One’s been reminded recently of the adage (attributed to Churchill and others) that Russia (and its military) is never as strong, nor as weak, as it seems to be.
Its military strength or weakness slides along a scale, constantly shifting. Though appearing to be in one place, it’s often already moving (or starting to move) in the opposite direction.
Yesterday’s Red Square military parade marked the 69th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. It was quite an impressive display of fair Slavic manhood.
As every year, Moscow understandably put its best foot forward. But we’d do well to remember this isn’t necessarily the face of the entire Russian military.
This is the same country that gave us the Potemkin village and infamous 1955 Soviet Aviation Day flyover (and bomber gap). Be impressed, but don’t go overboard like many comments you’ll read.
Russia’s armed forces have clearly improved in recent years. There’s even been an uptick since Shoygu replaced Serdyukov.
But is Russia’s military development on a sustainable trajectory?
Probably not, in this writer’s estimation.
Shoygu’s efforts appear aimed at returning the armed forces to something approximating Soviet scale (or the unreformed, pre-2008 Russian scale at least).
Despite the problems he ultimately caused, Serdyukov tried — not just to reduce the military’s proportions — but to make it fit its manpower, its logistical support, and its most likely threats.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its build-up opposite eastern Ukraine have spurred observers to assess that Ivan’s 7-feet-tall and growing. Many of them never looked at Russia’s military prior to March.
One’s strength is inversely proportional to that of the enemy. Everything is net assessment. Three long-time analysts have concluded:
“You don’t have to be good to win — just better than your foe.”
“The Russians were capable of confronting an inferior force that is right next door.”
“It’s an impressive operation, but it’s an 80% political operation. The military are there to stand around and look menacing. It’s not as if they took Crimea.”
We should also note the Russians already had a huge military presence inside the borders of the country whose territorial integrity and sovereignty they violated.
Russia isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) great power or superpower to use its foreign military bases for such a purpose.
Such actions usually carry a high diplomatic, political, military, and economic price that has to be paid eventually.