Russia’s success in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is the consequence of a sustained Russian effort to modernize and rebuild its ravaged post-Cold War military, an investment aggressively promoted by President Vladimir Putin.
Russian forces, although described by Russian spokesmen as volunteers and separatists, have been seen in recent months operating with advanced night vision goggles, high-tech weapons, and state of the art communications gear that are the new standard for the Russian military and the equal of any Western military. They also have been supported by heavy Russian equipment and armaments including tanks.
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Russian tactics were honed last year during a biannual Russian military exercise called "Zapad-13," which involved many of the same troops later to invade Ukraine. Some 70,000 Russian and Belarus troops simulated ground force combat operations of the same type used this summer against Ukrainian forces near Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The Zapad-13 exercise also focused on cyberwarfare tactics, which have been effectively used to disrupt the communications of Ukrainian forces in recent months.
The military has been flexing its muscle in other ways as well. Russian advisers and armaments support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian bombers patrol off of the Alaskan coast. Russian strategic forces—albeit limited in number by arms control agreements—are in the process of rapidly modernizing.
These are the most visible signs of a military that has transformed itself into a capable fighting force. According to Globalfirepower.com, a website that ranks the relative strengths of national military forces, Russia’s military ranks only behind the U.S. military, and ahead of China’s, in overall capabilities.
The Russian military has ascended to a powerful position in a relatively short period. During the 1990s the Russian military, long a source of national pride, withered due to lack of funding. After the humiliating 1989 retreat from Afghanistan, the Russian military struggled through the 1990s to subdue separatist rebels in Chechnya.
In contrast, the U.S. military easily routed the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War in 1991, demonstrating to the world the importance of high technology, speed, and overwhelming firepower.
For Putin, who first ascended to the Russian presidency in 2000, the lessons of the 1990s were obvious. Russia could not compete politically if it could not back its policies with an effective military.
The Russian military’s uninspiring performance during the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia’s small and militarily-inferior neighbor, provided further impetus for military investment. In late 2008 and early 2009 major reforms were put in place, including structural reforms that streamlined the military’s structure and leadership ranks.
During his 2012 campaign to return to the presidency after a four-year hiatus in which Dmitry Medvedev served in that position, Putin promised to return the military to a place of pride and prominence within Russia.
Putin has made good on that promise, which has included commitment of up to $600 billion over a ten-year period to complete the modernization of Russia’s nuclear forces, including the development of the Topol SS-27, an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to avoid and penetrate U.S. missile defenses. He also has continued the practice of placing a new generation of leaders within the military’s ranks. Both Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov have yet to turn 60 years of age.
Putin understands that Russian armed forces serve more than just to score military victories. They are an instrumental part of his broader regional strategy for what he calls the "near abroad." Part of that strategy is reflected in Putin’s drive to use the military to intimidate smaller neighbors such as Moldova or Armenia.
His ultimate motive regarding eastern Ukraine remains unclear, but at the very least Putin seems unwilling to settle for anything less than an unstable and weakened region unable to resist Russian political influence.
For all of its progress, the Russian military is far from invincible. Its enlisted conscripts continue to suffer brutal hazing that undermines morale. The military also has few regional friends or alliance partners, notwithstanding Putin’s efforts to form a Eurasian Customs Union, of which Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will be the founding members.
Finally, Putin has made sizable funding promises he may not be able to keep. The Russian economy is stagnant, a direct result of the government’s failure to address persistent structural problems, such as Russia’s over-reliance on its abundant natural resources to provide a large portion of its hard currency earnings. As in the United States, defense spending cannot be separated from broader economic imperatives.
Nonetheless, Russia is in a far better position to defend and advance its interests than a decade ago. The Russian military is valued much more highly by its political leadership than the American military. In a tight budget environment Putin may not be able to deliver on all of his promises in coming years, but events in Ukraine illustrate that Putin’s investment in the military is paying off handsomely.