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Russia’s Military: How Long Will It Take to Rebuild After the War in Ukraine?

Russia's Su-57
Russia's Su-57 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

How long will it take Russia to reconstitute its armed forces after the war in Ukraine has passed? The answer to this question is critical both to the course of this war and to Russia’s position as a great power in the next decade.

Russia has suffered massive personnel and equipment losses. The personnel losses are a major short-term problem and may have a long-term effect on the culture of the Russian armed forces and the procedures through which Russia rebuilds its force. To be sure, Russia has vast stores of military equipment left over from the Soviet era. On the one hand, these systems are antiquated, but on the other, they represent a material foundation that the Russian industry can update with new technology. Worldwide, much of the military kit of the 2020s is just an updated kit from the 1970s, even if these updates radically increase lethality and survivability. 

Thus, Russia will need to invest heavily in reconstituting its armed forces. Unfortunately for Russia, even its relatively autarkic defense economy depends on high technology supply chains. Modern tanks, like modern cars, are simply computers on treads. Russia does not at the moment produce sufficient numbers of advanced chips to supply its defense industrial base with a good number of processors to put new equipment into service.

Russia has a significant shortage of precision munitions, and the quality of its current munitions is in significant question. This poses a twofold problem, because stepping up production without remedying the technical issues associated with the weapons doesn’t do Russia any good. Sanctions have begun to bite; there are indications that Russia has been forced to repurpose commercial chips for military purposes.

Russia’s choices for technology acquisition are thin. It can resource some supply of chips to China, although many Chinese firms have signaled reticence about doing business with Russia in the face of Western sanctions. Russia can try to do as much as possible through smuggling, but this is unlikely to prove as substantial a source of parts as possible. 

Historically Russia has traded arms for technology (and integrated technology into defense industrial supply chains), but the war is “flushing” Soviet made arms out of Europe, both in terms of drawing down existing stockpiles and in making it unlikely or impossible that Russia will be able to supply weapons or upgrades to existing NATO partners. Western capital, know-how, and bureaucratic capacity have also played a role in keeping Russia’s defense industrial base in operation. Those ties are unraveling as American companies search for every possible way to escape the Russian market. 

Import substitution is the other option. As Branko Milanovic has pointed out, Russia will need to attempt a novel form of import substitution; recreating industries for domestic consumption that were allowed to wither and die in the post-Soviet era. The Russian economy has survived and to some extent prospered on commodity production, but this has not left it with the kind of workforce or industrial plant necessary to turn to high-technology production.

As Milanovic notes there is a significant disjuncture between the need for reindustrialization and the existing skills of the Russian workforce. Russia has a highly educated workforce with a profile similar to that found in the West; Russia’s needs are for an industrial workforce capable of producing not-quite-first-rate industrial products. There is no indication that Russian computer jocks want to go back to working in automobile or aviation factories, or that they can learn the necessary skills in a practical timeframe. Automation will take care of some of these problems but of course a highly automated industrial system will also tend to be dependent on the import of foreign technology.  

And yet Russia must come up with some kind of solution. It cannot apparently destroy the Ukrainian state, and is exceedingly unlikely to be able to force Ukraine to disarm in any kind of meaningful sense. After the war ends, Russia will thus face a hostile Ukraine armed to the teeth with modern Western weapons. Depending on how the accession of Finland to NATO plays out, Russia will share a larger border with the alliance while being on considerably worse political terms. Moreover, Russia cannot allow its arms exports to wither; it needs the currency, and if Russian industry cannot fulfill orders buyers will turn to China, India, Turkey, or South Korea.  

All is not lost. The problems that Russia currently faces are one of the reasons that the defense industry remains one of the most autarkic sectors in the world. Russia has the physical plant necessary to build new equipment and modernize old.  It has an aging but still capable defense industrial workforce. But saving the Russian defense industrial base will be one of the most difficult balances of policy that Vladimir Putin’s government has ever faced.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. speedster

    May 23, 2022 at 8:36 am

    There is a quote “no man is an island”, which applies to Russia. Putin, in my opinion has no grasp of economics and that we live in an interdependent world, where countries exploit their unique efficiencies in producing products that the rest of the world imports. The Russian economy is smaller than in 2014 when Putin first invaded ukraine. This occurred because western countries imposed sanctions on russia. Yet, Putin has been quoted as lauding the ability of Russia to persist despite sanctions.

