Russia: a new confrontation? - Defence Committee Contents

2  Russia's military capability and posture

28. Russia's military capability, readiness and posture are of critical importance to international security, not only in terms of their immediate military consequences but also in their wider effect on international relations. Russia's military has a formidable number of personnel in its Armed Forces—some 1.1 million troops. Yet its conventional forces face considerable challenges in responding to the changing threats of the 21st century at a time of economic downturn.

Russia's military capability

29. With the collapse of the USSR, its Armed Forces were re-designated as the Russian Armed Forces in May 1992; described at that time by Pavel Grachev, the first Russian Minister of Defence as "an army of ruins and debris".[47] During the 1990s, the Russian military declined as a result of financial crisis and lack of political leadership. Many of Russia's military assets fell into disrepair, while attempts at reform were minimal.

30. The election of Vladimir Putin as President in 2000 led to a revival in the Armed Forces because of his determination to place Russia on the world stage. This revival included increased investment in defence; a determination to retain global nuclear weapon capabilities on a technical par with the United States; a capacity to project conventional forces efficiently within the Eurasian land mass and possibly beyond; and a growth in military forces specifically at the service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) with its Border Guard Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief.[48]

31. On 13 May 2009, President Medvedev agreed a revised National Security Strategy of Russia through to 2020, which provides the basis for Russia's military doctrine. The strategy presents Russia's analysis of the current threats facing Russia and its security priorities. It clearly identifies the foreign policy of other countries as a threat to Russia's national security, with a thinly veiled attack on the United State's proposed Ballistic Missile Defence system:

The threats to military security are the policy by a number of leading foreign states, aimed at attaining dominant superiority in the military sphere, in the first place in strategic nuclear forces, by developing high-precision, information and other high-tech means of warfare, strategic armaments with non-nuclear ordnance, the unilateral formation of the global missile defence system and militarization of outer space, which is capable of bringing about a new spiral of the arms race, as well as the development of nuclear, chemical and biological technologies, the production of weapons of mass destruction or their components and delivery vehicles.[49]

32. The Russian military is the fifth largest in the world in terms of active personnel; it is exceeded only by China, the United States, India and North Korea.[50] It has 1.1 million active personnel and 20 million in reserve, 10 per cent of whom have seen active service within the last five years. Russia also places considerable emphasis on maintaining and developing its nuclear capability as well as its conventional forces.

33. One of the key characteristics and points of difference between many Western countries and Russia is the extent to which Russia relies on conscription over voluntary recruits. At present, over 80 per cent of the 500,000 rank and file soldiers are conscripts.[51] National service for a period of one year is mandatory for young male adults over the age of 18. Russia has recognised that its current levels of manning are not sustainable in the long term, partially as a result of the declining birth rate. Increasing the use of contract personnel—professional solders, as we would call them—is a key part of Russia's defence reform programme.


34. Russian ground forces, together with airborne and naval infantry units, are approximately 390,000 strong. Russia also maintains 170,000 interior ministry forces and 160,000 border troops.[52] The Russian Federation fields some 25 active divisions and 15 brigades, though not all of them are presently at full strength. Forces are configured largely for territorial defence but also offensive and peacekeeping operations. Russia's reliance on conscript soldiers for the bulk of its forces is believed to reduce the quality of its ground force units. Russia is taking strides to modernise the equipment of its ground forces. For example, it is introducing a main battle tank, the T95, which has been in development for some time and is expected to enter service after 2010, having originally been intended for service in 1994 but held up for financial reasons.[53] The table below identifies ground force assets:Table 1: Russia's main ground force assets
  • 23,000 main battle tanks (MBT) and 150 light tanks.
  • Over 2,000 reconnaissance vehicles, 9,900 armoured personnel carriers and in excess of 15,000 armoured infantry fighting vehicles.
  • In excess of 26,000 artillery pieces.
  • An unspecified number of unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Forces are also equipped with a variety of anti-tank and approximately 2,500 surface-to-air missiles.

