Within very recent memory, the near-universal consensus on Russia’s military was that it was a hollow, empty shell of its former Soviet might. It was widely agreed that the Russian army had been fatally weakened by a combination of corruption, incompetence, greed, and the demographic crisis of the 1990′s (which greatly limited the number of healthy military-age males). Budgets were being stolen, there was an “absence of real reform,” and the head of the Russian defense ministry was personally implicated in theft and murder. It did not seem like a promising institutional framework in which to build a lean, modern, and effective military.
Consider, for example, the following quote, which comes from an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School:
Events in the Crimea do not alter this basic fact. Russia is passing from the scene in this sense, with an unsustainable economic and maybe even political model. It could be argued that a central challenge of the 21st century will, in fact, be the collapse of the Russian state when the oil runs out and Putin’s mafia cronies are all enjoying themselves in their villas in the French Riviera
Opinions varied as to precisely how decayed and desiccated Russia’s military was, but what virtually no one was arguing (at least in public) was that Russia’s recent military reforms had quickly led to the creation of a fighting force that was a “near peer” of the US army. A year or two ago if you had argued that, if they met on equal terms, the Russian army would have a decent chance at beating its American counterpart you would have been relentlessly mocked as a “useful idiot” or even labeled a Kremlin agent.
Now, however, the expert consensus has rapidly shifted to the opposite extreme. The Russian military hasn’t simply been able to modestly increase its combat power, it is now supposedly capable of besting the US army in a fair fight. As recounted in a recent story for Politico:
In early September he circulated a PowerPoint presentation showing that in a head-to-head confrontation pitting the equivalent of a U.S. armored division against a likely Russian adversary, the U.S. division would be defeated. “Defeated isn’t the right word,” Macgregor told me last week. “The right word is annihilated.” The 21-slide presentation features four battle scenarios, all of them against a Russian adversary in the Baltics – what one currently serving war planner on the Joint Chiefs staff calls “the most likely warfighting scenario we will face outside of the Middle East.”
An honest reading of the article suggests that the struggle within the Pentagon is at least as much about bureaucratic turf wars and office politics as much as it is about facing down the Russians, but you nonetheless have senior army officers publicly going on the record describing the Russian military as a potent, capable fighting force that is a major threat to and “near-peer” of NATO.
This is rather surprising. If you look at the amount of money spent on the Russian and American militaries you would not expect them to have even remotely similar combat capabilities. Here is what spending per soldier has looked like since 2000 (the enormous disparity would be even larger if the 1990s are taken into account, but I wanted to keep the comparison as simple as possible).
On average, over the past fifteen years the US military has spent about $10 per soldier for every $1 that the Russians have spent. That is an enormous, yawning gap that has only moderated very slightly in the past 2-3 years.
The only way that the Russian military could have combat capabilities that even remotely approximate America’s is if the supposedly corrupt and incompetent Russians have developed sophisticated methodologies that enable them to radically increase the amount of combat power generated per dollar spent.
Knowing what I know about the Russian government I have strong doubts that the Kremlin has succeeded in doing that, but that is the inevitable conclusion if, like many of the people cited in that Politico story, you now consider the Russians a “near peer.”
This article was written by Mark Adomanis from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.