    The number of russians in their early 20 age group halved in the 1990’s, so that Russia now has a demographic problem of a shrinking population. To make matters worse, the Russian troops sent to ukraine are in the very age group that Russia should not be sacrificing to stave off population shrink. Ukraine is a lost cause because the Russian speakers have been alienated by unprovoked shelling of cities.

    The prognosis for Russia rebuilding its military is not good, and at this rate they would as well asking nato for help, not!

  2. Eric-ji

    May 23, 2022 at 9:12 am

    Russia can ‘exist’ in the face of sanctions. The key question is can totalitarian countries be technology leaders? It is unlikely. Too often the lack of vision and creativity of those at the top limit what their countries can create.

    As a result totalitarian regimes resort to copying platforms and stealing technology.

    Perhaps the West will wake up to the technology theft in a significant way. So far that’s not happened. It is that failure that gives China and Russia hope.

  3. Eric-ji

    May 23, 2022 at 9:23 am

    Title correction:

    Russia’s Military: How Long Will It Take To Rebuilt After The War In Ukraine?

    Should be Russia’s Military: How Long Will It Take To Rebuild After The War In Ukraine?

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 23, 2022 at 11:24 am

    Much of Russia’s obsolete weapons are being destroyed, this is good for them in a way.

    Russia will be forced to update its strategic mix of weapons, and will be stronger for it.

    Not so good is the expending of thousands of expensive guided missiles that took years to accumulate, and will cost time and money to replace.

    • from Russia with love

      May 24, 2022 at 4:40 am

      “Russia will be forced to update its strategic mix of weapons, and will be stronger for it.”
      you missed something … Russia modernized the army even before these events. Guess from three times who owns a large amount of destroyed obsolete military equipment that Ukraine demonstrates;) but I do not insist, you can continue to believe that these are Russian BMP-1, Tochka-U and T-64.
      “Not so good is the expending of thousands of expensive guided missiles that took years to accumulate, and will cost time and money to replace.”
      this is modern warfare. the production of high-precision weapons has been put on stream in Russia and the army is provided with everything necessary. Russia can afford to deliver 50-80 strikes daily with tactical missiles (Kh-101, Iskander, Caliber, Kinzhal) because their stocks are constantly replenished by industry.
      PS
      maybe someday you will be able to add 2 + 2 and understand that those 150000 of the Russian army that participate in the special operation is a little more than 10% of the Russian army, but now Russia is satisfied with the fact that you believe in the possibility of Ukraine’s victory. +40 billion to help Ukraine is good because it’s -43 billion to help US small businesses 😉

  5. aldol11

    May 23, 2022 at 12:07 pm

    Russia is finished:
    militarily
    economically
    morally
    will never rebuild a strong military, on fact it may be broken up into smaller republics

  6. Fluffy Dog

    May 24, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    “Branko Milanovic has pointed out…” Good article.
    The real problem Russia has is that Putin is a low IQ criminal with KGB connections. The man does not read. All his knowledge is based on Soviet indoctrination. He built the current system to reflect his knowledge and his views. The infrastructure, according to the Russian language reports, was being slowly destroyed over his time in power. The ruling class is an alliance of the FSB and organized crime. Neither knows how to run a country. And the worst part is that if Putin is replaced, the replacement will be something similar to Putin.
    Rebuilding Russian industry, both military and civilian, has to start with the destruction of management of the infrastructure that Putin built. It is not very likely, and if it does take place, it’s a generation-long process.

  7. Illurion

    May 24, 2022 at 8:20 pm

    The Russian military machine will not be rebuilt.

    Russia will cease to exist, and be absorbed.

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