The Russian Bear is a Punk

Big Red Car here.  Nothing to do today so I did a bit of research on the Russian military.  Back in the day of the USSR, The Boss had an assignment to take a look at some forward deployed Russian Army units in Germany.  They had this crazy tour of East Berlin limited to officers who were paratroopers or Rangers and who were taller than 6’3″.  They visited the areas of East Berlin that the Russians had not rehabilitated.

They also met with similar aged Russian officers.  It was a staring contest.  The Boss was not impressed with the Russian company grade officers though they could really drink vodka.

So, how does the Russian Army stack up as a military force?

Let me bottom line it from the start:  The Russian Army is not very good and the American Army would beat them like a rented mule if it ever came to a fair fight.  Of course, professional soldiers do not want a fair fight.

Recent Russian Army History

The Russian Army is the successor to the armed forces of the USSR and dates back only to 1994.  It has been organized and reorganized several times through the years.

Organizationally there has been a lot of confusion as to whether it is a territorial force, a border security force or a force intended to project force outside of its own territorial footprint.

The Russian Army has historically tied to specific geographical and governmental subdivisions.  This is not the way an expeditionary force would be organized.

Organization for combat

As a result of what is continuing organizational chaos, the Russian Army is not currently configured to fight as divisions, corps, armies or army groups.  In World War II when fighting the Germans they exhibited more cohesive structure which allowed them to campaign as large units.

The Russian Army is essentially a series of regimental sized units (3-5 battalions) which are designated by the predominant arm or capability (infantry, mech infantry, armor, artillery, signal, engineers).  This makes it very difficult to undertake large combined arms battles as the higher headquarters finds itself fighting a bunch of regiments which have not fought together before.  This tends to create a massing of units — particularly armor and artillery — which provide attractive targets for friendly air and standoff weapons.

Massing 900 tanks — as the Russians have done in the Crimea — invites destruction by air and pinpoint deadly weapons which can be guided remotely via drones, satellites and lasers.


The individual Russian unit is about 70% conscript and 30% contract or professional soldiers.  The conscripts — draftees — are in the Russian Army for about a year.  Previously they served 18 month hitches.  This single fact unmasks a huge vulnerability as units cannot be adequately trained and attain combat readiness when personnel are changing so rapidly.

The capabilities of the current volunteer American Army v the 1960’s – 1970’s draftee Army demonstrates this fully.  Volunteers fight better than draftees.  The Boss experienced this first hand as he served at the nexus between the draft and the volunteer army.  The current American Army is the most combat experienced field force on the planet.  That is why it is so critical not to flush all that combat experience — particularly at the company grade level — by an ill-advised contraction as contemplated in the President’s recent budget submission to Congress.

Because of the high number of conscripts, the Russian Army is very top heavy with officers.  The officers are better trained than the individual soldier and this training is supposed to be harnessed by dramatically increasing the number of company grade officers.  This has also caused a lack of development of competent senior NCOs — non-commissioned officers, sergeants.  NCOs run an army and officers command an army.  If you have good sergeants, you have a good army.

This is a huge strength of the American Army as its NCOs are very well educated, experienced and trained.

The Boss’s Father — 95 years old and the toughest son of a bitch you ever met — was a NCO in World War II and got a battlefield commission as an officer.  He retired as a Command Sergeant Major.

When told by his Battalion Commander in Italy he was being commissioned a Second Lieutenant, the Old Man balked.  The Battalion CO, an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel, asked The Old Man why he didn’t want to be a Lieutenant.  The Old Man asked the Battalion CO how the vacancy had come to be.  The CO said the incumbent had been killed in action.  The Old Man said:  “That’s why, sir.”  He ultimately was forced to take the battlefield commission and ran a Cannon Company.  He shot it out across valleys, at river crossing and at mountain passes with Kraut  88’s.  It was very important to get the first shot off.

The Brits say it takes two generations to make a good sergeant.


The Russian Army has inferior weapons when compared to the American Army.  On paper, they seem to have excellent weapons but when tested they are inferior.  Their tanks which were used by the Iraqis in Kuwait were clearly inferior to the American’s.  They have a very tenuous and delicate technology.  Where the American Army can put a laser on a target and guide a weapon to the target, this is not a sustainable capability of the Russian Army.

The American weaponry — due to Iraq and Afghanistan — is battle tested.

The Russians believe in mass production of simple weaponry and this was very effective against the Germans in World War II.  The Germans had better tanks and maneuver capabilities.  The Germans routinely beat much larger Russian armor formations until the sheer mass of the Russian tank production overwhelmed the Germans late in the war.

The American Air Force is so vastly superior to the Russians that the Americans would expect to sweep the skies clear of enemy aircraft in the first week of any shooting war.  The Russians know this and have concentrated on anti-aircraft capabilities.  The Americans will follow the Russian rockets home and destroy them.


