The Russian Threat

In the 2012 presidential campaign, candidate Mitt Romney stated that Russia was again a major threat.  His comment was met with much derision on the part of the media and his Democrat opponent. Following the 2009 New Start Treaty, which gave Moscow, for the first time, a lead in strategic nuclear weapons, and a massive investment in expanding and modernizing all elements of its armed forces, the Kremlin threat is very real indeed. Its greatly strengthened military, combined with President Putin’s aggressiveness, its alliance with China and Iran, and the weakening of U.S. forces due to budgetary constraints, renders Russia an even greater threat than in the Cold War era.

In March, USMC Lt. General Vincent R. Stewart, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, addressed the House Armed Services Committee on key threats facing the United States. Presented in today’s report is the portion of his examination that reviews the growing threat from Moscow.


Moscow continues to devote major resources to modernizing its military forces, viewing military power as critical to achieving key strategic objectives: acknowledged great power status, dominating smaller regional states and deterring NATO from military action in Eurasia. Russian leadership considers a capable and survivable nuclear force as the foundation of its strategic deterrent capability, and modernized, agile general purpose forces as vital for Eurasian and limited out-of-area power projection.

Moscow’s assertive pursuit of foreign policy and security objectives includes military involvement in Ukraine, operations in Syria and expansion of its military capabilities in the Arctic. Last year, the Russian military continued its robust exercise schedule and its aggressive, and sometimes provocative, out-of-area deployments. We anticipate similar high levels of military activity in 2016, although Moscow’s military modernization efforts will be complicated by economic and demographic challenges.

Operations in Syria

Moscow, a long-time ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, has supplied the Syrian regime with weapons, supplies, and intelligence throughout the Syrian civil war. Moscow began to deploy military forces to Syria in late August 2015, likely both to shore up the regime and assert Russia’s status as a military player and powerbroker in the Middle East. The majority of Russian air strikes, artillery and rocket fires initially supported regime ground offensives and focused on opposition targets. An increasing number of strikes have since targeted Islamic State forces and facilities while sustaining operations against the opposition. Tensions between Russia and Turkey following the November 24,, 2015 downing of a Su-24 bomber have not impacted the pace of Russian air operations.

Russia has sought to use the Syrian intervention as a showcase for its military modernization program and advanced conventional weapons systems. Moscow has launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) from Caspian Sea naval units and a Kilo-class submarine in the Mediterranean Sea. They have also demonstrated new capabilities with air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) from its Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear H heavy bombers. These operations are meant to demonstrate strategic capabilities and message the West about the manner in which the Russian military could operate in a major conventional conflict.

Russia will almost certainly be able to logistically support its current level of operations in Syria via a mix of air, naval, and commercial maritime means for the foreseeable future. Moscow may opt to increase its forces in Syria if unable to make progress on securing increased acceptance and support for the Assad Regime, or if support to regime ground offensives are unsuccessful. The most likely additions would be additional air and artillery assets, and potentially include Russian-led and -enabled proxy forces.

Ukraine Crisis

In September 2015, Moscow began placing more emphasis on diplomacy after a year of often intense fighting along the line of contact. While maintaining the strong separatist military force it trained, equipped, and furnished with leadership, the Kremlin focused on implementing the Minsk II agreement to institutionalize influence with Ukraine without risking more sanctions. Despite deemphasizing a military approach to Ukraine, Moscow retains the ability to rapidly redeploy troops to the border, including prepositioning logistics stockpiles.

Military Doctrine and Strategy

Russia’s military doctrine reflects its perception of a heightened threat environment and sense of urgency about its preparedness to address those perceived threats. Moscow has moved to further improve its capabilities to meet what it sees as Western challenges to its internal stability, dominance of neighboring states and status as a great power abroad. In 2016, Russia will attempt to optimize its strategic forces, develop precision strike weapons, create efficiencies in defense industry, and improve professional military training and education. Russia will also seek to prepare its economy and state and local governments to transition from peace to war-time.

The Arctic and Associated International Disputes

The Arctic — and associated international disputes — is a major emphasis for Russian security policy. Moscow has increased the readiness of its Northern Fleet through increased exercise activities and refurbishing airbases and has added air-defense and coastal-defense cruise missiles and ground force assets to the region. The Joint Strategic Command (OSK) “North,” established in late 2014 on the basis of the Northern Fleet, will be reinforced by an air force and air defense (PVO) army. Despite this increased military focus on the Arctic, we believe Russia will likely prefer to use existing multilateral and bilateral mechanisms to address competing claims and other security issues in the region.

Force Modernization

Russia’s future force will be smaller, but more capable of handling a range of contingencies on Russia’s periphery and expeditionary operations. We expect continued effort to improve joint operations capabilities and rearmament. Russia’s ambitious rearmament program will be challenged by corruption and industrial inefficiency, Western sanctions, and the poor state of its economy. Moscow will continue its military modernization efforts despite these difficulties, but many major programs will likely face delays or cuts.

Russia places the highest priority on the maintenance of its robust arsenal of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Moscow is making large investments in its nuclear weapon programs. Strategic nuclear forces priorities include force modernization and command and control facilities upgrades. Russia will field more road-mobile SS-27 Mod-2 ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, deploy more Dolgorukiy class ballistic missile submarines with SS-N-32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and will continue the development of the RS-26 ICBM and next-generation cruise missiles.

Space and Counterspace

Russia is advancing its space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability and has nearly doubled the number of satellites in its ISR constellation since 2014. Moscow views U.S. dependence on space systems as key enablers for military operations as a vulnerability. Russian military doctrine highlights counterspace capability as a force multiplier. Russia has a highly advanced space surveillance network, a prerequisite for counterspace operations, and is modernizing and expanding these systems. Russia’s counterspace capabilities include satellite warning-enabled denial and deception and jamming systems targeting satellite communications. Russian leaders assert that their armed forces have antisatellite weapons and conduct antisatellite research.