The chances of US or NATO ground troops deploying to Ukraine to confront the Russians look pretty slim right now, but it’s kicked off a lot of speculation in the media about how prepared the West really is in the face of Russian aggression. A lot of that comes down to the quality of the Russian armed forces. There are two stereotypes to deal with here; one is the mythical invincible Red hordes we were all taught about during the Cold War, and the other is the bullied, unpaid, ill-disciplined mob we saw in Chechnya. So which of these is the reality today?
Vladimir Putin has presided over a huge rise in Russian energy exports, and he’s funneled a lot of that money into the armed forces. A lot of it has gone towards reactivating and refurbishing Soviet-era gear; the Russian air force’s MiG-31 interceptors are going through a rebuild cycle that’s made a big difference to the country’s air defenses. They’re backed up by a lot of very modern surface to air missiles that are extremely good – the S300 series can give Patriot a serious run for its money, and the S400 is in a class of its own. If we had to fight in Ukraine, air superiority might not be as easy to achieve as we’re used to. Money has also been poured into upgrading the fleet of over 300 Mi-24 attack helicopters.
When it comes to combat vehicles it’s much the same; cash is going towards modernizing existing systems instead of buying new ones. Even the front-like Russian tank, the T90, is really just an upgrade of the T72. Hundreds of T72s are also being overhauled to the T72B3 standard. Don’t write them off though – advanced reactive armor makes these very tough targets, and they have powerful 125mm guns with new ammunition. They’re also 20 tons lighter than an M1A2, so they can get around pretty well. They’re backed up by a lot of artillery, and that’s a science Russia’s always been good at.
The most interesting change from a few years ago is the personal equipment issued to Russian troops. Weapons haven’t changed much – the standard rifle is the AK-74M and support weapons include the PKM, RPG-7, RPG-29 and the AGS-17 grenade machinegun. There also seems to have been big advances in field gear, body armor and personal radios, and that will increase combat efficiency. With increased numbers of professional soldiers in frontline units, it’s likely the Russians would put up a much harder fight than they could manage in the 1990s.
As I said, there are pretty long odds against us facing off against Putin’s troops anytime soon, but it’s not a bad idea to remember that there are other powerful militaries out there. We’ve spent the last couple of decades fighting insurgents and third-world militaries stocked with outdated equipment, but while we’re still far stronger than Russia, their updated armed forces make for a credible opponent inside their own sphere of influence. Hopefully politicians will remember that next time the defense budget comes up for debate.