There is a wide-spread belief among the journalist community as well as the general public that Russia and the NATO members are in some kind of serious confrontation. In reality the NATO leadership is very interested in the Russian Federation Armed Forces as a deterrent for the Islamic fundamentalist threat from the East. On top of that, strong and authoritative Russia is a considerable factor in curbing the Chinese expansion, which causes serious concerns in Europe and the Unites States.
In the 1990s, NATO member-states, and above all, the USA tended to look down on Russia's military potential. But things changed ever since the 9/11 tragedy and the military campaigns launched in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which is yet to conclude. The Pentagon reconsidered the importance of having a powerful ally in the East. The NATO-Russia relationships were at their closest in the mid-2000s. And while they did worsen in 2008 as a result of the Russo-Georgian war, they soon stabilized again. What is more, several years ago the Russian Federation carried out major reforms in the armed forces switching to “NATO standards". For instance, the current organization of the Russian army is a carbon copy of that in the alliance.
At present the Russian Federation Armed Forces de-facto have three likely opponents globally, any two of which can be allies against the third one. These are the NATO and the countries of the Middle or the Far East.
One of the largest contingents de-facto directed to oppose NATO's military strength is represented by the land and coastal forces of the Baltic fleet located in Kaliningrad region. This remote part of Russian territory lies between the Baltic States and Poland, which is why the military bases on it are especially strong both in terms of manpower and the advanced level of equipment. The Kaliningrad contingent matches half the military potential of Poland in terms of armament, and all of the Baltic States combined, as far as manpower is concerned. In case fighting breaks out, the Kaliningrad forces can receive support from the Republic of Belarus, which has one of the largest armies in Europe, as this country is in defence commonwealth with the Russian Federation. There also are Russian military bases on the territory of Belarus: the radar station "Volga" in Hantsavichy (southwestern part of Belarus, close to the Polish border) and the navy communication unit in Vileyka (in northwestern Belarus, close to the Lithuanian border).
This line essentially representing Russia's front against the NATO is broken by the territory of Ukraine, but continues through Moldova, or rather through the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria. Until recently there were 2.5 thousand of the Russian “peacekeeping forces” in Transnistria. Currently this contingent is just over 1000-strong, as officially declared. These units guard the military depots in Tiraspol containing more than 100 T-64 tanks, close to 150infantry fighting vehicles, artillery systems, anti-aircraft missile systems and so forth. The weaponry available on site would suffice for the deployment of a far larger corps.
Crimea serves as a powerful reserve for the forces in Transnistria. There's a large and diverse contingent on the peninsula, it includes missile units capable of creating a "shield" above Transnistria.
Further east, the Russian military bases in the Caucasus have the potential to not only oppose the NATO, but also to serve as ally forces. Since Washington and Moscow have a similar stance as regards to Islamist extremists, Russian military presence in this region is in fact convenient for the Alliance.
Russian military contingents in the Caucasus played a decisive role during Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. At present there are three Russian military bases in the region, which are, incidentally, organized according to the NATO standards.
Russia's 7th military base in Abkhazia with headquarters in Sukhumi is a place of service for more than 4 thousand military, including aviation, mountain infantry, and special units. Their objective is to maintain control over the strategic Kodori Gorge, the Ingury hydroelectric station and the Sukhumi port. The 3000-strong “Armed Forces” of the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia play the supporting role. The 7th military base represents a powerful contingent that can resist Georgia, or be used in operations in the Middle East.
The second largest Russian overseas base is the 4th Guards Military Base in South Ossetia with headquarters in Tskhinvali. These are predominantly motorized and aviation units. While no data on numbers of equipment stationed at the 6th and 4th military bases is available, these contingents are known to have tanks, armored vehicles, artillery systems and aircraft both from the Russian bases formerly located in Georgia, as well as from the disbanded North Caucasus Military District.
The oldest Russian base in the Caucasus is located in Gyumri, Armenia. The 102nd base became the new home for the Russian contingent withdrawn from Transcaucasia in 2007. Official numbers as of the year 2000 suggest that the base had 3 thousand military personnel, 74 T-72 tanks, 148 infantry fighting vehicles and 84 artillery systems. This approximately matches the Georgian arsenal in 2008 before the Russo-Georgian war. At present more than 5 thousand Russian military are serving in Armenia. Their armament, apart from the abovementioned weaponry, includes S-300 surface-to-air missile systems and MiG-29 fighter planes.
