Neither Russia nor Putin is as strong as they are commonly portrayed, but the portrayals stoke fear and fear feeds military budgets. From Craig Murray at craigmurray.org.uk:
Back in the days when I was one of the British state’s more efficient functionaries, I spoke with British officers who had been in Russia during the Yeltsin period, when they had been able to get up close and effectively inventory the Russian armed forces. (For those who don’t know, I was First Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw, I was British Ambassador in Tashkent, and I was taught to be fluent in both Polish and Russian, which included living in St Petersburg as a language student while Ambassador designate).
What we (as I was then a cog in this machine) found was that the strength of the Soviet Union’s Red Army had been massively exaggerated in all our intelligence estimates, on which defence strategy had been based for decades. We had over-estimated the numbers, the mobility and above all the capability of Soviet weapons systems. Much of it was barely functional; the problems with both quality and maintenance were not just the product of the disintegration of the Soviet system, they evidently went back decades.
One interesting thing – and I recall discussing this with a British Brigadier General at the Polish exercise area in Drawsko – was that years of military planning had involved scenarios which revolved around successive defensive lines in Western Europe and eschewed any kind of counter-attacking strategy. That conversation had started because, when the British Army first started exercising on the former Warsaw pact training area at Drawsko, we had to strengthen bridges in Eastern Germany and Western Poland in order to get our tanks there.
We were musing that this had never been considered a problem in cold war strategy, because it was presumed our tanks would never go forward. We now knew they could have, which was interesting the analysts.
The truth, of course, was that it had always been in the interest of MI6, the Defence Intelligence Service, the British armed forces, of their American counterparts, and of all their NATO counterparts, massively to exaggerate the strength of the Red Army. Because the greater the perceived enemy, the more we needed to throw money at MI6, the Defence Intelligence Service, the British armed forces, their American counterparts, and at all their NATO counterparts.