The Growing Russian Defense Capabilities along the NATO Eastern Flank – a Challenge to National and Allied Security


Mihail Naydenov


Russia is pursuing today a revanchist policy agenda aimed at restoring the spheres of influence of the former Soviet Union. This is taking place at the detriment of ex-Soviet republics as well as of Central and Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria. The Russian activity is an unambiguous challenge to national and allied security.


In order to achieve its goal to restore the spheres of influence of the former Soviet Union, Moscow is modernizing its armed forces as one of the main instruments at its disposal for carrying out its strategy. Despite the fact that Russia is still dependent to a great extent on inherited Soviet platforms, Moscow is updating its military strategy, doctrines and tactics by adding asymmetrical means, including cyber attacks and indirect influence, according to a report of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Russia is building up new capabilities of its armed forces that are allowing it to project power far beyond its national borders. Moscow is keeping on modernizing its nuclear potential and is developing precision-guided conventional long-range weapons.


The attention of Moscow in Europe today is focused mainly on the NATO Eastern flank from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Furthermore, through its intervention in Syria Russia is expanding its influence also to the Eastern Mediterranean.


As far as the Baltic and Black seas are concerned, the beefing up of the Russian military potential there is aimed at providing Moscow with the opportunity to deny NATO access to these regions in case of crisis or war (known as A2/AD – Anti-Access/Area Denial). This is a particularly unfavorable development for the alliance, in case of a need to provide assistance to an ally under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.




Russia is building up new capabilities and is restoring existing old capabilities of its armed forces. In parallel with this line of activity, it is waging hybrid war against the NATO countries, in particular those on the Eastern flank, as well as against other European countries that do not make up part of the alliance, especially Ukraine. Instead of the term “hybrid warfare”, the Russian military thinking uses “non-linear war”, and the essence of this understanding is explained by Chief of the General Staff of the armed forces of the Russian Federation Army General Valery Gerassimov. The term non-linear war appeared in a short story written by Vladislav Surkov, one of the closest advisors of Vladimir Putin, who published it under the name Natan Dubovitskiy a few days prior to the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. According to the author, in a non-linear war everybody is at war with all. There is no middle ground. There could be only victory or death.


The war in Georgia in 2008, in which the Russian army suffered losses, showed visible weaknesses (especially with regard to command and control, combat training and damaged equipment – approximately 60-70% of the Russian tanks and armored fighting vehicles broke down during the first five days of the war). Russia learned its lessons from practice and embarked upon an intense modernization program of its armed forces. The operation of the illegal annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine made proof of the considerably improved Russian military capabilities as well as of the new hybrid warfare tools used for achieving the strategic objectives.


According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for the Refugees, since the mid-2014, the conflict in Ukraine has resulted in over 10,000 people killed, nearly 25,000 injured and approximately 1.6 million internally displaced Ukrainians.


Following the war in Georgia in 2008, Moscow started an extensive armed forces reform and modernization program. By 2016, the Russian defense expenditure almost doubled, reaching an annual level of around USD 70 billion. The Russian defense budget is the third largest in the world after the defense budgets of the USA and China. In 2016 Russia spent 5.3% of its GDP on defense, which is the highest level attained since 1990.


On 31.12.2010 the President of the Russian Federation approved an ambitious State Armament Program for 2011-2020 that envisages procurement of weapons and equipment, including research and development spending. The objective set is to increase the share of modern equipment in the Russian armed forces from 15% in 2010 to 70% in 2020. There are various data on the financial value of the program ranging from USD 360 to 680 billion. The Russian hopes are that by the end of 2017 the modern weapons and equipment in the Russian armed forces will be no less than 60% regarding the permanent combat readiness forces. The Russian military leadership estimates that if this percentage level is lower than 50, then the situation is problematic.


A new State Armament Program for 2018-2025 is envisaged to be adopted and its aim is to upgrade on the results of the current one. The new program is focused upon the development of strategic nuclear forces, precision-guided weapons, intelligence and information, space forces, navigation systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and robotics. The expectations are that by 2025–2026 “totally new types of weapons that will bring in serious changes into the strategy and tactics of the armed struggle” will come into being.


Russia is now building up a substantial military presence from the Arctic to the Eastern part of the Mediterranean that will allow it to exercise control over these regions and to deny NATO access thereto (A2/AD). The Arctic, being a region rich in natural resources, is also targeted by Russian expansion as Moscow is reopening former military bases there.


Russia has considerably increased its military potential in the Kaliningrad exclave, situated between Poland and Lithuania, and that is considered to be the most militarized zone in Europe at the moment. Assessments highlight that over 30000 Russian troops are currently deployed there, together with tanks, armored vehicles and missiles, including nuclear-capable ones (Iskander-M ballistic missiles), and that this military potential is a threat to the security of the neighboring NATO countries and other states in the region.


