Russia's potential


Russia is the single largest non-NATO country close to Europe (and actually in large part in Europe). It's therefore naturally the first choice for anyone who wants to check on the possibility of major conventional warfare in Europe.

Russia's military is at present large, but has outdated equipment, is ill-supplied, ill-paid, has a poor reputation among its citizens (recruit abuse) and a mixed reputation in the West.
Much of this military is bound to tasks in Asia and not available as a threat to Europe, so it's reasonable to expect that European forces are at this point relatively easily able to keep it in check (not necessarily on the first few hundred kilometres, though).

Its primary strength is probably the quantity of equipment stored in depots behind the Urals and its relatively good ability to function with quickly mobilized troops. Recent news indicate that they're about to scrap a good portion of that Cold War legacy equipment, though.
Strong internal security forces (paramilitaries) add to the picture.

The present (rumoured) nominal military spending of Russia is in the same league as that of the UK, France and the PR China, albeit with PPP advantages over the first two. Russia is unable to focus its military power in one theater due to its long Eurasian borders, though.

The potential for greater military capabilities in the future depends on many factors - politics, economy, science and engineering, fiscal health and population, for example.

Let's run a (quick & dirty) check - you won't get a better one by me for free. ;)


Russia has a pseudo-democratic, authoritarian government with dominance over regional institutions. Well, this sounds promising (for their military). Especially the ability to develop and execute long term (more than five years) political plans is relatively impressive. The ability to create really efficient long-term plans is not very impressive (because of corruption).

The past policy has demonstrated a readiness to use military force - at least on former USSR territory. It has also demonstrated a quite high degree of rationality and patience. Past domestic political competence (economic policy in the Putin era) was rather unimpressive, though.


Less than € 1.5 trillion GDP (a bit more, but not drastically more in purchasing power parity) isn't much for a country of its size and population. It's actually less than France's GDP.
Exports make up almost a quarter of the GDP, a sign of serious integration into international trade. The largest trade partners are the European and East Asian economic powers, not the former USSR states (with exception Ukraine; about 5% of exports).

The share of industrial activities is about 40% GDP, but much of this is the raw materials sector (oil, gas, mining). A well-balanced, healthy economy at a higher level of national wealth would require a very strong industrial development. This would require at least about a decade of strong growth.

Science and engineering

Russia was quite in love with scientific and technological work. They have no noteworthy anti-science or science-despising political factions (at least none that I'm aware of).
Russia had the legacy of a very strong scientific and engineering complex in the early 90's. Education and experience were robust, albeit with a serious lag in computer tech. The(ir) problem; those with good education and experience have aged by almost twenty years in the meantime. These pillars of technical and scientific competence will break away almost completely in the next two decades and most of them are likely already beyond their creativity apogee.

The small R&D activity since the 90's has furthermore driven many scientists and engineers into more 'practical' jobs. An engineer-turned-truck-driver has rarely kept himself up to date in his original trade and is very unlikely to return to his original trade anyway.
Russia's long-term competence in science and engineering is yet to be determined; it depends a lot on the budgets of its government.

Fiscal health

This points at the next point of interest; fiscal health. Here are several interesting details. The Soviet Union had a state-run economy and therefore no full-blown system of taxes. That has hurt Russia in the 90's. At one point in the 90's the CEO of Gazprom claimed that his (oil & gas) company paid half of the Russian state budget - more than the whole defence expenses.

Nevertheless, Russia was able to pay back significant loans to foreign creditors even despite huge economic troubles. That tells a bit about their ability to mobilise fiscal power if deemed necessary.

Public debt is officially at a fantastic low of about 7% GDP (Wikipedia & CIA World Factbook). This means they should easily be able to finance a stronger posture with deficit spending for many years until they would reach typical Western levels (rarely less than 40%).

The state's revenues are rather limited due to the small GDP; around € 300 billion.


