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The Russian Military: 4 Myths That Need to Die

Russian Military
Russian Military Artillery Piece. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

It’s Time To Retire Outdated Stereotypes About the Russian Military: As the possibility of an escalated Russian war in Ukraine looms larger and larger, a noted strategist and historian took to social media to argue Moscow’s forces could be handily repelled by little hit-and-run warfare by Ukrainian civilians-at-arms.

“My call for a Ukraine national militia of quick-trained volunteers to attack stopped Russian columns opportunistically (the Finnish model) is misrepresented as a call for an endless guerilla war… After losing a few soldiers the Russians will withdraw (as in Chechnya). Losing 10,000 before breakfast never hurt the career of a Russian general, but with no surplus boys, Russia too is post-heroic. No tolerance of casualties.”

The invocation of Chechnya and Finland is peculiar as while both conflicts with Russia suggest certain operational and tactical lessons, neither ended victoriously for Russia’s opponents. Yes, in 1996 Chechnyan separatists managed to compel Russian troops to withdraw in the First Chechen War—but were then brutally crushed four years later. And though the Finns executed a masterful mobile defense against larger Soviet forces in 1939-1940 and 1944, Helsinki was still eventually forced to sue for peace and cede the Karelian Isthmus both times

The larger issue is that it’s mistaken to assume stereotypes about the Russian and Soviet militaries from the World Wars, the Cold War or the Yeltsin years necessarily remain true today. That would be akin to assuming that the specific problems of the U.S.’s conscription-based Army during the Vietnam War, like the practice of “fragging” unpopular officers with grenades, are the same as those of the U.S.’s volunteer military today.

It’s not that there is never continuity or that all problems get corrected, but militaries really do change for better and worse in response to historical experience and shifting material circumstances. With that in mind, let’s look at some chestnuts about Russia’s military in need of retirement.

Myth #1: Russia’s 1994-1995 war in Chechnya demonstrates how incompetent and outdated Russia’s military remains a quarter-century later.

Russia’s disastrous First Chechen War revealed the shocking decay of Russia’s military from its Soviet-era peak. Economic collapse and corruption resulted in dysfunctions ranging from officers trying to sell submarines to drug runners, to alcoholism in the field and fighter pilots who only flew their aircraft 10 to 20 hours annually—culminating in the humiliating destruction of Russian armored columns in the Chechen separatist capital of Grozny.

Reality: Russia’s military changed considerably in response to experiences in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.

In 1999, Putin dispatched Russia’s military to occupy Chechnya again. Using revised urban warfare tactics, it methodically leveled Grozny then weathered nearly a decade of violent insurgency to crush surviving rebels. In addition to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the Russian military, interior ministry, and police forces suffered 7,000 deaths, hardly supporting the notion Russia is unable to tolerate casualties.

More recently, after an underwhelming performance in a war with Georgia in 2008, in 2009 Moscow began a new drive to reorganize, professionalize, modernize and selectively recapitalize its military.  By 2014 and 2015, wars in Ukraine and Syria revealed Russia’s integration of drone surveillance, precision-strike capabilities, and deniable private military companies as tools to wage war with fewer casualties to regular Russian forces.

Myth #2: Russia always relies on overwhelming numbers to defeat adversaries

The military-historical caricature is that Moscow relied on the sheer mass of bodies and heavy weapons to defeat qualitatively superior foes. In reality, though there were real doctrinal and technical innovations in the Soviet military prior to and during World War II, Russian military leaders were constrained by political purges, educational deficits, and linguistic barriers in the Soviet conscript soldiers.

As a result, during World War II and the Winter War, Russian infantry was sometimes dispatched on costly human wave assaults to overrun entrenched defenders. Even in victorious campaigns in 1943-1945, it was typical for the Red Army to suffer higher casualties than its defeated foes.

During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact disposed of more than twice as many divisions and three times as many tanks as NATO did. Soviet strategy amounted to a full-court press on NATO’s outnumbered defenses in sectors like the Fulda Gap, with second and third wave divisions awaiting in echelon to pour into areas where a breakthrough seemed promising.

Russian Army Modernization

Image: Creative Commons.

Reality: Modern Russian tactics emphasize “non-contact” warfare

Russia still fields far more numerous forces than European militaries with equivalent defense spending, but not on the scale of the Soviet Union. In the 21st century, Moscow must make do with a smaller, more professional military, and one that’s better at keeping highly trained personnel alive.

