Russia National Military Overview

Russia’s Threat Perceptions

Since returning to power in 2012, Russian President Putin has sought to reassert Russia as a great power on the global stage and to restructure an international order that the Kremlin believes is tilted too heavily in favor of the United States at Russia’s expense.49 Moscow seeks to promote a multi-polar world predicated on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs, the primacy of the United Nations, and a careful balance of power preventing one state or group of states from dominating the international order.50 To support these great power ambitions, Moscow has sought to build a robust military able to project power, add credibility to Russian diplomacy, and ensure that Russian interests can no longer be summarily dismissed without consequence.51

Russia’s assertive promotion of its national interests, punctuated by its military actions in Ukraine and Syria, demonstrates a more confident and somewhat less risk averse Kremlin, but it also has revived international concerns about the re-emergence of a more militaristic Russia. Russian military forces played a key role in the seizure of Crimea and fomenting an artificial separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, blunting Kyiv’s aspirations to join NATO, at least for the foreseeable future.52 Additionally, Russia’s military intervention in Syria has changed the entire dynamic of the conflict, bolstering the Asad regime and ensuring that no resolution to the conflict is possible without Moscow’s agreement. Nevertheless, these actions also belie a deeply entrenched sense of insecurity regarding a United States that Moscow believes is intent on undermining Russia at home and abroad.53

Moscow undoubtedly views the United States and its NATO partners as the principle threat to Russian security, its geo-political ambitions, and most importantly, the Kremlin’s continued hold on power. This perception of vulnerability vis-a-vis the United States is most clearly evident in the latest Russian National Security Strategy published in December 2015. The document identifies the United States and its NATO allies as Russia’s main threat, and accuses the West of pursuing a deliberate policy of containment against Russia to sustain its domination of the post-Cold War international order and deprive Moscow of its rightful place on the world stage.54,55 It explicitly states, “the Russian Federation's implementation of an independent foreign and domestic policy is giving rise to opposition from the United States and its allies, who are seeking to retain their dominance in world affairs.” The security strategy also cites the buildup of NATO military capabilities closer to the Russian border, the deployment of U.S. missile defense capabilities in Europe, and the ongoing U.S. pursuit of strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems as a serious threat to Russian security.56

Russia also has a deep and abiding distrust of U.S. efforts to promote democracy around the world and what it perceives as a U.S. campaign to impose a single set of global values. Moscow worries that U.S. attempts to dictate a set of acceptable international norms threatens the foundat ions of Kremlin power by giving license for foreign meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. The December 2015 National Security Strategy warns of the importance of preserving traditional Russian spiritual and cultural values against foreign Western ideas and influences aimed at undermining Russia from within.57 The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine. Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and the Arab Spring and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts, including the Kosovo campaign, Iraq, Libya, and the 2003-05 “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.58

Russian threat perceptions are not limited to the United States, and Moscow views the danger posed by Islamic militants and terrorists with grave concern.59 The Kremlin is particularly sensitive to the growth and spread of these ideologies and their potential to further radicalize Russian Muslims in the turbulent North Caucasus and other Muslim areas of central Russia. Russian military operations in Syria are also intended to eliminate jihadist elements operating there that originated in the territory of the former Soviet Union, to prevent them from returning home and posing a threat to Russia. At the same time, Moscow remains anxious about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the potential for Afghan-based Islamic extremists to spill over into the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union and ultimately into Russia.60

Russian threat perceptions with regard to China are more divided and nuanced. Russian officials regularly praise the cooperative nature of the bilateral relationship, and Putin himself has declared that the current Russian-Chinese relationship is the best it has been in decades. In fact, the Russian National Security Strategy lists developing a strategic partnership with China as one of Russia’s most important goals.61 Moscow and Beijing share a common interest in weakening U.S. global influence and are actively cooperating in that regard.62,63

Military cooperation between the two countries is slowly expanding, as are economic ties.64 Nevertheless, some Russians are keenly aware of the growing power disparity between Russia and an ascendant China and worry that Moscow is at risk of becoming Beijing's junior partner.65 Others continue to harbor suspicions that China over the longer term will once again become a military threat to Russia.66,67

National Security Strategy

Russia’s current National Security Strategy was signed by President Vladimir Putin on 31 December 2015 as an update to the previous National Security Strategy published in 2009. The National Security Strategy is the Kremlin’s foundational planning document and is intended for domestic and external audiences.68 It codifies Moscow’s strategic interests and national priorities for at least the next 6 years. The national priorities were consistent with those identified in previous strategies; however, the tone of this update was harsher than the 2009 strategy, reflecting Moscow’s view of worsening relations with the West.

