Although the U.S. and Russia have long been flirting with a direct confrontation on a rather periodic basis, they have always been walking a tightrope when it comes to avoiding conflict. However, their military capabilities show a pattern that might render the possibility of a conflict actually happening between them to be nothing but a far-fetched notion.

Heading For War? U.S.-Russia Military Capabilities Suggest Not

In the dying hours of September, a three-star Russian general approached the American embassy in Baghdad. Not giving a second thought to the marines on the lookout for anything suspicious, the proud general went directly to the American diplomatic mission where he gave a dry yet blunt and very clear statement. The Russian military would start bombing Syria in the next hour, so it would be wise of the American military to clear the area.

It was indeed quite a statement to give to a diplomatic mission of a country that has been present in the region for almost a decade now. Indeed, some took a trip down memory lane and recalled the days of suspicion, antagonism and gamesmanship.

The launch of airstrikes in Syria was Vladimir Putin’s initiation in the Middle Eastern affairs. Now the former KGB lieutenant colonel is leading his very own proxy in a region that had been under American influence in recent months. In the coming days or even weeks, it could turn out to be a bold statement, a pompous display or sheer naivety.

Nonetheless, it is a clear statement from Russia that from this day onward, it will not be interested in playing the role of a mere bystander as the Middle East collapses in turmoil. For years, Russia has been keeping a safe distance from what is happening in one of the most volatile regions on the planet. Now though, it is clear that Russia wants to play an active role and believes that it has the capability to influence regions just like its Cold War nemesis.

Russia’s use of military might

Recent months have shown Putin’s unwavering fortitude or aggressiveness to use military might in order to further his agenda. Clearly, the Russian supremo wants to see his nation’s stature as a world power restored, and the sooner the better. So if coercive measures can do the trick, Russia is in no mood to play the good guy. Putin’s quest or, as some would call it, an obsession, has really made Russia a frighteningly powerful military power. If the events in Ukraine were not proof enough of this, the recent adventure in Syria shows that Russia is well-equipped enough to run its own agendas as well as any other superpower.

Such a posture has now become a cause for concern among American defense strategists and policymakers. Indeed, senior personnel at the Pentagon are now asking one another a few questions in the event of a conflict with Moscow.

  • How much are the Russians truly capable of?
  • Where precisely might a conflict with Russia occur?
  • What would a war with Russia look like today?

Although experts believe that the U.S. military’s force peppered all over the globe will get the better of the Russian military any given day in a conventional fight, modern wars have not remained conventional in nature. Factors such as geography, politics and acclimatization to terrain are always going to give one side an advantage. In fact, terrain is one factor that has historically been proven to be a big factor in deciding the outcome of wars. Russians would themselves know how much terrain can decide considering that Nazi Germany met its downfall because it failed to get used to the environment in Russia. History is peppered with examples in which some of the biggest armies were gobbled up by a small force because that small force had a “home advantage.”

The Russian national defense budget is nothing compared to the American budget. The U.S. currently boasts 10 aircraft carriers compared to Russia’s one (which is going to be out of commission anytime, considering that it breaks down on a regular basis and relies heavily on a towboat to bail it out).

When it comes to technology, the U.S. once again has the upper hand, but all this could change due to the recent resurgence the Russian tech industry has experienced due to Putin’s aggressive policies. The Russians are reportedly way ahead of the U.S. in the research and development of fifth-generation submarines, while their drone technology speaks of the ingenuity the nation boasts.

One of the biggest concerns within the Pentagon is Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Slowly but gradually, Russia has preserved and later modernized its nuclear weapons and now has a big arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range strike aircraft and nuclear-armed submarines. And unlike the U.S., the policymakers in Russia believe that Russia’s nuclear superiority will cancel out conventional shortcomings.

“The Russian defense industry is being rebuilt from ruins,” said Vadim Kozyulin, a military expert at the Moscow-based PIR Center, a think tank. “The military balance can only be ensured by Russia’s nuclear might, which isn’t as expensive to maintain as many people think.”

And even though their conventional capabilities shouldn’t worry the U.S. much, there are some areas of conventional warfare in which the Russians have excelled. In the past few years, Moscow has spent heavily on aircraft, air defense systems, submarines and electronic warfare.

Foes but different agendas

Although both nations’ actions are quickly becoming mirror images of one another, the fact of the matter is that both the United States and Russia have different agendas. Russians are perhaps willing to not compete with the U.S. on equal terms. For instance, despite the USA’s history of being a maritime power, there has never been a huge attempt on Russia’s part to compete for naval supremacy. Understandably though, Moscow doesn’t need that because it never had any plans of marauding the world’s oceans. The only one forlorn and aging aircraft in Russia against the USA’s 10 is proof of Russia’s reluctance to compete for maritime prowess.

Moreover, the Russian navy’s main focus has always been on patrolling nearby waters such as the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic region. And even though the Russians have pioneered maritime technologies in the Arctic, it is only because they want to thoroughly reap the rewards of having a strip of land under their jurisdiction that is rich in oil and gas. This clearly means that the Russians can become a maritime power if they want to, but it appears that becoming one overnight is not on top of their to-do list even though they are set to overhaul ten third- and fourth-generation submarines and increase their lifespan by 20 years.

Russian stealth aircraft technology is weaker than that of the U.S., but as a counter-measure, Moscow has perhaps the best anti-stealth systems in the world. Moreover, they have invested a fortune in acquiring robust surface-to-air missile systems, unlike in the U.S., where the focus is elsewhere. So in terms of protecting its borders, Russia is in a very good place. In short, in the event of a war, the U.S. Air Force might not be able to achieve any of its targets in the region despite having a history of successful surgical airstrikes.

One thing that could seriously affect American infrastructure if it goes to war with Russia would be Moscow’s supreme and mysterious electronic warfare apparatus, which has not been figured out at all. Infiltrating Russian air space would be nigh impossible. It might be degraded, but it will always be around.

Russia’s military has never been an equal to the U.S. military, but the gap has narrowed significantly in recent years. However, in the event of war, which still seems a very unlikely possibility regardless of how things have been turning out from both sides on a constant basis, it is clear that a war will not really determine a victor since both sides have unique advantages over one another in many areas that basically cancel out their respective shortcomings.