Source: Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 68


35. Russia's naval forces comprise 142,000 personnel divided into four Fleets and the Caspian Sea Flotilla.[54] The primary purpose of the Russian navy is to provide the sea-based nuclear deterrent capability and defend Russia's sea lanes and territorial waters. Its expeditionary capability is limited to one aircraft carrier. However, in July 2008 Moscow announced ambitious plans to develop six new aircraft carrier battle groups. Russia also plans major upgrades to its nuclear submarine fleet with between 8 and 12 new submarines expected to be built by 2020. The first new submarine (in the BOREY class) will commence trials in 2010.[55]

36. In recent years, Russia has used its naval assets extensively to further its foreign policy agenda. Its navy has made high profile sorties into the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean, visiting ports in Syria and Venezuela and carrying out combat operations in the Black Sea during the Georgia crisis of 2008. Russia's key naval assets are detailed in the table below.Table 2: Naval assets [56]
Northern Fleet

The fleet is equipped with a combination of submarine and principal surface combatants, including elements of Russia's sea-based nuclear deterrent force:

  • 10 strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBN)
  • 23 tactical submarines, comprising 16 attack submarines and 7 Kilo-class patrol submarines with anti-submarine warfare capability
  • 8 submersible support vessels
  • 10 principal surface combatants including 1 aircraft carrier, 1 guided missile cruiser and 2 nuclear powered guided missile cruisers, one of which is in reserve, and 7 guided missile destroyers (one of which is in reserve)
  • 14 patrol and coastal combatants (8 frigates and 4 corvettes)
  • 10 mine warfare vessels
  • 5 amphibious and in excess of 130 logistics and support vessels.

The naval aviation arm of the Northern Fleet also comprises 38 Tu-22M bombers, 20 Su-33 (the naval equivalent of the Su-27) which is designed to deploy aboard Russia's only aircraft carrier, 10 Su-25 ground attack aircraft and a number of transport aircraft, in addition to anti-submarine warfare, assault and support helicopters.

Pacific Fleet

Similarly to the Northern Fleet, the fleet is equipped with a combination of submarines (including elements of the sea-based nuclear deterrent) and principal surface combatants, although the forces of the Northern fleet are significantly larger:

  • 4 Delta III SSBN equipped with 16 RSM-50 SLBM and 1 Delta IV-class equipped with 16 RSM-54 Sineva SLBM (5 SSBN in total)
  • 20 tactical submarines, including 4 attack submarines (7 in reserve) and 6 Kilo-class patrol submarines with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability (3 in reserve)
  • 15 principal surface combatants, including 1 guided missile cruiser, 5 guided missile destroyers (a further three in reserve) and 9 frigates
  • 16 patrol and coastal combatants with surface-to-surface missiles
  • 9 mine countermeasures vessels
  • 4 amphibious and 57 logistics and support vessels.

The naval aviation arm of the fleet comprises 14 Tu-22M bomber aircraft, 30 MiG-31 fighter/interceptor aircraft, a number of ASW and transport aircraft, in addition to ASW, assault and support helicopters. Naval infantry and one division of coastal defence forces are also deployed as part of the ground forces of the Far Eastern military district.

Black Sea Fleet

Assets of the fleet include:

  • 1 patrol submarine with ASW capability (and a further 1 in reserve)
  • 11 principal surface combatant, comprising 2 guided missile cruisers, 3 guided missile destroyers and 8 frigates/corvettes
  • 10 patrol and coastal combatants
  • 7 mine warfare and mine countermeasures vessels
  • 7 amphibious and in excess of 90 logistics and support vessels

The naval aviation arm of the fleet comprises 18 Su-24 ground attack aircraft, 18 ASW and transport aircraft and 42 ASW and support helicopters. Naval infantry and coastal defence forces are deployed with the ground forces of the North Caucasus military district.

