The Power of Numbers: The Russian Army and the Invasion of Ukraine

Colonel Charles Davies (Retired)

 

In a recent CNN interview, retired US General David Petraeus praised the very determined and skilled defensive performance of the Ukrainian forces, but also observed that: “… the Russians are just surprisingly unprofessional. They clearly have very poor standards when it comes to performing basic tactical tasks such as achieving combined arms operations… They are very poor at maintaining their vehicles and weapon systems and have abandoned many of them. They are also poor at resupply and logistical tasks.”  He went on to note that “quantity does have a quality of its own over time” and Russia’s vastly greater resources are clearly having an impact despite its deeply flawed planning and execution of the invasion.  General Petraeus is not alone in this assessment – most knowledgeable observers have drawn similar conclusions.

It is worth asking, though, should the poor performance of the Russian military have come as a surprise?  In retrospect, perhaps not.

According to the World Bank, Russia spends about 4.3 % of its GDP on defence (2020 data) but because its economy is smaller even than that of Canada, in absolute terms this amounts to a relatively small sum of money for the size of forces it maintains – less than 62 Billion US dollars a year.  The table below compares Russian defence spending with that of a number of other nations, and also shows a rough calculation of how much each spends per active-duty member of their armed forces to pay, equip, train and support them; and invest in new capabilities.  This of course is a greatly oversimplified measure that ignores, among other things, the very different cost characteristics of naval, air, land and special operations forces; or professional versus conscript personnel.  It also doesn’t account for differences in domestic spending power of national currencies.  Nevertheless, the calculation does help to illustrate the macro-level problem faced by Russia, which is that it can’t come close to matching its peers and perceived competitors in terms of defence spending to support the force structure it has.

GDP

Defence Budget

($M US) 2020

($000 US) 2020

% of GDP

Active Pers 2019

Ratio Funds to Pers

US

20,953,030

778,232,200

3.7%

1,388,000

560.69

China

14,722,730

252,304,223

1.7%

2,535,000

99.53

UK

2,759,804

59,238,462

2.2%

149,000

397.57

France

2,630,317

52,747,064

2.1%

304,000

173.51

Canada

1,645,423

22,754,847

1.4%

72,000

316.04

Australia

1,327,836

27,536,235

2.1%

59,000

466.72

Russia

1,483,497

61,712,537

4.3%

1,454,000

42.44

Ukraine

155,498

5,924,200

4.1%

311,000

19.05

Data Source: World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS

The reliability of these World Bank numbers may be uncertain, given the opacity of Russia’s state finances, but even if they are out by a fairly wide margin the country’s defence budget clearly isn’t big enough to keep all its existing capabilities updated and ready, and sustain the substantial weapons R&D program it has.  Although primarily a land power, Russia maintains substantial naval, air and space forces that are very capital-intensive.  It also has very effective special operations forces, maintains the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, and has advanced chemical and biological weapons capabilities.  Across this broad range of ongoing investment needs something had to give, and that seems to have been the maintenance of combat readiness in much of the regular army, as General Petraeus observed.  

It is interesting to note that Ukraine, on the other hand, has successfully focused its even more limited resources on the much narrower range of capabilities needed to mount a defence against an air-land attack by a known opponent.

Russia is capable of overcoming the revealed shortcomings in its army, as it did in the early period of World War II, but that will take time and considerable resources.  The question is, where will those resources come from?  Further increasing the defence budget? Changing funding priorities? Reducing force structure?  All of these options would have potentially significant impact on, and pose risks for, both Russia and its perceived opponents.

It is important that Western nations do more to “get it right” in their intelligence assessments of Russian military capabilities.  The current poor performance of its army has come as a welcome surprise, as has the remarkable success to date of Ukrainian forces.  However, future surprises – if we allow them to occur – may be less to the advantage of our democracies.

 

Colonel Charles Davies (Retired) is a Fellow of the CDA Institute.  He served of 37 years as a CAF Logistics officer and is a former director of strategic planning for DND’s Materiel Group.