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Is Russia Really a Threat to NATO?

A Russian officer guarding the Kaliningrad border. Image: Igor Zarembo/Flickr

Russia’s ongoing military modernization program continues to alarm NATO’s eastern flank. Over the next five years, Moscow aims to have revitalized between 70 – 100 percent of the country’s armed forces. To assist, the Russian military budget was increased by 33% this year, to approximately 3.3 trillion Rubles ($81 billion), or 4.2 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with an estimated $700 billion to be spent between now and 2020.

Yet, can Moscow really afford its current defense spending spree? And why has Russian President Vladimir Putin decided that the time to revitalize the country’s armed forces is now? Part of the answer to these questions lies in a concurrent development in Russian defense policy – the recent adoption of the country’s new military doctrine.

The Shopping List

Central to Moscow’s revitalization efforts are plans to further professionalize its armed forces by promoting contract as opposed to conscript personnel. Current targets call for an annual recruitment of 50,000 kontraktniki and a standing force consisting of 50% professional volunteers by 2017.New recruits should expect to work with a new and vast array of platforms. The Russian Army, for instance, is expected to receive new armored vehicles – collectively termed Armata – throughout 2015 and has scheduled 4,000 exercises of differing types and sizes – 1,000 more than in 2014.  For its part, the Navy is expected to receive several new nuclear submarines by 2020, most notably a Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarine, construction of which was due to begin on March 19, 2015.

It is a similar story for Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces. Plans are currently afoot to replace its Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), with the new Yars system. It is thought that the Yars consists of 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads, a development that potentially renders them more difficult to halt once in flight. In addition, the Russian Air Force is slated to receive 150 new airplanes and helicopters this year, including Su-30 multirole fighters, MiG-29s, and its fifth generation Sukhoi T-50, Moscow’s response to the U.S. F-22 Raptor. Finally, Moscow has now deployed three batteries of the S-300V4 air defense system. The updated version has an expanded range (to 400 km), as well as improved missile defense capabilities. A total of nine batteries are scheduled to be provided by 2020.

More ‘Bark’ than ‘Bite’?

The above-mentioned developments and acquisitions will eventually support a new military doctrine that Vladimir Putin has characterized as “solely defensive in nature”. It emphasizes, for example, that NATO’s expansion up to Russia’s borders poses a ‘key risk’ to the country’s security. This perceived expansion fuels concerns that the United States’ Europe-based missile defense system could threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrence capabilities. To support this, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that Washington retains nuclear weapons on European soil that are capable of hitting Russian territory, while Moscow has made dramatic reductions to its arsenal.

Many Western observers, however, remain far from convinced that Russia’s new military doctrine is all about self-defense. For example, some NATO members are concerned about the doctrine’s ‘increased reliance’ on nuclear weapons. In this respect, Russia’s decision to conduct “increasingly aggressive” air and sea patrols close to NATO airspace is doing little to allay such worries. And while there has been no violation of this airspace to date, NATO aircraft stationed in the Baltic States intercepted Russian military planes 150 times in 2014, a fourfold increase from 2013. In response, several NATO member states are currently restructuring their armed forces in order to cope with Russia’s growing military presence. This is particularly true of Norway, which has also increased military cooperation with the Baltic States.

In response to such concerns, many Russian commentators have countered that Moscow’s new military doctrine retains “the old wholly reasonable formulation regarding the use of nuclear weapons.”They argue that the Russian military and its nuclear forces remains a defensive tool which the country pledges to use only as a means of last resort. After all, the notion of a preemptive nuclear strike is not mentioned by the doctrine. Interestingly, the reference to scenarios where nuclear weapons might be used to resolve certain regional conflicts has now been removed.

It might also be the case that by singling out Russia’s nuclear forces and conventional military platforms NATO is overlooking the most important challenge posed by Moscow’s more assertive doctrine. The most immediate threat to the Baltic States is posed by Russia’s model of hybrid warfare, writes Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council. Specifically, Kroenig argues that Moscow could combine asymmetric tactics, with the threat of early nuclear use, to deter NATO from defending a member of the Alliance under hybrid-warfare attack. Indeed, a partial precedent has already been set. In 2007, Russian-backed hackers waged a prolonged cyber war against NATO member Estonia in retaliation for Tallinn’s decision to relocate a Soviet-era war monument. The hackers disabled the websites of government ministries, political parties, newspapers, banks, and companies, while NATO struggled to initiate an effective counter-response.

Spending beyond Moscow’s means

Indeed, Russia’s growing interest in the utility of hybrid warfare suggests that Moscow might actually be struggling to meet its ambitious military modernization targets. There are concerns that the country’s defense-industrial base lacks the ability to manufacture all of the new platforms. For example, Alexander Golts, a Russian military expert and deputy editor in chief of Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal claims that Moscow wants to domestically produce all spectrums of military systems from small guns to Topol missiles. As he sees it, this effectively means that no program will receive sufficient funding from the Kremlin.

It has also been suggested that all of Putin’s modernization projects suffer from a similar lack of funding. The precipitous decline of the Ruble over the past year has had a profound impact on the Russian economy and government revenues and cast doubt over Moscow’s ability to fund its education, health and welfare programs. In the current climate, maintaining or increasing defense spending at the expense of other initiatives seems counterintuitive. Doing so might lead to the further destabilization of the Putin regime.

The (Uncertain) Road Ahead…

Yet, irrespective of concerns over Moscow’s ability to fulfill its defense procurement needs, the fact remains that NATO views a militarily resurgent Russia as highly irresponsible – even if this is mostly rhetoric. However, the Alliance’s options for countering Moscow’s efforts to rebuild its armed forces are limited. It might be in NATO’s best interest to take seriously Russia’s longstanding concerns that it has been encircled, a condition exacerbated by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It might also want to reflect upon how some of its European policies are viewed by Moscow. Reinforcing U.S. nuclear capabilities on the continent is a case in point. In the first instance, such a move would inevitably be viewed by Russia as provocative. Second, it is also highly unlikely to deter Russia from utilizing its hybrid warfare strategy – much to the chagrin of NATO’s easternmost members.


Elizabeth Zolotukhina is an International affairs professional with academic and policy experience in nonproliferation, arms control, Russia/Eurasia, and writing/editing. She has published in peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed outlets and presented at academic conferences and policy briefings.

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