Russia’s Military Modernization: The Geostrategic And Geopolitical Implications – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

Russia’s political resurgence was an established fact by the middle of the last decade and arose from a determined overdrive by then President Putin to restore Russia to the status of being a strategic co-equal of the United States, a status lost with the disintegration of the Former Soviet Union. With President Putin’s ascendancy to power in 2000 this was a burning ambition of the new President.

Russia may have been down and out politically and economically post-1991 but it is often forgotten that strategically Russia was not down and out. Russia’s strategic arsenal in terms of quantitative holdings was a match for the United States strategic weapons arsenal. Admittedly, the massive conventional military might of Russia became jaded due to lack of cash flows and slide back of modernization plans of the Russian Armed Forces.

President Putin seemed to adopt a two-pronged strategy to achieve Russia’s ambition to regain its lost status of being a strategic co-equal of the United States. The first step was for a resurgence of Russia’s political influence and bring about a global consciousness that Russia had arrived on the global political scene.

Russia achieved this by focusing on the Middle East and especially on the Arab monarchial kingdoms which had close military alliance links with the United States. President Putin successfully achieved this objective with two major strategic forays in the Middle East. My Papers of that period so titled refer. Saudi Arabia more notably moved closer to Russia including billions of dollars of Russian arms purchases.

Russia could achieve this as the United States was strategically bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq and events post-9/11 had forced countries like Saudi Arabia to look for countervailing alternatives.

The second prong of then President Putin’s strategy was to initiate the military modernization of Russian Armed Forces which stood neglected for far too long. Resurgent foreign policy without muscular strength in the background to back it up was a strategic imperative for Russia.

In the last five years or so one notices at least two surges in the military modernization of Russian Armed Forces. The first was somewhere around 2005-2007 facilitated by increased revenues flowing in due to rising oil prices and also increases in Russian arms exports.

The second surge in the modernization of Russian Armed Forces seems to be currently underway, once again with increasing oil revenues as a result of rise in global oil prices.

In the present case Russia is reported to have earmarked $ 400 billion over the next ten years for Russian military modernization. In the earlier case one had read somewhere that Russia had the set up a sum of $ 200 billion as a hedge fund for military modernization to offset fluctuations in Russian oil revenues.

In sum Russian military modernization has been underway for nearly five years or so and can be expected to pick up pace as a more confident and assertive Russia emerges. Military modernization of Russia has continued without interruption even with the change of Presidents in 2008.

The present surge in Russian military modernization has been more sharply noticed by American and Western strategic analysts presumably with the noticeable modernization of Russia’s strategic nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, sea-launched nuclear missiles and the resumption of global air patrols by Russian strategic bombers. Also noticeable is Russia’s plans for priority modernization of Russia’s force projection capabilities.

This Paper has no intention to dwell on the nuts and bolts of Russian military modernization programs. Details of these are available in open media as Western analysts belatedly begin to size up Russia’s emerging military capabilities with its ongoing military modernization programs, item by item.

This Paper on the contrary would attempt to examine the geostrategic and geopolitical implications of Russian military modernization at the global and regional levels, but with first an overview of the strategic imperatives that have spurred Russian military modernization. Accordingly, this Paper is set out as under:

  • Russia’s Military Modernization: The Underlying Imperatives & Priorities
  • Russia’s Military Modernization: The Geostrategic and Geopolitical Impact at the Global Level
  • Russian Military Modernization: Geopolitical Impact in Different Regions of the World

Russia’s Military Modernization: The Underlying Imperatives & Priorities

Russia’s military modernization as a well thought-out and calibrated strategy was an imperative necessitated by three major factors that were implicit in President Putin’s address in 2006. These three factors were read in my Paper then as follows:

  • Russia’s intention to rebuild military resources and capabilities to emerge once again as a credible counterweight to United States in the global strategic calculus.
  • Russia must strategize to emerge as an independent international power center as it existed prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
  • United States unbridled global influence and use of power needs to be curtailed especially the propensity of the United States for military interventions on humanitarian grounds by- passing the United Nations Security Council.