Recent wars in Ukraine and Syria show how Russian ground forces practice ‘non-contact warfare’, in which long-range precision fires rather than mechanized assault take the lead. This is reflected in the Ground Force’s preferred ad-hoc fighting formation, the Battalion Tactical Group, which combines infantry and tank companies with an unusually large quantity of artillery.

The new Russian playbook keeps tanks and infantry outside direct fire range until the big guns and rockets have done most of the killing. This is possible due to the new capabilities of surveillance drones and electronic warfare units to ferret out enemy positions without having to push as many human scouts into harm’s way. In theory, tanks and infantry companies in a BTG screen the artillery from counterattacks, and mop up the survivors after the bombardment.

Meanwhile, in wars in Syria and Ukraine, the Russian military has preferred to ‘outsource’ to local auxiliaries, mercenaries, and proxies the manning of defensive positions and more casualty-intensive close-quarters combat missions.

Myth #3: Russia’s Army is primarily made up of poorly-trained conscripts.

It’s true a significant chunk of Russia’s army is made up of conscripts who are paid a pittance (2,000 rubles, ie. $25 a month), and serve only for one year, half of which is spent simply learning the necessary skills and undergoing particularly brutal hazing. Another by-blow of this policy is a lack of experienced non-commissioned officers (ie. Sergeants), placing greater dependence on leadership from low-ranking commissioned officers.

Armata Tank Armata Tank

Truth: The majority of Russian military personnel today are contract soldiers.

While the shortcomings of Russia’s one-year conscripts are real, they now constitute a large minority, not the majority of Russia’s military. A 2020 CSIS article, for example, counts 260,000 conscript soldiers and 410,000 contract soldiers, the latter paid an average of 62,000 rubles per month.

Regarding claims Russia lacks manpower due to a shrinking population, in fact only 5% of each yearly male cohort is conscripted, and the pool of available manpower is expected to increase for at least a decade.

Myth #4: Russia spends a tiny fraction of U.S. military spending as measured by international exchange rates, so its military capabilities are proportionately weaker.

Recently, Russian military spending has ranged between the equivalent of $50 and $60 billion per year—less than 10% of the annual U.S. defense budget. Skeptics like to point out Russia’s Gross Domestic Product is in the same ballpark as Italy’s.

It’s certainly true that the U.S.’s financial means allow it to deploy global power projection capabilities including nuclear-powered supercarriers and hundreds of stealth combat aircraft that far exceed anything Russia’s military can do. Furthermore, inadequate financing and military-industrial deficiencies have resulted in years of delays even for prominent projects like the Su-57 stealth fighter, T-14 Armata tank, and S-500 air defense system.

Reality: Russia’s military gets more bang for its ruble.

But any economists can tell you a dollar spent in China or Russia can buy more than a dollar in, say, Switzerland or the United States, meaning Russian military systems cost much less than Western ones, and salaries paid even to contract soldiers are much lower than in the U.S. or Europe. Furthermore, declines in the ruble-to-dollar exchange rates don’t as directly affect the price of military hardware Russia buys from Russian firms, ie. most of it. When adjusting for purchasing power, this may multiply effective defense spending by at least a factor of three.

And though Russia still lacks equivalent to many U.S. systems, in turn, it has land-based artillery, air defense, and tactical ballistic missile capabilities the U.S. doesn’t yet field because of Washington’s greater reliance on air power; and it’s moving forward with integrating a variety of armed drones into service in the 2020s.

These factors still leave Russia at a deficit compared to U.S. spending, but a much smaller one than decontextualized budget figures imply. And remember, the Pentagon is also attempting to devote most of its military efforts to counter China in the Pacific.

Russia

Russian Army. Image: Creative Commons.

Pointing out outdated stereotypes regarding Russia’s military isn’t meant to aggrandize its prowess, glorify its campaigns or defend human rights abuses and invasions. Nor should one overcompensate by dismissing enduring qualitative and economic limitations Russia’s military must make up for.

Rather, we need to move past stereotypes—even those with some historical basis—that mischaracterize what Russia’s military can and can’t do today.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFiveThe National InterestNBC NewsForbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Commentar

    January 31, 2022 at 1:17 pm

    You are correct. It’s bacause TODAY, russia is led by putin, the greatest russian politician since, say, andropov(?) or gorbachev who was a fool of the greatest level possible. A nation’s standing is identified by what kind of leader it has.

    Under putin, russia has surged ahead in artilkery, hypersonics and others not needed to mention here.

    Biden and co would be fools to try to take on russia while it is being led by putin. When the british destroyer tried to sail through russia waters in july 2021 in the black sea, thr navy fired live warning shots.

    Putin on account of that incident later said his navy is able to carry out unpreventable strikes on any aggressor because the aggressor canot repky aware tgat russia has the RS-28 missile, the poseidon underwatef drone, the kinzhal and the peerless avangard glider.

  2. Matt Lind

    February 1, 2022 at 10:36 am

    I think you make some good points, but I think there’s some counterpoints to be made here as well. First, Chechnya is essentially an autonomous emirate where the Russian military does not operate whose emir, Kadyrov, is given full autonomy in exchange for fealty to Putin. Chechnya has achieved its independence in everything but name through force of arms.

    Your second point is well-taken. In World War II, Russia had an overwhelming advantage in numbers, therefore, we assume that is the reason why they won. However, when Stalin started taking the advice of his generals in 1942 and Hitler started ignoring the advice of his generals is when the strategic situation really shifted. The Soviet Army’s tactics were inferior, but strategically, they were making better decisions.

    Additionally, long-range precision fires cannot an insurgency destroy. The U.S. dropped tons of precision-guided weapons on the Taliban and ISIS. However, ISIS had to be destroyed by fighters on the ground and the Taliban is now in charge of Afghanistan. If you are shooting cruise missiles at infantry wielding anti-tank missiles, you are losing.

    Your third point seems to be too credulous of unclear Russian statistics. First, it is my understanding that Russia claims to have more than 1 million active duty troops, although Western estimates claim that they have only 900,000. However, 260,000 conscripts plus 410,000 contract troops only adds up to 670,000 soldiers. Where are the other 230,000-430,000 and are they conscripts or contract soldiers? The comparison with the U.S. military, which has zero conscripts, is still unfavorable. Also, I’ve read that draft-dodging in Russia is rampant and Russia’s military regularly fails to fill out its authorized strength. Also, the modern U.S. military, with more than 1 million contract troops, struggled to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which has a population similar to Ukraine.

    Your fourth point is probably the most salient. However, Russia does not have the capability to domestically produce the type of electronics the West has. Before 2014, most of its advanced electronics were Western in origin. It’s drones have performed poorly and it appears that it is only recently that its air defenses in Syria have had any impact on Israel’s decision-making. If Russia is faced with export controls that restrict its access to microprocessors, its military technology will be quickly kicked back to that of the Cold War.

  3. Alex

    February 2, 2022 at 2:22 am

    “…does not mean glorifying their might, glorifying their campaigns, or defending human rights violations and invasions.”
    What the US is constantly doing, referring to the perverted notions of democracy.

  4. Kevin B

    February 6, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    Replying to Commentar,

    It is a dangerous game to get too wrapped up in a cult of personality of your leader. Putin’s record in wars is mixed. The Chechen operations, the Georgian War, and even actions in Syria have been questionable in what they’ve been able to gain. Just because Putin is a charismatic dictator doesn’t make him a great leader.

    Secondly, I think Putin has fooled many of his citizens (and certainly his online trolls parrot it) that “country X would be a fool to take on Russia.” Well – it’s been that way since 1942. Nothing has changed. And since the 1960s and the proliferation of Soviet-era ICBMs, any major nuclear power (US, Russia, China, Britain, France) and to an extent the minor nuclear nations would be foolish to take on another nuclear power. Why Russia is so interested in developing Avangard or Poseidon is questionable, when they already have a fleet of ICBMs and SLBMs that cannot readily be countered.

    Likewise, Russia would be extremely foolish to “take on” a nation like Britain, China or the United States because there would be a major price to pay that Russia could not stop.

  5. Alex

    February 13, 2022 at 9:15 am

    Kevin, you should study history better. The West has repeatedly united against Russia and was sure that it would win. Ordinary weapons. And each time it was the defeat of the West. What do you think, being the largest nuclear power, will something stop Russia from sending missiles at your home? Do you really think that you can live peacefully across the ocean when the war is in Europe? Russia’s nuclear doctrine has changed: in the event of an attack on Russia, Russia will use a large-scale nuclear strike on decision centers. Can you tell me where these decision centers are located? Don’t call for war and it won’t come to you.

