Academic journal article Parameters

Why Russia Is Reviving Its Conventional Military Power

Academic journal article Parameters

Why Russia Is Reviving Its Conventional Military Power

Article excerpt

Abstract: The revival of Russian military power poses certain challenges to NATO and to the West. However, the exact nature of these challenges is not straightforward. This article discusses why Russia is reviving its conventional military power and argues these developments are not limited to the intention of preparing for offensive action. NATO's and the West's policy responses to recent changes in Russian defense policy need to be based on a realistic and nuanced understanding of Russian motivations because ill-considered responses could have serious unintended consequences.


After almost 20 years of allowing Russia's conventional armed forces to fall into disrepair, an extensive program of modernization announced in 2008 has yielded impressive results and started a process of Russian military revival. (1) Following the military intervention in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and Russia's first expeditionary operation outside of the former Soviet region in Syria, recent developments in Russian defense policy have led to increasing concerns about a militarily resurgent Russia and the potential implications of this for its neighbors, NATO, and the West. In the words of the new NATO SACEUR, US General Curtis Scaparotti, who was sworn in in May 2016, "a resurgent Russia [is] striving to project itself as a world power ... To address these challenges, we must continue to maintain and enhance our levels of readiness and our agility in the spirit of being able to fight tonight if deterrence fails." (2)

According to Gustav Gressel, writing for the European Council of Foreign Relations, "Europe's military advantage over Russia" is now "undermined." To counter "Russia's new military boldness and adventurism" and its military vision that is "centered on the Eurasian landmass," Europe is now in need of finding an urgent response to "Russian expansionism." Although "a major military escalation on the European continent is not imminent," according to Gressel, "Russia is clearly preparing itself for offensive operations." (3)

Russia's conventional military capabilities are more impressive today than during the first two decades of the post-Soviet period, and these capabilities are likely to continue growing. It is also beyond doubt Russian foreign policy rhetoric and conduct today, particularly towards NATO and the West, is more forceful and aggressive than it was at any time during the post-Cold war era. However, the convergence of these factors does not necessarily mean Russia is rebuilding its conventional military exclusively to prepare for more offensive action or to pursue expansionist policies in direct confrontation with NATO.

This article argues this conjecture overlooks the fact that most states continue to see the maintenance of a powerful conventional military as essential. Conventional military power has remained highly relevant throughout the post-Cold war era not only as an instrument of policy, but also as an essential attribute of a strong state and global actor. From this point of view, Russia's restoration of conventional military power was only a matter of time and money and is in many ways less surprising than the long neglect of these capabilities. Moreover, the assumption that preparation for offensive action and the pursuit of expansionist policies is the only motivation behind the revival of Russia's conventional military power disregards the fact that the utility of military force is not limited to the fighting of wars and defeating of opponents.

Instead, conventional military power is routinely wielded to deter, compel, swagger, dissuade, or reassure. The idea that improvements in Russia's conventional military capabilities have significantly increased the likelihood of offensive action, including against the West, also underestimates the limitations of Russia's conventional military capabilities and overstates its likely willingness to take such a step in the first place. …

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