Baltic Fleet

  • 2 patrol submarines with ASW capability (one of which is in reserve)
  • 5 Principal surface combatants, including 2 guided missile destroyers and 3 frigates
  • 22 patrol and coastal combatants
  • 11 mine warfare and mine countermeasures vessels (one of which is in reserve)
  • 4 amphibious and 130 logistics and support vessels

The naval aviation arm of the fleet consists of 23 Su-27 fighter/interceptor aircraft, 26 Su-24 ground attack aircraft, 14 transport aircraft and a number of attack, ASW, assault and support helicopters. In addition, the naval infantry and coastal defence forces of the Kaliningrad special region operate under the command of the Baltic fleet.

Caspian Sea Flotilla

The Caspian Sea Flotilla is a multinational venture between Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, intended for coastal defence and waterways patrol. Joint forces are operating under Russian command, currently based at Astrakhan. Russian assets assigned to the flotilla include:

  • 1 frigate
  • 6 patrol and coastal combatants
  • 9 mine warfare and mine countermeasures vessels
  • 6 amphibious and 15 logistics and support ships

Source: Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 68


37. Russia's air force currently comprises some 160,000 personnel. Under present plans, it is expected that this will be reduced to approximately 148,000 personnel. The air force is estimated to have over 4,000 aircraft with 833 in reserve. Russia's main air assets are detailed below.Table 3: Air force assets
Long Range Aviation Command (37th Air Army)
  • 116 combat capable bomber aircraft
  • Tactical Aviation
  • Approximately 1,743 combat capable aircraft, including 807 bomber/ground attack aircraft (Su-25A, Su-24 and Su-24M2, Su-34; 725 fighter aircraft (MiG-31, MiG-29, Su-27 and MiG-25); 119 reconnaissance aircraft (MiG-25R and Su-24MR)
  • 20 A-50 airborne early warning aircraft
  • A number of training aircraft; unmanned aerial vehicles
  • 60 electronic countermeasures helicopters

Delivery of the new Su-35 multi-role fighter aircraft is expected to commence in 2010-2011. Assets are equipped with air-to-surface (AS-14, AS-15, AS-16, AS-4 and AS-7) missiles; anti-radiation (AS-11, AS-12 and AS-17) missiles; air-to-air (AA-10, AA-8 and AA-11) missiles and laser-guided and GPS guided bombs.

Military Transport Aviation Command (61st Air Army)

  • Over 293 transport aircraft (An-12, An-124, An-22 and Il-76 aircraft)
    • Army Aviation Helicopters
  • 20 attack helicopter regiments (635 combat capable helicopters)
  • Transport and electronic countermeasures regiments (643 helicopters)

Air Force Aviation Training Schools

  • Over 980 training aircraft including the MiG-29, Su-27, MiG-23, Su-25, Tu-134 and L-39

Source: Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 72


38. Russia continues to have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.[57] It is estimated to have an active operational arsenal of approximately 5,200 warheads, and approximately 8,800 intact warheads in reserve or awaiting dismantlement.[58] Russia is determined to keep its strategic nuclear forces up to date and has given them financial priority. From 2006, Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces have been bolstered by the progressive deployment of new land-based Topol-M missile systems. A new generation of ballistic missile-carrying submarines will be deployed by the end of 2010; Russia currently has 12 such submarines though it is reported that only eight of these are combat ready.[59] Russia maintains its nuclear assets at a high state of readiness and conducts regular exercises.[60] In 2004 and 2008, the Russian Federation exercised all three legs of its nuclear strategic triad, and is expected to do so again in 2009.[61]


39. Russia has an ambitious and internally controversial military reform programme to modernise and professionalise its Armed Forces. Attempts have been made in the last 18 years to reform the Armed Forces with very limited success. During our visit to Russia, we were told that the conflict with Georgia had demonstrated that the army was not best configured to fight local small-scale battles. Edward Lucas said that the "lesson of the Georgian war" was that:

Russia found it quite difficult to beat Georgia which is a country of one-thirtieth its size [...] military modernisation has been very slow so far.[62]

The Georgia conflict provided the political impetus for President Medvedev to announce a sweeping reform programme.

