Image by Sam Taylor
In the past, when I've asked military experts from IHS Jane's what it would take to conquer, say, America, or the UK, the idea of its actually happening in the near future was relatively far-fetched. But recent events in Crimea have raised the very real possibility of conflict, so when I asked IHS Jane's Konrad Muzyka what it would take to conquer Russia, it all suddenly felt very real.
No one wants to see Putin riding into battle on the back of a nuclear warhead, but that said, I'd like to make it clear that I, for one, welcome our new Russian overlords and would like to remind them that I could be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground vodka caves.
VICE: I'm going to begin with a classic cliché. Over the centuries, plenty of power-hungry leaders have tried to take on Russia, convinced that they would be the first to overcome the brutal Russian winter. How could a modern army deal with this ancient problem?
Konrad Muzyka: I agree that from a historical perspective this has been a problem many countries have succumbed to. But the advent of precision guided munitions and, more importantly, nuclear weapons have completely nullified the issue. Any potential conflict with the West would most likely be fought in the air, space, and sea. Any use of land forces would be limited to capturing strategically important facilities—bridges, airfields, and the like. Given the size of Russian territory, I don't think anyone would be interested in moving their troops to Russia and holding them there.
So how quickly might any invading force find itself plunged into a nuclear winter?
Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons even in a regional conflict scenario. As such, any country taking on Russia needs to be aware of a dramatic and quick escalation that could take place. But this is a sign of weakness rather than strength.
In the days of the Red Army, it felt as though there was an endless supply of men ready to die in the name of Mother Russia. Is this still true? What's their manpower like?
That's true, but many of those sent into battle during the Second World War fought at gunpoint. Not only that of the Nazi Wehrmacht, but also that of their fellow Russian "comrades." Retreat was usually forbidden, even in a tactical sense—those who were caught falling back were either shot on the spot or court-martialed… and then usually shot.
Not a lot of TLC for the Red Army.
No. When it comes to their manpower number today, this is a question that I don't think the Russians themselves can even answer. Armed forces personnel numbers are 1 million, but we estimate that this figure is much, much lower and currently stands at somewhere between 750,000 and 800,000. The army is authorized at nearly 400,000 soldiers, but its actual strength is most likely below 300,000, perhaps as low as 280,000, due to the shortage of draftees and undermanning in certain units.
So, in the event of an invasion, basically Russia would just end up chucking loads of untrained and unwilling civilians back to the frontlines?
Although efforts have been made in recent years to modernize and restructure the armed forces—with the ultimate aim of creating a fully professionalized armed forces—the truth is that in the event of a conflict, Russia will still rely on mass mobilization of its population. What is also interesting to note is that Russia still relies on its railway systems for strategic mobility. Thus, little has changed since the Second World War.
Some things never change. Which brings me to Russia's size, which has always been a problem for its enemies. There's just so much territory to cover. Is there any army in the world capable of securing a country this size?
If I were to give you a short answer, then it would be no. Russia's territory covers more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area and stretches across nine different time zones. There is simply way too much territory to seize and then control. Unless China mobilized half of its population and sent them to cover the wilderness of Siberia.
So what you're saying is you might be able to conquer Russia if you had half a billion Chinese people marauding across Siberia?
China would be an interesting case if we considered a conventional conflict scenario. This would turn ugly and most likely develop into a war of attrition. However, with only 143 million people living in Russia, guess who the winner might be… Logistically, though, such an operation is unsustainable, even if the Chinese lived off what they looted, captured, and hunted in Russia. To give you a different perspective, it is estimated that the United States would need 500,000 troops in Afghanistan to secure the whole of the country. Russia is 26 times bigger than Afghanistan and shares borders with 16 countries.
Could a combined EU army take on Russia, or would it have to be a superpower like the US?
The EU's military capabilities are… well, not really existent. Although there are a number of EU battlegroups ready to be deployed abroad, they never have been. I just can't imagine any EU unified army, if it were ever created, taking on Russia. As I mentioned previously, any conflict with NATO countries or China would most likely involve nuclear weapons, which would, in turn, lead to mutually assured destruction (MAD).
Has there been much of a shift in relative military power between the US and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union? And has Putin made Russia more powerful militarily in recent years?
Yes, there definitely has been. Whereas the US has reaffirmed its doctrine based on tri-service [army, navy, air force] interoperability coupled with investment into C4ISR platforms [computers and surveillance, basically], there had been no serious efforts to do the same in Russia, at least until 2008.
The short conflict with Georgia in August 2008, which was also called the last war of the 21st century, showed that in terms of wider military capabilities Russia was years, if not decades, behind the US. When, in 2008, the US could easily deploy a significant number of UAVs [drones] over Afghanistan and Iraq, Russian UAVs used in Georgia were reportedly so loud that they could be heard from miles away. As you can imagine, the quality of imagery delivered was not great either. As a result, Russian UAVs were declared useless.