The 2015 strategy identifies Russian national interests as strengthening the country’s defense, ensuring political and social stability, raising the living standard, preserving and developing culture, improving the economy, and strengthening Russia’s status as a leading world power. These national interests are to be achieved through concentration on eight strategic national priorities:

• National defense

• State and public security

• Economic growth

• Science, technology, and education

• Healthcare

• Culture

• Ecology of living systems and rational use of natural resources

• Strategic stability and equal strategic partnership

In the 2015 document, the sections on national defense, internal stability, economy, and culture were significantly expanded.69 Moscow identified new threats to state and public security posed by foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), “color revolutions,” and the use of social media to foment unrest and undermine political and social stability,70 reflecting Russian officials’ allegations that Western powers seek to provoke regime change in Russia.71 The culture priority contains some of the strategy’s most significant revisions, emphasizing the need to preserve and strengthen “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values,” and indicating that Moscow views culture, language, and history as a tool for influence.

Unlike the 2009 version, the new National Security Strategy directly accuses the United States and NATO of pursuing actions that cause instability and threaten Russian national security.72 The importance of a strong military for a leading world power is acknowledged; the strategy states that “the role of force as a factor in international relations is not declining.” The new strategy reiterated key concepts outlined in Russia’s 2014 military doctrine on the importance of deterrence and conflict prevention, nuclear and nonnuclear deterrence, and the need to improve Russia’s mobilization process.73 The National Security Strategy reflects a Russia more confident of its ability to defend its sovereignty, resist Western pressure, and contribute to the resolution of conflicts abroad (or insecurity).

Stability Issues

The Kremlin views internal political stability as a critical component of national strength and projecting power abroad, as evidenced by the emphasis placed on it in the National Security Strategy. Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Russian President Putin has worked to consolidate power. His efforts to further centralize control have been challenged by a slowing economy, lower energy prices, and growing public discontent with a system that lacks any genuine pluralism.74 Putin has tried to deflect from these concerns by promising to restore Russia to great power status, on par with the Unit ed States, to mobilize public support and secure his legitimacy.75,76

The Kremlin has taken steps to neutralize political opposition by expanding laws to impose harsh sentences that discourage public protests and encourage self-censorship.77 It has also restructured its internal security forces to ensure a more loyal and responsive apparatus. Russia maintains security forces that are not subordinate to the military to conduct a range of internal security and policing fund ions. Nonetheless, the Kremlin will likely face continuing challenges to its rule from democracy and anti-corruption activists, labor unrest, as well the ever present threat of terrorism emanating from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region.

Ministries with Internal Security Missions



Personnel (Number of Troops)

National Guard

Regime and internal security, federal law enforcement


Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD)

Civil policing and local law enforcement


Federal Security Services (FSB) Border Troops

Border security: ground and maritime


Ministry of Justice (UIN)

Civil judicial system, prison guarding


Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM)

Civil defense, disaster response, humanitarian relief, firefighting

289,000 (7,500)82

Federal Protection Service (FSO)

Presidential, VIP, and regime protection



Insurgency in the South

Russia’s enduring insurgency in its restive North Caucasus region continues at a consistent but low level. Stemming directly from its two conflicts in Chechnya in 1994—96 and then reigniting in 1999, Moscow largely declared an end to major operations by 2009, although it still retains a sizeable military and security force structure and counterterrorism regime in the region.84 Still a volatile region, a general level of order is maintained via a mix of local and federal-level Russian forces, including Chechen forces loyal to Moscow headed by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.85

Once the center of insurgent activity, levels of instability in Chechnya gradually have plateaued over the years, while those in its neighboring Muslim provinces such as Dagestan and Ingushetia have experienced sporadic upswings in activity over time. Although large groups of insurgents are now primarily a thing of the past, smaller bands still exist with affiliations to various nationalist and extremist groups such as ISIS-Caucasus and the Imarat Kavkaz. These groups and their members conduct small-scale operations and bombings against Russian forces—primarily from the Ministry' of Internal Affairs (MVD) police or the National Guard. Although daily attacks have largely abated since late 2013, pervasive socio-economic issues, corruption, and heavy-handedness (real or perceived) by Russian authorities will continue drive feelings of disenfranchisement amongst the populace, providing a steady source for radicalization in the region.

