Can Russia Keep Up With the West Militarily?

In a word, yes. Western observers are anticipating a manpower, funding or material implosion in vain

Political analysis in the West retains a strong bias towards measuring state influence and status according to economic foundations of power, yet Russia has demonstrated that military power remains an important instrument in international politics. Having enacted a period of military reform 2008-2012 and financed a sustained program of modernization, Russian foreign policy is increasingly underwritten either by the use of force, or threat of force, as part and parcel of coercive diplomacy. Though much attention is drawn today to indirect competition, it is Russia’s successful resurrection of military power which enables the country to ‘bench press’ above its weight in the international arena. Indeed, indirect competition is often messy, indecisive, and ineffectual without the weight of conventional military power supporting it.

While observers are cognizant of the resurrection of Russian military power, there remains, however, a considerable debate as to its durability. Simply put, many believe that demographic, economic and industrial trends are against Russia – the country will not be able to sustain this level of direct competition. Yet there is little to suggest, looking ten years out and even beyond, that Russia will suffer from those severe shortages of either manpower, money or materiel which would reduce Russia’s ability to underwrite its foreign policy. On the contrary, Russian demographic trends reflect only an increasing availability of manpower for the growing force, a sustainable defence budget in terms of spending, and a modernization program that will suffice to arm the force well into the 2020s. It can go on, and it will.

Much of the conversation on Russian demographics is simply ill informed. A decline of birth rates throughout the 1990s lasted until 1999. Russia suffered through a decade of declining health standards, fertility, falling birth rates, and emigration. Despite the decline in numbers of 18 year olds available for service, Russian armed forces expanded from perhaps around 700,000 in 2011 to over 900,000 in 2017.

The contract share of the force swelled to as much as 380,000, or more than 50% of the enlisted force. Russian birth rates increased year on year from 2000 until 2015. This means that men born in 2000 will be of service age this year, 2018, and the pool of men aged 18-27 should increase every year from now until 2032.

Russia’s birth rate – World Bank 

Birth rates are hardly the only indicator responsible for growing manpower availability in Russia. The draft board, Voenkomat, has also helped clean up corruption in the number of health exclusions granted to those seeking to dodge service.

In the past, many Russians would spontaneously become unhealthy upon turning 18. But with health exclusions revised, and the rampant buying of disqualifications now attended to, the amount of those deemed unfit had declined to only about 23% in 2016 according to head of the General Staff’s Mobilization Directorate Colonel General Tonkoshkurov. Russia’s chief military prosecutor, Valery Petrov, stated more recently in 2018 that overall draft evasion is down by about 30% from the corrupt heydays of the past.

Beyond reductions in draft dodging, increases in pay, growing public respect for the armed forces, and overall improving conditions in the military have all had a positive effect on recruitment. Starting in 2018, a change in the conscription law now offers draftees the option of one year conscript service or two years under contract with better terms.

General demographics trends offer a complex picture of Russia’s future. Russian life expectancy actually reached a record high in 2017, and fertility rates are closing in on those in the United States, up from 1.157 in 1999 to 1.75 in 2016 (U.S. was at 1.8).

Russia suffers from three principal problems in demographics: the demographic echo from the disastrous 1990s which will return to haunt Moscow in the mid-2030s, a declining workforce which is losing perhaps 600,000 per year in retirements, and the recent economic recession which slowed birth rates 2015-2017 (even despite generous state sponsored family programmes) which will have knock on effects years from now.

Russia’s main problem is not so much the size of its population, but its productivity. Nevertheless, because Russia remains the primary labour market for the former Soviet Union, and is host to a large pool of immigrant labour, it does have answers readily available for the present decline in the labour force. Despite all these challenges, therefore, Russia’s current population is much healthier of late, with the longest lifespan witnessed, and manpower availability is likely to see sustained increases into the mid 2030s.

Fertility rates comparison – World Bank

A steady decline in US fertility rate meets a rise in Russian fertility rate prior to the econ crisis

From a materiel standpoint, it is also difficult to observe looming shortages. The previous State Armament Program 2011-2020 was meant to jumpstart the defence industry, and effectively provided for a dramatic increase in the modernization rating of Russian equipment from 15% in 2010 to almost 60% in 2017 (according to official figures). That program’s achievements merit briefly recounting, as they include the acquisition of 418 aircraft for tactical aviation, 3 combat aviation brigades and 6 combat aviation regiments, 16 air defence regiments of S-400, more than 70 radars of various types for VKS Aerospace forces, 10 Iskander-M brigade sets, completion of Russia’s early warning radar network, 55 military satellites launched into orbit, 12 new regiments of Yars road-mobile ICBMs deployed, more than 3,000 modernized ground force vehicles, 3 new SSBNs and 2 new 4th generation SSGNs, together with diesel-electric submarines, corvettes, and auxiliary ships. This list includes upgrades in more specialized fields, including electronic warfare brigades and companies, new command and control systems to enable recon-strike and fires, together with more than 1800 drones acquired across services.

