Russia’s Military Bear Is a Paper Tiger
Policy + Politics

Russia’s Military Bear Is a Paper Tiger

The conventional wisdom that Russia’s military is a world power is incorrect. 

REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

In a telephone call yesterday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu has reportedly assured Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russian forces will not invade Ukraine.

The call was an attempt to get Russia to clarify the intentions of the 40,000 Russian troops amassed at the Ukrainian border. But given Russia’s recent lies about its actions in Ukraine, the promise isn’t worth much.

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This news also supports the growing conventional wisdom that the Russian military is a Cold War behemoth that could charge all the way to Berlin before being turned back by NATO. This, however, is simply not the case. Russia’s current military strength is a myth, just as it was when the Berlin Wall fell.

Russian Special Forces are capable. They showed that in Crimea, which they annexed in a matter of days. But Special Forces don’t invade a country. Well-trained and disciplined conventional troops and modern equipment are needed to do that, and Russia’s 2008 military adventure in Georgia showed they have neither.

Russian forces invaded South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway provinces in Georgia, in August 2008. The fighting lasted just five days, and the Russian forces eventually defeated an outmatched Georgian military.

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The Russians were victorious in less-than-impressive fashion. Russian commanders were forced to communicate via cell phones because their radios didn’t work. An EU after action report found that Russian troops were poorly organized and undertrained.

“[I]t must be concluded that the Russian military action outside South Ossetia was essentially conducted in violation of international law,” the EU found.

The only reason the Russians won is that the Georgian army was so weak that it had no chance of victory. If Russia were to invade Ukraine, it would meet a smaller fighting force. But that right force would be well armed, because an invasion would likely lead to a proxy war between NATO and Russia. That means Ukrainian troops would be armed with the best equipment in the world.

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The Russians, on the other hand, are using outdated equipment. Its military is in the middle of a $700 billion upgrade, but its completion is years away.

Even if Russia does take Ukraine, it would not likely continue into Eastern Europe where it would meet NATO forces. If that were to happen, Russia’s military bear would be exposed as a paper tiger.

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