The geostrategic and geopolitical landscape of the world has changed since for Russia in many challenging ways calling for the creation of credible military deterrence and force projection capabilities. Notable geopolitical developments that would now have a bearing on Russia’s military modernization programs can be recounted as follows:

  • The United States and NATO while slowing their ‘mission creep’ towards Russia’s borders by enlisting new NATO members on Russian peripheries has not been given up.
  • United States and NATO have not given up their plans to deploy BMD deployments in Eastern Europe countries. This erodes Russia’s credible nuclear deterrence.
  • The Middle East is in a state of political upheaval with uncertain strategic consequences which have a bearing on Russian national security. United States ability to control that turbulence stands greatly diluted
  • In Russia’s Near Abroad, the United States has not fully given up playing the ‘Great Game’ on Russia’s doorsteps.
  • Afghanistan’s strategic picture is both uncertain and complex and directly impinges on Russian security
  • The US-Iran confrontation on nuclear issues shows no signs of abating
  • Despite the so-called Russia-China strategic nexus, China is playing its own Great Games in Central Asia and the Middle East
  • Pakistan with direct impact on the situation in Afghanistan may be ripe for implosion and thereby creating further uncertainties in Greater South West Asia
  • China’s massive military modernization cannot be ignored in Russia’s military modernization calculus as Russia has a long border with China, a history of territorial disputes and armed clashes in the late 1960s.
  • Terrorism especially of the Islamic Jihadi type posing serious threats to both Russia itself and to Russia’s soft underbelly in the Central Asian region.

With such a wide range of complex challenges and uncertainties any Russian military modernization would have to dwell on fashioning its military modernization to cater for (1) Credible nuclear deterrence and credible First Strike capabilities(2) Credible and strong conventional military machine in terms of credible conventional military deterrence at least on its peripheries (3) Strong Air Force and Navy capabilities both as an instrument of deterrence and also force projection(4) Russian Army organizational structures to be transformed into leaner and meaner organizational structures capable of speedy deployments and capable of decisively dealing with asymmetric threats

It is precisely in these areas of military requirements that Russian military modernization is focused on. in a visible manner. New generation of strategic nuclear ICBMs and nuclear attack submarines are entering service. Development of long range cruise missiles with nuclear tips is underway. Russian Army organizational structures are now focused on reorganization of battle formations from the ponderous divisional structures to independent brigade sized structures, more suited for military interventions and dealing with asymmetric challenges to Russian security.

One also has to keep in mind that the Russian military establishment in its military modernization programs would be keeping in mind the military lessons learnt from its experiences of limitations against US military interventions in Serbia and Kosovo and also from Russia’s own military intervention in Georgia in the recent past.

A point that needs to be stressed is that Russian military modernization is not aimed at preparing for an eventuality of a war with the United States like China is doing but more importantly to Russia being counted significantly in the global strategic calculus and also Russia’s re-emergence as an independent global power center.

Russia’s Military Modernization: The Geostrategic and Geopolitical Impact at the Global Level

The geostrategic and geopolitical impact of Russian military modernization boils down basically to one question and that is how it will materially affect United States unilateral global strategic and political predominance enjoyed so far for the last two decades, virtually. It also has to be measured in terms of slowing down American propensity for unilateralism without any checks; would it be possible?

Coming first to the power equations between the United States and Russia presently, it is an undeniable fact that in terms of capabilities only, the United States has a clear edge in superiority and this is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. However what can reduce the differentials in power between the two is the global perception that the United States power is on the decline not in a dilution of its military power but by the military nibbling at its strength by its very own allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and by such challenges resulting in the perception of America’s decline.

Similarly, the United States for far too long has not been ‘resetting its policy buttons’ on Russia in the belief that it can always play the ‘China Card’ against Russia. This is a counterproductive approach which again highlights the perception that American power is declining and that the United States needs Chinese crutches.

In such an emerging scenario, Russia’s military modernization throws up strong challenges to the United States both geostrategically and geopolitically. Geostrategically, the nature, content and directions of Russia’s military modernization would over time dilute the existing differentials in global power between the United States and Russia.

However, when power is also dependant on others’ comparative perceptions of power, the United States loses out to Russia in the war of perceptions. Even without Russia’s military modernization in full play one witnessed the spectacle of US traditional military allies in the Gulf Region led by Saudi Arabia veering over to Russia in terms of political signaling to the United States that they have alternative choices.

So in overall terms while the United States is likely to prevail geostrategically all over the globe, the Russian resurgence and its accompanying military modernization have definitely altered the geopolitical predominant strengths of the United States.

Russian Military Modernization: Geopolitical Impact in Different Regions of the World

The point already stands made that the United States geostrategic predominance globally is likely to continue for some time. However, Russia’s political resurgence and military modernization do confer on Russia significant advantages in terms of geopolitical impact in different regions of the world. One would like to focus on the three most critical strategic regions of the world, namely, the Middle East, East Asia and Asia Pacific and Central Asian Republics in which intersect vitally not only the security and strategic interests of the United States and Russia but also of China.