By means of transport aviation each of the Russian bases in the Caucasus can be reformed within hours into a powerful corps with all the necessary means of armament. If need be, Moscow can use these troops against Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey (NATO member-state) or the potential opponents of the Atlantic Alliance.
Effectively the Russian bases in the Central Asia are serving the NATO interests. As long as the Russian Federation keeps the region under its control the American Armed Forces are free to carry out operations in Afghanistan or Pakistan without fear of being struck from the rear.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are part of the Russian-created Collective Security Treaty (also signed by Belarus and Armenia), and thus are Moscow's direct allies. On top of that, all three are members of what is known as Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional military and political bloc, which also includes Russia, China and Uzbekistan. Therefore the Central Asia now has its own military and political alliance, which while not declaring to be a NATO-style military bloc, de-facto plays a rather important part.
Russian military presence in the Central Asia is first and foremost realized via the 201st military base in Tajikistan with 7.5 thousand military personnel. It has bases in Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tube, Kulyab and other areas. The base controls the space surveillance station "Okno" [Russian for "window"] located in Nurak and boasts a large arsenal. In the 1990s the base had 180 T-72 tanks, 340 infantry fighting vehicles, large numbers of artillery systems etc.
On the territory of Kyrgyzstan in the town of Kant the Russian Federation has an airbase with Su-25 fighter jets and Mi-8 helicopters, a communication centre, a seismographic station and a torpedo weapons test base – 400 military personnel. In Kazakhstan there's a testing range more commonly known as Baikonur Cosmodrome, a transport aviation regiment in Kostanay and an air defence testing range in Sary Shagan.
In case of fighting at any of the directions, the command of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation can redeploy strong support to any of the abovementioned military bases within hours. This can be carried out by very considerable airborne troops (35 thousand personnel). They consist of four divisions: the 7th (Novorossiysk), the 76th (Pskov), the 98th (Ivanovo), the 106th (Tula); four brigades: the 11th (Ulan-Ude), the 31st (Ulyanovsk), the 56th (Kamyshyn), the 83rd (Ussuriysk); communication and special purpose regiments (the 45th in Kubinka, Moscow Oblast), Riazan military school and the 242nd training centre in Omsk.
The airborne troops are Russian army's equivalent of the US Marine Corps, and therefore are at the forefront of all offensive operations by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Their tactic is rapid and covert action, as demonstrated in August 2014 in the course of the war against Ukraine in the Donbas.
Despite the fact that Russia suffers from economic sanctions as a result of its active engagement in the military conflict in the Donbas, the leadership rules out the possibility of military conflict with NATO member-states over Ukraine. First and foremost this is based on the popular moods in European societies and the United States. Not uncommon is the perception of the Russian Federation as a "necessary evil" (an instrument against the possible threat from the East). A certain portion of citizens even tend to take the Russian side in any conflict unfolding on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Many countries have a widespread belief that in the 1990s Russia voluntarily gave up its WWII "trophies" in Europe and withdrew its military contingents from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Additionally, the Russian Federation reined in its ambitions in the Balkans. So there is this kind of thinking along the lines of 'let's be grateful to Russia for that and keep our noses out of "its business" in Georgia or, say, Ukraine.
Officials in the Kremlin are well aware of this. At present the activity of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is based upon the military doctrine developed by the former Head of Staff and current chief military analyst General Nikolai Makarov. In 2010 he declared: “In the past we fought wars with multi-million armies based on fronts. The experience of the military conflicts in the last decade demonstrated that this kind of war is possible, yet is improbable. In future armed forces will switch to active maneuvering. Front line battles will be replaced by actions of combined groups in the depth of the enemy lines. Sides will aim at striking critically important facilities and lean towards non-contact combat.”
Thus, in spite of the war in the Donbas and scandals like the recent killing of an Armenian family by a Russian soldier in Gyumri, NATO member-states will continue to turn a blind eye at such things, because for them Russia is more of an ally than an opponent.
Meanwhile the horror stories about "NATO legions" in Ukraine or some illusory standoff between the USA and Russia have only one aim: to push maximum numbers of classes whose representatives are potentially dangerous for Putin's regime inside Russia towards going to the Donbas to meet their death.