How Strong Is Russia?

Experts are divided, but U.S. intel believes Russian military may be 2nd to U.S.

Aug. 22, 2008 — -- Is the bear back?

The Russian bear is roaring angrily as its former Soviet satellites forge closer ties with the West. But as Russia makes threats and takes steps to curb perceived Western encroachment on its border, just how much of a threat is it?

Experts say Russia's options are limited, but warn it should not be ignored.

Independent experts are divided on the extent of Russia's strength. However, American intelligence believes Russia's military may have rebounded to become the second most powerful in the world, behind only the United States, after suffering from mismanagement and insufficient resources after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Military spending increased several-fold under former President Vladimir Putin, buoyed by booming oil and gas revenues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced her concern about Russia's military might in an interview with ABC News during a trip to Moscow last year.

"I think the rapid growth in Russian military spending definitely bears watching," she told ABC's Jonathan Karl.

This week Russia threatened Poland, its former Soviet satellite, after Warsaw inked a deal allowing the United States to place 10 interceptor missiles on Polish territory.

"Russia, in this case, will have to react and not only through diplomatic protests," Russia's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, this just days after a top Russian general warned Warsaw it could face a nuclear attack if it went ahead with the deal.

The United States insists the missiles are meant to defend against attacks from rogue countries like Iran, but Russia feels threatened by a U.S. missile system so close to its border.

Rice downplayed Russia's threat and reminded Moscow that Poland's membership in NATO means the United States is obligated to defend it against attack.

"An attack upon one is an attack upon all, and that's the strongest possible guarantee you can have," Rice told reporters.

So, how credible is Russia's threat against Poland?

"The Russians aren't about to launch some military action to the Poles, but they might take some specific measures to counter it, like moving short-range missiles closer to the border," said Stephen Flanagan, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.

"I think it's mostly saber rattling, but we ignore it at our own peril -- as we learned in Georgia," Flanagan said.

While Poland can count on NATO ensuring its security, Georgia, a fellow former Soviet republic, failed to get into NATO earlier this year and recently had to defend against Russia alone.

Just hours after Georgia struck targets in the separatist region of South Ossetia two weeks ago, Russian troops rolled into the breakaway territory. They swept through South Ossetia and moved swiftly into undisputed Georgian territory without much resistance from Georgian troops.

Soon, thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of tanks had crossed the border. Within days, Russian troops, with support from aerial bombers, had secured Georgian towns, military installations and key transport routes throughout the country.

Experts on the Russian military, however, offer mixed reviews of its performance in Georgia.

"The way they conducted the operation was like a well-oiled machine, but that's not to say the Russian military is a well-oiled machine," said Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

However, Chang was quick to point out that in the conflict, Georgia's smaller army was hardly a challenge to the Russians.

"By Saturday morning, the Georgian political leadership decided not to resist and began a military withdrawal, so it was not a true test," he said.

In an analysis of the conflict published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Chang argued that Russia's offensive in Georgia "does demonstrate the Russian military's renewed ability to prosecute a relatively complex, high-intensity combined arms operation."

Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a former defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, however, was not impressed with the Russian troops, saying they looked "ragtag."

"The Russians were not that stellar in the execution of this operation," he said. "I think it's more a case of the lack of an opponent in South Ossetia and a lack of an army to fight when they got there than it is a credit to the Russians."

Russia's push into Georgia was not perfect. Several Russian military planes were shot down by the Georgians, despite a Georgian air defense system that Flanagan described as "limited."

That all may be welcome news to Ukraine, another of Russia's neighbors that is seeking to enter NATO and is wary Moscow may try to head off its plans for a closer relationship with the West.

Experts caution, however, that the situations in Ukraine and Georgia are very different.

"Ukraine's military is much larger. It's a much larger country," Flanagan said. "It's not an easy target."

During the 1990s, Russia's military capability declined significantly. After the Soviet Union's collapse, the military was underfunded and under-resourced.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Chechnya, where Russia was bogged down for years fighting separatist forces that were more lightly armed.

Although Russia may now have a larger and more powerful military, experts also argue it lacks the ability to project that power far from its border.

"But most people don't want to find out how credible [that] threat is," Flanagan said.