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).