External Defense Relations

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was a regional coordination body created among a number of the former Soviet states in the wake of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Nine states remain members, with Ukraine and Turkmenistan retaining associate member status. Russia’s most important defense and security relationships are with its allies in the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)— Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Based on the 1992 Tashkent Collective Security Agreement, the CSTO was established in 2002 as part of a larger Russian effort in the post-Soviet environment to create a more structured military organization capable of implementing the security guarantees stipulated in the agreement. Since then, the CSTO has developed a bureaucratic staff under the organization’s secretary general and a rapid reaction force to respond to various contingencies that might impact the security of the member states. The CSTO conducts yearly joint military exercises addressing various scenarios such as peacekeeping or counterterrorism operations.86 Russia also maintains an airbase at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, under the auspices of the CSTO.

Nonetheless, Russian efforts to build the CSTO into a more structured and capable organization on par with NATO largely have floundered. Some of the non-Russian member states worry that Moscow is using the organization to undermine their sovereignty and independence and are cautious of deepening military cooperation with Russia, as evidenced by Uzbekistan’s withdrawal in 2007. Differing threat perceptions, an absence of trust amongst the members, and funding shortfalls have further plagued the organization.87,88,89,90

Russia also is building cooperative defense relationships with other various countries throughout the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but its engagement is far less robust than in the former Soviet Union. Moscow appears to no longer be interested in funding Soviet-style patronage relationships, and Russian policy remains largely transactional aimed at expanding arms sales and other Russian economic interests, which has contributed to the limited nature of these ties.91,92 Nevertheless, the Kremlin continues to view its military outreach to these countries as important to enhancing its global stature and strengthening its regional influence.

Defense Budget

Russian government spending on national defense has generally grown over the last decade and in 2016 reached a post-Soviet record. This increase in defense spending was enabled by both a general increase in the size of Russia’s GDP and a political decision to increase the defense burden—the share of national wealth devoted to defense.

In 2015, Russian defense spending reached a then-record $52 billion (in 2017 dollars) and the defense burden was nearly 4% of GDP.

The 2016 budget, which was initially to decrease defense spending, was amended late in the year to increase defense spending to $61 billion, a 4.5% defense burden on GDP.93,94,95 By contrast, in 2006 defense spending was $27 billion, and the defense burden was 2.4%.96,97

Moscow’s ambitious rearmament program has driven the increase in defense spending. The Strategic Armament Program (SAP) called for spending 19.4 trillion rubles (equivalent to $285 billion) to rearm Ministry of Defense forces from 2011 through 2020. Each year the SAP is implemented through the State Defense Order (SDO), Moscow’s purchase of new weaponry, investment in weapons-related research and design, and expenditure on modernization and repair of existing weaponry.101 Funding for the 10 year program was heavily back-loaded such that just 31% was to be spent in the first 5 years (2011-2015) and nearly 70% was to be spent from 2016 to 2020.102 In order for Moscow to meet its original target for SAP spending and maintain its operational spending at current levels, defense spending from 2016 through 2020 will have to increase substantially over 2011-2015 levels.

Russian defense spending, however, is poised to decrease in 2017.103 The 2017 budget calls for 2.8 trillion rubles to be spent on national defense, equivalent to $42 billion.104 This constitutes a 30% real cut in defense spending from 2016 levels, and if it is not amended to increase funds m id-year, it would be the lowest budget for national defense since 2013.105,106,107 According to Russian press and Ministry of Finance announcements, from 2017 through 2019 Russian defense spending will be essentially frozen in nominal terms—and therefore declining in real terms.108,109

Russia's Official Defense Spending 2006-2017 (billions of 2017 dollars)98,99,100

Russian government revenues are highly dependent on oil prices, and Moscow’s decision to base its budget for 2017-2019 on low projected oil prices in 2017-2019 is largely responsible for the glum outlook for government revenue and low projected GDP growth rates.110 According to the International Monetary Fund and a number of prominent economists, Russia faces a growth ceiling; absent structural reforms, Russian GDP growth would probably reach only 1 to 2 percent per year, even were oil prices to increase significantly.111,112

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