As tensions between Russia and the West approach a boiling point over Ukraine, two questions come to the fore: What is Vladimir Putin thinking? And what is the Russian military capable of doing?
The answers to both are uncertain, but thinking through the second should be a prerequisite for tackling the first. Alas, much of the recent press speculation suffers, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or Alan Greenspan might say, from a kind of irrational exuberance. In particular, there has been a profusion of lurid “invasion maps” slashed with multiple scarlet arrows encircling Kyiv—this one from England’s Daily Mail is not atypical—as though it was 1943 come again and Marshal Georgy Zhukov has been exhumed to lead the charge westward.
Not the Red Army
There has also been a profusion of articles summarizing Russian military modernization and reforms since the end of the Cold War and highlighting Russian successes in Syria and elsewhere, including Ukraine in 2014. “Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal,” headlines the New York Times. Under “Putin’s leadership,” the paper reports, the Russian military “has been overhauled into a modern sophisticated army, able to deploy quickly and with lethal effect in conventional conflicts. … It features precision-guided weaponry, a newly streamlined command structure and well-fed and professional soldiers.”
This is true, but isn’t the whole story. To begin with, if the point of comparison is Putin’s accession to power, in either 1999 or 2000 depending on what title is counted, the bar is exceedingly low; the collapse of the Soviet Union eviscerated the remaining Russian rump of the Red Army. U.S. estimates of Soviet military spending, while often faulty, ranged from $200 to $300 billion per year, roughly five to six times the current level of Russia’s official defense budget. It lost more than half its frontline military aircraft, more than half its personnel, its remaining infrastructure was shoddy and the treatment of conscripts—about three-quarters of troop strength—was brutally cruel, marked by the abuses known as dedovshchina (often translated as “hazing,” but one of those Russian terms without precise analog). To be sure, Moscow retained a substantial nuclear arsenal, but it, too, was smaller and in poor repair.