Military Expansion: A Poison for Putin

Russia has been facing complex challenges from the outside lately. Since Moscow trapped itself in the quagmire of the war in Ukraine, the government has found itself surrounded by hostility. Traditional allies like Central Asia chose not to cooperate fully, while NATO became closer to the heartland of Russia. Russia is now deep in the strategic trap.

Recently, the Russian Defense Ministry declared an expansion of the Russian military. Under the new directives, the Russian military will expand to 1.5 million, with five additional divisions in the Republic of Karelia in northern Russia.  Meanwhile, the aerospace force, navy, and strategic forces will also be reinforced according to the plan.

This military expansion was looking for the reinforcement of Russia’s western front. Moscow wishes that the buildup will help itself address the challenges from NATO, as it claims that the West is waging a proxy war against itself. By recruiting new troops plus a growing aerospace force and navy capacity, Kremlin is confident that the military could become compatible with the other side of the border.

However, the reality is bleaker than the expectation. Merely increasing the number has proven to fail. Time and resources are not on Russia’s side, and the Russian strategic stalemate will not change with a military expansion. The new army development could very well be a poison that President Putin swallows only to quench his thirst.

It is self-evident that a massive military does not equal an effective one. The experience in Ukraine has once again indicated that with poor training and shambolic tactics, the number of personnel would not decide the battle’s outcome.  Despite being a formidable force on paper, Russia has taken severe losses on the frontline, from trained troops to advanced equipment. It takes time to prepare the recruits to be combat-ready.  How will the newly formed forces face the potential challenges of NATO when the advanced ones suffer considerable damage against a seemingly inferior army?

Russia partially mobilized its reserves in October last year while considering further mobilization this year.  It seems sensible after suffering a critical loss in the ongoing war. However, since the mobilization, there has been no significant improvement on the frontline. Instead, Ukrainians have gained ground and retook critical cities such as Kherson. The Moscow government now relies on mercenary groups to achieve military advancements, while Russians are experiencing growing difficulties in recruitment and maintaining morale.  Military boost may become far too challenging for Moscow.

Russia wishes to expand its military within three years while also focusing on developing and delivering the equipment. Yet, Russia has neither the time nor the resources to conduct such activity, and the ongoing war drastically deducts the resources Russia has to expand its forces.  Meanwhile, three years is a long period in a fast-changing socio-political situation.  NATO will keep developing, and new equipment will be available for the Western countries. It also takes time for these new divisions to be adequately trained and built from scratch. These developments will make Russia’s plan to catch up with its counterparts even more demanding.

At the same time, lack of funding and corruption plagued the Russian troops.  They are dramatically hindering Russian ability in properly equip the new forces.  Russian could not supply, if not less, new types of equipment due to the lack of funding. Moscow only considered the deployment of the latest tank until very recently. Corruption is also profoundly rooted within the Russian military. One and a half million uniforms went missing when the soldiers had to pay for their equipment. Soldiers went on strike to protest not being paid when the generals lived luxurious lives. It becomes evident that corruption has significantly eroded Russian troops’ combat readiness, something that a military expansion could not improve.

Most importantly, military expansion will not solve Russia’s dire strategic crisis, both foreign and domestic. Indeed, the new divisions in the Northwest will protect the northern front and provide extra support towards St. Petersburg, now closer than ever to NATO. However, Russia has bankrupted its credibility in the West after the war with the Kyiv government. NATO has become more united than ever, and Sweden and Finland will still be working on joining NATO as the hostilities keep growing. As Russia’s traditional allies are increasingly suspicious of Kremlin’s incentives, Russian military enlargement will further unite the West and alienate its allies.

At the same time, Russia is facing challenges internally. At the beginning of the war and the announcement of mobilization, many people, especially young men, left the country to avoid the war and conscription. Meanwhile, the voices that against President Putin have grown stronger. Even his close allies have expressed their disappointment with the ongoing situation. A military expansion does not address any of these challenges within the border. As the domestic situation becomes unstable, an army buildup may face further anger and dissatisfaction.

A military expansion seems rational to respond to the rising hostility between Russia and the West. However, underneath the surface, Russia has no resources or time for new developments, a massive military does not increase the combat readiness of the troops, and Russia’s dire strategic crisis does not change with a troop expansion. The expansion could quench the thirst of President Putin only for now; instead, this poison for Moscow could further drag itself down.

[Photo by the Presidential Press and Information Office, Russian Federation]

Henry Huang serves as the Research and Communications Assistant at the DPRK Strategic Research Center in KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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