Russia’s Power Is Increasingly Defined by its Military Might
Once the war in Ukraine ends, Russia will be far less influential and powerful than it was before February 2022. This will only increase the relative importance of military force in Russia’s political arsenal.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has prompted many questions. How important military force actually is in Russia’s power arsenal, and how the ongoing war will affect it, is among the most pertinent ones when it comes to assessing Moscow’s future conduct. The question is also relevant because the present escalation in Ukraine is de facto part of a war that has been ongoing since 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Moreover, this is only one of Russia’s wars in the post-Soviet region.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia militarily intervened in civil wars in Moldova and Georgia, and supported Armenia in its fight against Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as fomenting separatist conflicts in the former two. In the second half of the 1990s Russia fought two civil wars against its own Chechen separatists. In August 2008 Moscow successfully invaded parts of Georgia. And these were only the wars in the post-Soviet region. Furthermore, Russian forces were present in the Western Balkans, originally as UN peacekeepers after the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. Some of these troops made the bold move of occupying Pristina’s airport in June 1999 following the peak of the Kosovo crisis. From 2015 on, Russian troops have been fighting in Syria, since 2020 also in Libya, and Russian paramilitary formations (including the infamous Wagner Group, formally a private military company) have been active in more than a dozen African countries.
In order to find an answer to the question of how important Russia’s military power is, it is necessary to assess the country’s power base, in other words the main tools and means at its disposal to push for its foreign, security, and defense policy interests both globally and also regionally, including, of course, military power too. And, as a point of measurement and a contrast, it is useful to compare contemporary Russia to its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Great Power-ness
The Soviet Union was unquestionably not only a great power, but a global power. In terms of size, it was by far the largest country on Earth, extending over a staggering 22 million square kilometers of territory. Composed of 15 federal republics, its population was close to 290 million.
The most important element of the Soviet claim to world power was the country’s nuclear arsenal, which was in full parity with that of the United States by the end of the Cold War. It was the mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the two nuclear superpowers that guaranteed relative stability to the bipolar world. Another core element of the Soviet Union’s global influence was Moscow’s permanent membership of the Security Council of the United Nations. Possessing a veto right in the largest and most comprehensive international organization empowered the Soviets with a level of global political influence that it never had before. The Russian Empire was always a great power on the European continent, but never a global one. Nor was the Soviet Union in its early years. However, the post-1945 Soviet Union was indeed a global power.
Nuclear capabilities were supported by gargantuan conventional military power. The Soviet armed forces had almost 5.5 million active personnel, supported by 35 million potentially mobilizable reservists. This military was large not only in size, but Moscow also had global power projection capability. The Soviet navy sailed all the high seas, and there were dozens of Soviet military bases all over the world.
In addition to military might, the Soviet Union had a complex, multi-layered system of political allies. The Warsaw Pact countries formed Moscow’s inner, closest circle, within which a mutual defense guarantee applied. In addition, the Soviet Union supported several political regimes in Asia, Africa, and on the American continent, mostly in order to counterbalance the power of the United States.
Regarding its relations particularly with Europe, while the Iron Curtain divided the continent, from the 1970s onward the Soviet Union was exporting massive amounts of oil and natural gas to Western Europe. This created a mutually beneficial and also interdependent relationship between East and West, despite the tense Cold War militarily situation.
Last, but definitely not least, the USSR had a coherent, well-developed ideology, the applied version of Soviet Communism. The relatively frequent changes of doctrinal details did not change the fact that the Soviet population lived for some 70 years under this ideology, so that entire generations grew up socialized with it. The situation was the same, albeit for a shorter period, in the Eastern bloc countries, as well as the other allied countries. Despite its many flaws and discrepancies, the existence of a shared ideology was an important cohesive factor of the Soviet alliance system. As a tool of the ideological struggle against the West, the Soviet Union operated a massive, complex information apparatus abroad, strongly influenced by the KGB.
The Post-Soviet Russia and Great Power-ness
The dissolution of the USSR, of course, affected Moscow’s great power status. However, some key elements of the Soviet great power-ness still prevailed. Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and most of its nuclear force. As of March 2022, in terms of strategic nuclear weapons Moscow is in full parity with Washington, while in the field of tactical nuclear weapons it allegedly has a superiority in Europe.
Other elements, however, were either completely lost, or were significantly weakened. The once gigantic Soviet Union was replaced by 15 independent republics. Russia’s population today is only around 144 million, less than the half of what the Soviet Union had at its peak.
