What is the Russian military good for?

The Russian military intervention in Syria—launched in a great rush just over a month ago—came as a surprise; perhaps not as shocking as the swift occupation and annexation of Crimea, but a surprise nevertheless. But does Russia’s ability to surprise and to project force in Syria prove, as Garret Campbell claims, that Western attempts “to discredit Russian military capabilities” were inaccurate?

In fact, the first month of the operation tells us little about Russian military capabilities. It does show that the Russian leadership is prepared to play with military instruments of policy way beyond the limit of, for Western politicians, acceptable risk. This readiness to face big risks constitutes a political advantage of sorts. But it remains unclear that the Russian military is up to the task. There are many looming disasters on the battlefield in Syria, and the Russian military will inevitably take the blame if they come to pass.

Reforms and rearmament

In hindsight, it is striking that at the start of this decade, when the key domestic political guideline in Russia was “modernization” (and foreign policy guideline was “reset”), the only real modernization that happened was that of the armed forces. The military reform launched by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov began just a couple of months after the inglorious “victory” in the August 2008 war with Georgia. His replacement in November 2012 by Sergei Shoigu helped in correcting some mistakes in the incoherent design for reforms and also shifted the focus to combat training. The improved combat readiness, particularly of Russian special forces, made it possible to execute the spectacular operation aimed at taking control over Crimea in March 2014. But many key parts of the military machine still remain under-reformed and untouched by modernization

Reforms never come without pain, and it was the air force that suffered the most damage from the ill-conceived cuts and reorganizations. The decision to disband the traditional structure of air regiments and divisions, as well as organize enlarged air bases, created a situation where combat planes of dozens of different types and modifications are put together into awkward system of maintenance. The reforms also severely disrupted the process of higher education, so that presently very few new pilots and engineers graduate. The result has been an organizational and logistic nightmare that has produced a long series of crashes this summer, including the loss of two Tu-95MS strategic bombers. The latest entry in this sad track record was the loss of a MiG-31 fighter over Kamchatka last Saturday. 

Massive rearmament was supposed to compensate for the disorganization caused by radical reforms. The air force was promised 350 new tactical aircraft and 1,000 helicopters by 2020. But as economic stagnation in Russia has taken hold, these plans are undergoing ad hoc revisions. The order for the long-advertised fifth generation T-50 (PAK-FA) fighter was cut from 50 to just 12 planes, with an uncertain delivery date. And the increase of the transport aviation fleet had to be cancelled because of the breakdown of cooperative ties with the Antonov design bureau in Ukraine. 

Bold advance into the Syrian trap 

Executing a limited intervention into the mutating Syrian civil war doesn’t challenge these assessments, even if it did produce an outsized political effect. It is important, as Garrett points out, not to see Russian capabilities through the lens of Western ways of warfare. But is also important to remember certain hard battlefield realities will impose themselves regardless of one’s way of war. 

Massive rearmament was supposed to compensate for the disorganization caused by radical reforms.

The Russian intervention in Syria is only possible at all because the “hybrid war” in Eastern Ukraine, which has tied up the bulk of Russian combat-capable battalions, has seen virtually no use of the air force. Moscow sought to use this free capacity for staging demonstrations of air power over the Baltic theater but encountered effective containment—it has since scaled down its provocations. Syria appeared an easier option, and the deployment of an air regiment to the hastily prepared Hmeymym airbase outside Latakia went remarkably smoothly. As the air war has moved into the second month, however, issues with its trajectory have emerged.

The composition of the regiment (with a squadron of light Su-25SM fighter-bombers and a squadron of Mi-24 attack helicopters) makes it most suitable for close air support. But that kind of difficult mission only makes sense if it’s in support of a ground offensive by Syrian government forces, which have proven incapable of conducting any successful campaign. Sustaining the air campaign at the present level may not be very expensive (conservative Russian estimate gives the figure of $2.5 million a day, compared to the roughly $9 million per day the United States spends on its anti-ISIS fight), but a technical setback is certain to hit sooner rather than later. 

Escalation will be difficult because few other power projection options are available. The cruise missile salvo by the frigates of the Caspian flotilla on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday was sensational, but it has seriously upset Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and so cannot be repeated. It had little resonance on the battlefield anyway. Expanding the scale of intervention would be logistically very difficult. The Russian navy had to lease and purchase eight commercial transports in order to deliver supplies for the operation at the level of up to 50 sorties a day (which means one sortie per aircraft). Its only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is undergoing repairs (as it is most of the time), and the navy command could only dream of building an amphibious assault ship that would compare with Mistral-class ships, which France has refused to deliver.

What next for the over-stretched and abused military?

The Russian regime’s plan has clearly been to use initial battlefield success to negotiate an end to the civil war from a position of strength. But alas there has been little initial battlefield success. ISIS and other parts of the opposition have already begun to mount counter-offensives. And bringing the various sides together to negotiate appears as difficult as ever. If those negotiations fail, it will be hard for Russian leaders to find an opportunity to declare victory and go home. 

[F]or the sake of regime survival, Putin has fallen back to the “safe” position of military confrontation.

But keeping the Russian military adventure going means waiting for a disaster to strike—and even with a high tolerance for risk, Putin has no stomach to take it. As the economy continues to sink, he needs new victories to keep the country mobilized around a patriotic agenda. And only military instruments work for his ambitious efforts to project strength from a position of weakness. The deadlock in Donbas was successfully camouflaged with the Syrian adventure, but in the near future this new quagmire might need another distraction. Georgia might be chosen again as a target of convenience, but the fact of the matter is that there are fewer and fewer uncommitted military capabilities to wield.

The bottom line is that, for the sake of regime survival, Putin has fallen back to the “safe” position of military confrontation. But the Russian military is not able to prevail in that confrontation and the Russian economy cannot possibly sustain it.