The familiar version of the Russian military is of the ponderous Cold War juggernaut that invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, heavy on armor and artillery but light on agility, maneuverability and independent action when necessary. Not so much anymore. With Russian adventurism in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, its military is the recipient of an array of new technologies using artificial intelligence, high-resolution geo-spatial imagery, robotics and sophisticated drone technology. While Russia still lags significantly behind the United States in defense spending, $46 billion to the US’s $700 billion, what is important is that Russia is making strides to improve how its military fights and even more importantly where it fights. Russian submarine stealth technology is first rate with boats of the new Yasen and next-generation Husky classes quieter and stealthier than ever while Russian ground and sea-launched ballistic missiles allegedly packing more thrust and accuracy than ever before.
Russian military thinking is also undergoing a revolution. Historically Russia has always fought large defensive wars such as the Patriotic War of 1814 against Napoleon and the Great Patriotic War against Germany (World War 2). New Russian tactics, however, now call for taking the war to the adversary early and with stunning lethality. Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov in recent remarks to the Russian Military Academy stated, “The objects of the economy and the state administration of the enemy will be subject to immediate destruction, in addition to the traditional spheres of armed struggle, the information sphere and space will be actively involved.” With this shift in traditional tactics the Russians now seek to push conflict away from its borders and to the heart of its enemies. With Russia’s loss of its traditional “near abroad” (the 14 former socialist republics of the USSR) and “nearer abroad” (the Warsaw Pact allies) buffer states, Russian military thought now views it as a strategic imperative to take the fight to the adversary. Moreover, Gerasimov recognizes that in order to prevail in future conflict Russia must be prepared to fight a multi-dimensional war targeting a foe’s economic, information, energy and financial infrastructure, all critical instruments of national power. A future war with Russia will assuredly see attacks on all of these “fronts” as warfare enters an age of “inclusive lethality”, further blurring the old combatant/noncombatant targeting paradigms of the past.
This new Russian strategic mindset is itself a carryover of Russia’s traditional way it sees the world and its place in it. Obsessed with encirclement and invasion, Russia now seeks to control the tempo of world events by shifting away from its historic defensive posture to a new deep strike capability that will carry the war to the heartland of its enemies.
For NATO and especially the US, the challenge will be to ensure that Western capabilities in space, information warfare, submarine technology and other military modalities remain robust, technologically superior and nimble. Not to do so would be a mistake whose consequences will be paid for at a future time. The price may not be something we will be pleased to pay.