Two Norwegian sailors onboard the Norwegian support vessel Valkyrien pose for photographers during a deployment in the Baltic Sea on April 23, 2014.

Two Norwegian sailors onboard the Norwegian support vessel Valkyrien pose for photographers during a deployment in the Baltic Sea on April 23, 2014. Gero Breloer/AP

D.C. ‘Insiders’ Are Wrong, NATO Could Beat Russia

Don’t believe the hype. Russia’s military is a shadow of its Cold War self, but Washington pundits sound as alarmist as always. By Michael Cohen

“The NATO alliance is not prepared to counter a newly aggressive Russia,” or so blared the lead of the latest National Journal Security Insiders poll. Three-quarters of those who are allegedly in the know agree that the largest security alliance in the world is practically at Russia’s mercy. “NATO has neither the will nor the capabilities to counter Russian moves in Ukraine,” wrote one nameless critic. “Our deterrence is nonexistent” said another. “The question is a joke. NATO and the West have virtually dismantled while 'the East' is arming at a fast clip,” a third so-called insider warned.

The criticism is consistent with much of the commentary from the national security community about Russia’s foray into Crimea. It’s also fantastical.

Let’s first get the facts out of the way. I’ll turn things over to Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff. In testimony before the House Armed Service Committee last month he pointed out that Russia, while in the process of reforming its military structure and doctrine is, currently, not all that:

Russia is a regional power that can project force into nearby states but has very limited global power projection capability. It has a military of uneven readiness.

While some units are well trained, most are less so. It suffers from corruption and its logistical capabilities are limited. Aging equipment and infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and demographic and social problems will continue to hamper reform efforts.

In the not too distant past the Red Army was a fearsome fighting machine with millions of men under arms and the latest in military technology. Today, the Russian military is a hollow shell of its former self.

There is perhaps no bigger challenge facing Russia than manpower. While Moscow has set a goal of fielding a 1 million-man army, the actual number may be as low as 700,000.  According to recent report by the Swedish Defense Research Agency the country’s vast public health problems and low birthrate have left half of potential recruits disqualified from service. Those entering the ranks are often in poor health, undereducated or have a criminal background. Its poor logistics units make it unlikely that the Army could sustain a long-term military operation, and its defense industry is considered “inefficient” and not up to the task of providing modern weapons to its armed forces. Ironically, the decision to seize Crimea has cut Russia off from one of its most important arms providers: Ukraine. With Russia facing economic hardship in the wake of its annexation of Crimea, it is unlikely that ambitious military reform efforts will be achieved.

As the recent International Institute for Strategic Studies’s annual Military Balance report notes, the Russian military has moved away from “the mass-mobilization model intended for large-scale conflict” and instead is “more aligned with the combat requirements of low- and medium-intensity local and regional warfare.” If NATO can’t counter a force like this it might as well pack up and go home.

To be sure, NATO has its share of issues -- most glaringly large cuts in military spending by virtually all alliance members and a need for greater security cooperation. But it also features three countries (the United States, United Kingdom and France) that have among the six largest military budgets in the world; on the ground operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and a whole bunch of nuclear weapons. In all, NATO can field 2 million troops and, because of its exponentially larger economies than Russia, can mobilize and re-arm far more effectively and quickly than Moscow.

However, that will almost certainly be unnecessary. NATO’s ability to deter Russia comes far less from its specific military capabilities as it does from its actual existence. No matter how newly aggressive Russia may be -- and the seizure of a weak, neighboring territory without firing a shot is not exactly probative -- it would be suicidal for Russia to embark on a war with a vastly richer and more powerful adversary like NATO. Already, Russia is paying a serious price for seizing Crimea – tens of billions in capital outflows, a faltering stock market, potentially negative growth and political and economic isolation. Those problems, exacerbated by international sanctions, would look like child’s play if Russia were ever to tangle with a NATO country. Indeed, it’s likely one explanation for why Russia has demurred in sending troops into Eastern Ukraine – fear of the larger political and economic consequences. The fact is that Russia is an exponentially larger threat to itself right now than it is NATO.

All of this begs the question: what are these insiders thinking? Some may not be aware of the problems inside the Russian military; others may see a lack of political will among NATO countries to directly challenge Russia (one might call this reasonable restraint). But what’s also at play here is bureaucratic self-interest and inertia. The more fearsome that Russia seems, the more that pressure will grow to reverse painful cuts to the Pentagon budget or increase the relevance of European security issues at a time when everyone in Washington is talking about an Asian pivot.

Then again, nothing about this is new. Since the beginning of the Crimea crisis, the foreign policy punditocracy has spoken about Russia’s behavior in the most alarmist terms imaginable – “a new Cold War;” the “most seismic geopolitical event since 9/11;” a rising threat to European peace and security and “the gravest challenge” of President Barack Obama’s presidency – all the while refusing to take into account little things like capabilities, intentions, actual U.S. interests and the increasingly real world impact on Russia of its actions.

Believing that NATO can’t counter Russia is wrong, but in the current context of Washington’s narrow national security debates, nothing about it is surprising.

Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation