The New Russian Menace: Is a Resurgent Russia Really a Threat to the United States?

Ranging from Russian hackers at the Democratic National Convention to ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, fear of Russia permeates each night’s news programs. Hillary Clinton, likely the next President of the United States, has vocally called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria. Supporters claim this would bring an end to the devastating bombing attacks Russia continues to pursue in Syria. Opponents, meanwhile, claim this only heightens the danger of conflict with Russia and a worldwide escalation the U.S. is ill-prepared to face. The idea of war with Russia has become the topic of much hand-wringing in the foreign policy establishment, especially as a growing number of think tanks have begun to push for further intervention in Syria. Both sides have their arguments, and a recent series of RAND Corporation wargames found the NATO allied Baltic States remain deeply vulnerable to a Russian first strike. With all of this, there have been calls from leaders for increased defense funding to combat the renewed Russian menace. As the debate continues to mount, it bears investigating the question: How much of a threat does Russia really pose?

Workers dousing a burning vehicle in Idlib, Syria. Activists said the base was hit by Russian airstrikes. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The Russian armed forces remain dangerous, their confidence bolstered by recent success in Crimea and Syria. They have learned much in the fifteen years since the debacles in Chechnya and Georgia. The very best of Russia’s special forces and aerospace corps might now able to match NATO forces, but the vast majority of Russian forces still lag far behind. And as a fighting force, Russian infantry and armor remain qualitatively inferior to NATO in a conventional attack.

Russia has taken steps to close this gap, but stubbornly low oil prices and persistent Western sanctions have forced spending cuts across multiple governmental programs that have delayed key upgrades. The Russian military must still rely on conscripts to fill out nearly 40% of its numbers. And it is still 16% short of its desired troop numbers, a shortfall of nearly 150,000 soldiers caused by the Russia’s continued problems with draft dodging by the country’s upper and middle classes. To make use of the conscripts they are able to enlist, Russia must push its new recruits through a twelve week accelerated boot camp.

By comparison, the U.S. military, composed entirely of volunteers, trains its soldiers for up to 24 weeks through both Basic and Advanced Individual Training programs. It then retains those soldiers for a minimum of four years. Russia, meanwhile, struggles to hold its conscripts for longer than a year. Its professional corps, kontraktniki, fare little better in renewing their two-year enlistments. Meanwhile Russia’s air force, lauded for its unexpected readiness in Syria, has nevertheless shown signs of aging. In June 2016, Russia was forced to ground all of its of Su-27s, nearly half of its fighter jet fleet, after a crash near Moscow. This came only a year after the crashes of two Tu-95 bombers, two MiG-29s, a Su-24, and even a new Su-35. This is a reflection of Russia’s aging air fleet, which despite modernization efforts still struggles to make do with decades-old equipment and little in the way of the “smart bomb” technology available to the United States.

Russia has rarely pursued recognition for the quality of its individual soldier, of course, and Soviet/Russian tactics have instead revolved around large formations under a centralized officer command supported by overwhelming firepower. In the last two decades as the West has emphasized its advantage in airpower and technology, Russia has sought to counter this by investing more in its traditional strengths, artillery and a network of mobile surface-to-air missile installations. It is these weapons the United States will need to reckon with if the country ever finds itself in a hot war with Russia. And this may be the area in which the U.S. is the least prepared to fight.

As the call for the establishment of no-fly zone continues to gain steam, Russia has made it increasingly clear that will not tolerate a threat to Russian or its allied Syrian personnel, coming off the heels of a “near-miss” between the Russian and U.S. jets, and the risk of unintended conflict seems high. For an obvious parallel, one needs look no further than the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in which aggressive United States operations led to escalation of the conflict with North Vietnam. Although the comparison can only be stretched so far (no sane person is calling for the purposeful escalation of tensions with Russia, as many in the 1960s were with Vietnam), a lesson can be taken here.

Russian Anti-Access/Area-Denial Ranges, August 2016 (Institute for the Study of War)

Russian Anti-Access/Area-Denial Ranges, August 2016 (Institute for the Study of War)

The expansion of operations in Syria, just as in Vietnam, have the potential to carry grave strategic implications for the United States. And there is substantial risk in Syria (despite the claims of some in the pundit world). Russia possesses some of the most sophisticated surface-to-air missile technology in the world, orders of magnitude more deadly than anything the U.S. has faced since Vietnam. The deployment of the S-300 and S-400 to Latakia seriously complicates any U.S. attempt to establish the air superiority needed to enforce the no-fly zone. From 250 miles, out U.S. planes could be tracked, often before they even entered Syrian airspace. Even the slightest mistake or itchy trigger finger, on either side, could provoke wider conflict.

The situation in the Baltic, the most likely source of any Russian retaliation for a Syrian mishap, would be dire, despite the inferior quality of Russian conventional forces. There is no doubt that Russia would initially possess a near overwhelming numerical advantage in any conflict with NATO’s European forces. As the aggressor, Russia would have the advantage bringing the majority of its forces to bear on either a narrow or wide front, all while picking the time and place of the initial engagement. If it can bring even a sizable percentage of its 771,000 strong armed forces to bear, it will easily outnumber the local troops as well as the 9000 NATO troops either already stationed in the Baltic or comprising the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

A British Challenger 2 main battle tank (left) with a Polish Leopard 2 tank on rough terrain in Poland. The U.K. will take on the role of lead nation in the VJTF in 2017, and on rotation thereafter. (SSgt Mark Nesbit/UK MoD Photo)

To explore the path a conflict between NATO and Russia would take, the RAND Corporation sponsored its own series of wargames. The wargames were based around the idea that each side would only be able to utilize the forces it could assemble within ten days of the outbreak of hostilities. The authors found that even with advanced NATO air support, Russian forces would reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga (the capitals of Estonia and Latvia, respectively) within 60 hours. Such a result would leave only costly options in retaking allied territory in the face of superior Russian anti-access/area denial coverage and heighten the risk of nuclear confrontation.

The situation facing the United States in Syria is complicated, and the idea of a no-fly zone or further military intervention only adds to the uncertainty the next President will likely face in choosing his or her course. The risk of conflict with Russia however cannot be underestimated, nor should it be taken likely. Russian anti-access/area denial capabilities are fearsome and unlike anything the U.S. has encountered in the last forty years. Our plans to defeat them are untried and untested. As the Assad regime (and its Russian protectors) grow more desperate to retain power and influence in the region, the risk of an unintentional escalation only grows higher, even without further involvement by the United States. The proposed no-fly zone would take away Assad’s greatest weapon and arguably the only thing standing between him and eventual defeat and even the mere talk of such a move has raised tensions in the region.

The United States’ involvement in Syria forms the crux of a global strategic crossroads. Will the U.S. continue to involve itself in the Middle East, or finally complete its “pivot” to the Pacific? A no-fly zone in Syria would settle that strategic question, but unleash a host of others. A no fly-zone has never been implemented under the conditions faced in Syria, against a well equipped and prepared counterpart eager to embarrass the Western nations aligned against it. Global escalation between the United States and Russia under these circumstances is not guaranteed, but the United States must decide as a nation whether it is willing to accept such a risk. The consequences for the wrong choice range from the tragic to the unthinkable.

Nick McCarty is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame and spent the summer of 2015 in Moscow and Saint Petersburg researching Russian cultural perceptions of the military in the age of Vladimir Putin. He hopes to begin a Masters in Security Studies in the fall of 2017.

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Header Image: Russian aircraft in Syria. (Russia Insider)