Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 22, 2014

Russian Military Improving, Getting Smarter — but Maybe Not as Much as It Wants

450118992 445x295 Russian Military Improving, Getting Smarter    but Maybe Not as Much as It Wants

French President Francois Hollande, left, looks on after escorting Putin following their meeting and dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 5. Putin met for talks with Hollande, as world leaders engaged in a bout of shuttle diplomacy over Ukraine ahead of D-Day ceremonies. (Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images)

If the Russian military “stays the course and continues to strive for improvement, it will continue to make steady progress,” Paul N. Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Monday. But: “The reforms will likely fall substantially short of Russia’s ambitions for them.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been making moves on the military front of late — some less subtle, such as in Ukraine, and others less immediately visible, such as in Iraq. The country is doing so mid-overhaul, with a reform effort that takes it through the year 2020.

That “reform process has zigged and zagged,” Schwartz said at a CSIS roundtable of the think tank’s experts on Russia’s military capabilities. The goals include improving procurement; developing a smaller, more mobile fighting force for combat in regional conflicts; and countering U.S. ballistic missile defense. (Clark A. Murdock added that while the United States might feel like it’s OK to reduce its nuclear infrastructure, Russia still wants to have the upper hand there, and were it to get it, its behavior would become more aggressive.)

Some of the reform effort is on target, Schwartz said. It has reorganized itself well for the most part, has increased the pace of training exercises and is fortifying its hold in the Arctic. Some of its hardware aims for 2020 are in good shape, like with its air force, but it’s unlikely to hit the numbers it wants for next generation tanks and sea vessels, he said.

There are two particularly large problems: It doesn’t have the manpower it wants, with its 1 million active troops claim short by 200,000 to 250,000, and it’s ending up with subpar equipment because it is propping up poorly performing defense contractors, Schwartz said. And that’s costing Russia extra money.

Russia is also making use of “soft power” in a way it wasn’t just a few years ago, such as on the cyber front or in manipulating the media, said Andrew C. Kuchins. And it’s seeking to “court wayward states” as allies, as a number of countries turn to the United States for help and aren’t getting as much as they would like, said Jeffrey A. Mankoff.

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