The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As it weighs action in Ukraine, Russia showcases its new military prowess

A Russian army service member fires a howitzer during drills in the southern Rostov region of Russia on Jan. 26. (Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

When Russian forces rolled into neighboring Georgia in 2008, they carried the baggage of an outdated Soviet-era military: subpar communications, old equipment and poor coordination. They even accidentally shot down their own planes.

Nearly a decade and a half later, as the Kremlin considers mounting an equally overt invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the Russian military has advanced significantly — and Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown a willingness to use it to get his way in global affairs.

“While we may see that Russia’s economic power is stagnant and global economic influence is in relative decline, Russian military power is not only not in decline but it has increased,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA. “There is no evidence that Russia will become a lessened military threat in the future.”

Nowhere is this more palpable than in Ukraine. If the worst of scenarios materializes, Kyiv could soon confront the full power of a Russian military that has changed markedly, even in the eight years since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and started a separatist war in the country’s east.

On a Jan. 26 train ride from Kyiv to Kharkiv, in the east of the country, Ukrainians gave voice to their anxiety over a possible conflict with Russia. (Video: Whitney Shefte, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

These days, the Russian force is steeled with recent combat experience in Syria, modernized equipment, improved coordination and management, and a more sophisticated ability to strike targets from the air and from afar, according to military analysts. It also has reorganized its units specifically to prosecute a possible new war in Ukraine and rehearsed scenarios that U.S. officials now fear could become real, all while cultivating an industry of private military contractors.

Ukraine has made major military enhancements of its own. The United States has committed some $2.75 billion in military aid to Kyiv since 2014 and helped Ukraine reform its defense sector and expand its force structure. U.S. troops have rotated through the nation to train Ukrainian forces, and warfare against separatists on the front lines in eastern Ukraine has given Ukrainian soldiers significant combat experience.

But despite those advances, military analysts say the Ukrainian force has critical gaps and probably would be overwhelmed if Russia decided to mount a full-scale assault. On nearly every battlefield metric — fighter jets, tanks, missiles, troop numbers — Ukraine would find itself outmatched.

Ukraine lacks significant naval or air power. Its paucity of modern air defenses means an initial air and missile campaign by Moscow could wipe out much of Ukraine’s military power and infrastructure off the bat. Already, Russia has moved Iskander missiles close to Ukraine, which could contribute to a “shock and awe” campaign before any Russian troops even cross the border.

Putin has many options short of a multi-front invasion of Ukraine

“Apparently Ukraine will have to use these old, Soviet [air defense] systems, which will be very susceptible to all electronic warfare systems, and Russia will be able to control the airspace and, more or less, do whatever it wants there,” said Kirill Mikhailov, an analyst at the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian open-source investigative organization that monitors Russia’s military.

Ukrainian forces have learned to fight from trenches in largely fixed front lines against the separatists in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbas but haven’t needed to maneuver nimbly across the country, as a broader Russian invasion could require.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said the Ukrainians can look to match the Russians on the ground, but “it’s a different story when you talk about the air, maritime and long-range [weapons] fires.”

Despite some Russian soldiers posting on TikTok and other social media, Hodges said, overall the Russian force looks more professional. In 2019, Russia passed a law banning military personnel from using smartphones and posting to social media.

“In 2014, we could track almost every unit because some young sergeant was sending pictures to his girlfriend and saying, ‘Here we are going across the border,’ ” Hodges said. “I have seen little of that sort of indiscipline over the past months.”

A permanent buildup

Not long after invading Ukraine in 2014, Russia set about reshaping its military to prepare for the possibility of fighting a far bigger, more traditional ground war with its western neighbor.

The result is formations like the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army, headquartered an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian border, in the Russian city of Novocherkassk.

The 8th Guards helped turn the tides at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, pushed the Nazis back through Ukraine and Poland and descended on Berlin in the final days of World War II, before standing the line across from NATO troops at Germany’s tense Fulda Gap during the Cold War. The unit disbanded in the late 1990s.

In 2017, Putin brought it back. Its revival — fraught with intentional symbolism for a Kremlin that has demonized Ukrainians as Nazis and sought a new faceoff with the West — is a key element in a broader buildup of large-scale Russian forces now permanently based by Ukraine’s border.

According to the Ukrainian military, the 8th Guards oversee Russia’s separatist proxy fighters in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the unit’s commander entered the occupied Ukrainian territory last summer to conduct operations and combat training.

