supported by over 12.000 Artillery guns and rocket launchers with some 20.000 AIFVs. This is indeed a very impressive force and superior than any other adversary can put in land battlefields currently in the world. In support of those forces, Russia can deploy over 1200 helicopter and gunships plus some 300 transport aircrafts and an air force with over 3000 airplanes of all the types. Further those forces are mostly what is currently active and known according to the related treaties, and not what is in storage in excluded by the treaties areas as Siberia. As such regarding the core of the Russian warfare, which is major land operations, its capabilities have remained valid and strong with not a real competitor in the field.

On the other side, the capabilities of the Russian Navy have decreased drastically compare to the former USSR. Yes the last Soviet era Slava and Kirov Cruisers are far superior that the previous designs, however the navy have shrink to a size never seen perhaps since the time before Peters the Great naval shipbuilding program. Despite having a large number of warships in store, today only one aircraft carrier, 4 cruisers, 15 destroyers and 65 submarines of all types are active. Only the corvette fleet seems that has been spared the reduction with 80+ ships still active. Those number most probably highlight the move of the Russian Forces in a return to the pro WW 2 status of the Russian Navy, that of the supporting the Land Forces and protecting the territorial waters of Russia. The single aircraft carrier together with the 4 Russian Cruisers and the 15 destroyers can hardly present a threat to North Atlantic commerce or patrol fleets, besides scoring some hits against Carrier Battle Groups perhaps. On the other side, if all the Kirov’s and Slava are to be re activated as and the destroyers, perhaps in combination with the Lider class AAW warships, can actually do present a threat to cross Atlantic shipping routes, but still far from placing a halt at them. In this respect the discussion of reactivating the Oscar class cruise missile submarines seems to be related to the issue, but again the construction of frigates and corvettes in conjunction with the effort to acquire the Mistral LHDs, most probably highlight a littoral doctrine that operate in supporting army operations.

The Russian Strategic Force seems to maintain some of those capabilities with the Air force and the Navy been able to man some 200 Strategic bombers. Although their use in their original concept of modern warfare is limited, they now have been upgraded, as their Western counterparts, with cruise land attack and anti ship missiles that enables them to hit targets from a distance. The great distances that Russian strategic bombers can cover in combination with the supersonic speed and also the great range of many of the Russian cruise missiles, does allow to hit strategic targets from a distance. Indeed during the Cold War, the Soviet military had assigned a large number of airplanes from shore bases with the task to intercept commerce lines and sunk enemy ships. The greatest number of land based aircraft ever deployed for such a role in history. However in comparison with the some 500 Strategic bombers and some 250 aircrafts that could take such roles in 1991, the 200 airplanes in total today, is a major decrease in size.


It is safe to conclude that Russia today does not present the threat presented by various sources. Their offensive operations in regards to threat to global stability or the Trans Atlantic commerce and shipping are very limited, and just a level superior than those of Britain and France. However indeed the Russian Federation still maintains the most powerful Land forces in the world. As such the threat by the Russian military is only minimized in the continent and more precisely in Eastern Europe. This has a double effect. On one side it does reduce any possibility for any type of major confrontation between the West and Russia. On the other side it does restrict the operations in the same area that the armies of Napoleon, Imperial Germany, Austria and Hitler have been crushed over the past 200 years. As such any form of confrontation or threat from the Russian Federation, will come through the Land Battlefield domain and it would incorporate the concept of In Depth Operations as it has been developed for almost 100 years now.

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