40. On 14 October 2008, The Russian Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, launched the latest round of military reforms. The main elements of the programme are to:

  • accelerate the downsizing of the Armed Forces;
  • reduce the number of officers and restructure the composition of the officer corps;
  • establish a non-commissioned officer corps;
  • centralise the system of officer training;
  • reorganise and downsize central command and control bodies, including the Russian Defence Ministry and the general staff;
  • eliminate cadre formations and bring all formations to permanent readiness status;
  • reorganise the reserves and their training system;
  • reduce the number of units, formations, and bases;
  • reorganise the Ground Forces into a brigade system, eliminating the regiment, division, corps, and army echelons; and
  • reorganise the Airborne Troops, eliminating divisions.[63]

41. One of the most controversial aspects of the programme within Russia is the reduction in the size of the army, and in particular the reduction in officers. Russia has a significantly higher ratio of officers to rank and file personnel than is the norm in Western military forces. It plans on reducing 200,000 officer posts by 2012, making 120,000 officers redundant this year.[64] This includes removing 200 posts at General level. The reform programme has met with significant opposition from within the Armed Forces. Several retired Russian generals have argued that the reforms would destroy Russia's military capability, and have even gone as far as calling for the Russian Defence Minister's resignation and prosecution.[65] Andrew Wood said, "the officer corps in general has been extremely successful in frustrating [reform]".'[66] President Medvedev has dismissed a number of senior military officers who were opposing the reforms; it is reported that this action has "crushed the remnants of high-level resistance within the MoD" to reform.[67]

42. The financial pressures on the Russian state will undoubtedly affect its programme of reforms. The reforms will be expensive; Prime Minister Putin announced on 15 January 2009 that he would invest over Rb14 trillion (£80 billion) over three years to ensure the delivery of the state's defence order.[68] The reforms will cause social disruption by creating so many redundancies at a time of rising unemployment. On 12 February 2009, General Makarov, the Russian Chief of Staff, announced that military spending would be cut by 15 per cent during 2009.[69] Denis Corboy argued that the economic crisis would slow the progress of reform, but that it would still take place.[70] It is not clear that Russia will be able to sustain and implement all of its ambitious modernisation plans given the extent of the economic downturn.

43. Nevertheless, many Western commentators have welcomed Russia's military reform programme. Edward Lucas said, "we should be thoroughly in favour of the modernisation of the Russian Armed Forces".[71] He argued that the reform would ensure that Russia treated its rank and file soldiers better and would provide increased opportunities for joint operations between Russia and the West. Oksana Antonenko also agreed that Russia's defence reform programme, if successfully implemented, would develop interoperability and thereby opportunities for joint peace-keeping.[72] We welcome Russia's military reform programme that will modernise and professionalise its Armed Forces. It provides an opportunity for Russia to increase the interoperability of its Armed Forces and thereby the possibility for increased joint operations with NATO forces, whilst also improving the conditions of its rank and file soldiers. The UK military is experienced in implementing reforms. The Ministry of Defence should offer support to Russia in implementing its reform programme.

Russia's military posture


44. Russia has increased the number and reach of its operations and exercises in recent years. In 2007, Russia resumed the patrolling of international airspace for the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union. In addition, in December 2008, Russia conducted naval exercises in the Caribbean and off the coast of Venezuela. Dr Alex Pravda described these exercises as "echoes of global ambition" although they are "very tentative".[73]

45. Russia's Armed Forces are engaged in a number of operations that it characterises as peace-keeping—although, as one witness commented to us, "you will see a difference between the Western and the Russian interpretations of those concepts".[74] Russia has 1,500 troops in the Moldovan separatist region of Transistria, an estimated 1800 troops in Abkhazia and 4,000 in South Ossetia. The Russian military is also cooperating with international forces, such as in Chad and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Eden.


