October 7, 2016:
Since 2013 Russia has been holding unscheduled training exercises that were given a lot of publicity. Some of these “snap exercises” quickly mobilized over a hundred thousand troops for unannounced maneuvers and inspections of readiness. Less publicized were things like the troops suddenly mobilized eventually demonstrated a lot of deficiencies. Worse, it turns out that the problems were so extensive and difficult to fix that the “snap exercises” are no longer a complete surprise to the units involved.
The Russians put a positive spin on this but the fact of the matter is that when you scrutinize the Russian media coverage of these exercises and the data posted (usually via social media) by participants it is quite clear that there is not a lot of progress with efforts to modernize weapons and equipment or establish a reserve system similar what now exists in the West. What does still flourish in the Russian military is the ability to put on a good show and ignore what’s really going on. This has to be kept in mind whenever you hear of a new development in the Russian military.
For example in early 2016 Russia announced that it was moving ten more brigades to its western borders. While this was seen as a threatening move by East European nations it is much less of a threat than in the past. That’s because the Russian army has been falling apart since the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. After that came fifteen years of practically no new equipment and a vast downsizing. The Cold War force of 175 divisions dwindled to 25, plus 21 independent brigades (equivalent to another 5 divisions). These divisions were, for the most part, very under strength and poorly equipped. By 2006, the Russian army was smaller than the American army and much less capable.
The fearsome “Red Army” of the Cold War period died out in the 1990s and was replaced by not much beyond hopeful press releases. This can be seen clearly during recent Russian operations against Ukraine. For the operations in and near Ukraine the Russians was able to bring in about twenty percent of their combat brigades, usually the most effective (Spetsnaz and airborne) and experienced (ones recently in the Caucasus) brigades. The dozen or so brigades sent to the borders of eastern Ukraine, or into eastern Ukraine itself represented the best Russia had as the rest of the army is still crippled by inexperience and shortages of personnel and equipment. Russia is still trying to replace obsolete and worn out Cold War era weapons and equipment. This is a major reason why not a lot of ground troops were sent to Syria in mid-2015.
There has been some progress. The army reforms that began in 2008 reduced the number of army units from over 1,800 to fewer than 200. Many of the disbanded units were part of the reserve or organizations that had become irrelevant but continued to exist anyway. The army strength is now about 300,000, including SOF (special operations forces, or Spetsnaz). The combat forces comprise 55 combat brigades (33 mechanized infantry and four tank, 22 Spetsnaz, airborne or air assault). These brigades are about half the size of American combat brigades and about a third of the personnel are conscripts who serve for one year. So the skill levels of troops in these brigades is much lower than for comparable troops in American or British brigades (and elite brigades in French, German and some other Western forces.) There are also 28 combat support brigades (eight armed with multi-barrel rocket launchers like the U.S. MLRS, nine with short range ballistic missiles, ten with anti-aircraft missile systems and one engineer brigade).
The reforms basically dismantled the Soviet era reserve system that maintained over a hundred divisions and hundreds of support units that had equipment but less than ten percent of their troops. In wartime these units were quickly manned by reservists (conscripts who had recently completed their two years of active service). In the half century since World War II that type of reserve system fell apart and discarding it in Russia was a smart move because it was not worth the cost of maintaining. The few times the Russians mobilized reserve divisions during the cold war these divisions proved much less capable than expected. But eliminating the old reserve system means Russia only has active duty brigades available for any emergency. The Russian Army is now smaller (in numbers and capability) than the American, something that had never happened before. Noting that Russia has begun creating a smaller reserve force, similar to those used by the United States and Britain.
Meanwhile most East European nations that were occupied by Russian forces from the end of World War II (1945) to 1991 have joined NATO and upgraded their armed forces. All this countries, like those in West Europe, reduced their armed forces after 1991, but not to the extent that Russia did. So while ten more brigades based in western Russia sends a signal it is not as scary as the hundred or so divisions Russia was threatening its western neighbors with before 1991. For that reason has continued to spend a lot of money on its nukes, in the knowledge that nothing stops a foreign invasion like the threat of nuclear annihilation.