With Russia so frequently dominating the headlines of the American media, one could be forgiven for believing we’re amid a full scale resurgence of the Cold War. While there are certainly parallels between today’s geopolitical climate and the heyday of American/Soviet staring contests, this new Cold War, if you’re so inclined to call it that, is a beast all it’s own. China, not Russia, now poses the most direct and dire threat to American diplomatic efforts and military prowess around the world, with Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and high-powered propaganda machines working overtime to keep them in the discussion — but it would be a mistake to assume Russia’s fall from the top spot on the threat list means they’re no longer a force to be reckoned with.
While the United States outspends every other nation on earth in terms of defense, the nature of the America’s defensive obligations are also unique. The U.S. military footprint is larger, and encompasses a greater swath of responsibilities, than any other nation can boast, and the stabilizing presence afforded by American troops and equipment is relied upon not only for allied defense, but for the international commerce. American military assets, deployed or stationed all over the world, often do so to prevent a region of the planet from making the headlines, rather than serving as the headlines themselves. This massive investment in global security may be a subject worthy of debate, but in the world as it is, America’s defense budget is an investment in much more than defense itself, it’s an investment in stability.
Russia has no such obligations. While the Kremlin may throw its weight behind nations like Syria, providing direct military support to Bashar al Assad’s regime in the combat-quagmire that has surfaced since the Syrian civil war began, their overall obligations are on par with their inferior budget. While the United States has spent trillions in the past two decades waging wars against old-fashioned insurgent adversaries, Russia has been able to devote their limited funding to specific and forward looking programs. While America has been putting on a strategy and capability clinic in multiple theaters, Russian defense officials have simply been watching, and adjusting their funding strategies to best suit perceived kinks in the massive American military’s armor. You don’t have to outspend America to beat America, you need only to find a weakness and the proper leverage.
With that in mind, Russia has chosen to forgo investing in some military programs that seem almost commonplace among developed nations. The Russian military does not have a legitimate drone program to speak of, for instance, opting instead to field a wide variety of commercially sourced platforms despite many Chinese military drones being built within Russian factories. Likewise, Russia’s single (ailing) aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has seen plans for upgrades and repairs repeatedly diminished or put off entirely. One would think that a drone program or a blue-water capable aircraft carrier would be requirements from a national military the U.S. seems to consider worthy of concern — but Russia is no stranger to finding budget-friendly ways to maintain their Bond villain-like reputation.
If you think the term “Bond villain” is a bit of journalistic hyperbole, you may be right — but only sort of. Russia’s Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6, a 100-megaton nuclear weapon designed to act as an undersea drone and lie in wait within American harbors, has widely been described as a “doomsday” weapon by defense experts on either side of the U.S./Russia divide. The Status-6 (or Kanyon in U.S. documents) is literally twice as powerful than any other nuclear weapon ever detonated, and would combine the massive destruction we’ve come to expect from nuclear weapons with a mammoth irradiated tidal wave that would destroy an even larger area than the detonation itself.
Russia is also investing heavily in missile development (both nuclear and conventional), and while they recently announced plans to field a dozen fifth generation fighters, that small fleet of aircraft would serve little tactical value in a large scale conflict. Russia hopes to find international partners to buy their new aircraft in order to further fund their development, but missile programs continue unabated by budget cuts. As a result, images of their hypersonic missile platform being mounted and fired from a Mig-31 (which first took to the skies in 1975) were met with international concern despite the dated launch platform.
Likewise, recent claims that Russia is looking to mount the hypersonic missile on their (even more dated) Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers have caused a stir in the defense community, despite the bomber itself offering little threat in contested airspace thanks to modern air defense systems. By building an advanced missile platform, Russia is dragging their outdated air frames back into relevancy, and because current missile defense applications would offer little resistances to a hypersonic missile and America is years away from fielding their own hypersonic platforms, those decades old aircraft offer a capability America cannot currently match and may even struggle to effectively counter.
When looking at military spending numbers and even broad stroke military capability, it could be easy to dismiss Russia as a regional threat, but their strategic methodology of employing a cost-effective offense as a primary means of defense makes the threat posed by Russian aggression one that can’t be ignored.
In today’s world, the United States military may be huge, but it’s also busy. An offensive doesn’t need to defeat all of it, it just had to manage the defenses in the area. In today’s battle, it doesn’t matter if there are three more carrier groups on the other side of the globe, and although the United States has the resources to win in an open war against a nation like Russia, the losses would not be insignificant. In the world of geopolitics, where the threat of war serves as a leveraging tool, doomsday weapons and advanced missile platforms offer Russia the means the throw more weight around than they seem to have the right to.
Featured image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, June 8, 2018. Cooperation between Russia and China is at an all-time high, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in a meeting Friday ahead of a summit featuring their two countries and six Asian states. | AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein