Russian Tu-22M long-range bomber, used in some of the airpatrols over the Baltic. Photo: Alex Beltyukov.After many years of being only a shadow of its former military might, the Russian Federation is again actively seeking to modernise its military. This comes at the same time as America refocuses towards the Pacific and as overall European military spending decreases significantly. Russia’s aim to once again be a military superpower, together with its hardening rhetoric towards some of its neighbours, could pose a long-term problem for the Western European countries, who also are becoming increasingly dependent on Russia and its natural resources.
As the Soviet Empire crumpled in 1990, it had drawn the shorter straw in the Cold War and its military forces in Eastern Europe either changed their allegiances to their respective new states or transferred to the newly founded Russian Federation. In the following years, especially during the harsh economic crisis of the late 1990s, Russian military spending plummeted. Large quantities of materiel were sold, conscription numbers dropped and what equipment the armed forces had was often poorly maintained. However, after the all-time low of 2000, spending increased and Russia began to slowly modernise its forces. Then in 2008 the Russian Federation went to war with neighbouring Georgia in a short war over sovereignty for the South-Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. Russia’s intervention in that conflict, even though it was geographically confined and swiftly concluded, forced many Western European states and NATO as a whole to review Russia’s reborn strive for military influence along with their re-acquired willingness to make use of their power as soon as Russian interests are at stake.
Alongside this intervention displaying Russia’s newfound willingness to intervene in other states’ business’, this conflict also seems to have further increase Russia’s commitment to modernising of its armed forces. In 2010, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian government officials started discussing about a further increase in military spending on the scale of 500+ billion US dollars over the coming decade, a figure which was to reach 720 billion US dollars of promised spending after twice being increased by the political leadership. According to the renowned SIPRI factbook on military expenditure, the Russian Federation has been on a steady increase of military spending since 2000, with a higher rate of increase in recent years. However, the spending has remained on a fairly consistent level of GDP-share during this time. This begs the question, is Russia truly aiming to gain influence by asserting its military power or is it simply letting military expenditure follow its growing GDP?
The possible increase in military ambition aside, there have been a number of occasions during recent years where Russian rhetoric and resolve seems to have hardened both towards its neighbours and other European countries. Examples thereof can be seen in Russia increasing its airpatrols over the Baltic as well as the stationing of long range anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic shore. The official Russian standpoint behind these actions is that NATOs expansion poses one of the “main external military dangers” towards the Russian Federation (according to Russias central military doctrine).
Range of S-400 surface-to-air missiles stationed in Kaliningrad and thereby controlling the Baltic’s inlet.
However, this seemingly hardening Russian rhetoric is not necessarily born purely out of a longing for greater power. Since the fall of the USSR a number of former Soviet republics have joined NATO. Adding insult to injury, NATO has far-progressed plans to build a missile shield with missiles based in Poland and Romania, although the final phase has reportedly been scrapped recently. This provoked Russia’s most senior military leader General Makarov, amongst others, to go as far as talking about possible pre-emptive strikes against such missile launch sites, employing Iskander-type ballistic missiles which in that case would be stationed in Kaliningrad. Thus, Russia sees itself threatened by NATOs expansion and is, as a result, increasingly modernising its forces and sharpening its tone.
The local reactions towards Russia’s increasing focus on its military power and that power’s projection vary from slight disapproval in countries such as Sweden (where a political debate about the perceived threat has begun to form) to more serious concern, especially in the Baltic states and also to some extent in Finland. At the same time, other countries in Europe are cooperating quite closely with Russia, both militarily and economically. Germany, for example, has together with Russia built the trans-Baltic NordStream-pipeline and thereby increased its dependence on Russian goodwill for a steady gas supply. France, another example, sold 2 Mistral-type amphibious assault vessels to Russia which are to be taken into service in 2014, a move still questioned by some military analysts.
All factors considered Russia’s actions create a lot of uncertainty about issues of security and stability in the whole of Europe, especially when considering Russia’s leaders’ emerging tendencies of conservatism and Russia’s repeated infringement of human rights. It all begs the question of what and who will guarantee European security in a long-term perspective. This is particularly important as the US is refocusing its militay to Asia and many West European countries are cutting their military spending. The only certainty is that Russia is once again striving to assume a larger role both in worldwide and in Eurasian security affairs.