How not to do maps of military strength

Der Spiegel produced the following map, comparing Russian and eastern NATO states’ military strength. This is a great example of what NOT to do in producing such maps, unless your main goal is to incite worry or spread misinformation.

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The map vastly exaggerates Russian troop strength, in three different ways. First, the numbers are just wrong. Russia has at most 750,000 men under arms across all services. This includes cadets, trainees, etc. Second, the numbers include all of Russia’s troops, including those located in the Far East, Central Asia, and other parts of the country quite distant from Europe and Ukraine. Third, nothing is said about the quality of troops and equipment. How many of those tanks and airplanes are actually combat-ready? Certainly a higher percentage than a few years ago, but still far from all. Now, it may be that this point also applies to Central European forces. But it would still be good to compare the numbers that could actually be brought to bear in a conflict, rather than some kind of abstract top-line number that has nothing to do with actual force dispositions or capabilities.

Compare, for example, to the following map, produced by Dmitry Tymchuk almost three weeks ago, when concerns about a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine were quite high.

This map shows the relevant number of forces that can be brought to bear against Ukraine. It doesn’t directly address the combat-readiness question regarding individual equipment, except through the use of the “up to X” language for all equipment and personnel. But at least it is clear regarding the maximum number of troops that could be involved. More could of course be brought in from other military districts in a lengthy conflict, but such a conflict would also allow for the reinforcement of central European states from Western Europe and the United States.

Note that the total troop strength of relevant Russian forces is 80,000. Less than 1/10 of the number cited by Der Spiegel. Aircraft, tanks, and heavy artillery are also at around 10 percent of the der Spiegel numbers. Russia’s conventional military is much stronger than the Ukrainian army, but it is no match for NATO’s forces in Europe.


11 thoughts on “How not to do maps of military strength

  1. “Compare, for example, to the following map, produced by Dmitry Tymchuk almost three weeks ago, when concerns about a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine were quite high.”

    It seems like you’re implying that there are fewer concerns now about an invasion of eastern Ukraine. Am I just misinterpreting? Or do you not think Russia will invade eastern Ukraine? I ask because I feel like there still are concerns that an invasion is a strong possibility.

    • While I do think the risk of invasion is lower now, that was not my point here. I was mostly focused on highlighting exaggerated perceptions of Russian military strength common in some NATO member states.

  2. Then you go on to state ‘…no match for NATO forces in Europe’. That in itself is a sweeping statement. What are the relevant NATO forces in Europe? What is THEIR state of readiness? How many of them are more combat tested ‘in conventional warfare’ than the Russian Army? Considering that most US/UK and some German forces have just begun returning from a defeated counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq/Afghan against ‘insurgents’ armed with simpler weapons than the Russian Army it would seem presumptuous to assume these NATO forces were ‘more than a match’ for equivalent Russian Forces. Esp. when those Russian forces have integrated all-arms combat capability (something that NATO never faced in Iraq or Afghan) and a tactical/strategic nuclear component. Also they are fighting for the security of their homeland against a NATO aggressor using Ukraine as a proxy power as they see it. They have the motivation to fight as conventional and as insurgent as they had from 1941-45.

    • Philip, you bring up the most relevant “information” of all: National will. You use the example of Russian determination from 1941-45. You “also” say “they are fighting for the security of their homeland…” Since we are discussing the Russians, we should not say “also” but “Mainly!” Vladimir Putin knows the truth of this and knows how to use these proxy wars to develop national will. Consider 1938 and 1939:
      The Forgotten Soviet-Japanese War of 1939
      by Joris Nieuwint – Apr 20, 2013
      From May to September 1939, the USSR and Japan fought an undeclared war involving over 100,000 troops. It may have altered world history.
      In the summer of 1939, Soviet and Japanese armies clashed on the Manchurian-Mongolian frontier in a little-known conflict with far-reaching consequences. No mere border clash, this undeclared war raged from May to September 1939 embroiling over 100,000 troops and 1,000 tanks and aircraft. Some 30,000-50,000 men were killed and wounded. In the climactic battle, August 20-31, 1939, the Japanese were crushed. This coincided precisely with the conclusion of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (August 23, 1939) – the green light for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II one week later. These events are connected. This conflict also influenced key decisions in Tokyo and Moscow in 1941 that shaped the conduct and ultimately the outcome of the war.

      Perhaps, WWIII has been raging for a couple years already.

  3. However I do agree with you about how not to do military strength and disposition maps. It seems to me the German version is harking back to the Cold War, when raw brute figures were issued in the Western media for propaganda purposes having very little relation to Soviet military reality. The map by Dmitri Tymchuk is far more informative.

  4. Actually, Manpower figures are of Little consequence. The figures for arty, tanks and planes give the measure of (true) strengths. AND it is also of no consequence where they are at this moment in time, as they can easily be moved (and massed at the critical Point). None of the maps tell the whole truth. Both need professional

  5. Pingback: “Military Experts”: Putin´s Bluffing! Knows He Cannot Match NATO, Will not Risk War with USA over Assad. | NEW.EURO-MED.DK

  6. Pingback: “Militärexperten”: Putin bluffe! Wisse, er könne sich mit der NATO nicht messen. Wolle um keinen Preis Krieg mit USA über Assad | Der Honigmann sagt...

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