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Russia rearms

Conor Dillon / Mikhail Bushuev
May 17, 2014

NATO's secretary general has once again warned of Russia's military capacities. A look at the country's armed forces shows modernizing equipment, more flexible soldiers and nuclear parity.

Vladimir Putin walks away from a T-50 fighter jet
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Russian defense spending has grown by more than 10 percent in real terms each year over the past five years," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia on Thursday (15.05.2014).

Rasmussen then bleakly contrasted Moscow's upward investments with declining equivalents in several European NATO countries, each of which cut spending by roughly 20 percent during that same period.

The comments by the secretary general were the strongest yet in a string of warnings on Russia's military capacity after the country annexed Crimea in March and stationed troops on Ukraine's eastern border.

One day later, Rasmussen raised the rhetoric a notch while speaking in Bucharest, Romania.

Rasmussen looks off-camera in front of the NATO logo.
Rasmussen will remain NATO's secretary general until the end of SeptemberImage: Reuters

"After what we have seen in Ukraine, no one can trust Russia's so-called guarantees on other countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.

The statements came during a week in which the French government confirmed it will follow through on plans to deliver two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, a decision the US state department's spokesperson called "unhelpful."

Catching up…

Those ships, however, are still officially intended for Vladivostok in eastern Russia, says Nick de Larrinaga at the London-based IHS Jane's Defence Weekly magazine.

Russian journalist Alexander Golts, who has been writing on the Russian armed forces for 15 years, told DW that the figures mentioned by NATO's secretary general are "roughly correct," though "they sum up all spending with respect to defense, and all 12 security agencies."

Both experts agree that Russia is playing catch-up.

"They've got a lot of equipment which is aged and effectively out of date, particularly compared to what you see in the West," de Larrinaga told DW, adding that the country massively scaled back on military spending at the end of the Cold War.

Russia's air force, for example, is composed primarily of Su-27 and Mig-29 fighters. "Even though they're good aircraft, they're quite old designs," said de Larringa.

According to Golts, around 80 percent of all technical equipment in the Russian army is at least 30-40 years old. "The problem is real. But the question is that nobody knows exactly what this huge amount of money is being spent on." Golts added that the state program doesn't specify whether spending will be on pistols or ballistic missiles.

… and overtaking?

Yet ballistic missiles - of the intercontinental and submarine-launched kind capable of nuclear strikes - have already seen heavy Russian investment.

"They certainly have parity with the US, if not dominance," said de Larringa.

By 2020, Russia's aging aircraft are also to be supplemented or replaced by a fighter theoretically on par with the US-developed F-35 Joint Strike fighter: Russia's T-50.

A Russian T-50 fighter plane against the blue sky.
The T-50 has stealth capacity, just like the F-35Image: DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

"Russian aircraft design has always been strong," said de Larringa. "They've developed a lot of different aircraft types, and have only put them into service in fairly small numbers so far."

Lessons learned

The half decade of rearmament referenced by Rasmussen has its roots in Russia's military experience in the Caucasus in 2008.

"They were kind of perceived to have performed not particularly well in Georgia," de Larringa said. "Militarily they won that, but not in the manner they were expecting given their overwhelming strength of force against the Georgians."

By last year Russia had increased military spending to roughly 4 percent of GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Alexander S. Neu, a Left Party politician on the defense committee of German parliament, says Moscow intends to spend 600 billion euros ($835 billion) on new weapons by 2020, which would bring the number closer to 5 percent.

According to Golts, however, Russian authorities speak instead of 400 billion euros (20 trillion rubles), with another 60 billion euros earmarked for weapons and modernizing the Russian defense industry.

Russians in Crimea?

As for Russia's special forces units, little is known. In 2013, Russia's defense ministry declared the establishment of a new subdivision made up of special operations forces able to pursue various military goals, particularly abroad.

Russian troops on the Ukraine border.
A satellite image provided by NATO's SHAPE in April shows Russian troops on Ukraine's borderImage: Reuters

Such forces are suspected of having played a role during the annexation of Crimea - and to now be playing a role in the eastern territories of Ukraine.

Alexandr Golts sees those operatives as anything but novel, though.

"It's just that everybody loves the word 'new.' In fact, these forces are the same old seven brigades of the [Russian military intelligence service ]."

'Global opponents'

In general, Russia is aiming to reduce the size of its army, said de Larringa, "as they try to have a more manageable, better-equipped force."

While that might seem to contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin's statements that Russia's army is to reach 1 million soldiers by 2015, Russian military expert Golts said the order can't be carried out due to a demographic gap remaining from the 1990s.

"We simply don't have enough people," he said.

Golts currently counts less than 800,000 soldiers in the Russian army, with no real perspective for growth.

Still, few expect the world's largest country by landmass to drop troop numbers to levels comparable with Germany or France. Russia still sees primary "global opponents" in both NATO as well as China, Golts said.

"What we saw during the big military exercises on May 7 is that our generals are preparing for a wide-range, global war, which is none other than a nuclear war," said the Russian journalist.

The only difference between NATO and China, he added, is that Beijing is presented by Russian state propaganda as Moscow's only large-scale ally.

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