Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe

Implications for Countering Russian Local Superiority

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This report describes broad trends in military capacity of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations and Russia since the end of the Cold War and lays out in more detail the recent increase in the size and capabilities of Russia’s armed forces.


This report outlines how NATO and Russian force levels and capabilities have evolved in the post–Cold War era and what recent trends imply for the balance of capabilities in the NATO member states that border Russia in the Baltic Sea region. It is intended to inform debate over appropriate posture and force structure for NATO forces to respond to the recent growth in Russian military capability and capacity and to increased Russian assertiveness in the use of force.

Russia enjoys a favorable correlation of forces in a short-warning regional conflict on its borders, and this advantage appears stable based on projected Russian plans for expanded forces in the West in the next few years. NATO enjoys considerable fundamental long-term advantages in terms of aggregate national power that would be relevant in a protracted conflict and should allow it to better deter Russia in the future, but NATO is not maximizing its inherent advantages. The Alliance’s combined economic strength in 2016 (measured in U.S. dollars) was about 31 times that of Russia’s.

In 2015 (a historically strong year for Russian defense spending) NATO outspent Russia by approximately $895 billion to $52 billion on military forces (NATO, 2017b; U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017). The aggregate military personnel balance strongly favors NATO as well, when all forces in their home countries are included in the count. These facts indicate that the Alliance clearly has the means to establish and sustain an effective conventional deterrent if it so chooses.

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