Is Russia a Real Threat to Europe?

The shadow of the Soviet Union is lean and mean and working on a comeback

A Russian army T-72-B3 tank fires during military exercises at the Raevsky range in Southern Russia on Sept. 23, 2020. Image Credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty Images

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was euphoria in the West. The end of the Cold War brought with it the spirit of the latest war to end all wars. Cue the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change.”

Nevertheless, new international threats arose in the form of Islamist extremism and a rising China. Meanwhile, the old threat never ceased to exist; it was only temporarily weakened, easy to overlook and even scorn. Now Russia rises again. Ruled in an authoritarian (if not totalitarian) way, the heir to the USSR seeks to regain its area of influence in Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Compared to the juggernaut that was the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation might appear to be a shadow of its former military power. However, this is not the case. During the Cold War, the size of the Soviet military was enormous—unreasonably so. In reality, provisions for such large armed forces were meager because they were unaffordable. Soviet military personnel were poorly paid, poorly motivated, poorly trained and saddled with enormous amounts of military equipment of doubtful serviceability. With the exception of its strategic nuclear forces, the Soviet Union was a paper tiger.

Had its leadership wanted to unleash this power against Western Europe, the armored and mechanized divisions with their endless columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery and mobile air-defense missile systems would have choked all the available roads, rendering them unusable. And no logistical transport network could have supplied and maintained what would have become the world’s largest traffic jam. This is one reason why it never happened.

Today, Russia’s approach to military affairs seems to be much more realistic, and while it might not impress the general public with shocking amounts of military hardware, it is probably more dangerous. Modern Russia now maintains reasonably sized and quite capable armed forces that are much better trained, better paid and better motivated. They are also increasingly better equipped with advanced armor, aircraft and tactical missiles. And, as recent history demonstrates, Russia poses an ongoing military threat to Western Europe—a threat that the U.S. and Europe should take seriously.

Already in Motion

The leadership of the USSR clearly understood that Soviet communism could not exist in the company of free-trading and democratic states. The people of the USSR always compared their lives with the lives of people in the West, even when news was carefully censored and restricted. The Soviet people knew that something was badly wrong with communism, and their dissatisfaction and anger grew over time. Soviet leaders knew that either the noncommunist countries surrounding them would have to be liquidated or the USSR would collapse, smashed by its furious citizens. That is why they were preparing to conquer their rivals or drive them into capitulation or collapse. They never got the chance because the forces required, as described above, were beyond their means.

Communism was so ineffective economically that Russia, which emerged from the ruins of the USSR, was initially weak and compliant with the West. Russia, however, remained more or less authoritarian despite oligarchic capitalism and some of the trappings of democracy introduced to the system. Russia has learned a lot of lessons in its recovery and today is acting much more adroitly than the USSR typically did.

The Russian people today are largely satisfied with the notion that they are important around the world. They are grateful to President Vladimir Putin, who strives to restore Russia to USSR-era influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. For his part, Putin has been content to bide his time and seize opportunities when they arise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade in Sevastopol, Crimea on May 9, 2014, soon after it was annexed by Russia. Image credit:
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 saw the West, led by the United States, developing its effects-based operations (EBO) concept that seeks to achieve outcomes using a combination of military, diplomatic and information means that result in less collateral damage and fewer casualties among friendly forces. The cornerstone of this concept is advanced military technology, such as stealth,  space-based sensors and precision weapons. However, it also encompasses all the elements of national power applied in concert, mutually supporting each other to reach the desired end state more effectively.

There are a lot of theoretical works on EBO in the West, where it is taught at military academies and staff colleges. There are not many theoretical works on EBO in Russia. For one thing, Russia faced a reality where it could not compete with the West on a direct military basis. Therefore, it developed its own variant that emphasizes various tools of national power that it does possess, ruthlessly applied. Russia has implemented its version of EBO in a well-synchronized manner in Ukraine to good effect. And it is also using the strategy elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Anyone who looks at the relative quiet in Ukraine in 2021 as a sign Russia has failed in its objectives there is wrong. Russia is quite capable of conquering Ukraine militarily, but the result would be a protracted conflict with guerillas, severe economic sanctions and other international restrictions. However, even Russia’s limited use of military power combined with strong economic pressure and effective propaganda has paralyzed Ukraine and helped to isolate it politically in the international community, which by and large seems averse to getting involved with more than symbolic gestures.