The Russians are not a tactically creative army.  The Germans never were really beaten tactically by the Russians and even the Russian ventures into Chechnya and Afghanistan show little tactical creativity.  In the US Army, at the platoon level, Lieutenants are taught to shoot, move and communicate.  At the company level — a Captain commanding three maneuver platoons and weapons support — the entire fight is one of maneuver as this is the smallest unit in which the commander cannot see his platoons when the fight is joined.  [It is also the best job in the Army, like being a Chinese feudal warlord.  The Boss was a company commander more than once and would join up today if he could get an airborne company.]

In the Northern German Plains in the late 1970s, we fully expected the Russians to pick a fight.  We were all geared up to destroy any armored personnel carrier that had an antenna because the Russians, when decapitated, could not fight when leaderless.

The Russians favor overwhelming force which requires ponderous assembly and vulnerability in the assembly areas.  Americans expect to fight and win when outnumbered 3:1 and to be able to go on the attack with only local superiority if they can control the skies and rain down artillery and close air support on the enemy’s positions.  The Russians are quite doctrinaire and the Americans are more daring.  Part of the American daring is the result of mastering the sea, air, land battle at the highest level and the combined arms fight at the lowest level.

Combined arms

The Russians are not good at the combined arms fight — infantry, armor, artillery, close air support.  This is the modern battlefield wherein the Infantry “finds them and fixes them” and then brings the wrath of God down upon them.  When General Powell was asked how the first Iraq war was going to be fought, he famously said:  “First we’re going to cut them off, then we’re going to kill them.”  This was a cocktail of maneuver and combined arms, a great American strength and a current Russian shortcoming.  As it turned out, it was also prescient.  The cutting off was done with bold strokes like moving the 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Gen Binford Peay current Superintendent of VMI and a great warrior chieftain and educator, in the longest airmobile operation in the history of warfare and then slaughtering the Iraqi armor at the Kuwait Airport in the largest armor encounter since Kursk.

When the Iraqis woke up that morning to find the Screaming Eagles had set up shop between them and retreat, the game was almost over.  The firepower of an American division, even an airborne/airmobile division, is awesome.

Bottom line

The bottom line is this — we are likely headed on a collision path with the Russians.  It may be in Europe when they decide to test NATO.  It is likely coming.

We need to be ready to fight and win.  We have absolutely nothing to worry about from Russia with a population of 145,000,000 and a large army but one that cannot fight a modern war like the Americans.

We have to let the Russians know that if they want a fight, they just may get one.  It is time to lean forward in our saddles.  That will ultimately be the low cost solution.

Tyrants only understand cold steel.  Putin is a tyrant and a punk.

This is not the right time to contract our military forces.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway?  I’m just a Big Red Car.




15 thoughts on “The Russian Bear is a Punk

  1. Interesting what you say about the professional soldier. Dr. Andrew Menaker has worked with some pro soldiers. Here is one thing he says. “when confronted with a force that has more firepower than you, the only way to win is NOT to inflict harm and death on the opposing force. First thing to do is create chaos so they are unable to communicate and make decisions. Chaos brings confusion, which clouds the ability to make good rational decisions”

    • .
      As a trade school guy yourself, you have a keen appreciation for how complex the business of war can be and how critical leadership decisions made under fire are to the outcome of every fight.

      Many times these decisions are being made by 22 year old second lieutenants what have received exquisite training and are the pick of the litter but still combat performance is not something you can test for very well. Some guys have it and some don’t. Give me a point guard any time.

      When we were planning how to defeat the Russians on the northern German plains in the late 1970s, we were completely focused on knocking out any BMP with an antenna. Decapitate the leadership.

      Chaos always favors the offensive minded army. In the chase of the Germans after the breakout from the bocage country, the history is replete with stories of small American units capturing big German units because the Germans couldn’t believe they were being attacked by such small unit.

      Patton was America’s best “pursuit” General for just this reason. He kept driving forward in the face of desperate opposition because he knew that if he got to the Division or Corp HQ and killed everyone, the battle was over.

      Leadership is always the secret sauce. Same can be said for the entrepreneurial startup ecosystem.


        • .
          As it relates to investing and markets, your comment is brilliant. I cannot believe the number of times that a simple contrarian view of the “current wisdom” has resulted in huge profits.

          I recall some of those huge dips in the Dow. If you just bought the big losers when the blood was ankle level, literally within weeks you were waist deep in profits.


