With an aircraft carrier deployed off Syria’s shores and hundreds of new jets, missiles and tanks entering service each year, President Vladimir Putin can project Russian military power on a scale unseen since Soviet times.
A massive reform effort launched in the wake of Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia has transformed a crumbling, demoralized military into agile forces capable of swift action in Ukraine and Syria. Long gone are the days when Russia was forced through financial hardship to scrap dozens of warships and ground most of its air force. Whereas many young men long dodged their obligatory military service, recruits today speak of extending assignments in a better equipped, trained and paid army.
“The military reform has given Russia, the Kremlin (and) Mr. Putin a usable instrument of foreign policy which Russia did not have for a quarter century,” said Dmitry Trenin , director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
This dawning reality casts a shadow from Moscow to Washington and beyond. The key question: Will an emboldened Putin keep deploying his forces in bitterly disputed unilateral actions, or could the US election of Donald Trump mean a potential thaw in relations and new era of cooperation? Trump’s nominee for national security adviser, retired US Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn , has said he sees Russia as a possible military partner in Syria and elsewhere.
Putin’s military power today stands in stark contrast to the dying days of the Soviet Union, when the Russian Federation inherited conscript-heavy forces with 4 million mouths it could barely afford to feed.
Russia rapidly reduced those ranks to barely 1 million, and then found itself struggling through much of the 1990s to defeat rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. During its five-day war with tiny Georgia, army units starved of new equipment for 15 years experienced chronic vehicle breakdowns, communications failures and friendly-fire casualties from inaccurate salvos. Incensed by those setbacks, Putin and military commanders committed to a program of radical restructuring and spending.
Perhaps the most important change today is in the calibre of the soldiers themselves. While all men aged 18 to 27 still face a mandatory year of military service, Russia increasingly is attracting volunteers for at least two years and building a culture emphasizing the military as a career.
While conscripts are paid a paltry 2,000 rubles ($31) a month, those signing contracts for longer tours of duty receive 10 times the starting pay and extra privileges. Promotion to sergeant could mean a monthly paycheck of around 40,000 rubles ($620), better than average civilian wages.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says contract soldiers, most of them former conscripts who opt to stay, have outnumbered conscripts in the ranks since 2015.
Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Russia’s 2-year-old recession had weakened the jobs market and made it “much easier to recruit volunteer contract soldiers.”
At a newly opened recruitment center in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in Russia’s central heartland, officers in crisp new uniforms distribute colorful army leaflets and run computerized assessment tests on candidates.
“The military is getting stronger as the number of contract soldiers is rising,” said Maj. Gen. Alexander Yarenko, who oversees the Yekaterinburg recruitment office. “Weapons are quite complex, requiring a high level of training.”
Some recruits offer pragmatic reasons for joining, others gung-ho visions of adventure.
“I have decided to sign the contract because it offers good prospects for the future, particularly for university graduates,” said Vladislav Volkhin, a 22-year-old with a degree in information technology.
“Civilian jobs are routine, while military service is more colorful and interesting,” said 21-year-old Dmitry Batalov, who holds a degree in finance and law but prefers to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, a special forces veteran who fought in Chechnya. Batalov said he hoped his career would involve “constant risk, the fight against evil, special operations.”
The prospect of such deployments is real. Russia since 2014 has stoked tensions with the West in ways unseen since the Cold War.
First came Russia’s lightning seizure of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine, followed by surreptitious aid to pro-Russian rebels in the country’s breakaway east. Next, Russia launched an air campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad and against American-backed rebel groups as well as their shared Islamic State foe.
In the past month Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov , has joined land-based aircraft in bombing targets in Syria — the first attacks mounted by carrier in Russia’s history. Russia is using the Syria campaign to test several new designs of cruise missiles, fighters, bombers and helicopter gunships in combat for the first time.
At the start of the decade, the Kremlin pledged to spend 20 trillion rubles (more than $300 billion) on defense through 2020, a commitment unaltered by Russia’s slide into recession under the twin weight of weak oil prices and Western sanctions imposed because of the Ukrainian fighting.
Last year alone, Russia spent a record 3.1 trillion rubles ($48 billion) on defense, 25 percent higher than in 2014 and more than a fifth of Russia’s entire budget. Russian forces received 35 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than 240 warplanes and helicopters, and nearly 1,200 tanks and other armored vehicles — a growth in Russia’s arsenal unseen since Soviet times.
Analysts warn that Putin’s forces could be poised to act more freely in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere in expectation that Trump will prefer to cut deals with Russian interests, not confront them.
Trenin said the prospect of personal rapport between Trump and Putin “could mean a better way to manage a fairly difficult relationship.”
Felgenhauer noted the irony that, regardless of whether the West might meaningfully push back, Russia’s top brass can cite any opposition to its actions as justification for even higher defense spending.
“The Russian military,” he said, “has a vested interest right now in having more and more confrontation with the West.”