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Don't buy the hype: Russia's military is much weaker than Putin wants us to think

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) reacts after a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) reacts after a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23, 2015.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Today is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia, a public holiday and a celebration of all things military: triumphalism about the latest weapons, about operations in Syria, about the seizure of Crimea. Meanwhile, from the West we hear bloodcurdling warnings about the threat posed by the Kremlin’s war machine.

Perceptions matter, though: Arguably being thought to be dangerous is actually a more powerful geopolitical asset than actually being it. So long as the West believes Russia could surge into Ukraine, escalate in Syria, or even roll into the Baltic states, it inevitably feels a greater pressure to make concessions and invite Vladimir Putin to the table.

No one seems willing to question just how formidable Putin’s new military really is — and he seems to be counting on that.

Ever since he first strode into the Kremlin, at the end of 1999, Vladimir Putin has been pouring money into his military. But he was trying to modernize a military that was in a truly catastrophic state after not just years but decades of underfunding and neglect. It had performed abysmally in the first Chechen War. Draft dodging, embezzlement, and corruption were rife.

Certainly Russia’s military has lifted itself up from this pitiful state, but it’s still very much a work in progress.

Today, Russian military might as we know it is halfway between a fact and a psychological warfare operation.

Russian special forces seized Crimea in February 2014 with respectable precision and discipline, and looked the part of cutting-edge soldiers. But they were among the very best Moscow can muster, and faced no opposition.

Russia has been able to turn the tide in Syria — and the politics of that war — with its bombers. But in order to keep up the tempo of operations in Syria, Moscow has had to send its best pilots, and even buy old Turkish ships to supply them. Besides, bombing a disorganized rebel force with no meaningful air defense is hardly much of a test of the new Russian air force.

In Ukraine, where Russia has had units deployed since summer 2014, Moscow has had to send improvised "battalion tactical groups" patched together from the best companies of soldiers across the country. After all, almost half of Russia’s soldiers are conscripts serving just a single year. Russian officers speaking off the record admit that between their training and their final demobilization month, the majority are only usable for maybe three months of that year.

In order to send naval squadrons flying the flag across the globe, Moscow has not only to accompany them with tugs for when they break down, it then has to put the ships in dock for months after fixing them. And while Russia had great plans for new warships, the gas turbines most would have used came from Ukraine, and so it’s back to the drawing board.

In other words, so far, we have seen the very best of the Russian military in the ideal conditions but not the rest of the force, or how they would cope facing a real threat. It is a little bit like assuming you can judge all of US education by visiting Harvard, or its health care from the Mayo Clinic.

As a result, we mistake Russia’s still large but overstretched and only partly reformed armed forces for a terrifying threat to the West and to the global order as we know it — and we (over)react accordingly, giving the Kremlin far more leverage than it actually deserves.

So why is the West so worried? In part, this is the usual human habit of overcompensation. After Crimea and Syria showed unexpected Russian capabilities, assessments, once more measured, swung to the other extreme.

There are also vested interests at work. Industries talking up the Russian challenge as a way to justify more defense spending and new weapons systems. Front-line nations wanting to assert their pivotal role, their need for support. Military establishments, whose job is to think of worst-case scenarios and prepare accordingly.

This is all understandable. From Tallinn in Estonia, for example, it is hard to be sanguine about Moscow’s capabilities and intent, when Russian commandos have kidnapped one of your security officers across the border, when Russian bombers buzz your airspace, and when Russia stages snap exercises clearly wargaming a potential invasion on your border.

But the problem is that this also plays into Putin’s hands. His calculation appears to be that the scarier he seems, the more political traction he has.

After all, on most objective grounds, Russia is hardly a great power. It has nuclear weapons, but ultimately these are of little practical value. Continued rearmament depends on money, and Russia’s economy is dependent on oil that is now selling for bargain-basement prices. Russia’s economy is the 13th largest in the world, just between Australia and Spain, about half the size of France’s, about a fourteenth of the USA’s. Even before the value of the ruble collapsed, Russian military spending was around one-seventh of America’s.

What the Kremlin does have is the will to take risks, ignore the rules, and hope that the other side is more sensible, more cautious, more willing to make concessions than it is to call Russia's bluff.

In the main, this has worked so far. But Putin’s bad-boy geopolitics and military postures are wasting assets already beginning to prove to be liabilities.

The Russian defense budget as it stands is unsustainable. Already this year it has been cut by 5 percent, and a range of future projects are being quietly scaled down or pushed back.

Even with the cut, the defense budget is bleeding the Kremlin of resources needed for economic diversification and the public services needed to pacify an increasingly disgruntled population.

Russia has squandered its "soft power," its moral authority in the world, by which it once might have claimed to be an alternative to the Western-led order. It is now more unpopular than ever; only in Vietnam, Ghana, and China is it seen positively.

Precisely because Putin has been so successful at talking up his unpredictability and aggressive capabilities, NATO is now more united than it has been for a long time; defense and security spending in Europe, long neglected, is now beginning to be addressed, due to rise on average by more than 8 percent this year.

Of course, NATO needs to take the Russian challenge seriously. But that also means not giving Putin more credibility and authority than he deserves.

Every time some new alarmist statement appears — such as when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said "Russia presents the greatest threat to [US] national security" — not only does Moscow’s propaganda machine get a new headline, but Putin must feel a certain satisfaction.

Rightly or wrongly, as far as Putin is concerned, it is only fear that gets the West talking to him and paying attention to Russia’s interests. So far, we seem to be validating that view.

By our panics and hyperbole, not only are we in effect encouraging him to consider more adventures, we are giving him greater global clout than the leader of a declining, impoverished, underpopulated country stuck between a prosperous Europe and a rising China deserves. At present, the West is Putin’s PR team.

Were we to be more laid back, less inclined to jump every time he rattles his saber, in the short term it might infuriate him, encourage some new act of brinkmanship, although he has few safe options now and faces powerful states and alliances alert to his usual tricks. But in the long term, if he finds himself being treated not as a fearsome threat but an annoying (and sometimes even laughable) upstart, he may come to realize that his current antics are not a shortcut to great power status.

After all, even Putin is not a lunatic or a fanatic, and the people around him are in the main selfish pragmatists. Ultimately, not giving in to the hype, not letting Putin shape the geopolitical agenda with that saber, might be the most effective response to his tantrums.

Mark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at New York University and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and is on twitter as @MarkGaleotti.