46. During our visit to Estonia, interlocutors expressed concern about Russia's unauthorised military flights into NATO airspace, which was seen as an aggressive tactic. Edward Lucas particularly has drawn attention to this issue. He described Russia's tactics as "adolescent sabre-rattling" yet argued that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should take the issue seriously, as it is "not the behaviour of a friendly country".[75]

47. The UK press have featured stories that imply that Russia's air tactics are a threat to UK security.[76] We sought information from the MoD to clarify the scale and nature of the issue of military incursions into NATO and UK airspace. We were told that during 2007-2009 no Russian aircraft have entered UK airspace—defined as 12 nautical miles from the UK coastline—without authorisation. However, Russian military aircraft have entered the UK Flight Information Region—outside UK territorial airspace—without permission. This is part of international airspace and, as such, Russia is able to exercise its defence capabilities there. Yet all countries are required to communicate that they are making such flights under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations to which Russia is signatory.[77] The MoD told us that in 2007 Russian military aircraft attempted to enter this airspace without permission on ten separate days; in 2008 on six separate days; and in 2009 (up until 1 May 2009) on two separate days. The MoD told us that they were unable to provide data on flights into NATO airspace within the timescales of our inquiry and that such information was likely to be classified.[78]

48. The MoD attempted to reassure us that Russia's military flights do not pose a security threat. The Minister for International Defence and Security, the Rt Hon. Baroness Taylor of Bolton, stressed that the problem of air incursions into NATO airspace "is not specifically that it is considered as a military threat but that there are safety and air traffic control issues."[79] Group Captain Malcolm Crayford agreed:

The flights do not pose a threat to the UK; they are flying in international airspace but [...] we are concerned on flight safety grounds as these aircraft cut across some of the busiest air routes in the world. Whilst we intercept them with RAF aircraft, the UK's air defence system can track Russian aircraft throughout and we liaise with our civil air traffic control counterparts in terms of safety.[80]

The MoD added in supplementary evidence:

the re-emergence of long-range flights from Russia is something that the Russians are perfectly entitled to do and those flights that have entered the UK Flight Information Region do not pose a threat to the UK.[81]

49. Russia's unauthorised flights into international airspace, including the UK's flight information region, do not pose a direct security threat to NATO or the UK; nevertheless, they are not the actions of a friendly nation and risk escalating tension. A further issue is that Russia's actions threaten the safety of civil flights and risk leading to serious accidents; Russia should not be making such flights without informing the appropriate authorities. The Government should take a more robust approach in making clear to Russia that its continued secret incursions by military aircraft into international airspace near to the UK is not acceptable behaviour. The Government should call on NATO to ensure that it monitors and assesses the threat posed by unauthorised Russian military flights into NATO and international airspace near to NATO's territorial perimeter.

Assessment of the military threat posed by Russia

50. Many of our witnesses stressed that Russia poses a military threat to other former Soviet States, particularly in light of its actions in Georgia. James Sherr told us:

There has been nevertheless—and Georgia bears this out—over the past ten years, since Vladimir Putin became President, a very focused effort to make the Russian Armed Forces fit for a wide range of regional contingencies, projecting power on a regional scale.[82]

In Estonia, interlocutors expressed concern that Russia threatened their national security through its increasingly assertive behaviour. Edward Lucas described Russia as "like an aggressive man on crutches—no threat to the able-bodied, but still a menacing bully for someone in a wheelchair".[83] On the other hand, Professor Light argued that Russia did not militarily threaten any of its immediate neighbours as it has other tools of influence at its disposal which it is more likely to use.[84]