The population of Russia is large at about 140 million, but declining. This trend isn't irreversible, but it's an old situation that has left its demographic and economic marks.
For comparison: The population of Russia is about as large as the population of Germany plus France. Their closest ally Belarus has only as many citizens as Belgium.

The health situation of Russian males is comparably poor, apparently due to tobacco, drugs, infectious diseases (tuberculosis, HIV) and their infamous alcohol consumption. Official figures look like 12 liters pure alcohol per citizen and year, but that's apparently a manipulated statistic. A 17 litres figure slipped off Medvedev some time ago.

Traffic accidents are correspondingly a major cause of death and disability.

The statistic of only about 61 1/2 years life expectancy for males (and about 74 for females) is credible, and shocking.

These problems can be solved, but not in short order. On the other hand, the Soviet Union fought WW2 with strong personnel resources even though famine, alcohol and state terror had badly hurt the population in the inter-war years.

Manpower available for military service (age 16-49):
36.2 million males, 37 million females

Manpower fit for military service:
21.1 million males, 28 million females

Manpower reaching militarily significant age annually:
0.74 million males, 0.71 million females
(rounded, CIA World Factbook)

There's plenty manpower for military service, but the situation is rather poor from a workforce point of view.

- - - - -

Russia seems to have the ingredients for a quite prosperous future, including the groundwork for education, science and engineering and lots of natural resources. Its population is large, but not overwhelmingly large.
The next two decades (especially the next one) will be very important for its further development and standing. Seriously; they cannot afford the waste of resources that a major war would cause.
I personally hope that Western diplomats and governments have figured out Putin's long-term strategy better than the Western public has. This strategy for the nation's development (I assume he has one) will be extremely important for Russia and therefore also for Europe.
I think he neglected the industrial development in the past, with too much nepotism and emphasis on a strong state (instead of strong & healthy economy).

I do always keep in mind the historical precedent of Germany 1932-1939: It recovered from a terrible economic crisis and turned into a military powerhouse in just seven years. The Western powers were burdened by public debt while Germany had de-valued its WWI debt by hyper-inflation during the 20's.

Europe is really in a lucky situation. Its only credible conventional war threat is weakened for several years to come. Not entirely harmless, but badly weakened. Historical precedents point out that the picture could change in a matter of five to ten years, but the situation allows for a relaxed vigilance.



  1. Interesting analysis. Its very hard to add something new or novel and it is refreshing to read an analysis that doesn't simply expect the Russians to remain weak because they have been weak in the last twenty years.

    I would - however - like to point out that the current situation can't exactly be described as stable. Russian resistance toward further NATO expansion is growing and the Russo-Georgian war last year proves exactly how hostile they are. I don't claim the war was just about that, but it is also impossible to ignore what role Georgia's cooperation with the West played in the Russian decision to punish Saakashvili last year. There is also very little to prevent a renewal of hostilities since NATO has been reluctant to draw a line, since the Georgian forces remain weak and since clashes (on a small scale) continue.

    In the horisont looms the question of Ukraine. If its government were to seek NATO membership it could escalate already severe tensions between Ukraine and Russia. I am doubtful that Western countries would remain neutral in such a conflict. Ukraine is - after all - as large as France and at least some members would be willing to offer support. Please notice there is also the question of to whom Crimea belongs to. After almost twenty years this question is still in dispute.

    Finally there is also the fact that as of now there are very few - hardly any - NATO bases or installations (read American bases) in Eastern Europe. If that were to change it is also very likely to create rising tensions. I especially refer to the American plans for a radar in the Czech Republic and an ABM-base in Poland.

    Like you mentioned in an earlier blog the big question is about our new allies in NATO. Are we really willing to go and fight for Estonia or Latvia? If not we should show the decency and tell them, so they can adjust accordingly. My fear is that we will ignore that and instead continue with NATO expansion at our own peril.

  2. You addressed some issues that I wrote about for a year and we're mostly in agreement.

    "...since NATO has been reluctant to draw a line..."

