MOSCOW — As Russia turned the Syrian conflict into an exhibition ground for its newly robust military over the past six months, its neighbors were watching with rapt interest.
This, after all, was a sterling opportunity to assess Russia’s new battlefield capabilities, in the form of ship-based cruise missiles, improved logistics and elite units. And on display, too, were Russia’s weaknesses.
“It is like a game of football,” said Janis Berzins, the managing director at the Center for Security and Strategic Research of the National Defense Academy of Latvia, a NATO member nation that borders Russia. “If you’re playing against Germany, then you go watch Germany play, right? It’s the natural thing to do.”
No one expects Russia and NATO to engage in a conventional war anytime soon. But with limited, consequential interventions in two conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, in the past two years, President Vladimir Putin had shown the Russian military’s growing proficiency as well as his appetite to use force to achieve his greater geopolitical goals.
“They’ve demonstrated that they are clever enough to get in and get out, and they know how to use these military operations in order to bolster the diplomatic objectives,” said Evelyn Farkas, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia until last year.
It was not always the case. In 2008, when Russia lost at least four planes to air defenses in Georgia during a five-day war, the brief conflict was seen in the West as a debacle and as proof that Russia’s largely conscript military remained in a cumbersome shambles.
When now-retired Adm. James Stavridis became NATO’s military commander in 2009, NATO had no plans for defending against Russia, he said in an interview last year.
“We didn’t have a single op plan on the shelf to deter against Russia. We’d written that off after the fall of the wall; that chapter is over,” Stavridis said.
Now, NATO is holding exercises and considering large troop deployments in the Baltics, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe amid growing concern from Russia’s neighbors about a potential Russian assault using new, unconventional means.
“The belief which existed since 1990 that there are no prospects for military confrontation in Europe with Russia, that belief was dispelled by these operations,” said Igor Sutyagin, a specialist in the Russian military at London’s Royal United Services Institute. “It is now necessary to plan defense, while previously it was not.”
The war in Georgia helped prompt a vast reform and modernization of the Russian military that Gustav Gressel, a defense analyst for the European Council on Foreign Affairs, termed a “quiet military revolution.” More important than the production of new military hardware, he argued in a recent report, was the growing professionalism and effectiveness of Russian troops through better training and administrative reforms.
For example, the military’s restructuring called for new, highly mobile and independent reconnaissance units. Those were unveiled during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, when the appearance of unidentified but highly trained soldiers caught Western observers by surprise.
By contrast, the Syrian campaign, involving an expeditionary force of both refurbished and modern aircraft facing little in the way of air defenses, was largely inapplicable to a possible conflict on NATO’s eastern borders, analysts said.
Still, some things caught their eye.
Berzins noted the use of sophisticated jamming equipment, part of Russia’s growing capabilities in electronic warfare. Moscow also deploys this equipment in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. Kaliningrad additionally serves as a base for Russian S-400 antiaircraft missiles, such as those Putin has deployed and maintained in Syria, and could establish a virtual no-fly zone called “area denial.”
Russia’s unveiling of its Kalibr cruise missiles, launched from ships in the Black Sea, demonstrated another potential threat, capable of striking targets far afield in Europe and requiring some form of low-altitude, antiair defenses as a response. Those missiles would also be an alternative to putting Russian pilots at risk over NATO airspace, Sutyagin said, in the unlikely event of a conflict.
There were also signs of certain weaknesses, in particular the scant amount of precision guided munitions used in Syria. Judging by footage released by the Russian Defense Ministry and from the Syria base on television, the air force was relying heavily on “dumb bombs,” indicating either a shortage of supply or difficulties in their targeting systems.
They also vastly increased collateral damage, prompting a new flow of refugees from Syria toward Europe that Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, called “weaponizing refugees.”
Perhaps the most impressive revelation to come out of Russia’s deployment in Syria involved evident improvements in Russian logistical planning. Supply lines, long considered a weakness of the Russian military, appeared to be in robust condition.
“When this started, the orthodoxy in D.C. was absolutely that the Russians would not be able to maintain operational tempo,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security and a professor of global affairs at New York University. “They proved us all wrong. It was by rough-and-ready measures in some cases, but ‘what works is what works’ has always been the Russian approach.”
Judging by recent exercises, at least one potential use of Russia’s new military ability could be in anti-terrorist operations in Central Asia or in Afghanistan, Galeotti said. Russia, along with other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization defense alliance, has staged military exercises against a simulated invasion by an Islamic State-like force into Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan.
But most simply, Russia’s first overseas intervention in recent times proved that Moscow could do so again, a factor that NATO and the West would have to plan for.
Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.