Possibilities of a Future Sino-Russian War, by Gilberto Villahermosa

In the early 1980s, the Soviet ground force numbered almost 5 million, with more than 180 divisions stationed in Eastern Europe, the USSR and Mongolia, along with 85,000 fighting in Afghanistan. Those divisions fielded 50,000 tanks and 20,000 artillery pieces. More than 5,200 helicopters and 3,500 Soviet and Warsaw pact tactical bombers and fighter aircraft supported them.

The Soviets were also constantly adding to their stockpile of nuclear warheads, with some 250 mobile SS-20 IRBM launchers in the field, each carrying three warheads. Their ICBM arsenal numbered 7,000 warheads on 1,398 launchers, 950 SLBM, 156 long-range bombers and another 150 nuclear-capable Backfire bombers.

All of that was supported by 135 major industrial plants with over 40 million square meters of floor space, all of them producing more than 150 different types of weapon systems for the Soviet armed forces and for export to client states and developing countries.

Today the Russian ground force numbers fewer than 800,000 active duty personnel (versus an authorized strength of one million) with another 2 million in the reserves. The ground force is organized into five Joint Strategic Commands (Northern, Western, Central, Southern and Eastern) and includes several divisional formations and some 85 separate brigades. They’re equipped with 2,800 modern tanks (T-14s, T-90s, T-80s, T-72s) with another 17,000 older models in reserve. There are 4,220 modern infantry fighting vehicles (BMP-3, BMP-2, BMP-1) with another 8,500 in reserve, and more than 2,000 artillery pieces.

Between 2012 and 2017 the armed forces received more than 30,000 deliveries of new or modernized weapons and equipment, including more than 50 warships, 1,300 aircraft, 4,700 tanks and other armored combat vehicles. In comparison, in the five years prior to 2012 they received only two warships, 151 aircraft and 217 tanks.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, however, only about half the Russian armed forces’ weapons are considered fully “modern.” Further, military spending has recently been cut by a regime scrambling to make economic ends meet.

Today, with a GDP of about USD 3.3 trillion, Russian economic power hasn’t grown significantly since the collapse of the USSR more than 25 years ago. In comparison, American GDP has grown to about USD 15 trillion. Economically, Russia lags behind not only the US and China, but also India and Japan. And while those four top economies are growing, Russia’s is contracting. While Moscow has insulated itself against the effects of Western sanctions by investing heavily in gold and shedding US debt, the failure to diversity and modernize the economy, and low energy prices, will continue to drag down efforts to grow wealth.

Russia will thus be increasingly unable to afford the military technology it wants and needs. Further, the Russian defense industry, which is badly in need of an overhaul, is only capable of producing old armaments with incremental improvements. As a result, many of the advanced weapons being touted by the Kremlin will likely never actually see the light of day.

Russia is thus unlikely to pick a fight with either the US or NATO. Rather, it will stick to extending its influence in its own Near Abroad (former Soviet states) and wherever else it can do so (especially the Middle East) at low cost. Yet that doesn’t mean the chances of Russian involvement in a war are nonexistent.

If fact, the changes are good Russia and China will fight a war against each other sometime during the next two decades. That war will probably be fought over Siberia, with the main action centering around Lake Baikal. The Chinese Communist Party has never officially accepted Russian ownership of that region, which is rich in oil, natural gas and minerals, and that used to belong to imperial China. Further, there are now over a million Chinese workers in Siberia.

Though chances are also slim Beijing will pick a fight with Moscow, China is prepared to move swiftly into Siberia if an opportunity presents itself. Despite proclamations of friendship from both sides, all it would take is a spark. For instance, anti-Chinese race riots by Siberia’s increasingly xenophobic Russians could provide the needed rationale for Beijing to justify invasion.

As another example, with 70 percent of China’s water polluted and 30 percent of it fully toxic, they’re badly in need of potable water. Indeed, Beijing has already begun displacing millions of Chinese westward toward sources of potable water. Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, with more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and 40 percent of Russia’s, could provide considerable relief to China in that regard. Since Beijing can’t move the lake to China, it could in effect decide to move China to the lake.

Of the two nations, the Chinese have invested the most in personnel, weapons modernization and training. While lacking in combat experience, today’s Chinese Army is the more professional and modern force, and has lower levels of the incompetence, criminality and corruption prevalent in the Russian armed forces.

During this century, while the Chinese leadership was nurturing its military, Putin first chose to focus on building his internal security forces in order to safeguard his position against any possible uprising by the Russian people or his own military. Ignoring the military for much of his almost two decades in power, it’s only been within the last few years he’s taken serious interest in it. That interest has come late, at a time when the Russian economy is declining.

Russia may therefore be forced to fight China with an army that’s undermanned, under-equipped and using much the same equipment it deployed against NATO in the 1980s. Today the average Russian soldier lacks the state-of-the-art body armor, night vision equipment and secure communications common to other modern armies. For those reasons, the Chinese would probably get the better of the Russians in a short war. Further, unlike in the past, when Russia possessed considerable superiority against its invading opponents in manpower and industrial strength, they have no such superiority against the Chinese today.

The question would then be: would Moscow use nuclear weapons to defeat a Chinese invasion? That’s unlikely, because China also possesses a significant nuclear capability, with 280 warheads, which can be delivered by ballistic missiles and bombers.

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