The Middle East region has been of critical geostrategic and geopolitical significance for the United States for decades now both in terms of energy security and the security of Israel. It is in this region that one finds many geopolitical gains made by Russia at American expense. Russia has strong energy linkages with the Middle East in terms of global prices of both crude oil and natural gas. The Middle East geostrategically was an arena during the Cold War era in which Russia could muster much regional support in the form of military client states who also counted on the Former Soviet Union’s countervailing power against the United States.

The wheel has taken a full circle where one witnesses America’s traditional military allies of long standing led by Saudi Arabia etc now following hedging strategies to seek Russia’s potential countervailing power. This is a big gain for Russia in the power game.

The next critically significant region for the United States is East Asia where both the geopolitics and the geostrategics are churning up in a big way. This region sees the powerplay of the United States, Russia, China, Japan, North and South Korea running a complex and intense course.

In this region following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States had all but forgotten that Russia had significant strategic interests in East Asia. The United States for reasons of its own has all along overplayed China’s strategic rise and build-up of massive military power.

Russia with its military modernization and in terms of strategic naval modernization and also a growing focus on credible military postures in Russia’s Far East seems to be sending out two major signals to all concerned, and that is:

  • Russia’s intention to regain its status as the other key player particularly in East Asia and the Asia Pacific. The contours are already visible in terms of Russia’s hardening of stances over the Kuriles and Northern Islands dispute with Japan and the strengthening of military linkages with Vietnam.
  • More significantly, Russia is signaling to China that despite any strategic nexus with China, Russia intends to regain its former strategic status in the Pacific as the co-equal of the United States. Also this may be a political and strategic signal to China that Russia is prepared for any ‘Swing Strategy’ of China in collusion with the United States.

Many would like to debate the above direction but there are a host of other indicators that suggest that Russia is strengthening its military profile in its Far East Regions. Russia would have taken into account China’s reactions to these moves?

The last critically strategic region to be impacted by Russia’s resurgence and military modernization happens to be the Central Asian Republics region. This region is on Russia’s immediate Southern periphery and after Soviet disintegration had become the focus of United States penetration to outflank Russia from the South. The events in Afghanistan and Russia’s mistaken perception that the United States would further the cause of controlling Islamic Jihad in its areas like Chechnya had prompted Russia to acquiesce with US penetration of Central Asia region. Russia stood disappointed with follow-up US strategies and actions in this region.

Recently, there is a change in the perceptions of those Central Asia Republics that were playing around with the United States at Russian expense. Russian resurgence coupled with Russian military might and added with Russia not hesitating to resort to military intervention like in Georgia to protect its national security interests on its immediate periphery have forced these Republics to be more respectful and sensitive to Russian strategic sensitivities. This is a distinct political gain brought about by Russian military modernization.

One cannot move away from the examination of this aspect without dwelling on the geostrategic and geopolitical impact of Russian resurgence and military modernization on China. China strategic nexus with Russia in the form of a strategic partnership or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has all along been a marriage of convenience aimed at the United States. Its longevity was always a ‘variable’ in strategic analysis.

Briefly, the overall impact on China of Russian resurgence and military modernization can be outlined as follows:

  • Russia’s resurgence to reclaim its erstwhile status as the second pole in a bi-polar world would limit China’s emergence as the second Superpower.
  • China’s propensity for playing a ‘Swing Strategy’ between USA and Russia would be that much more limited. It has to be remembered that no amount of Chinese military modernization can help it to reduce its military differentials with Russia in terms of size of strategic arsenals, force projection and political influence on China’s peripheries.
  • Politically China cannot emerge as an independent global power center as this aspect is dependant on United States munificence to endow overplayed strategic significance on China’s superpower potential. It is only a tactical expediency of the United States to do so. Neither in the same vein can the United States downplay Russia’s strategic resurgence and the impact of its military modernization.

Russia’s impact on global power politics cannot be underestimated by the United States and no amount of a crafted and over-exaggerated build-up of China’s strategic potential can help the United States to reduce the true import of Russia’s resurgence and military modernization..

Concluding Observations

Russia’s political resurgence coupled with an attendant military modernization of its strategic and conventional military might may not be an immediate ‘game-changer’ in the existing global power calculus. Yet it has all the substantive potential to emerge as one in the foreseeable future.

Russian strategic resurgence and military modernization has already started impacting in critical strategic regions of the world as discussed above. It is only a matter of time for it to be visible in pronounced contours.

As Russia’s strategic and military resurgence becomes more pronounced and Russian military power grows, China’s striking resonance in the global strategic calculus can expectedly become that much more muted.

Neither the United States nor China can be dismissive of Russia’s military modernization which is now a given and a reality that the United States needs to factor-in in its global and regional strategic calculations.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “Russia’s Military Modernization: The Geostrategic And Geopolitical Implications – Analysis

  • April 19, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Beautiful and balanced article!


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