Meanwhile, Russia is effectively administering the eastern part of Ukraine, where most people really do want to be unified with Russia. But Ukraine still resists, and Russia appears to be losing patience. Since late March, Russia has used a scheduled military exercise to considerably increase its forces around the borders of Ukraine. Moreover, Russian reinforcements reportedly have been sent into Crimea and regions of Ukraine occupied by “separatist” forces. Are these actions only a demonstration of power to increase the pressure? Possibly.

But it might also be a prelude to a renewed offensive. It might mean that Russia has again decided to use military tools since the economic, informational and political means are slow to bring desired results. The most probable objective of such an offensive would be to establish a land corridor from Russia to Crimea by occupying the economically important Mariupol region, which would also be useful as a bargaining chip.

Ukraine may find it has no choice but to start negotiations and reach an agreement. Abandoned by the West, Ukraine will want to end the exhausting war, restart beneficial trade with Russia (Ukraine’s most important trading partner before 2014) and try to stabilize the situation. People want to live normally again, in peace and prosperity. After almost seven years of conflict, most people in Ukraine would give up the regions of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in exchange for peace. Ukraine might end up becoming a Russian satellite state, maybe not to the same extent as Belarus, but at least cooperating in many areas, such as furthering Russia’s economic, political and balance of power goals in Central Europe.

Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, Belarus became an independent republic in 1991. There was hope that the new country would establish close ties with the West. However, Belarus is dependent on Russia economically, militarily and politically. Russia is Belarus’ primary trade partner and provider of military equipment. Indeed, in December 2009, the two countries signed a treaty of “union,” which pledges coordination of most of their economic, domestic, foreign and defense policy in a framework that leaves Russia the vastly more senior partner.

The relationship has soured of late, with President Aleksandr Lukashenko pushing back a little against Moscow’s dominance. However, Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has little choice but to stay close to Putin, the only person who can help him maintain his grip on power in the face of domestic opposition. For his part, Putin will never let Belarus drift too far from Russia’s orbit.

As with Belarus, Russia may extend its influence to the whole of Ukraine in the future without the need to invade and occupy the entire country. Putin’s Russia has learned a lot since the grinding wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Journalists, who are generally not military theoreticians, have nevertheless noticed the unusual combination of different tools Russia is using along with military power, dubbing the new approach to armed conflict “hybrid war.” Military professionals clearly recognize that Russia is putting its version of Western military theories into action. While there is a lot of talk and theory in the West, there is a lot of action in Russia. Russia still uses military power in Europe, and it does so for the time-honored reasons of making territorial gains and expanding its regional influence. But its military is just one of the elements of hard and soft power it will deploy to achieve the desired end state effectively and at the lowest cost possible.

Powering Up

Nearly all the Russian military operations in Ukraine are conducted by the 8th Guards Army of the Southern Military District, which deploys relatively small formations equipped with modern armor, artillery and air-defense systems along with reconnaissance and support units. The forces are quite adequate to keep Ukrainian government forces at bay in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas occupied by pro-Russian forces and to guard the long Ukrainian-Russian border. Russia also makes widespread use of special forces and information operations to mobilize pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists to fight against Ukrainian government forces. Crimea is occupied by other Russian units and is effectively secure.

Therefore, the whole of Russia’s Western Military District with its three armies is free to engage NATO countries nearby. The size of the forces is not impressive, but they are quite adequate to achieve limited military goals that might arise, such as launching attacks against the Baltic states or Poland.

Russia has about 2,800 tanks in active service and more than 10,000 in storage. About a third of these are modern types (T-90s and T-80s) with the balance being second-line but still effective T-72s. By way of comparison, the U.S. Army deploys about 2,500 M1 Abrams tanks in active service with another 3,700 in storage.

The Western Military District’s strength is around one-third that of the whole Russian ground forces. It could deploy more than 1,000 tanks in active service and more than 3,000 total. By comparison, the NATO countries of Northern and Central Europe—including Poland, Germany, France, Britain and the Benelux countries—could deploy no more than 2,000 tanks and would need considerable U.S. reinforcement just to match Russian capabilities when mobilized.

Other NATO members, such as Spain and Italy, also have tanks, but they are located too far away. At the same time, Russia could draw on additional tanks from its Central Military District. A similar imbalance applies to other types of ground force equipment (e.g., armored personnel carriers), while in artillery and missiles the Russian advantage is even greater.

European NATO countries can match Russia’s strength in airpower, however. Russia has about 1,420 tactical aircraft in active service with more than half of them in Europe. Against these, the NATO countries of Central and Northern Europe field roughly 1,000 tactical aircraft. In addition, the United States has hundreds of combat aircraft either in Europe or available to reinforce NATO quickly. These tip the scales decisively in NATO’s favor—provided the U.S. warbirds are not busy elsewhere.

In terms of rough numbers of military equipment—assuming about 70% of them are serviceable and available—despite considerable material reductions, Russia could achieve an advantage in land power and match European NATO countries in airpower. This level of tactical advantage combined with political preparation and obfuscation would be more than enough to conduct successful limited military operations against countries that border Russia, such as the Baltic states or Poland.

Red Shadow Rising

If Russia were to deploy its military, it would do so in concert with other means after prolonged preparation to create favorable conditions. Possibly an opportunity will be exploited, such as the moment of a major U.S.-Chinese clash, for example over Taiwan or South Korea. The engagement of U.S. forces in a major conflict in Asia is an ideal situation to be exploited by Russia in Eastern Europe, since any significant incursion would be too much for European forces to handle without major U.S. reinforcement.

The use of force would likely surprise Europe and NATO as it has in the past in Georgia and Crimea. Skeptics might ask, is surprise still possible in the modern world of satellites, electronic intelligence tools and widespread information exchange over the internet? Actually, it is, through a slow, but continuous buildup of forces.

In January 2019, an independent tank battalion with about 35 tanks and 250 troops in Kaliningrad Oblast—the Russian enclave that sits on the Baltic coast, wedged between Poland and Lithuania—was built up into a tank regiment with three battalions. In December 2020, a divisional headquarters was raised in Kaliningrad Oblast. Most probably, the new tank regiment will be a part of it. Additional units to fill out the division’s roster have yet to be raised, but we can expect these to come with time. At full strength such a formation would have 95 tanks, 31 infantry fighting vehicles and 1,500 troops. Russia is also building up organizations and expanding facilities for tactical aircraft in the enclave.

At which moment of this gradual reinforcement is it a buildup for an attack? How many new regiments would have to be formed there before one could say that aggression is imminent? Answers to these questions are elusive.

A significant number of Poland’s armored forces are deployed dangerously close to the border of the Kaliningrad enclave. In the case of a surprise attack, these forces would be smashed since the Russian armor would be able to reach Polish garrisons within one or two hours, which is not enough time for them to prepare for combat. A sudden Russian blitz out of Kaliningrad Oblast would likely be preceded by a wave of ballistic and cruise missiles, including hypersonic ones, that could destroy Poland’s air-defense radar network with little or no warning at all.

Very likely, before any of the above would occur, Russia would have already prepared the situation with the use of its softer tools. Its first goal of bringing Ukraine into serious talks and ultimately pulling it out of the Western sphere of influence is already in sight. And without a clear defense commitment from NATO, the Baltic states could be cowed, if not occupied, by Russian forces. At the same time, information operations and intelligence influence could further strengthen authoritarian factions in Poland and Hungary, estranging these nations from the European Union and even NATO. The further afield from the Western embrace a former member of the Soviet Union stands, the less military might modern Russia needs to pull it back into its embrace.

What seems like fantasy at first glance could materialize, even contrary to so-called common sense. This is particularly the case if the threat goes unperceived by the West. Many refuse to believe that Russia is actively working to reestablish the influence it feels entitled to. This may be willful blindness or a failure of imagination. After all, a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 defied all common sense. And who would have thought they could pull it off?

In favorable circumstances, Russia could realize a combination of political, economic, informational and military means to achieve more and more, gradually and steadily. Reshaping the world order to create a stronger position for itself is definitely a Russian goal. How do we know? Because Russia is doing it right now, through direct military involvement in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, as well as support for Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Can the Western powers stop Russia from taking control of the eastern edge of the European Union and NATO? Yes. But to achieve this, sending military units to Poland and the Baltic states is not enough. The democratic processes in those countries must be defended by all possible means—political, informational and economic. Young democracies can easily fall, and when no longer supported and protected by the West, their falling into Russian hands is almost certainly inevitable.

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