In Syria, Russia deploys might as West takes note

The operation in Syria has become a testing ground for an increasingly confrontational Russia under Putin

In Syria, Russia deploys might as West takes note
Two weeks of air and missile strikes in Syria have given Western intelligence and military officials a deeper appreciation of the transformation that Russia’s military has undergone under President Vladimir V Putin, showcasing its ability to conduct operations beyond its borders and providing a public demonstration of new weaponry, tactics and strategy.

The strikes have involved aircraft never before tested in combat, including the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter, which NATO calls the Fullback, and a ship-based cruise missile fired more than 900 miles from the Caspian Sea, which, according to some analysts, surpasses the US equivalent in technological capability.

Russia’s jets have struck in support of Syrian ground troops advancing from areas under the control of the Syrian government and might soon back an Iranian-led offensive that appeared to be forming Wednesday in the northern province of Aleppo. That coordination reflects what US officials described as months of meticulous planning behind Russia’s first military campaign outside former Soviet borders since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Taken together, the operations reflect what officials and analysts described as a little-noticed – and still incomplete – modernisation that has been underway in Russia for several years, despite strains on the country’s budget. And that, as with Russia’s intervention in neighbouring Ukraine, has raised alarms in the West.

In a report for the European Council on

Foreign Relations, Gustav Gressel argued that Putin had overseen the most rapid transformation of the country’s armed forces since the 1930s. “Russia is now a military power that could overwhelm any of its neighbours, if they were isolated from Western support,” wrote Gressel, a former officer of the Austrian military.

Russia’s fighter jets are, for now at least, conducting nearly as many strikes in a typical day against fighters opposing the government of President Bashar Assad as the US-led coalition targeting the Islamic State has been carrying out each month this year.

The operation in Syria – still relatively limited – has become, in effect, a testing ground for an increasingly confrontational and defiant Russia under Putin. In fact, as Putin himself suggested Sunday, the operation could be intended to send a message to the United States and the West about the restoration of the country’s military prowess and global reach after decades of post-Soviet decay.

“It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defence industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use,” Putin said in an interview broadcast on state television. “They have seen, too, now that Russia is ready to use them if this is in the interests of our country and our people.”

Russia’s swift and largely bloodless takeover of Crimea in 2014 was effectively a stealth operation, while its involvement in eastern Ukraine, though substantial, was conducted in secrecy and obfuscated by official denials of direct Russian involvement. The bombings in Syria, by contrast, are being conducted openly and are being documented with great fanfare by the Ministry of Defence in Moscow, which distributes targeting video in the way the Pentagon did during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

That has also given officials and analysts far greater insight into a military that for nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as a decaying, insignificant force, one so hobbled by ageing systems and so consumed by corruption that it posed little real threat beyond its borders.

“We’re learning more than we have in the last 10 years,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noting the use of the new strike fighters and the new cruise missile, known as the Kalibr. “As it was described to me, we are going to school on what the Russian military is capable of today.”

The Russian advancements go beyond new weaponry, reflecting an increase in professionalism and readiness. Russia set up its main operations at an air base near Latakia in northwestern Syria in a matter of three weeks, dispatching more than four dozen combat planes and helicopters, scores of tanks and armoured vehicles, rocket and artillery systems, air defences and portable housing for as many as 2,000 troops. It was Moscow’s largest deployment to West Asia since the Soviet Union deployed in Egypt in the 1970s. “What continues to impress me is their ability to move a lot of stuff real far, real fast,” Lt Gen Ben Hodges, the commander of US Army forces in Europe, said.

Since its air campaign started September 30, Russia has ramped up its airstrikes from a handful each day to nearly 90 on some days, using more than a half-dozen types of guided and unguided munitions, including fragmentary bombs and bunker busters for hardened targets, U.S. analysts said.

Whole package

Russia is not only bringing some of its most advanced hardware to the fight, but it has also deployed large field kitchens and even dancers and singers to entertain the troops – all signs that Moscow is settling in for the long haul, US analysts said. “They brought the whole package,” said Jeffrey White, a former West Asia analyst with the Defence Intelligence Agency now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It showed me they could deploy a decent-sized expeditionary force.”
For now, Russia’s focus in Syria is mainly an air campaign with some 600 marines on the ground to protect the air base in Latakia. Putin has excluded the idea of sending in a larger ground force to assist the Syrians.

The Russian air force suffered a series of training accidents over the spring and summer – losing at least five aircraft in a matter of months – which Michael Kofman, an analyst with the CNA Corp, a nonprofit research institute who studies the Russian military described as “teething pains” as pilots increased operating tempo under Putin’s orders. Even so, Russia’s aviation is “often painted in the West as some sort of Potemkin village, which is not the case.”

US officials, while impressed with how quickly Russia dispatched its combat planes and helicopters to Syria, said air power had been used to only a fraction of its potential, with indiscriminate fire common and precision-guided munitions used sparingly.

It is clear the Russians are already harvesting lessons from the campaign to apply to their other military operations, said David A Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who planned the American air campaigns in 2001 in Afghanistan and in the gulf war. “Essentially,” he said, “Russia is using their incursion into Syria as an operational proving ground.”

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