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Russia’s Cold War Redux

On December 25th 1991, the once mighty Soviet Union collapsed under the combined pressures exerted by the fall of allied Communist Eastern Bloc nations, along with the intensified domestic support for democracy after the Perestroika reforms. This unprecedented outcome left the United States of America as the sole global hegemonic power, while leaving Russia with roughly half of the former Soviet Union’s population and three-quarters of its territory. Additionally, the economic crisis and massive brain drain resulting from the fall of the Iron Curtain led to an immense technological gap between Russia and its former Cold War adversary, the U.S.

Now, twenty-three years later, Russian president Vladimir Putin is determined to close this technological gap with a massive $650 billion Military Modernization Program that was initiated in 2011. By 2020, Russia plans to upgrade 70% of its military, with an additional 250 Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 800 aircraft, 1200 helicopters, 36 frigates, 28 corvettes, and 44 submarines. These ICBMs, such as the RS-24 Yars missile, have the ability to target almost anywhere on earth and can carry between 3-16 nuclear warheads. However even without the planned modernization program, Russia already possesses a vast array of weaponry capable of disrupting the technological offensive and defensive capabilities that NATO possesses. One such weapon is the much-touted S-400 missile defense system, which has the ability to simultaneously engage up to 36 targets within a range of 250km. This presents a dilemma for NATO aircraft and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, while allowing Russia to deter the numerical and technological advantages that NATO nations possess.

Another hallmark of the Russian Military Modernization Program is the structural changes that were enacted after the poor performance of the Russian Army during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. While the overwhelming manpower and firepower of the Russian Army allowed for an obvious victory against the small and underfunded Georgian Army, the Russian Army suffered from a heavily bloated officer corps that was inherited from the Soviet era. In addition, Russia’s navigational system, GLONASS, suffered from years of neglect after the fall of the Soviet Union. This in turn left the Russian military unable to use precision-guided munitions throughout the war. By the outbreak of the Crimean Crisis in March, the Russian Army had cut its officer corps from 365,000 in 2008 to 220,000 by 2014. These cuts complemented similar staff reductions throughout the Russian Army, Air Force, and Navy, resulting in a decrease in the total number of active soldiers to from 1.2 million to 766,000 soldiers. Through the streamlining of both the officer corps and regular troops, the Russian Army managed to enhance communication along the chain of command and improve the quality of training for ordinary soldiers.

Even though the ambitious modernization program undertaken by the Russian military will notably enrich Russia’s offensive and defensive capabilities against NATO and China, in the grand scheme of things demographic trends suggest the efforts may be futile. Russia’s population has seen negative growth rates over the past decade, and with a rate far below the minimum population replacement birth rate of 2.2, coupled with a large emigration rate, the number of 18 year-old men available for conscription will fall from 1.1 million in 2007 to 630,000 by 2017. This demographic dilemma will prevent Russia from ever reclaiming its status as a global hegemon, and gives the United States an immense advantage over Russia in any future conflicts. However, as long as Russia maintains and continuously upgrades its nuclear triad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, ICBMs, and strategic bombers, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will prevent full-scale war from erupting between the United States and Russia in the foreseeable future.

Image License: Some rights reserved by Andrey Korchagin

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