  2. “It seems likely that, for both human and mechanical reasons, the probability of inadvertent war rises with a crisis. But is not this mechanism itself a kind of deterrent threat? …
    “Even if the Russians did not expect deliberate retaliation for the particular misbehavior they had in mind, they could still be uneasy about the possibility that their action might precipitate general war or initiate some dynamic process that could end only in massive war or in Soviet withdrawal. They might not be confident that we and they could altogether foretell the consequences of our actions in an emergency, and keep the situation altogether under control. …
    “… the threat to engage in limited war has two parts. One is the threat to inflict costs directly on the other side, in casualties, expenditures, loss of territory, loss of face, or anything else. The second is the threat to expose the other party, together with one’s self, to a heightened risk of general war. …
    “The analogy for our limited-war forces in Europe is not, according to this argument, a trip wire that certainly detonates all-out war if it is in working order and fails altogether if it is not. What we have a is graduated series of trip wires, each attached to a chance mechanism, with the daily *probability* of detonation increasing as the enemy moves from wire to wire. The critical feature of the analogy, it should be emphasized, if that whether or not the trip wire detonates general war is – at least to some extent – outside our control, and the Russians know it. …
    “Brinksmanship is thus the deliberate creation of a risk of a recognizable risk of war, a risk that one does not completely control. It is the tactic of deliberately letting the situation get somewhat out of hand, just because its being out of hand may be intolerable to the other party and force his accommodation.”

    Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, pp 188-191, 200

    • .
      Book you’re quoting is from the 1960s. Studied it in school. It is apropos of the highest level of strategic thinking such as the likelihood of a continental nuclear exchange as an outgrowth of an otherwise local conflict.

      The game is a bit more complex when you mix in theater nuclear weapons.

      Strategy is initially executed by Second Lieutenants and First Lieutenants and Captains. Thank God for Captains.

      D Day was won by small units without leadership above the Battalion level simply heading East and killing Germans. Not a single Division fought a coordinated battle for more than a week.

      The Airborne units devolved into a pickup game before the first paratrooper landed — they were almost all dropped in the wrong places. Strategy is hard to execute when you are in the wrong zip code.

      A huge testament to the American soldier is the ability to fight and win when confronted with chaos. As a professional soldier and a product of the system — Army Brat, VMI, Airborne, Ranger — I saw it right up front.

      I was a company commander more than once and the apprenticeship I served and the improvement in my personal ability to command troops was phenomenal. Wet lump of clay hardened in a very hot fire.


      • Hi BRC – well, I was thinking of the threat within the threat. Nobody wants a wider war, but starting a limited war is sort of a way to threaten a general war in a believable way. To be a loose cannon suits Putin’s book.

        Agree with you 100 percent on American small unit leadership.

        • .
          I do not think there is a single thing that is remotely “loose” about Putin.

          The guy has been in the leadership for 15 years. He was a top level spook for 15 years before that.

          The dismantling of the USSR was the worst blow to him as he has often said.

          He has bided his time and he has picked his place carefully.

          He has left almost nothing to chance.

          All the bets he has laid out have come to his side of the table.


  3. Around the turn of the century I spent a few days in Yalta which is the Monte Carlo of Crimea. I was staying on the 16th floor of its best hotel (easy at $50/night) when I heard music through the window. It’s funny how you can always tell the difference between live and recorded music, even when muffled. The music was live, but on the 16th floor? Investigation was required.

    I made my way up to the roof-top terrace and found a band of middle aged men playing immaculately. I and my girlfriend made up the entire audience. When, during a pause, I asked them why they were playing so well when no-one was listening they simply replied: we’re paid to play, so we play.

    Later, having talked with many more people from the ex Soviet Union, I found this simple phrase sums up a great deal about Russian thinking. They pay us to play, so we play. They pay us to wage war, so we wage war. We’re not rock stars, we’re not ideologues. It’s more about what will happen to us if we don’t perform…

    Later that evening I bought the band vodka and we talked. They seemed surprised to hear that in the West we were fearful of the Soviet Union. Why? They asked. Because we thought you might launch your missiles at us, I replied.

    Yeah, that scared the shit out of us too, said the lead singer.

    How so?

    Because we all knew out stupid missiles would miss and then yours would kick the shit of us.

    Russia: great people, crap leaders.

    • .
      Fabulous story, David. Thank you.

      I am convinced that PEOPLE are not the problem. It is the leadership.

      As an example, I think Pres Obama is an incredibly incompetent person and yet the American people are damn good at whatever they set their minds to do. We are not an incompetent people. We went to the freakin’ moon.

      I also think that at the elemental level we all just want to be peaceful and happy. I don’t hate anyone. I do resent bullies.


  4. Thanks, BRC. Good read.

    I think you just said the Texas National Guard could probably take ’em in about a week.

    • .

      Now I think the 49th Armor Div would do OK but they’re National Guard. The NG is a bit too long in the tooth for a European shooting war. Still good. Now that Marine Weapons Company over at Camp Mabry would show well.


Comments are closed.