Moscow’s massive losses may not neutralize its threat to NATO countries.
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
MAY 22, 2023, 2:54 PM
TAPA, Estonia—The AMX-10 RC tank destroyer has been deployed to far-flung battlefields in Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Mali. Now, they’re being deployed as part of a French combined arms squadron to Estonia, near the Russian border, to train with NATO forces and flex the Western alliance’s muscles against neighboring Russia.
For decades, Russia amassed the bulk of its advanced military forces in the so-called Western Military District, hunkered down on NATO’s borders, including near the Baltic States. Now, many of those forces have been thrown into the meat grinder in Ukraine, where Russia’s army has suffered devastating losses that could take decades to rebuild.
But even as the war drags on in Ukraine, Russia plans to rebuild its forces facing its new and expanded frontiers with NATO, according to interviews with multiple Eastern European defense and military officials. Officials in Washington may be sanguine about the longer-term threat from a Russia that has sowed Ukrainian fields with conscript bodies, but in Eastern Europe, and especially the Baltics, things still look dicey. Russia could fully reconstitute the number of troops facing the Baltic countries in a matter of two months to two years, these officials said, posing a new threat of a Russia-NATO military showdown even if the conflict in Ukraine isn’t resolved.
Even if the troops and equipment won’t be of the same quality as those deployed to the region before the war, defense officials say they would be sizable enough to carry out an incursion into NATO territory—making units like the French combined arms squadron all the more significant for their deterrence value.
“Russia has plans to increase considerably the number of forces behind the Estonian and Latvian borders,” said Tuuli Duneton, undersecretary for defense policy at the Estonian Ministry of Defense. “According to our assessments, Russia is going to be able to reconstitute its forces in two years,” with the potential to launch a limited incursion against NATO, she said.
For now, the Russian forces facing NATO’s vulnerable northeastern flank represent a skeleton crew of what was once there. Russia’s hopes for a quick victory in Ukraine were dashed thanks to military incompetence and effective Ukrainian resistance, forcing Moscow to rush troops from areas far north of Ukraine into the battlefield. But Russia’s ability to mobilize fresh troops, even poorly trained conscripts and reservists with aged equipment, showcases a capability that has alarmed military planners in Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far shown no interest in expanding the war to NATO, protected by the alliance’s nuclear umbrella and collective defense clause among its 31 members, though he has rattled plenty of nuclear sabers. But that could change in the future, defense officials say, particularly if Putin senses military weakness on NATO’s eastern flank and smells an opportunity.
Military commanders on the ground say Russia could rush a mobilization on a much quicker timeline to gather poorly trained reserve units along its borders with NATO—though it will take two years to rebuild to the same levels it had before the massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia, from Peter the Great through the Great Patriotic War, could always count on big battalions and bigger barrels.
“In theory, [Russia] need[s] no more than two months to rebuild those capabilities” facing Estonia, said Col. Andrus Merilo, commander of the 1st Estonian Brigade at the Tapa military base. “If they announce the mobilization, it would be two months later. Of course, it will be based on older equipment, but it doesn’t matter. A tank is still a tank, and if you have a large number of those, it will be a problem.”
The assessments from senior defense officials and military commanders in Eastern Europe cast doubt on the narrative that Russia’s conventional military capabilities have been neutralized after more than a year of grueling battles and heavy losses in Ukraine. That notion has taken root among some lawmakers and policymakers in Western capitals, including a vocal minority in Washington who have pushed to pump the brakes on Ukraine aid and turn focus toward China.
“It’s very easy to look and think the Russian military has collapsed or is in dire trouble, but in fact it’s uneven,” Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top NATO commander and U.S. military chief in Europe, said at a security conference in Estonia this month. “The ground forces are greatly eroded; they have run into big problems. … On the other hand, they’ve also ingested a lot of people. The Russian army, the ground force, today is bigger than it was at the beginning of this conflict.”
“How long will it take to rebuild? The question is: How long will it take to rebuild to do what?” he added.
If the conflict has sapped the strength and supplies of Russia’s army, what emerges from it could be more battle-hardened and capable, even with aging equipment and supply crunches. “In the near future, the [Russian officers] who have survived the heavy fight against Ukrainians have learned a lot of lessons, and in a very short time, they will be battalion and brigade commanders,” Merilo said. “They will be much more experienced than we are.”
The Tapa military base has become a busy hub of activity in the past year, reflecting a new reality of what deterrence against Russia will mean for NATO in the coming years. This month, it held a massive military exercise involving some 14,000 troops from allied countries to train for scenarios of a military confrontation with Russia. Estonia hosts a multinational “battle group” of some 2,000 foreign troops, led by the United Kingdom and with a smaller contingent of forces from France and Denmark. NATO has established eight battle groups in total—in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia—to beef up NATO’s eastern flank and make Putin think, if not blink.
Only two of the countries with these battle groups—Estonia and Latvia—share a direct border with the Russian mainland. (Russia also has a small detached sliver of territory on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.)
Though the current state of the Russian Ground Forces on the Nordic and Baltic borders is bleak, Eastern and Nordic defense officials said, the Russian Navy and Air Force may still be at or near prewar capabilities in the region. In short, bears still have claws, even if they’re hibernating.
“They can cut cables; they have their submarines; they have their missiles,” said Artis Pabriks, former Latvian defense minister. “We should not underestimate Russia’s ability to rebuild its military might, because it’s a relatively large country, [and] they don’t care about the civilian population’s needs and public opinion in general. They will do it basically as they were doing it starting with Ivan the Terrible.”
Eastern European allies plan to push to expand the size of NATO forces permanently stationed in their countries at an upcoming summit of alliance leaders scheduled to take place in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July—driven in part by their assessments of how quickly Russia could reconstitute its forces on the borders with NATO. At the Vilnius summit, these leaders will also grapple with when and how to open the door to admitting Ukraine into the alliance, even as fighting continues to rage against Russian forces.
At the Vilnius summit, Eastern European countries are also expected to push for NATO to increase its defense spending benchmark for all allies from 2 percent of GDP to 2.5 percent or even 3 percent. While defense spending has increased across the board since Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine last year, only eight of its members meet the 2 percent benchmark, including Finland, which joined NATO in April. Eighteen other countries say they have plans to do so.
“If anybody in NATO or in the Baltic Sea region dreams that even if the Russians would leave Ukrainian territory, we can live in peace and calm, no,” Pabriks said. “We must seriously prepare. Until the Russian mindset is changed, the danger will be at our borders.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
“The ground forces are greatly eroded; they have run into big problems. … On the other hand, they’ve also ingested a lot of people. The Russian army, the ground force, today is bigger than it was at the beginning of this conflict.”
russia can’t even protect it’s own borders, never mind invade the Baltic states. The russian navy won’t play any part in any war against the Baltics, and it’s airforce is good for launching missiles from inside russia, so stop the scaremongering. russia will take decades to overcome their invasion of Ukraine.
I don’t think that mafia land is a danger to the rest of Europe, especially after its defeat.
“Until the Russian mindset is changed, the danger will be at our borders.”
Their mindset will never change, especially when masses of greedy Western companies will flood the country again to earn a buck there and to help make their economy strong again.