While the Russian armed forces have declined by about 80 percent since the Cold War the government is currently running a propaganda campaign (mainly via mass media and the Internet) portraying Russia as capable of posing a major military threat to the West. That is more fiction than fact and perusing Russian language print media and Internet discussions provides lots of details. Russian military personnel and any Russians who care to pay attention know that Russia is much worse off versus its Cold War adversaries (mainly NATO) now than in 1991 (when the Soviet Union collapsed). The problem Russia does not like to talk about is that while Russian forces shrank 80 percent during the 1990s those of its adversaries declined by less than half. Worse NATO nations replaced or upgraded much of their older and obsolete equipment after 1991. At this point NATO has four times as many troops as Russia. Until 1991 Russia had more troops than NATO. Worse still is the fact that NATO nations account for nearly 60 percent of all military spending on the planet, about ten times what Russia spends. That underlines the major Russian military weakness; the inability to replace aging weapons after 1991. Russia was in the midst of trying to remedy that when the price of oil (the main source of for the government budget) dropped by over 70 percent. Then came the economic sanctions in response to Russian attacks on Ukraine and threats to do likewise to other East European nations. Until 1991 Russia was a very real conventional military threat to its neighbors (especially the NATO nations of Europe). That is no longer the case although Russia is a threat to new NATO members in East Europe, but only if they want to risk defeat because of the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty. The one Cold War era threat Russia retains is a diminished but still potent nuclear weapons capability. This, however, is still a doomsday solution for Russia if used. Retaliation would be devastating, but as a threat nuclear war is still as badass as it gets. At this point it is all Russia really has left, all else is theater and illusion.
The most likely targets for another Russian invasion are three small nations (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) on the south coast of the Baltic Sea between Russia and Poland. In the 18th century the Baltic States were forcibly incorporated into the expanding Russian empire. They became independent after World War I (1914-18) but were taken over again in 1940. It wasn't until 1991 that the Baltic States regained their independence and they are determined to keep things that way. Meanwhile Russian backed forces in Ukraine are maintaining their positions and generally observing a ceasefire by not making major moves. This is largely because economic problems in Russia and the need to divert most military attention to the situation in Syria. Russia believes time is on its side in Ukraine because Ukraine is suffering more economic and political problems than Russia. Corruption has been a major problem in Ukraine since 1991 (and before). Even the obvious Russian military threat has not persuaded a lot of powerful Ukrainians to shut down a lot of their profitable corrupt practices. As a result of that, the war and economic sanctions by Russia, the Ukrainian GDP shrank 10 percent in 2015. Worse, if action is not taken on corruption a lot of Western economic aid will be cut or never arrive.
Opportunities In Syria
The UN and most of the West are eager for peace in Syria but for most Moslem nations Syria is a main battleground in the current Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) civil war as well as a joint effort to destroy ISIL, which threatens everyone. The West is not willing to use enough force to make a difference and the pro-government forces, now including Russian warplanes and ground troops, are better armed and more determined than the rebels. The UN is caught in the middle and goes along with whatever seems least offensive. Meanwhile those rebels that are willing to negotiate are insisting that the Assad government has to go and Russia has been quietly trying to work out something along those lines. Another issue the rebels are angry about was the UN agreeing to keep the Syrian Kurds out of the peace talks. This was something Turkey insisted on. There were other problems, like the tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have also helped cripple UN efforts obtain a meaningful Syria peace deal. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis. What keeps the peace talks going is the fact that the war in Syria has been going on for five years so far, left over 300,000 dead and created ten times as many refugees and provided an opportunity for ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups to grow. It is in everyone else’s interest that the war end. That will require some more agreement on the terms and Russia has taken the lead in trying to make a deal. Russia, which is reverting back to an authoritarian form of government (all Russia had ever known until the 1990s) does not have to worry about domestic opposition to whatever peace deal Russia can arrange in Syria. Success at this would be a major accomplishment for Russia and many nations (especially in the West and the Moslem world) would be indebted. This is seen as an effective way to get Arab oil producers to reduce their output (and let prices rise) as well as getting Western economic sanctions lifted. Russia needs both of those things to happen by the end of the decade because that is about how long the government can cope with the economic damage done by the low oil prices and sanctions. Eventually the economic problems will lead to a major recession, massive unemployment and too much unrest.