The mounting Russian military potential in the Western Military District of the Federation is noticeable. After the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has deployed additional military formations close to its borders with this country. Moscow declared in 2016 the build-up of three new divisions along the South-West direction, alongside Ukraine.




The Russian military potential along the Southern direction is also actively being built up. Following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia started an intensive militarization of the peninsula, and this will make it in perspective the dominant military power in the Black Sea. Moscow is reestablishing former Soviet bases and opening new ones. Russia has deployed in Crimea 30,000 troops, over 100 fighter planes and over 50 combat helicopters, together with radar systems.


Moscow has also deployed in Crimea its most up-to-date air and missile defense system, the S-400 “Triumph”, having a range of up to 400 km, as well as its mobile coastal defense “Bastion-P” with a range of 350 to 450 km, and that is able to engage sea and ground targets. Moscow has also been deploying in the region multirole “Kalibr” cruise missiles with a range of up to 2500 km. The “Kalibr” missiles are mainly ship and submarine-launched. They can strike ground targets, ships and submarines. NATO countries in the region can be reached by these cruise missiles.




The intensive build-up of the Russian Black Sea Navy is leading to a gradual shift in the regional military strategic power balance in favor of Moscow. This shift is hard to be subsequently reversed. This will provide Russia with the possibility to not only limit NATO access to the Black Sea, but also to project power beyond this region, chiefly towards the East of the Mediterranean. Currently the Russian Black Sea Naval Forces have in operation about 45 combat ships and seven submarines, based primarily in Sevastopol (Crimea) and Novorossiysk. This constitutes around 21% of all the Russian combat ships and a tenth of the country’s submarines. In addition to the modernized extant old ships that are supposed to remain in operation, Moscow is implementing an accelerated rearmament with new combat ships and submarines. By 2020 Moscow is planning to have commissioned in the Black Sea:

  1. 1. six multi-purpose Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates;
  2. 2. one or two high-sea multi-purpose Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates;
  3. 3. one or two Yastreb–class frigates;
  4. 4. six Improved Kilo-class submarines, known as Project 636.3 “Varshavyanka” in Russia. They are one of the most noiseless in the world and are called „silent killers“;
  5. 5. one or two Ivan Gren-class amphibious landing ships;
  6. 6. up to four missile corvettes for near-shore operations.

In addition, in the Southern direction the Russian Federation has also stationed thousands of troops in the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Moreover, there are around 5,500 Russian military personnel deployed in Armenia.


Russia is extending its military presence in Syria, and it is therefore contesting the NATO positions in the Eastern Mediterranean as a significant geostrategic region. Russia uses cruise missiles ”Kalibr in Syria, launched from Navy vessels in the Caspian Sea.


Over the last years the Russian Air Force has been carrying out flights alongside or within the airspace of NATO countries, especially of the allies situated on the Eastern flank, including Bulgaria. More frequent have become the cases in which fighter jets from NATO allies patrolling the skies above all three Baltic countries, in implementation of the Baltic air policing mission, intercept Russian military aircraft. The increased Russian provocations concerning the air space of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia led to the increase in the deployed therein NATO Air Force capabilities for conducting air policing. This in turn led to rising annual costs covered by each of the three Baltic states for the execution of this mission by NATO allies – from around €1 million per year before the Crimea annexation to about €3 million in 2015.


Russian fighter aircrafts also fly provocatively and in dangerous proximity (“buzzing”) to NATO planes and ships, including in the Black Sea. In the Вaltic region Russian military planes fly with transponder locators switched off and are thus posing dangers to civil aviation.


In the context of the growing Russian military capabilities on the country’s eastern borders, considering its military activity from the Arctic to the Eastern Mediterranean, it should be taken into account that in the last few years Russia has expanded the scale and scope of its military exercises. Moscow has made proof of its capacity to conduct large-scale military exercises with no-notice (“snap exercises”). It is able to swiftly mobilize and move large military formations at great distances. Such exercises are being carried out in the conditions of insufficient transparency. Days before the invasion in sovereign Ukraine in 2014 a Russian military exercise of this kind, having 150,000 troops participating, had taken place in proximity to the Ukrainian border. It can be rightly pointed out that conducting such exercises could be used as a cover for preparing forthcoming aggressive actions.