51. Following the events in Georgia and Russia's gas dispute with Ukraine, there has been much debate as to the extent to which Russia is seeking to exert its influence over Ukraine. Some witnesses argued that Russia posed a military threat to Ukraine. Martin McCauley suggested that one scenario was that Putin could send in military forces to Ukraine to secure the Russian military base at Sevastopol.[85] The Russian Black Sea Fleet is authorised by Ukraine to remain at the port until 2017 but it is far from certain that the Ukrainian government will extend the lease. Yet Dr Pravda pointed out that the Russian public would be unlikely to support military action in Ukraine, so Russia is more likely to use economic and political leverage to secure its ends.[86] Oksana Antonenko believed that there was no prospect of Russian military action in Ukraine at all because of the close ties between the people of both countries. She argued that it was, however, possible that Russia would seek to influence Ukraine's domestic politics.[87]

52. It is understandable that some of Russia's neighbouring states should feel concerned about the possibility of Russian military action against them given Russia's actions in Georgia. Russia has proved that it is quite capable of using military force if it chooses. Russia does not, however, need to use conventional force to achieve its objectives; it has political and economic tools at its disposal to influence its neighbouring states.

53. In contrast to the level of threat Russia poses to some of its neighbouring states, Russia does not currently pose a direct threat to UK homeland security, nor is likely to do so in the near future. Edward Lucas acknowledged that Russia was "too weak militarily and economically, and too dependent on the outside world, to use brute force against the West".[88] The FCO assessed the direct Russian security threat to the UK as "very low".[89] Although it is hard to conceive of a scenario in which Russia would threaten UK homeland security, Russia threatens the national interests of the UK through its attempts to establish a sphere of influence over other former Soviet States. It is in the UK's national interest to have stable democratic and independent states in Eastern Europe as this enhances European security. Russia's behaviour risks undermining this and thereby working against our own national interests.

47   James Sherr , Russia and the West: A Reassessment, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham Papers, No. 6, p 26 Back

48   James Sherr , Russia and the West: A Reassessment, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham Papers, No. 6, p 27 Back

49   Official translation not available at the time of print, unofficial translation provided by ITAR-TASS, "Medvedev unveils national security strategy until 2020", 13 May 2009, Back

50   Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 64 Back

51   Ev 129 Back

52   Ev 129 Back

53   "T-95 MBT, MBT's and medium tanks", Jane's, Back

54   The Caspian Sea Flotilla is a multinational venture between Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan intended for coastal defence and waterways patrol. Joint forces are operating under Russian command, currently based at Astrakhan. Back

55   Ev 130 Back

56   Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 70 Back

57   Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 75 Back

58   Russia's Military Posture, Research Paper 09/35, House of Commons Library, April 2009, p 74 Back

59   "Only 8 Russian strategic submarines are combat-ready", RIA Novosti, 1 June 2009 Back

60   Ev 130 Back

61   "Global Insights: Military exercises showcase Russian power and its limits", World Politics Review, 14 October 2008, Back

62   Q 7 Back

63   "Serdyukov's plan for Russian military reform", Moscow Defence Brief, Vol 1, (15) 2009 Back

64   "Serdyukov's plan for Russian military reform", Moscow Defence Brief, Vol 1, (15) 2009 Back

65   "Russian military reform: still on track?", Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy, 18 December 2008 Back

66   Q 226 Back

67   "Military reform in Russia plows ahead", 30 April 2009, The Jamestown Foundation, Back

68   Ev 131 Back

69   "Russia cuts military spending", 11 February 2009, Reuters, Back

70   Q 229 Back

71   Q 6 Back

72   Ev 149 Back

73   Q 118 Back

74   Q 122 Back

75   Q 9 Back

76   "RAF scrambles to intercept Russian bombers", Times online, 18 July 2007,, and "Hey you get of our cloud", The Sun, 3 April 2008, Back

77   Ev 168 Back

78   Ev 169 Back

79   Q 254 Back

80   Q 254 Back

81   Ev 169 Back

82   Q 37 Back

83   Edward Lucas, The New Cold War Cold War, 2008, p 21 Back

84   Q 38 Back

85   Q 151 Back

86   Q 153 Back

87   Q 158 Back

88   Edward Lucas, The New Cold War, 2008, p 21 Back

89   Ev 126 Back

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