Since October 2015 Russia has become a major player in Syria. While Iran still supplies a lot of manpower (mostly via foreign Shia it has recruited) Russia has the modern military gear and troops who can use it. Russia also has a veto at the UN and an eagerness to achieve some kind of “victory” in Syria. To achieve that Russia is concentrating most of its considerable firepower on rebel groups that are hurting the Assad government forces the most. By American count only about ten percent of Russian air strikes have been against ISIL and those targets were usually hit to protect Assad forces. Russia justifies (to the UN and the world in general) its military presence in Syria because it is part of the effort to destroy the ISIL threat. While Russia does not hide its support for the Assad government (which the UN and most of the world accuse of war crimes and wants gone) it insists that its presence in Syria is not primarily to keep the Assads in power. Yet thousands of Russian troops are working with the Assad forces. The Russian troops are mostly based in Assad controlled territory and the majority of rebels, who are not ISIL or the local al Qaeda franchise al Nusra, are the main targets of Russian firepower. A growing pile of evidence (mainly from social media activity by Russian troops in Syria) confirms that Russian ground troops, mainly special operations and some technical experts, are involved with the ground combat alongside Syrian troops. Russia denies this but has good reason to do it anyway. This gives Russia a chance to put its post-Cold War military to the test. What the Russians are preparing for is the possibility of clashes between Russian and NATO forces in Eastern Europe. Both NATO and Russia are not sure how their respective post-Cold War forces would do against each other. Most East European nations are preparing for the worst and paying close attention to whatever Russia does in Ukraine and Syria.
Meanwhile Russian support has enabled Assad forces to push most rebels away from Aleppo and cut them off from Turkey (a primary source if reinforcements and supplies). This is a major defeat for the rebels and if the government regains control of Aleppo (or what is left of what used to be the second largest city in the country) Russia will be in a better position to sell its proposal for a UN approved partition of Syria and a de-facto pardon for the Assads (and hassle free exile) so the war against ISIL and al Qaeda can continue. Forgiving the Assads will be a hard sell but the Russians are feeling heroic at the moment and the Assads will take whatever salvation they can get.
Russia further complicates the Syrian situation by getting involved with increasingly strident disagreements with Turkey. The Turks are angry at Russia for flying its aircraft too close to the Turkish border and for bombing Turkish backed rebels. A particular sore point has been Russian attacks on Syrian Turkmen rebels. As these people are fellow Turks, Turkey has long felt obliged to help them. Now Russia and Turkey are threatening to go to war with each other over this. NATO is debating whether or not this would trigger the mutual-self-defense clause of the NATO treaty. Russia is threatening to use nukes if Turkey gets too aggressive.
March 5, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas, along the Black Sea coast) Ukrainian troops have been under attack near Mariupol by pro-Russian rebels who have opened fire numerous times in the last week and made several attempts to advance into the city. This resulted in some of the worst fighting so far this year. In one incident at least 30 rebels were killed before the attackers pulled back. The fierce Ukrainian resistance to attacks on Mariupol has been going on for nearly a year. The rebels appear to be bringing in more troops and weapons in preparation for another effort to take Mariupol. This is in violation of the truce and is nothing new as far as the Russians and rebels are concerned. Pro-Russian forces have been threatening the port city of Mariupol since early 2014.
March 4, 2016: Ukraine accuses Russian backed rebels in the east (Donbas) of violating the cease fire and attacking Ukrainian forces about 40 times a day so far in 2016. These attacks were mainly harassment but did kill twelve Ukrainian troops and wounded over 150 so far this year. The current ceasefire went into effect in September 2015 and over 400 Ukrainian troops have died since then. Ukraine believes that Russian trainers, officers and officials in Donbas have put together a rebel force of at least 40,000 armed men and continue to support it with supplies and new equipment. Many, perhaps a third, of these rebels are not even Ukrainian but rather Russian troops or civilian volunteers from Russia. This force is equipped with over 1,200 armored vehicles, most of them supplied by Russia, as well as 450 artillery (guns and howitzers) and 190 MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) including some of the latest models. These rebels have killed over 2,600 Ukrainian troops since February 2014 and wounded over 9,000.