It should be mentioned that against the backdrop of the preparatory work and conduct of the largest Russian military exercise for 2017 “Zapad” in September (14-20) on the territory of Russia and Belarus, which seized the attention focus of NATO countries and the subsequent analysis of its lessons learned, the military activities of the Russian Northern and Baltic fleets went on through a series of exercises and activities either preceding or immediately following “Zapad”. Their list can be found here. These exercises, coupled with the activities in the framework of “Zapad” 2017, are exposing the strengthening of the Russian Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities (A2/AD). What is more, throughout the year in the Western Military District, tens of exercises of different scale comprising the services were conducted. They are testing mobility, combat readiness, mobilization capability and forward deployment capacity. The activities of the Russian armed forces in the Western Military District are connected, to a greater or lesser extent, with the “Zapad” scenarios.


Above all, it should be taken into consideration that in its strategic documents Russia sees NATO as the “main external military danger”, in contrast to the Alliance, which in its official documents, does not define Russia as a threat. The military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, approved by the President on 26.12.2014, points out as the “main external military danger” for Russia “the increase in the power potential of NATO and the assuming [by the Alliance] of global functions”, coupled with the “military infrastructure of the NATO member countries getting closer to the Russian borders, including through further enlargement”. In the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President on 31.12.2015 г. these assumptions were confirmed. They are defined as “producing a threat to national security” of Russia. The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, endorsed on 30.11.2016 г., states that Moscow is disapproving of “the NATO enlargement, the Alliance’s military infrastructure getting closer to the Russian borders as well as the rise in its military activity in regions adjacent to Russia”.


In light of all the above, it is high time that the Bulgarian state institutions start to take more adequately into consideration the potential danger that the growth of the Russian military potential from the Arctic to the Mediterranean poses to both national and allied security. This is particularly valid regarding the shift in the Black Sea strategic power balance in favor of the Russian Federation. The objective findings concerning Russia presented in the Report on the State of the National Security of the Republic of Bulgaria in 2016 are a step in the right direction. This took place regardless of the fact that state institutions are still not doing their best to strengthen the Bulgarian national defense as a part of the NATO collective one, as well as to work in favor of the expansion of the stabilizing presence of NATO in the Black Sea. Concerning the latter, at the moment, Russian subversive influence, including with regard to the Bulgarian defense, is still preventing the conduct of an adequate national policy of Bulgaria as a country that should be capable of defending its own interests as a reliable and strong enough NATO ally.


The accelerated modernization of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and especially its Black Sea Navy should not be seen as an isolated phenomenon. This is happening in the context of, and it is supportive to, the implementation of the Vladimir Putin policy aimed at restoring the spheres of influence of the former Soviet Union. The hybrid influence of Russia targeting NATO countries, including Bulgaria, should also be paid attention to. It is just the right time now that this be well understood and thought out at the state strategic level.


That is why Bulgaria as soon as possible should modernize its armed forces by way of carrying out the priority projects aimed at acquiring new interoperable with NATO capabilities for the three services. In parallel, Bulgaria should get rid of all the inherited obsolescent Soviet equipment, the maintenance of which is still consuming valuable resources.


In view of the revanchist Russian policy, the strategic objectives it follows and the fact that it considers NATO to be the “main foreign military danger”, there is no sound logic in continuing in perspective the situation of Bulgaria relying on Moscow for repairing and maintaining the obsolescent Soviet military equipment. Insisting that Bulgaria keeps on being dependent on Russia for repairing the old Soviet systems in the future is contrary to the Bulgarian national interest as a sovereign NATO and EU member country.


As long as the obsolete Soviet equipment is operating and a high financial price is being paid thereon, Moscow is having a strong lever for influencing the Bulgarian defense policy. The substantial money transfers towards Russia for the repairs and maintenance of the obsolescent Soviet platforms could create strong enough local interests aimed at not only keeping the old Soviet equipment operating as long as possible, but also at launching policy options that are friendly to the Russian interests or at least are not contradictory to them. Therefore, maintaining the Soviet weapons and equipment in perspective could be perceived also as a threat to Bulgarian national security.


The rearmament of the Bulgarian Armed Forces should be implemented more and more by way of carrying out joint projects with NATO allies for acquiring and maintaining capabilities, making full use of the potential of the NATO and EU agencies. This will allow for sharing the financial burden with allies, and therefore Bulgaria will have more real capabilities with less money spent.


Last but not least, it is highly necessary to strengthen the NATO presence in the region, including through establishing multinational formations (land, air and naval) of the alliance on our territory, as well as deploying allied combat equipment combined with building up the needed infrastructure in Bulgaria. This will complement our defense capabilities and will support the training and the interoperability of the Bulgarian Armed Forces.


Nowadays the only answer to the challenges of the day’s strategic environment is to build up a strong Bulgarian defense within a stronger alliance, adapted to the new risks and threats.


By Mihail Naydenov



The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Bulgaria or the Bulgarian Government.

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