Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
05 July 2017

Assessing Russia's military strength

The Defense Intelligence Agency’s new report on Russian military power is fascinating reading—both for what it contains, and for what it omits.

During the Cold War, the DIA’s Soviet Military Power was a must-read for Kremlin-watchers. After nearly 30 years, the Pentagon’s in-house spy service has revived the title. That in itself is important. For most of the post-1991 period, American officialdom (at least in public) regarded any mention of Russia as a potential military adversary as taboo.

The 116-page, heavily footnoted report covers most of the main topics, from military modernisation to the intelligence services. The DIA’s director, Lieutenant-General Vincent Stuart, pulls no punches in his introduction: he writes:

Russia continues to modernize its extensive nuclear forces and is developing long-range precision-guided conventional weapons systems. It is manipulating the global information environment, employing tools of indirect action against countries on its periphery and using its military for power projection and expeditionary force deployments far outside its borders. Its ultimate deterrent is a robust nuclear force capable of conducting a massed nuclear strike on targets in the United States within minutes.

It has some useful summaries, for example, the way we and the Russians use the same words to mean different things.

Russia views wars as often undeclared, fought for relatively limited political objectives and occurring across all domains, including outer space and the information space.


For Moscow, the word translated as “deterrence”—sderzhivaniye—is more closely linked to a concept of active restraint, or literally to hold back something moving with force.

I also liked this summary of the major themes of Russian propaganda:

The West’s liberal world order is bankrupt and should be replaced by a Eurasian neo-conservative post-liberal world order, which defends tradition, conservative values and true liberty. The West demonizes Russia, which is only trying to defend its interests and sovereignty and act as an indispensable nation in world affairs. The United States is determined to interfere with and overthrow sovereign governments around the world.

As an open-source document, the report contains no obviously sizzling morsels. But its authors do have access to classified reporting and analysis about Russia, and one can assume that this has shaped their selection of the publicly available analysis.

So it is surprising to read this bald statement:

The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine.

It may be that the Russian leadership has started believing its own propaganda. It is certainly true that Russia is a fundamentally weak country and that paranoia about foreign influence dates back centuries. The much-touted “Gerasimov doctrine” is not, as sometimes assumed, a blueprint for Russia’s interference in neighboring countries. It was originally drawn up as an analysis of what the West is purportedly doing to Russia.

But the idea that the West is really engaged in systematic preparations for regime change in Russia, or that the (unspecified) “events in Ukraine” form part of that picture needs a lot of arguing and elaboration. Stated like this, it comes close to giving comfort to those who believe that the current difficulties with Russia are all the fault of Western arrogance and warmongering.

The report is also surprisingly uninformative on Russia’s burgeoning arsenal of “tactical” (low-yield) nuclear weapons or its development of advanced weapons, such as electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) devices which could fry the circuits of an adversary’s equipment. In my experience, these are the sort of things that military-intelligence officers are really interested in. Which is probably why they don’t write about them in public.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Artyom Korotayev/TASS