The feared Russian bear has been seriously wounded, and its reputation has suffered a great blow. When war ends in Ukraine, it could take years and possibly decades for Vladimir Putin’s shattered army to recover.
Some analysts suggest Russia’s armed forces might never recover.
Russia: The Biggest Loser
For all its size, Russia has never been a true military powerhouse. It has lost more wars than it has won, and its victories came at a terrible price.
Even in the Second World War — known to Russians still today as the Great Patriotic War — it was the vastness of its territory, the harsh winters, and the stretched lines of German forces that pushed the Soviet Red Army to victory.
Though it is absolutely true that the Red Army played a critical role in defeating the Nazis, Russia largely fought on a single front. The United States and Great Britain were also engaged with the Japanese in the Pacific. Germany had a vast number of troops bogged down, holding the lands it had conquered previous to its June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
In a one-on-one fight, Germany could have defeated the Soviet Union.
That dynamic should not be overlooked, and it helps explain why Russia is faring so badly in Ukraine. Moscow has no support from any major allies, the way it did in World War II through Lend-Lease. Even during Moscow’s Cold War misadventure in Afghanistan, East Germany supported the Soviet military campaign. Czechoslovakia also provided aid to pro-Soviet Afghan forces, while Vietnamese troops also reportedly “volunteered” to aid the communist cause.
The Soviet Union failed to achieve victory in Afghanistan, but it was hardly the first significant loss for Russia.
More Losses Than Victories
It could be argued that the greatest surprise is that the Russian nation today is so vast, given its many military losses. Russia was forced to give up territory in the Livonian War in the 16th century, and it later suffered defeats against Persia in the south and Sweden in the north.
More than four centuries before the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine failed to achieve a quick victory, Russia’s first attempt to expand to the Black Sea was thwarted by the Ottoman Empire. It even saw the destruction of its Black Sea Fleet — something that might sound familiar today.
Russia is now remembered for being among the victors at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but it saw a number of significant defeats along the way. A few decades later, Russia faced ruin in the Crimean War, while In the early 20th century, Russia’s ambitions in the Far East ended when it lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. It again saw the destruction of its navy, which took decades to recover.
Then came the First World War. While the Allies prevailed, Russia fell into revolution and then civil war. As a result of the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia was forced to give up more than 325,000 square miles, or about 15 percent of its pre-war empire. It subsequently lost wars with Finland, Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, while the Russian Civil War would result in the deaths of tens of millions.
Though the Soviet Union turned Russia into a military powerhouse — thanks in large part to its nuclear arsenal — it still lost the Cold War.
Years to Recover
Following each of its defeats, Russia was able to recover. It managed to gain territory and expand its borders. But Russia’s past ability to subjugate its neighbors relied on victories obtained when it had allies. Poland, for example, was carved up by the forces of Austria, Prussia, and Russia.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union left Russia as essentially a supersized rump state, and President Vladimir Putin sought to reassert Moscow’s control. Clearly, Putin hopes to restore Russia to imperial status, but nations once ruled by the Kremlin are far less eager to allow that to happen again.
Could Moscow Rebuild Its Army?
Even if Russia is not defeated in Ukraine, it is very unlikely that the Kremlin can quickly rebuild its military. As noted, Moscow has few international partners and is facing crippling sanctions. At the very best, the Kremlin might turn to Beijing and Tehran to aid in its military’s recovery. Moscow will be the junior partner in any future Sino-Russian Pact.
Even in the best-case scenario, it will take time.
“The estimates go from five to 10 years based on how sanctions affect them and their ability to put technology back into their force,” Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier told a Senate Armed Services Committee in May, per The Defense Post.
It will also lack the deep reserves that it has maintained on paper, notably the thousands of Cold War-era tanks that were saved for a rainy day. Those antiquated armored vehicles are now sent to the front, where they are quickly destroyed. Russia could run out of tanks if the war continues much longer.
In other words, the Russian Army may simply no longer be a major fighting force, at least in the foreseeable future.
Moscow was hardly able to afford to build its newest systems in significant numbers before the war — platforms like the Su-57 jet fighter or T-14 Armata tank — and it is even more unlikely to do so when the dust settles. A loss on the battlefield will hardly convince buyers to line up for those platforms. Instead of being an arms exporter, Moscow may grow to depend on China, Iran, and possibly even North Korea.
As a result, Putin and Russia may become even more reliant on asymmetric options, such as nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities. That is a serious concern for the West. The bear is by no means declawed. As RAND Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins noted in a February report, “A failed state with thousands of nuclear warheads would be a dangerous combination.”
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.