How and Why Russia Is Moving to a War Footing

Russian soldiers fire mortars
Russian solders fire an 2S12 "Sani" 120 mm heavy mortar system during the "Masters of Artillery Fire" competition at a range outside Saratov, Russia, August 10, 2015. Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

As NATO’s Warsaw summit looms, the rivalry between the alliance and Russia is intensifying. The summit’s agenda includes a lengthy list of points of tension, including NATO enlargement, ballistic missile defence, positioning of NATO equipment and forces in Eastern European member states and NATO’s partnerships with states such as Georgia. At the same time, NATO is conducting a series of substantial military exercises in Eastern Europe, such as Anakonda-2016, the largest such exercises since the end of the Cold War.

The Russian leadership has responded with a mix of vocal criticism threatening retaliatory measures, most notably President Putin’s statements that Romania would be targeted as a result of its hosting elements of the missile defence shield. Other officials have stated that Russia will also increase military and security exercises and other activities in response.

These moves are in addition to others already announced, such as the reconstitution of the 1st Guards Tank army, this year’s strategic exercise Kavkaz 2016, and statements that the Admiral Kuznetsov would be deployed to the naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean and Borei class nuclear powered submarines would conduct test launches of Bulava ballistic missiles, an important part of Russia’s nuclear triad.

These additional moves by the Russian leadership are the tip of a much larger iceberg, and are not so much responses to what NATO is currently doing but rather reflections of what would have taken place anyway. Indeed, the Russian leadership is in the middle of a major transition period during which it is implementing emergency measures to move Russia onto a war footing—in effect, state mobilization.

To understand the scale of this transformation, the reasons behind it and the trajectory it is likely to take, it is necessary to step back to see the bigger strategic picture. What we are seeing today are the results of a series of policies and reforms that were instigated initially in the wake of the Russo-Georgia war in 2008 and subsequently accelerated in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

These policies were intended to reinvigorate the defense industry and revamp the armed forces. In 2010, the Russian leadership committed $640 billion to a decade-long transformation process that would result in recruiting half a million contract soldiers and ensuring that at least 70 percent of military equipment is modern, including the procurement of thousands of pieces of high performance and heavy equipment, such as tanks, artillery, military aircraft and naval vessels.

At the same time, the Russian armed forces and internal security services have taken part in thousands of tactical, operational and strategic exercises. Over the last five years, these exercises have become significantly larger and more sophisticated, designed to test the system in place, particularly coordination between ministries and federal, regional and local authorities.

These are impressive figures. But they also represent emergency measures. On one hand, they reflect Moscow’s concern about Russia’s ability to cope with an increasingly unstable and threatening environment. In the government’s view, Russia is surrounded by an arc of crisis, stretching almost all the way around Russia, from Ukraine to the South China Sea. At the same time, the Russian authorities are concerned by threats of international terrorism, the spread of regional instability as a result of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and particularly by the prospect of US-led color revolutions not only in the former Soviet space, but even in Russia itself.

Such concerns are compounded by Moscow’s view that the 21 st century will become increasingly unstable as major powers compete for resources, particularly in Eurasia. Thus the Russian leadership often speaks of the need to protect Russian territorial integrity and sovereignty, and to insulate Russia against external threats by consolidating state institutions and civil society.

What we see today, therefore, is just part of a bigger picture, in which Russia is halfway through a sustained transformation process. It is not without problems. Exercises have revealed ongoing shortcomings within the system, particularly in terms of coordinating military and civilian authorities. There are also problems in procurement, leading to postponements and delays in equipment supply and in ongoing reforms to optimal force structure.

There is little that the West and NATO can do to alter or reduce this mobilization transformation in Russia, partly because it is intended to meet what the Kremlin sees as Russian domestic problems and weaknesses, and partly because to mitigate Russian concerns would mean implementing policies that would be unpalatable to Western leaders, such as ‘retiring’ NATO. What is does mean, however, is that NATO’s leadership should be beginning to think about what this transformation will mean for Russia over the next three years, a Russia that is more muscular and more alert to potential threats.

Andrew Monaghan is senior research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, and the author of The New Politics of Russia: Interpreting Change, to be published by Manchester University Press in July 2016.