I was in Scandinavia recently, talking to regional military officials and experts about the current security environment in the Nordic region. During my discussions, it quickly became apparent that Russia had re-emerged – rather abruptly, in fact – as the region’s biggest security headache. When I asked why, the answer, whether in Oslo or Stockholm or Helsinki, was always the same, and always just one word: Crimea.

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin engineered a daring – and illegal – takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, which was part of the independent republic of Ukraine (in 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev kindly gave Crimea – with a majority Russian population – to the then Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, paving the way for the 2014 crisis).

The fact that Putin would simply take away a piece of sovereign territory from another state was the proverbial wake-up call for other countries in the shadow of Russian might. States with large ethnic Russian minorities, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are justifiably anxious that they are next on Putin’s list. But many other countries in the European West are also understandably worried about a more aggressive Russia.

Russia’s periphery

States close to Russia’s periphery certainly are right to be apprehensive. This is where Russia is the strongest, militarily speaking. It has a huge armed force in western Russia, equipped with thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, missiles, fighter jets, and the like. It has not only quantity but also proximity on its side, and its forces would not have to go far in order to invade countries like Finland or Sweden.

But despite the size of its military, and especially the continuing strength and quality of its strategic nuclear forces, Russia is still basically a regional power, capable of threatening only its closest neighbors along its borders.

While this may be no great comfort to Estonia or Finland (or maybe even Poland), Russia can hardly be considered a dangerous “great power.” In fact, it may not even be considered a great power at all, especially compared to that other rising great power, China.

A junkyard army

In the first place, hardly anything in the Russian armed forces is new or modern. The Russian navy has launched perhaps a dozen new surface combatants since the turn of the century – in other words, in nearly 20 years. Most of these are small ships, like corvettes and frigates, and most have been deployed to backwater fleets, such as the Black Sea and the Caspian.

The navy has also acquired some new Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), two of which have been deployed to the Pacific fleet (with three more planned), and is slowly – very slowly – building a handful of Lada-class diesel-electric submarines.

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However, Russia has not acquired a new destroyer since the late 1990s. The new Lider-class nuclear-powered heavy destroyer has been delayed for years; the first in this class probably will not be built until the mid-2020s. Meanwhile, plans for a new aircraft carrier and for a new class of amphibious assault ship appear to be trapped in the planning stages and may not start construction for a decade or more, if at all.

As a result, the bulk of equipment found in the Russian air and ground forces is still mostly upgrades of Soviet-era weaponry: Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter jets (which first flew in late 1970s), the Tu-22 medium bomber (also a relic of the 1970s), and T-72 tanks.

Russia’s ‘pockets of excellence’

It’s not that the Russians do not produce some very good weapons systems, such as the Su-30 fighter jet and the S-300 and S-400 air-defense missiles (although, once again, these systems had their origins in the Soviet era). More recently, the Russians have unveiled a new modern tank, the T-14 Armata, and a putative fifth-generation fighter jet, the Su-57.

The Armata is a 48-ton heavy tank, equipped with a 125mm gun, upgraded armor and active protection system, and an unmanned turret system (with an autoloader). However, at US$4 million per unit, it is too expensive for the Russian army to buy.

The Russian defense industry today is more akin to China’s arms industry two decades ago, capable of manufacturing only a few cutting-edge systems

The same goes for the Su-57. Stuck in development hell for nearly 20 years, rumors abound that it may never be delivered to the Russian Air Force in large numbers. Even then, the Su-57 is still basically a prototype, that is, it is not a “mature design,” and it lacks “key combat systems” (David Axe, “No Secret Here: Why Russia Can’t Become a Stealth Fighter Superpower,” National Interest, June 9, 2019). And the fact that the Indians pulled out of a deal to jointly develop the fighter is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In fact, the Russian defense industry today is more akin to China’s arms industry two decades ago, capable of manufacturing only a few cutting-edge systems, what we used to call “pockets of excellence.”

Empty pockets and empty dreams

The difference is, Russia cannot afford to buy many of the good systems (T-90 tanks, Su-30 fighters) that it has developed. Much of this is due to Russia’s enduring problem with sufficiently funding its armed forces. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2017 Russian military expenditures fell by 17% over the previous year to 3.9 trillion rubles (US$61 billion); the defense budget declined an additional 5.5% in 2018.

In comparison, China has consistently increased its defense budget over the past 20-plus years, rising from around US$10 billion in 1997 to US$177.6 billion this year. As a result, China now outspends Russia by better than four to one.

And it shows. Every year, China steadily adds to its military power. Since 2000, it has acquired dozens of new destroyers and frigates, and hundreds of fourth-generation fighter jets. It has developed two fifth-generation fighters and already put one into service. It has one working aircraft carrier and at least two more in the works. Its ability to project sustainable power, while still limited, is definitely on an upward trajectory, and this is likely to expand in terms of quality, capacity, and size.

Compared to the United States and China, Russia is clearly number three in this troika. That doesn’t mean it cannot still be a menace to its neighbors. But a “great power”? Hardly.