The funds spent by 2017 doubtfully exceed 50-60% of the original 19 trillion RUB allocated. Thus the new state armament program 2018-2027, at another 19 trillion RUB, plus 1 trillion for infrastructure, and 3 trillion for other security services, represents a sustained investment. Albeit with reduced purchasing power, the new state armament program will focus on areas neglected, or perhaps ‘jump started’ by its predecessor. These include large-scale acquisition of precision guided munitions, long-range standoff cruise missiles, transport aviation, bomber modernization, expansion of artillery, armour, and missile formations in the ground forces, more capable drones, and next generation tech like hypersonic weapons.

Even in Russia’s lagging industry, shipbuilding, one can see that core sectors of competence such as submarine construction remain capable of producing some of the most sophisticated platforms available. Russia currently has 11 nuclear powered submarines laid down, and is able to build a diesel-electric submarine in 18 months, with a division of 6 currently in production for the Pacific Fleet. Despite a messy divorce from Ukraine’s defence sector, the material is not only there to sustain Russian military modernization, but the production rates are more than sufficient even in troublesome sectors.

In other areas, such as the ground forces, the conflict in Ukraine and Syria has illustrated that Russian ‘good enough’ is can deal with the country’s military requirements for the coming decade. Modernized Soviet platforms are able to beat any former Soviet republic on Russia’s borders. Possessing them at high readiness, and large numbers, means Russia can effectively impose its will on neighbours or coerce them in a crisis. If anything, most of the challenges faced by Moscow are self-imposed, such as the decision to expand the ground force structure so quickly that it will inherently suffer in readiness and mobility.

The defence industry has shown itself capable of producing current generation technology such that Russia has a viable path towards conventional deterrence vis-a-vis the United States, meanwhile less advanced elements of the Russian military are more than suitable for compellence in local and regional conflicts.

Assuming levels of economic growth at 1.5%, there is little to suggest that Russia cannot sustain this level of military expenditure, which will amount to no more than 4% of GDP. Meanwhile Russian spending on national defence will likely hover at around 2.8% of GDP, as the defence budget is only seeing modest cuts relative to other sections of the budget. The fact that oil prices are 50% above the $40 per barrel mark which the government used to underpin its budget expectations is yet another indicator that the economic outlook for defence spending is considerably better than usually appreciated.

While the defence budget may still have fat to trim, coming off of historic highs in 2014, there is less urgency in spending on procurement after major gaps have been filled in 2011-2017, and the defence industry revitalized in the process. Adjusted for purchasing power parity, Russia remains just behind Germany as the second largest GDP in Europe. Although it is technically a middle income country, Russia’s raw GDP hides considerable purchasing power when it comes to defence spending and the ability to sustain its armed forces.

On the basis of macro indicators such as manpower, materiel, and money, therefore, Russia is positioned to sustain its policies, even if this means a prolonged confrontation well into the 2020s, and perhaps 2030s. More importantly, Moscow’s ability to leverage military power as one of the more decisive instruments in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives should be clearly understood. Russia can retain the current degree of military activity, snap readiness tests, large strategic exercises, expeditionary operations in Syria, and a rotating presence in Ukraine. The challenges Russia faces are consequential, often resulting in cycles of stagnation and mobilization, but they are not deterministic, as has historically been the case for this particular power.

Source: Russian Military Analysis

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  2. Ronnie&MargaretInDementia says

    Murica doesn’t want a hot war, they want Cold War 2.0. Much more profit in it and it’s easier to distract and keep the population in fear. Hot war is no good, it’d be over in a month and the Russians would win

  3. ke4ram says

    The US and West have lost their tax base,,, manufacturing base,,, quality induction base,,, currency debasement.

    The USA has 70-80 million unemployed under employed. It’s deficit is now twice its tax receipts probably more if one includes the lie factor.

    It’s manufacturing is gone for all practical purposes and whats left has forgotten the Q word…Quality. Most people in the US are unskilled and way under educated. They can flip burgers, stock shelves and mow yards but have no skills required for most manufacturing.

    The people entering the military are doing so out of desperation. There are no decent jobs available for them outside the military. The education system in the US is primarily indoctrination. Therefore the quality of recruits is sharply down.

    The FRB is debasing the currency at an incredible rate. This monetary inflation (true definition) is causing the debasement which is causing price inflation. In other words the money purchases less than what it used to. If not for the dollar being a major world currency it would have self destructed long ago.

    The Bribe / Corruption / Bonus factor is on the order of 50 dollars per 1 dollar of military product.

    Add in the corruption of the congress, the executive and the high ranking military critters it goes up to a 100 to 1. Which is why Russia’s 60-80 billion dollar war budget can easily compete with the over trillion dollar US war budget.

    The US is in decline in all areas. Internally its a disaster with socialists attempting a takeover. It will likely end up as a quasi dictatorship and break up into sections. I see no other direction for the country considering the traitors presently in charge and those vying to take control.

