The Bear is back. Or so the headlines would have you believe.
The Russian military, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has taken the offensive in recent months in the Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and now in Syria. Russia is also focusing to project power in the Pacific and Arctic regions. On top of that, the Russian military is being rebuilt, with plans for new tanks, aircraft carriers, and submarines.
Is the Bear really back? How much of the talk about a resurgent Russian military is just that — talk — and how much is reality?
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Russia has the world's fourth largest defense budget, with Moscow spending $54 billion on the military in 2015. Russian defense spending is finally trending upward, after decades of starvation budgets brought on by the end of the Cold War and a poorly performing economy.
Most of Russia's military equipment is left over from that period. Almost all of the Russian Ground Forces' tanks and armored vehicles date back to the 1980s. Russia's lone carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was launched in 1990. All three types of Russian heavy bombers pounding Syria were built by the Soviet Union and only inherited by Russia.
In 2010, the Russian government announced an ambitious program to replace 70 percent of Cold War-era equipment with new weapons by 2020. The spending program would cost at least $700 billion and included a new generation of tanks, a new class of aircraft carriers, and new generation of heavy bombers.
International sanctions, brought on by Russia's annexation of the Crimea as well as plunging oil prices have quickly taken a heavy toll on the economy. The Russian economy has slipped into recession, with GDP alone slipping 4 percent in the past 12 months.
A falling economy has affected military spending. In 2015, Russia's defense budget increased by a staggering 33 percent. However, before the year was over some of that spending had to be taken back, and the increase was revised downward to 25 percent. Unable to forecast an end to Russia's economic problems, the defense budget is slated to go up less than 1 percent in 2016.
Needless to say, Russia's ambition to spend $700 billion on armaments is as dead as Julius Caesar.
Meanwhile, Russian defense projects, already struggling to catch up with 21st century warfare, are also running into difficulties. The high profile PAK-FA project designed to produce a fighter the equal of the American F-22 Raptor has stalled over technical issues, and the Russians now plan on buying — initially, anyway — a mere squadron's worth of jets. That's a tenth of what they were originally going to buy.
Russian promises to build new aircraft carriers and a new generation of heavy bombers have been merely promises.
Sanctions will also effect defense production. Russia is not self-sufficient in a great deal of high tech industry and relies on international vendors — when the Russian shipyard Sevmash refurbished an aircraft carrier for India, a large amount of equipment was sourced from the West and Japan, likely without their knowledge. That sort of sourcing is just not going to happen anymore.
Struck by sanctions, Russia's defense production will be hampered by a lack of a domestic high tech industry, sometimes in the unlikeliest of ways: For example, modern fighters and the Armata tank make extensive use of LCD displays to convey information to the crew. Russia, unlike the much smaller South Korea, has no domestic LCD industry.
Finally, it's important to understand Russia's military power relative to the rest of the world. That's a mere one tenth America's defense budget, and less than a quarter of what China is estimated to spend. Russia has one, barely functioning aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to America's 10 fully-functioning carriers.
One bright spot for Russia? Its nuclear triad, which is for the most part functional and provides a powerful nuclear deterrent. Yet nukes only protect a country from existential threats, such as invasion or nuclear attack, and are useless in the broad spectrum of conflict in today's modern warfare.
The Russian military is a major power, but it's no longer a superpower. And it probably never will be again. More importantly, we now have proof that in today's global economy, aggressive states such as the Russian Federation can be in part curbed by punitive financial measures. Let's hope other states are watching and absorbing the lesson.
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