New York Times: Russia’s military, once fragile, is now a modern and deadly force

In the first years of the mandate of Vladimir V. Putin as Russia’s leader, the military was a hollow but nuclear-armed shell.

He struggled to maintain submarines in the Arctic and control the insurgency in Chechnya. Senior officers used to live in moldy apartments full of rats. Instead of socks, poorly trained soldiers often wrapped their legs in rags, as did their Soviet and imperial predecessors.

Two decades later, a completely different fighting force has gathered on the border with Ukraine. Under Vladimir Putin, it has been transformed into a modern sophisticated military capable of deploying quickly and with deadly effects in conventional conflicts, military analysts say. It has precision-guided weapons, a well-organized command structure, and well-fed and professional soldiers. And there are still nuclear weapons, says the American newspaper.

A modernized military has emerged as a key weapon in Putin’s foreign policy: the occupation of Crimea, the intervention in Syria, the maintenance of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the support of a leader who is a friend of Russia in Kazakhstan. It is now at the height of its most ambitious and notorious operation to date: using threats and potential force to bring Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

“The mobility of the military, its readiness and its equipment are what enable Russia to put pressure on Ukraine and the West,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian security analyst.

“Nuclear weapons are not enough,” he added.

That’s Putin’s biggest investment – to use the military to bring Russia back to the center of the global stage, which it lost at the end of the Cold War. Putin has been using this doctrine since 2018, when he used his annual State of the Nation speech to discover new nuclear weapons that can fly 20 times faster than sound.

“Nobody was listening to us,” Putin said in his address, which included a video simulation of a Russian missile moving toward the United States.

“Listen to us now,” he said.

Today, the renewal of conventional forces is what gives it a trump card in the Ukrainian crisis.

The T-72B3 tanks on the border with Ukraine have a new thermal optical system for night combat, as well as guided missiles with twice the range of other tanks, according to Robert Lee, a US Marine veteran and doctor at King’s College London. and a Russian military expert.

“Caliber” cruise missiles deployed on ships and submarines in the Black Sea and Iskander-M missiles deployed along the border can hit targets almost anywhere in Ukraine, Lee said.

In the last decade, the Russian Air Force has procured more than 1,000 new aircraft, according to an article by Alexei Krivoruchko, the 2020 Deputy Defense Minister. This includes the country’s most advanced fighter, the SU-35C, and a squadron of these units has been deployed in Belarus ahead of joint military exercises next month.

The new capabilities were evident in Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria. Not only were they effective, but some of the US military found them unprepared.

“I’m embarrassed to admit, I was surprised a few years ago when caliber rockets flew out of the Caspian Sea, hitting targets in Syria,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former U.S. military commander in Europe.

“It was a surprise to me, not only the abilities, but I did not even know he had them,” he added.

The Kremlin’s thinking has also evolved in terms of the size of the armed forces. The military relies less on the dwindling number of recruits and more on the reduced but well-trained core of some 400,000 contract soldiers.

These soldiers have better treatment. During a visit to the Defense Ministry in December, Putin boasted that the average lieutenant now earns just over $ 1,000 a month, which is better than the average salary in other sectors. The federal government, he added, is spending about $ 1.5 billion to subsidize private housing for service members.

And all Russian soldiers must now wear thick military socks.

What is new is not only Russia’s upgraded equipment, but also the theory of how the Kremlin uses it. The military has perfected the approach that Dmitry Adamski, an international security expert at Reichman University in Israel, calls “multi-domain coercion” – mixing, or threatening, the use of force with diplomacy, cyber-attacks and propaganda to achieve political goals.

This combined strategy is being applied in the current crisis around Ukraine. Russia is demanding immediate concessions from the West. The movement of Russian troops in allied Belarus has led to a potential invasion force near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Russian state media warn that Ukrainian forces are preparing acts of aggression.

And on January 14, hackers hacked dozens of Ukrainian government websites and posted a message on one of them: “Fear and expect the worst.”

“You see cyber, you see diplomacy, you see military exercises. “Everyone is connected by design,” Adamski said.

Photo: EPA

Not all forces are deployed along the Ukrainian border, the most advanced Russian forces. Those piled up in the north have older weapons and are mainly there to intimidate and deplete Ukrainian resources, said Alexei Arestovich, a former Ukrainian military intelligence officer who is now a political and military analyst.

The better-equipped and more modernized units, he said, moved to an area near the breakaway province of eastern Ukraine, where Russia launched a separatist war in 2014 that continues today, according to the New York Times.

Russia’s military modernization is also increasingly aimed at sending a message to the United States, projecting power outside Eastern Europe, frustrating and sometimes surprising US officials.

Russian military transport planes, for example, took just a few hours to begin transporting about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers, along with heavy armored vehicles, to the South Caucasus after Putin mediated to end the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. year.

In Syria, where Russia intervened in 2015, using destructive air power and limited ground troops to protect President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s progress has shown that it can effectively use precision-guided weapons, an advantage that has long plagued Western armed forces. they had it before Russia.

Russia has used the war in Syria, experts say, as a laboratory to improve tactics and armaments and gain combat experience for most of its forces.

More responsibilities have been transferred to lower-level officers, a degree of autonomy that runs counter to the structure of Putin’s civilian government. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last month that all ground commanders, 92 per cent of air force pilots and 62 per cent of the navy had combat experience.

For all its achievements in recent years, the Russian military has retained the critical weakness of its Soviet predecessor: the civilian side of the country’s economy, almost devoid of high-tech manufacturing and corporate investment in research and development. Military spending accounts for a much higher percentage of gross domestic product than in most European countries, starving other sectors.

When the Ukrainian military shot down Russian reconnaissance drones, for example, it discovered electronics and engines purchased from drone companies in Western Europe, according to a report released by Conflict Armament Research, a British-based armaments monitoring company.

Analysts say Russia has few new weapons systems that have been built entirely from scratch. Much of its modernization consists of renovated older equipment.

“The compliment we have to give to Russia is that it is a force that learns and adapts,” said General Philip M. Breedlove, who was NATO commander during the 2014 Ukraine war.

“Every time we see them in conflict, they get better and better,” he added.

Russia’s electronic warfare means, which can be used to intercept or disrupt enemy communications and shoot down drones, are now believed to be far superior to those of the US military, analysts say.

The Kremlin’s rhetoric increasingly portrays Russia as embroiled in an existential conflict with the West. Investing in the military has been accompanied by the militarization of Russian society under Putin, the strengthening of the concept of a homeland surrounded by enemies, and the possibility of imminent war.

All of this, analysts say, makes it harder for the West to prevent Putin from invading Ukraine if he is determined to do so.

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