Conventional military power has shrunk too. Regionally it is still clearly dominant, demonstrated by the wars enumerated before. Russia’s active armed forces still amount to 900,000, potentially boosted by 2 million reservists. However, the global significance of this army is much less than it was before 1991. Moscow has lost its global power projection potential: Currently there is no operational Russian aircraft carrier, and the once dense network of military bases abroad is largely gone, too. Outside of the post-Soviet region Russia has only established a regular military presence in Syria and partially in Libya.
The Soviet alliance system vanished almost completely. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991 and 30 years later all the other former members have joined both the European Union and NATO. The once dense network of Moscow-friendly countries has also disappeared, with a few exceptions, such as Cuba and Syria. Russia has only a sole, close ally remaining: Belarus, but even Minsk’s loyalty is based more on coercion and dependence on Moscow than anything else.
Despite all these weaknesses, since 1991 Russia has managed to transform and, in some fields, significantly strengthen its influence in Europe. Energy trade has become significantly more intensive. Russia became Europe’s primary oil and gas supplier and has a dominant role in the energy balances of the EU’s Central and Eastern European member states. Russia has been remarkably successful in transforming income from energy exports into (both overt and covert) tools of influence over European politics, both at the EU and national level.
The ideological influence did not disappear but has changed fundamentally during the last three decades. Contemporary Russia does not have an ideology as elaborate and coherent as the Soviet ideology. While parts of the Russian elites try to picture Russia as the protector of conservative values, the way of life of these very elites seriously weakens the credibility of the overall argument. Nevertheless, Russia has been pushing the concept of Russkiy Mir (i.e., that Russians should unite under Moscow’s leadership) all over the post-Soviet region. Parallel to this, instead of pushing for a single ideological line against Europe, particularly since 2014, Russia has been using its perfected information apparatus to weaken the coherence of the West, to deepen existing cleavages, and to sow discord. In line with this strategy, Moscow has been actively supporting practically any anti-EU, anti-NATO, and anti-US groups and forces, regardless of ideology.
Likely Changes in Russia’s Power Status
The ongoing war in Ukraine has brought the trends affecting various aspects of Russia’s great power-ness to a bifurcation point. Regarding conventional military forces, in Ukraine the Russian army is currently having its worst performance since the disastrous Chechen wars. What Russia had planned as a blitzkrieg against Ukraine in late February 2022 has turned into a protracted, bloody war. Ukrainian forces not only failed to collapse, but are actively and creatively fighting on all fronts, and are even able to launch minor counter-attacks. Russian losses are heavy both in terms of manpower and hardware, partially due to the modern Western weapons supplied to Ukraine. Once this war comes to an end, Russia will probably conduct another, in-depth military reform in order to address the numerous shortcomings that have surfaced while fighting against Ukraine.
The war has resulted in Russia experiencing a level of international isolation not seen since a century ago, when the Soviet Union emerged from the post-revolution civil war. A telling sign was the UN vote on March 2 condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. Only five countries voted against the resolution: Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. Even longstanding Russian allies, such as Nicaragua and Cuba abstained, as did China. Beijing is not supporting Russia actively, but is instead taking a careful, wait-and-see stance, assessing the West’s reactions to Russia’s aggression and particularly the sanctions.
The unprecedented number and severity of sanctions introduced against Russia are actively contributing to this isolation. Foreign capital is fleeing Russia, more than 100 Western companies have suspended their operations on the Russian market, and the restrictive measures adopted by the Russian regime in response are only making things worse. A years-long recession is likely. The EU’s decision to detach itself from its dependency on Russian oil and gas will contribute to this by inflicting strategic losses to Russia’s budget. This will affect the long-term sustainability of the Kremlin’s domestic power. Meanwhile, the freezing of massive Russian assets within the EU is likely to further weaken Russia’s informal, often corruption-based influence over Europe.
In addition, the suffering unleashed by the Russian army against the dominantly Russian-speaking population of eastern and southern Ukraine will probably mark the collapse of Moscow’s soft power potential among Russian-speakers in the post-Soviet region. The Russkiy Mir concept is probably de facto over, even if Russia would not admit it.
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine is likely to massively weaken most elements of Russia’s great power potential. While its nuclear capabilities and permanent membership in the UN Security Council will prevail, Moscow’s energy leverage over Europe will be largely lost, its international prestige is already in ruins, and its economy will keep suffering.
These will lead to a situation, whereby Russia will have even fewer non-military means to push for its interests than it had before February 2022. As a result, once the war in Ukraine ends, while in general Russia will be far less influential and powerful than it was before February 2022, at the same time the relative importance of military force in Russia’s political arsenal is likely to grow. Hence, more use of military power for political purposes is likely to come, including more nuclear saber-rattling. This is a development that the whole of Europe, including Germany, needs to be aware of.
András Rácz is Associate Fellow of the Security and Defense Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).