Russia’s New Ground Forces: Capabilities, Limitations and Implications for International Security

  • Published

Russia’s New Ground Forces: Capabilities, Limitations and Implications for International Security by Igor Sutyagin with Justin Bronk. Royal United Services Institute, 2017, 139 pp.

Images of Russia’s land army invariably bring to mind hordes of unsophisticated but rugged tanks and determined infantry sweeping across the plains of Eastern Europe. Yet, as Igor Sutyagin and Justin Bronk demonstrate in Russia’s New Ground Forces, this characterization is no longer true for the modern Russian military. Instead, Russia’s ground forces are carefully designed to achieve specific strategic goals while maximizing the defense of Russian territory.

Sutyagin and Bronk each bring their unique experiences in the area of Russian military development and strategic goals. Sutyagin, a former researcher for the Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, spent 11 years in a Russian prison camp for allegedly selling secrets to the British government. He was freed in the same spy swap that sent Sergei Skripal to England and Anna Chapman back to Russia. Bronk—whose personal history is perhaps less dramatic than Sutyagin’s—has nonetheless written prolifically on the Russian military, especially its technological and organizational aspects.

This experience is demonstrated in the timely details of Sutyagin and Bronk’s work. There are many works describing how, seemingly, the backward and disarmed Russian state suddenly achieved military successes across the globe. Bettina Renz, for example, offers an excellent reference in Russia’s Military Revival. Sutyagin and Bronk focus on Russia’s strategic and political goals and how the organization and arming of Russian ground forces help to achieve them. It is almost trite to point out that Russia’s fundamentally defensive and paranoid worldview drives its leaders’ assessment of the country’s security situation, as has been the case since at least 1945. As Sutyagin and Bronk demonstrate, while Russia certainly feels uneasy about a burgeoning Chinese population on its border, the West remains Russia’s greatest perceived threat. Therefore, Russia has chosen a force structure and disposition directly intended to influence Western decision-making and to defend against a potential attack on Russia’s European core. This focus has meant creating a smaller, better equipped, and more offensively oriented force.

Sutyagin and Bronk organize their work into three parts, flowing from a description of Russia’s strategic and political goals to the geographic distribution of Russian military formations. All three parts first outline the strategic problem Russian leaders need to solve and then how they attempt to do so by reorganizing, redistributing, or reequipping their forces. The first chapter portrays how Russia uses its military to achieve its foreign policy. The second details the post-2008 reforms of Russian land forces. The third chapter demonstrates the geographic distribution and purpose of major Russian organizations. The book ends with a brief set of conclusions, summed up by the saying, “If you want peace too much—you will inevitably get war.”

The true genius of Russia’s New Ground Forces is its emphasis on force readiness and sustainability. Sutyagin and Bronk do not rehash well-known Russian beliefs or extensively describe the updated order of battle. They resist the temptation to exhaustively detail the new weapons Russian forces are fielding. Instead, they prove true the saying that “professionals talk about logistics.”  While the book addresses ideology, strategy, and equipment, it also examines how Russian leadership can generate, position, and sustain ground forces.

The most thorough and, arguably, important element of this book is the detailed description of ground force units. The bulk of the second and third chapters comprises a listing of the major field units as well as their primary equipment, subordination, and operational task. Rather than using simple tables, though, the authors present this data in a highly readable format organized around their assessments of each unit’s capabilities. Here is where Sutyagin and Bronk discuss current problems afflicting Russia’s ground forces: the inability to maintain qualified recruits, acquire advanced electronics, or sustain their level of spending. They show that while Russia’s forces are undeniably more capable now than 10 years ago, they are far from unstoppable.

Most remarkable about Sutyagin and Bronk’s work, it is sourced exclusively by research in publicly available sources. The authors clearly read Russian professional journals as well as news sources to come to their conclusions. Further, they delineate the limits of their knowledge, indicating when they were unable to discover the unit designator or true strength of an organization. This work should be an exemplar for Air Force personnel attempting to more fully use publicly available information.

Russia’s New Ground Forces is an excellent resource for analysts or military personnel responsible for operations in the European Command area of responsibility. It gives a clear overview of Russia’s current ground capabilities and how Russia intends to use its forces to achieve its strategic goals. This book is perhaps especially important for Airmen who might not be familiar with Russian ground forces. It is a brisk read whose crisp, well-written pages will only serve to make American defense professionals more successful.

Maj J. Alexander Ippoliti, ANG

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."