Russian President Vladimir Putin is a firm believer in the saying “might makes right”, and he has proven on several occasions he is willing to use military force to make his point with his neighbors. Despite a hobbled economy due to drastically lower oil prices and crippling Western sanctions, Putin continues to call for a “strong Russia” and has continued to press ahead with his expensive plans to modernize the Russian military.

Russia's Military Modernizes, But Still Not Ready For Prime Time

Russia puts on a “show of force”

Like China did with its big end of WW II military parade last week, Russia undertook a large public relations campaign to highlight some of its military strengths at a major expo earlier this summer. The four-day event in June featured Russia’s most powerful military equipment, including the latest tanks, APCs, cannons and missile systems. During the expo, highly trained Russian military crews demoed the speed and firepower of the equipment in a series of live-fire exercises.

Analysts note that while the military expo was really designed to impress potential buyers from other countries, it also served Putin’s purposes in reassuring the Russian public that the nation’s military is ready to take on any threat from the West.

Military experts also point out that while Russia has come a long way in professionalizing its military, it is still well behind NATO in terms of numbers of advanced weapons or personnel trained to use the latest systems.

“What we’re seeing is really a show of force, rather than force itself,” notes Mark Katz, a political scientist and Russian military expert from George Mason University. “I think that it would be very difficult for them to sustain a conflict. And this is a pattern we saw in the Soviet days as well, that the Soviet and Russian military have a lot of teeth but very little tail.”

Katz continued to point out that while the Russian military has the ability to make large-scale attacks even against strong defenses, the current force structure is not designed to support a longer war.

Russian military still a work in progress

The Russian military has shown strong improvement in recent years, says Russian defense analyst Alexander Golts, who is also a columnist for the Moscow Times.

He points to last year, when Russia was able to mobilize more than 40,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian border in just two days.

“That might look like modest progress for any modern army, but for the Russian army, it’s a fantastic success,” he argues. “Now the Kremlin has several dozen combat-ready formations that are capable of going into action within hours after getting an order.”

That said, Golts also points out that Russia’s attack against the Ukraine involves mainly Soviet-era equipment on both sides, and its a mismatch because Russia’s is a good bit more up to date.

Still a potential threat to NATO

Golts notes, however, that a fight with NATO would certainly involve air power and advanced antitank weapons, which would give NATO a notable advantage.

“Then all this would look quite different,” he continues. “I don’t think the Russian army is even setting such a goal — to confront NATO forces.”

However, Russia not being able to finish its conventional military modernization may pose a different threat to the West.

“It’s obvious that Russia doesn’t have the resources the Soviet Union had,” Golts points out. “It doesn’t have allies or a young population from which it could form a 5 million-person army or industry that’s capable of equipping an army of millions. What’s left? Nuclear weapons.”

He also notes that if the Kremlin continues to make political signals that it’s ready to use nukes, the risk of confrontation with NATO and/or the U.S. is unquestionably much higher.

Economic woes bogging down Russia’s five-year military modernization plan

A number of military analysts have commented that Russia’s plan to fully modernize all of its weapons systems is not scheduled for completion for at least another five years, meaning most projects are not really that far behind schedule.

That said, several of the planned military modernization programs have recently been delayed due to financial constraints as well as Western embargo-related supply issues. Virtually everyone expects further delays with other Russian military development projects given the financial and technical headwinds that exist right now.