The difference in numbers may not be wide but the Russian strategic forces are several orders of magnitude powerful than the US arsenal. The Americans know that in any war between the two powers, Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – secure in silos super-hardened to an incredible 6000 psi as against 300 psi for the American missiles – are going to be decisive. This doomsday force is hardened to not only survive a nuclear first-strike but can easily penetrate existing anti-missile defences. The US does not have any protection against a volley of Russian ICBMs.
Moscow has yet another Armageddon force. These are nuclear-tipped cruise missiles launched by its mighty strategic bombers including the T-160 Blackjack, Tu-95 Bear and T-95M Backfire. The Blackjacks and Bears are known to take off from bases in western and southern Russia and come screaming in over the North Pole to safe standoff distances from where they can fire hundreds of nuclear-armed cruise missiles against the US.
Simultaneously, the comparatively shorter-range Backfires based in the Russian Far East can launch nuclear cruise missiles at the US west coast. As far back as the 1980s, the Russians were so sure about the accuracy of their missiles that the Backfires carried only one Raduga Kh-22 (NATO name AS-4 Kitchen) missile armed with a nuclear warhead. According to weapons expert Bill Sweetman and Bill Gunston these missiles could be “programmed to enter the correct Pentagon window”.
In fact, just the Russian strategic bomber force of 195 aircraft – against 171 American – can end nearly all human life in the continental US in a matter of hours.
Packing a new punch
Moscow has an array of newer weapons rolling off the assembly lines to complement these Cold Warriors. The powerful strategic bombers will be escorted by the super-maneuverable Sukhoi-27 Flanker and the newest member of the Flanker family, the Su-35 Super Flanker. Able to carry an enormous variety and number of payload, the Su-35’s most potent weapons are a ramjet-powered version of the K-77 air-to-air missile and the Kh-59 land attack cruise missile. Both aircraft are nearly invisible to radar during super-maneuverable flight.
Nuclear submarine construction has hit a post-Soviet high in Russia. Brand new nuclear powered attack submarines of the Yasen class – of which 10 will be built – will shadow the US Navy’s nuclear submarines, the “boomers” that lurk silently in the ocean depths. In 2012, an older Akula submarine was able to infiltrate the Gulf of Mexico and patrol restricted US waters for over a month without being detected by the US Navy.
The strategic submarine force is being revamped with the 170-feet Borei class vessel, armed with up to 20 new Bulava ballistic missiles, featuring advanced defence capabilities designed to penetrate US missile-defence systems.
Also, since that scrappy five-day war in Georgia in August 2008, the Russian Army has become more agile, better connected and better armed. With 300,000 troops and 2,500 tanks (including the advanced ‘flying tank’, the T-90), and with the S-400 and S-500 anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles, the Russian Army has unmatched firepower in Europe.
Russia has around 845,000 combat ready troops and nearly 2.5 million more in reserve. The US has 1.4 million active duty troops and 850,000 reservists. But while all nearly Russian troops are available within Russia, the American forces are scattered in 598 bases around the world.
As the leaden-footed response of the American military during the Crimean and – ongoing – Ukrainian crises demonstrated, taking on the Russian military is not a task for the fainthearted
Plus, after years of ceaseless fighting – and embarrassing losses – in Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops are tired and demoralised, if not yet mentally defeated. The US defences forces are, therefore, not keen on yet another military engagement, especially not against a country that defeated and ruined both Napoleon and Hitler.
At any rate, the US military – despite spending seven times more than Russia on defence – provides little bang for the buck. The ‘success’ of American weapons has largely been on CNN rather than in the battlefield, and that too has come against the small forces of Iraq, Serbia and Libya.
In this backdrop, the Russian military’s resurgence has swept aside even the pretence of military action against Moscow. It is this paucity of response that forced the US and its Man Friday, the UK, to press for sanctions.
Sanctions have led to more sanctions and counter sanctions, leading to the prospect of a full-fledged trade war, but what they haven’t accomplished is a policy shift in the Kremlin.
On the contrary, President Vladimir Putin’s calibrated diplomacy ensured that Russia has faced off the entire western bloc. Moscow has also got ample backing from the BRICS.
The force of Russian arms – in step with suave diplomacy, best exemplified by the wit of Vitaly Churkin at the UN – has effectively neutered the West. The Germans and French are not the least bit interested in a war with Russia. Pro-Russian sentiments are strong in Greece – another NATO member – even as Italy, Spain and smaller southern European countries see no reason why anyone should meddle in the Russia-Ukraine spat.
Ironically, it’s NATO that has contributed to the stunted military forces of nearly all European countries. Smug under the alliance’s security umbrella, Europe has allowed defence spending to plummet, knowing full well the US is committed to protect it. Some countries like Greece and Bulgaria – both pro-Russian – are in NATO only because they are scared of Turkey.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in which around 22 countries fought alongside the US, have killed the appetite for more war in those countries. The UK’s parliament – knowing that it could lead to WW III – refused to back an attack on Syria.
But now that the US itself is seen as powerless to do anything except hurl the tired threat of sanctions, the Europeans are wondering what the hell American troops are doing in Europe if they can’t fight. This is a new current in geopolitics, and American presence in Europe could be swept away by its force.
In June, as Putin attended D-Day celebrations in France, a senior Chinese general told a regional security conference in Asia that US inaction in Ukraine was an unmistakable symptom of America’s strategic “erectile dysfunction”.
Worse, the sanctions are now starting to bite back. Apples meant for Russian markets are rotting in Poland, hurting small Polish farmers. Dairy farmers in the Netherlands are sitting on piles of rotten cheese. There are hundreds of such stories in every European country that was unwillingly dragged into the sanctions regime.
Those most impacted are continental Europeans who conducted a thriving business with Russia. On the other hand, the least affected seems to be the UK, which continues to benefit from its proud status as a concierge to Russian billionaires. But overall, Europe is hurting as it hadn’t quite come out of the economic recession.
Poverty transforms relationships – for the worse. As economic anguish increases, fraying of fraternal ties in the western alliance is almost certain. Unlike previous generations, today’s Europeans – better informed because of the reach of social media – are demanding answers from their political leadership. If the nearly $1 trillion dollar (the annual military budget of western nations) alliance cannot even stare back at Russia, then what is NATO’s use? If the US backs Neo-Nazi Ukrainians and sparks a war in Europe, then how is it contributing to Europe’s security?
Both Sun Tsu and Chanakya aver that the ideal victory is that which is obtained without shedding blood – that is, by diplomacy or subterfuge. Putin’s high-octane military build-up may be about to deliver a victory without firing a shot at the West.