    Well, NATO is a DEFENSIVE alliance. Georgia was no member and is none. The war was an issue for the UNSC, not for NATO.
    The West actually drew a line at that time - to stop some loose Neocons.

    Ukraine (and Georgia) already got rejected by NATO due to vetoes from Germany and IIRC also France (GWB wanted them in and some European members apparently passed the buck of vetoing that stupidity to us). I don't expect that they'll join anytime soon.
    They'll be able to repel Moscow if they fare well in domestic policy in my opinion.

  3. Thanks for your comment regarding my remarks. I have very little to add.

    I would however like to mention (you can decide how relevant it is or not) that there has been crisis and close calls between the United States/NATO and Russia even in the relatively recent times.

    There was the incident in 1995, where Norwegian scientists in cooperation with NASA launched a two-stage rocket. This caused a Russian nuclear alert since the rocket was launched from an area where Americans subs operated and the missile had the same launch profile as the launch of a Trident SLBM. By his own admission President Yeltsin prepared a Russian nuclear counterattack at this point.

    There was also the Pristina airfield incident in Kosovo in 1999, where Russian troops occupied the airfield in the wake of the war about Kosovo and NATO-Saceur general Clark ordered British troops to confront them and kick them out. The British commander in charge refused and stated "I am not going to start WW3 for you".

    I can't mention more recent examples, but with tensions regarding Georgia and the recent Russian decision to send subs to the American East Coast there is and will always remain the possibility for new incidents.

    Of course I am aware that American ships and planes have always operated close to Russian borders. Much to Russian dismay.

  4. There's no real chance of war in such situations, so it's free (and domestically advantageous) to rattle the Russian sabre a bit.

    I expect much more proxy conflicts in the near future (along the models of Nicaragua or Afghanistan).

  5. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 8/9/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  6. Little complement:
    The number of application of patents in russia remains poor.
    Quotient in the world: Russia 1,65 %;
    Netherlands 1,56 % ; France 2,5%


    (Germany: about 18%)

  7. Patents are a very poor indicator for R&D activity, although they do most likely coincide with the real picture.

    Patents are nowadays as much an indicator for obstacles to technological advance as for technological advance itself. The system has been perverted.
    That topic is complex, worthy of a dissertation itself.

  8. The abuse of patents is a different question.

    I do not think that the number of application of patents is a "very poor" indicator for innovation. Of course, there are many other indicators, but did it happen by chance that e.g. Baden-Württemberg and Bayern are the home of most patent holders in Germany ?
    I think it is more than a "coincidence".


  9. sorry for the anonymous, but just wanted to add a little more about demographics and the possible Russian context.
    the Russian nation is in effect depopulating with the only growth in its Muslim areas. The Russian government has decided that anyone of Russian heritage in the Baltic and former Western Soviet Union is not only welcome back to Russia but subject to Russian protection. Remember one of the Russian pretexts for the Georgian invasion was to protect Georgians with Russian passports (which were illegal under Georgian law but still freely distributed)
    They are even encouraging Orthodox Church Russian settlements in South America to return.
    Lastly as the Russian Army professionalizes (shrinking size of their force), the units that are standing up are primarily not of Muslim or Central Asian backgrounds.
    Tie this in to the idea of Russia as a superpower and the prestige associated with it and many of the recent Russian provocations are understandable.
    Lastly, Russia has been invaded many times by the various great powers and they have not forgotten. If I can use a metaphor with relationships, it is better to doing the breaking up than be broked up with. Russians are similar in terms of invasion or territories in their perceived sphere of influence (hence NATO and former Western Soviet alliances being resounding resisted)
    thanks for your blog, saw your name I thought in a air superiority debate one time and thought I would explore.


  10. Probably time to revisit this isn't it Sven?

    1. After less than four years already? That would be embarrassing.

      The changes were only incremental in my opinion.