    1. nick1111 says

      Sounds right

    2. David Bedford says

      The US are in decline in every imaginable area, Chinese are on the rise and Russia is a country masquerading as an oil and gas station.

  4. cechas vodobenikov says

    nobody wants a major war–today wars are low intensity proxy wars; tariffs, sanctions–hybrid war.

  5. Saint Jimmy (Russian American) says

    All it takes are several well placed nuclear warheads. They could be Russian. They could be Chinese. They could be Russian and Chinese. No country on earth has the ability to completely stop a nuclear attack. Any information to the contrary is corporate/war industry propaganda and an extremely dangerous lie. I’ll put it in street lingo for my fellow Americans….

    Big Bad Bully: Hey, we’re gonna huff and puff and steal your shit. We are bad asses.

    Russia: Shut the fuck up. You know me and Charlie Chan over here got some little friends and a nuclear gun you don’t want to see but we will use them.

    It’s still that simple.

  6. cechas vodobenikov says

    in international competitions the military and special forces always rank between #1-3. Russia spends 10% of what US does and has a superior more modern military than USA—-better weapons, etc

    1. Richard Hollembeak says

      The birth rate in the USSA is about the same as Russia put look at who is having the babies at taxpayers expense , not the brightest and smartest .

      1. cechas vodobenikov says

        not certain why this matters. Russia has universal health care, state mandatory paid parental, maternity leave. 40 days and state paid higher education….this attracts productive immigrants from other nations
        in the most recent PERLs comparison among nations amerikan children rank 42, yet US spends more on its students than all nations and pays its teachers more than all but 4 European nations—Northern Irish children #6, Russian children #1—yet by PPP Russian teachers paid half of US teachers

  7. Jihadi Colin says

    Unfortunately, Russia under Putin is also reactive, not proactive. Putin always tends to let things happen and go on until the situation becomes unbearable (Syria, Libya, Donbass), and then reacts just enough to impose a status quo (not status quo ante, just a status quo). This ends up creating a Maginot Line defence policy, where allied and expeditionary forces substitute for the French chain of forts. In the long run this is as unsustainable as the French policy was.

    1. cechas vodobenikov says

      Russia is not interested in imperialism as is the anglosphere— emphases on culture, education public health his improved living conditions, health, productivity, housing, etc during the past 2 decades….while US incarcerates more per capita than any nation in history, Russia has closed 40 prisons and halved the incarcerated population in the past 15 years

      1. Jihadi Colin says

        What does that have to do with this?

    2. ke4ram says

      Putin and Xi know the US is in decline both externally and internally. They are patiently waiting for the end. The US is now in a catch up situation where Russia is concerned,,, exactly the same situation the USSR was experiencing in the Reagan era.

      The US can bloviate its greatness, still has the power to intimidate and can still bully its way but it is crashing fast. This coming farce of an election will likely be the beginning of its end. Regardless of who “wins” the country loses.

      1. nick1111 says

        The cornered rat is the most dangerous

        1. Canosin says

          only need to stomp on it…..rat dead

      2. Jihadi Colin says

        What happens if the Amerikastani Empire decides to try to prevent its final collapse by starting a world war? It worked – for 40 years – for the Brits, and the current leadership (both so called parties) of the Amerikastani Empire are military illiterates whose corporate owners in the military industrial complex need war to keep their stock pieces high. On the same level the propaganda about “winnable” nuclear wars haven’t exactly gone unnoticed by anybody.

        1. Canosin says


          1. Jihadi Colin says

            Did we know each other on Fakebook?

            1. Canosin says

              never been on fakebook

            2. Jihadi Colin says

              I left it long ago, but there was someone there who used to call it Americanistan.

            3. David Bedford says

              A lot of people call America Americanista, they are not all the one person you know.

        2. ke4ram says

          It will be decimated.

          It will get no help from its allies as they are in worse shape than the US.

          How many wars has the US won in the last 75 years? 2 – 4 – 2… Grenada and Panama being the wins.

          The US Military is a career for many as there are no outside job opportunities. It is more interested in virtual seeking than readiness. This has led to much lower standards in an effort to show the wittle woman is equal. The education level is very low as schools in the US are more interested in indoctrination.

          It has a lot of carriers, littoral ships and others that might last 30 minutes.

          It has no missile defense system that works.

          There are no shelters for the people,,, only for gov officials.

          The F35 is a POS. F18 is okay but I think they have intentions on eliminating it.

          The US tanks are no match for Russian tanks.

          US nukes are outdated and not even near the class of the new Russian or Chinese products. Remember the US nukes were built back when the US actually produced real goods. They are good but outdated and out classed.

          The US MIC is in it for the cash and produce little in the way of viable equipment,,, mostly just bells and whistles.

          And besides,,, A nuclear war is unwinnable but the US will fare much worse.

    3. Padre says


      1. Jihadi Colin says

        Very cogent. Hopefully you didn’t strain too many brain cells formulating that response.

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