March 3, 2016: In France diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met and agreed to a prisoner exchange with the Donbas rebels by April 30th and local elections in Donbas by June 30th. Russia wants rigged elections that will enable Russia to annex Donbas like it did Crimea in 2014.
March 2, 2016: The United States extended its economic sanctions against Russia for another year. American allies are expected to do the same.
February 28, 2016: NATO has officially agreed to supply personnel help train and expand Ukrainian special operations forces. This is sorely needed because when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Ukraine inherited about 6,000 special operations troops. During the 1990s this force shrank to about 3,000. A common reason for Ukrainian special operations troops leaving was that many were Russian or pro-Russian and Russia made more of an effort recruit special operations troops who had ended up in the armed forces of one of the new 14 nations created from the wreckage of the old Russian Empire. When a Ukrainian popular revolt in 2014 put an anti-Russian government in power even more Ukrainian special operations troops left, or were discharged, because they were suspected of being more loyal to Russia. Since then Ukraine has been rebuilding its special operations forces using troops who are loyal to Ukraine. Thus the need for NATO help.
February 27, 2016: In Syria a ceasefire began and so far it has worked, sort of. While Syrian government, Russian and some rebel forces observed the truce there is still a lot of fighting because most of the rebels are not part of the ceasefire. This is mainly because ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Nusra (nearly as large as ISIL but affiliated with al Qaeda) have not agreed to stop fighting. This was the second attempt at a ceasefire in February. That first effort failed for the same reasons the new effort is only partially successful. The new ceasefire was still working in many areas as of March 6th. This is useful because it allows food and other aid to reach several hundred thousand civilians trapped by the fighting.
February 26, 2016: Ukraine reports that Donbas rebels are using the new Grad-K MLRS. This is a modernized version of the decades old BM-21 122mm MLRS. This new MLRS first appeared in 2011 and Russian troops began receiving it in 2012. There are no export customers yet and Ukraine never had it. Yet there are photos of the new MLRS operating inside Donbas.
February 25, 2016: The Russian government revealed that in late January it had ordered a halt to a program that was to expand and modernize the airborne forces. This confirms rumors that the government has quietly halted military rebuilding and expansion efforts, especially for the special operations troops (which includes airborne units as well as the more traditional commandos). This is all because of the continuing economic crises.
February 22, 2016: Turkey is accusing Russia of using a new spy place (a recently arrived Tu-214R) to monitor Turkey, not Islamic terrorists in Syria. Russia only has two Tu-214Rs and these entered service in 2015. Russia is testing a lot of their new military gear in Syria.
February 20, 2016: Iranian officials came to Russia to discuss a multi-billion dollar deal to buy Russian Su-30 jet fighters, Yak-130 jet trainers and Mi-17 helicopters. Such sales are still forbidden without explicit permission from the UN. At the same time it was confirmed that Iran is still discussing details of the S-300 anti-aircraft systems sale. This was thought to be a done deal. In December Russian announced that deliveries would be made via the Caspian Sea. Some supporting equipment has already been flown in or came by sea as non-military equipment. Apparently the key S-300 components (missiles and fire control systems) have not been delivered.
February 16, 2016: Belarus, Russia’s western neighbor and only ally in East Europe, is ordering at least a dozen new Su-30SM fighter-bombers from Russia to replace 37 elderly (1980s vintage) MiG-29 fighters. Belarus tried upgrading the MiG-29s in 2004 but the 13 aircraft that were refurbished demonstrated that it was not worth the effort. Meanwhile in 2013 Belarus decided to retire its Su-27 fighters. It wanted sell them, but there were no buyers. Belarus did not have the cash to refurbish the Su-27s and was not sure that would work any better than it did on the MiG-29s. These Su-27s entered service in the 1980s and not built to fly more than 3,000 hours. This is low for modern jet fighters but typical of Russian combat aircraft. The Belarus Su-27s were worn out.