  6. SUSUL

    February 15, 2022 at 10:27 am

    The author wrote a lot of the right things. But it is much more interesting to read the comments under this article. They show how strong the patterns are in Western society in relation to Russia.
    1. Russia has always fought in numbers – when the Wehrmacht attacked the USSR in 1941, he had 7.2 million soldiers under arms, he sent 3.5 million to the company against the USSR. – the number of the entire army of the USSR at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War reached 4.3 million soldiers. There were no more than 2 million soldiers on the western border at the time of the attack. The population of Europe controlled by Germany reached 350 million people, the population of the USSR – 320 million people.
    2. Russia doesn’t have electronics – Russia doesn’t really have civilian electronics. But the most modern processors today are created thanks to Russian masks for printing processors. Russia closely cooperates with ASML. Russia has the ability to produce equipment for the production of civilian processors, but does not have the ability to sell them. As for military electronics, the most modern 4nm processors will simply die in military equipment. The military loves 65+ nm processors. In Russia they do it.
    3. Russia’s wars in Chechnya.
    The first war in Chechnya cannot be considered in isolation from the events in Russia. In 1991, Boris Nikolavech Yeltsin declared “Take as much sovereignty as you want” and dissolved the USSR. This set off a number of military civil conflicts in the republics of the former USSR. Because some of the republics, such as Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, were created from smaller republics.
    Ukraine annexed Sevastopol from Russia (this city was not part of Crimea until 1991), Georgia annexed Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moldova annexed Transnistria. But in 1991, someone suggested to Yeltsin (perhaps he was a CIA adviser, in the United States they also like small wars before elections) that the war would raise his rating. But Russia didn’t have an army in 1991! Almost the entire Russian army remained in Ukraine and Belarus! Russia had only auxiliary forces and nuclear weapons. in the first Chechen war, Russia did not even have T-72 tanks, they required major repairs and were in warehouses. The main Russian tank of the first war in Chechnya was the T-62. In addition, there was endemic corruption! even soldiers were selling weapons and explosives, in 1996 Russia granted Chechnya full independence.
    In 1999, independent Chechnya invaded Dagestan, a region that had remained in Russia. This was the beginning of the second war in Chechnya. But at that time, the president of the new Russia was already doing judo and drinking tea without vodka.
    3. Russia’s war in Georgia – I wonder what people want to say when they write that Putin did not complete the task? They expected Putin to take over Georgia?! Putin keeps Georgia on a short leash and the conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia does not allow Georgia to become a member of NATO. If Saakashvili had not launched a military operation, there would have been no war. Moreover, the Russian troops stopped the armed forces of Abkhazia and did not allow them to invade defenseless Tbilisi, while the entire army of Georgia and its allied troops of Ukraine were dying under the blows of Russia in South Ossetia.

  7. Wizard

    March 14, 2022 at 12:39 am

    Here we are, a little over a month since this article and my, how things have changed. I don’t think that Putin is getting too much bang for his Ruble since it’s now worthless. It’s value?? is now basically zero. 1 Russian Ruble equals 0.0075 United States Dollar, not one cent!! The 40 mile line of Russian vehicles are pretty much “dead in the water”! All those men & machines need food & fuel & there is difficulty resupplying them all! How many Kilometers per liter of fuel do they get when they have no fuel? We’ve seen Russian soldiers say aloud that Putin has made them Fascists & they don’t want to be there.
    As far as Putin goes, there’s definitely something wrong with him. You can see in his eyes that something is wrong. Who knows whether it’s physical or mental or both, but he’s not the same guy at all.

  8. Mike

    March 24, 2022 at 7:39 pm

    Haha this article aged very badly. Turns out all the “myths” are actually truths. This Great Fascist Army is pure demoralized shit.

  9. EOIN MURPHY

    March 26, 2022 at 12:27 am

    It would be interesting if the author revisited his analysis based on the how Putin’s war in Ukraine has turned out

  10. Stephen Wingfield

    August 11, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    The revision of this article seems as likely as any revision of the Russian Army.

  11. Kai

    September 22, 2022 at 7:02 pm

    After today’s news, we can confirm the following myths are true. Myth #1: Russian troops are still incompetent to dig the trenches in Ukraine. Myth #2 and 3: Russia relies on overwhelming numbers with 300 thousand conscripts. Showing off 10 AT14 freebies won’t help the battlefield. Myth #4: Russia spends a tiny fraction of U.S. military. Where are the fairies of su57 and S500?

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