“It was very much intentionally stood up after the Donbas conflict and the annexation of Crimea heated up, and they thought they might need to do something like this in the future and have a large-scale maneuver army to conduct operations against Ukraine,” said Mason Clark, the lead Russia analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

U.S. sends written responses to Russia on its demands over Ukraine crisis

The five-year-old unit, which has about 18,500 troops, could be used to push further into Ukraine from separatist territory or help occupy the coastline along the Sea of Azov, Clark said.

Russia also revived another unit of World War II renown — the 1st Guards Tank Army. The once-prestigious unit outside Moscow has been receiving some of the best new equipment and maintains a high level of readiness, and in recent months has been moving elements closer to Ukraine, primarily outside the Russian city of Voronezh.

The logistics of the current mass buildup are already demonstrating some of Moscow’s new skills.

“They absolutely did not have the capacity in 2014 to mobilize many elements of combined arms armies from the Eastern and Central military districts and send them all across the country to positions in Belarus and on the border,” said Fred Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “They have been rehearsing that capability for years.”

Syria a 'live-fire training area'

Russia’s intervention in Syria upended the Middle East but also changed the Russian military itself, particularly the Russian air force. Moscow deliberately rotated as many forces as possible through Syria, at times on extremely short deployments. According to the Kremlin, all Russian ground troop commanders now have combat experience, as do 92 percent of military pilots.

“They made a point of treating Syria as their sort of live-fire training area,” said Scott Boston, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. “There is certainly training value to giving a large portion of your force combat experience. It’s just a completely different mind-set.”

Russia’s military is traditionally a land-based artillery army, capable of executing complicated logistics by rail. But during the Syria intervention, Moscow sought to refine its missile and airstrike capabilities and tested its capacity to coordinate airstrikes with ground offensives.

“Every weapons system that can fly, they tried in Syria,” Kagan said. “Part of that was so it could be a good weapons expo for them, but part of it was so they could figure out how to set up a command post, how to operate outside Russia, how to do medevac in a complicated environment, how to do strikes while having spetsnaz [special forces] guys run around with nasty dudes on the ground and how to coordinate with allies. They went to school on the lessons learned from Syria.”

Syria shows that Russia has built an effective military. Now how will Putin use it?

At the end of 2014, the Russian military created a centralized war room in Moscow called the National Defense Management Center, tasked with coordinating forces and weapons in complex combat. The creation of the center signaled a broader focus that has been the subject of many Russian exercises: how Russian forces from different parts of the military can coordinate and take orders in combat, in part to avoid the problems of the short-lived 2008 Georgia war.

The military has tried to push down expertise on using drones and electronic warfare to a more tactical level and embed those skills in Russian units, Boston said, and the force steadily has modernized its kit, in part by upgrading rather than replacing old equipment.

Potential vulnerabilities

Despite the Russian military’s many advances, questions persist about how the force would fare in an unprecedented full-scale invasion of a large country such as Ukraine, and there are indications that in some ways Russia miscalculated in 2014 thinking that a separatist uprising would be welcomed in a larger part of eastern Ukraine.

Boston said the Russian military has “thought a lot about how to be less predictable and steer clear of easily templated operations” in combat, but it’s not clear whether the force would be able to do that at scale in the sort of tank-war combat that hasn’t really existed in decades.

The Russian military still retains a sizable portion of conscripts — about 30 percent — as opposed to professional contract soldiers. Mikhailov, the Conflict Intelligence Team analyst, said the Russian government would be sensitive about sending conscripts into battle due to potential public outcry.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said in a recent interview that despite the roughly 127,000 Russian forces encircling the nation, Moscow would need a million troops to occupy and hold a country as big as Ukraine.

Hodges said he was skeptical of the Russian military’s ability to sustain operations in a full-blown war against Ukraine, with the demands of fuel and ammunition, and a possible insurgent pushback by large numbers of Ukrainians.

Despite recent advances, the Russian military’s modernization is far from complete, and Moscow would also face the uncertainties of any war. History is awash with examples of strong militaries finding themselves in quagmires with lesser foes thanks to incorrect assumptions or fuzzy political aims.

“The Ukrainian military is overmatched, but it’s not nothing,” Clark said. “There are enough unknowns for the Russians there that could cause a lot of this to go haywire for them.”