Defense

The Russian Forces on Ukraine's Border May Not Be as Formidable as They Look


Russian military academy cadets march at the Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, during a Victory Day parade

Photograph by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Russian military academy cadets march at the Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, during a Victory Day parade

The showdown in Ukraine has put on display a Russian military that’s dramatically better financed, better trained, and better equipped than it was just a few years ago.

Russia’s defense spending has more than doubled over the past decade. In 2013 it surpassed the U.S. as the major country devoting the greatest share of its national economy to defense—some 4.1 percent, vs. 3.8 percent in the U.S., according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Poorly disciplined draftees are gradually being replaced by professional soldiers, including crack troops sent into Ukraine’s Crimea region. Hundreds of billions of dollars are to be spent on arms procurement over the next few years.

Small wonder Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is seekinga ceasefire rather than risk conflict with his neighbor to the east.

Yet the Ukraine crisis also highlights some limitations on Russia’s military capabilities. Most of the nearly 40,000 troops camped near the Ukrainian border are probably conscripts, who still predominate in Russian ground forces, says Johan Norberg, an analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency who studies the Russian military. Conscripts serve only 12 months, barely enough time to become trained. And while Russia has modernized some of its airborne and seaborne weaponry, Norberg says, “in the ground forces, much of the equipment remains old.”

Russia also lags the West in critical defense sectors, such as shipbuilding and communications. It relies on Europe for some high-tech gear, making it vulnerable to possible sanctions if the Ukraine crisis should escalate. In 2012, Moscow bought €194 million ($263 million) in arms from European Union member countries, with electronics and imaging equipment accounting for more than half the total. And it’s spending $1.9 billion to buy two Mistral warships from France.

Although Moscow wants to build more of its own equipment, research and development is lacking. “The government has so far failed to modernize the civilian research sector, and for the defense sector even less progress has been made,” the Swedish Defense Research Agency said in a review of Russian military capability published last December. Despite increased spending, Russia “will be unable to remedy existing structural problems” for at least another decade, the report says.

Russia also relies on imports from Ukraine, including such key equipment as nuclear warheads and helicopter engines. Ukraine’s military sales to Russia total about $600 million annually, according to Ukrainian military consultancy Defense Express.

While Russia now spends an estimated $87.8 billion annually on defense, Ukraine is only one of several conflicts competing for those resources. Unrest is continuing in the Caucasus, as evidenced by the 70,000 police and military forces stationed around Sochi during the Winter Olympics. Georgia, which fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008, is now seeking fast-track NATO membership. And NATO members in Eastern Europe are stepping up their defense spending, aided by a promised $1 billion from the U.S. “Russia sees enemies all around,” Norberg says. “They can’t commit too much to any one operation.”

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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