A Ukrainian woman tries to talk to a Russian special forces agent in Crimea.
So the decision to get involved in that tiff with Georgia could have backfired on Putin?
In a way… It became clear that Russian armed forces needed bigger investment and that the country's defense industry was unable to match Western-produced equipment. To an extent this was rectified by the procurement of UAVs from Israel, amphibious vessels from France, and multipurpose vehicles from Italy. Although, for various reasons, Russia decided to stop importing foreign military equipment.
So where does all that leave them?
A military reform that followed in the immediate aftermath of August 2008 is seeking to introduce new quality, both in terms of equipment and leadership, to Russia's armed forces and completely transform them into a modern, agile, and easily deployable fighting force. It looks nice on paper, but the reality is that they're still unable to deliver top-notch equipment. Delays pile up, corruption is still a significant problem, hazing among personnel is prevalent, and the troops are poorly trained.
Moving on, how could you neutralize Russia's nuclear capability?
You can't. Russia possesses second-strike capability, and unless you're ready to take a nuclear hit from Russia—which no one can—you need to embrace the notion of a total annihilation of your country.
It is estimated that Russia possesses around 4,300 nuclear warheads. Another 700 strategic and 2,000 non-strategic warheads are in storage. Just like in the case of the US, Russian deterrence is based on a triad of systems [land, air, and sea]. Even if you knocked out the land and air delivery systems/platforms, submarines fitted with nuclear ICBMs would be virtually undetectable once they'd left Russian ports.
Apart from that, where do Russia's military strengths lie? Should we be worried about the navy?
Russia has never been a maritime power. Its navy relies on a small number of major combatants to support its commitment to exercises, counter-piracy patrols, and global presence missions. The newest major surface combatant is more than 20 years old. The average age of Russia's large surface combatants, even excluding the two oldest vessels, is 27 years. Its sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was commissioned in 1990 and requires modernization, which is planned to take place by the end of the decade. This means that Russia will lose a significant part of its power-projection capability for two to four years. There are plans to build a fleet of carriers but Russia is not expected to commence work on the program until 2025 at the earliest.
And its air force?
In general, it's much better than the Russian Navy. A number of new aircraft is introduced to the service each year. Some of them—the Su-35, for example—are comparable to the F-22. Some would even argue that some of the Su-35's characteristics, especially its maneuverability, are better than those of Western aircraft, including the F-22 and the F-35.
Obviously Russia is flexing its muscles in Crimea at the moment. Does it have a lot of military bases along the Ukrainian border?
Russia leases a naval military base in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Its Black Sea Fleet comprises about 20 to 40 vessels, including frigates, destroyers, and corvettes. This also included approximately 15,000 personnel. I say "included" because, in the last few days, Russia has deployed another 16,000 troops to the peninsula. The core of the force is based around the 7th Guards Airborne Division. These guys are not to be played with. They have been used in various operations across Europe, including the suppression of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian revolutions. More recently, they were stationed in the Caucasus, fighting Chechens.
Apart from that, Russia has deployed strategic airlift aircraft to Crimea and seized communication and air-traffic control centers, as well as airports. The center of political power in Crimea has also been captured. This presents a textbook case of how one can start an invasion. However, with 31,000 troops on the ground, Russia would find it hard to move north to eastern Ukraine. As such, Russia would need to open a second front in Eastern Ukraine.
To sum up, as far as Ukraine goes, Russia exports gas, oil, and fear.
Where would you begin an invasion of Russia and where would you go from there? I'm thinking surprise attack on Archangel [a city in the northwest of Russia, near Finland] and then move south with stealth and precision. That way, it gets warmer, not colder.
Let's discuss this as a conventional conflict scenario. The quick answer to your question is… anywhere. Russian borders are indefensible. Wherever you look at the map there are no natural obstacles that would hamper a military advance. Historically, every major advance that threatened Russia's existence (the Poles in 1610, Napoleon in 1812, Hitler in 1941) came from the Northern European Plain. This is why Stalin was so keen on seizing Central Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and why Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Russia has lost a lot of its strategic depth since 1991 and now it could potentially lose Ukraine.
Even if you started an invasion from Poland and the Baltic states, the front would be so large that Russia would either need to pray for snow and freezing temperatures or send millions of its citizens to fight. A combination of both would be preferable.
And finally, if our imagined army took control of most of Russia, where would the natives locate their efforts of guerrilla resistance? In this vast land, what would be the hardest places for an invading army to secure?
Immense land masses of central Russia would offer ample places to wage effective Daniel-Craig-in-Defiance-style insurgency campaigns. I can't also exclude Stalingrad-style urban campaigns. But as I have mentioned, this is unlikely to happen. You couldn't really live, let alone fight, in the nuclear wasteland that Russia would be turned into in the event of a conflict with China or the US.