Russia’s military intervention in Syria – its first beyond its immediate neighbourhood since the end of the Cold War – highlights the significant transformation that its armed forces have gone through. The mobility and reliability of both men and machines during the operations in Syria stand in sharp contrast to their performance during the 2008 Georgia War, when nearly two decades of neglect had exposed crippling vulnerabilities. The success of this turnaround can be attributed to the USD 300 billion 10-year modernisation programme initiated in 2010, which envisioned structural and functional changes in the armed forces. While its incipient results emerged during the Crimean takeover, it is the Syrian intervention that has provided a real insight into the qualitative shift in capabilities. One can even argue that the Syrian intervention has given a new dimension to Russia’s foreign policy. This assumes significance given Moscow’s attempts to project itself as a pole in international affairs. Against this backdrop, the pertinent questions are: What are the key qualitative and quantitative changes being implemented in the Russian military? And, what role do they play in influencing the Kremlin’s foreign policy?
The 2010 modernisation programme envisaged structural reforms at three levels – personnel, equipment, and military industrial complex. As such, one of the most vital doctrinal shifts has been the emphasis on mobility and flexible deployments.1 This is in sharp contrast to the mass mobilisation of the Soviet Army, which ruined the element of surprise. The focus, therefore, has been on re-organising divisions into brigades, and promoting inter-services integration. Each military district commander now controls all units in that zone, with the National Cent for Defence (NTSU) in Moscow being the supreme command and control centre.2 The air force, space force and aerospace defence force have been merged into the unified Aerospace Forces (VKS).3 A key priority also involves increasing the Russian military footprint in the Arctic, and strengthening non-conventional and cyber capabilities. Meanwhile, the much maligned conscription (‘kontraktniki’) service has been reduced from two to one year.4 Wages have been increased across the board, and housing and pension disbursement made more robust.5 These have helped attract personnel during a period of acute economic crisis. As a result, professional soldiers have outstripped conscripts for the first time in Russian history.6 Their combat readiness is being frequently tested through snap military exercises.
Moreover, the goal of modernising 70 per cent of all weapons platforms by 2020 has seen the Russian armed forces receive a wide array of both new and upgraded equipment. The most notable include: Kalibr and Kh-101 cruise missiles, Koalitsiya self-propelled guns, Armata tanks, Borei and Yasen class submarines with Bulava missiles, Ratnik body armour, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These systems represent a significant leap of technology. More importantly, the defence industrial complex (OPK) has been earmarked to be the pivot of innovation that will spur the civilian high-technology sector. This assumes importance given the compelling need to diversify the economy.
The modernisation plan, which remains a work in progress, will be severely tested by the ongoing economic crisis. The defence ministry’s budget for 2016 was cut by five per cent,7 and the incipient social unrest will further challenge Russia’s ability to consistently spend 4.5 per cent of its GDP on defence, like it did in the preceding two years.8 The Syrian intervention is an additional expenditure as well. Given the fixed outgo in the form of ‘revenue expenditure’, the crisis is likely to affect the development and acquisition of new weapons platforms. Already, the deadlines for a number of flagship projects such as the PAK DA bomber, PAK TA transport aircraft, Barguzin railway ICBMs, hypersonic missiles and aircraft carrier have been pushed back by several years. Other weapons systems have seen a massive cut in their orders. As a result, the innovation in OPK, which was expected to be the fulcrum of rebuilding Russia’s industrial base, is likely to remain atrophied.
Meanwhile, the Syrian intervention has highlighted significant gaps in Russia’s existing technology. These include attack UAVs and targeting pods, and limited number of precision guided munitions.9 The break with Ukraine has also forced Russia to reinvent the wheel of gas turbine technology. Moreover, a number of technological innovations that Russia has introduced in Syria, namely cruise missiles, were actually developed by the ‘West’ in the 1990s. And the majority of its weapons platforms continue to be derivatives of Soviet technology.10 This highlights the significant catching up that Russia will have to do to achieve conventional weapons parity. Consequently, the salience of nuclear weapons for Russia is likely to continue to increase in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, given Russia’s historical resilience in the face of adversity, one cannot rule out the modernisation plan being reprioritised. The idea of Russia to be perceived as a great power by its citizens goes hand in glove with a strong military arsenal. This assumes significance given the asymmetrical confrontation with the ‘West’. As Russia’s Syrian intervention indicates, sophisticated technology is likely to gradually emerge while the available systems are upgraded. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has pointed out that Russian VKS, Navy and armoured units have attained a serviceability of 63, 76 and 94 percent, respectively.11 Overall, Russia’s capabilities appear to have qualitatively and quantitatively improved. As upgraded systems demonstrate their resilience, doctrinal shifts in the realm of mobility and new platforms have helped Russia project power in ways that was difficult to envisage a few years ago.
It can be argued that the Kremlin – particularly after the fall in hydrocarbon prices since 2014 – has punched above its weight on the global stage despite its lack of economic competitiveness and a stagnant military. Therefore, its ability to now project power beyond its immediate neighbourhood has added a new flexibility to Russia’s foreign policy. This assumes significance given Russia’s attempts to project itself as a pillar of global diplomacy. Till now, the ability to influence global events militarily rested primarily with the United States. Russia’s entry into this group alters the existing dynamics. In this context, Russia’s use of the Hamadan airbase in Iran highlights the way it has asserted itself in West Asian geo-politics by creating facts on the ground. But having done so, the resolution of the Syrian conundrum will be a litmus test of its diplomatic skills.
Moreover, the Syrian intervention has had an accompanying benefit to Russia’s defence industry as well. It has not only allowed Russia to test new weapons but also advertise new technology to potential buyers. This can have a positive salience on its arms exports, especially given the Kremlin’s claims about having received a renewed interest in its weapons portfolio.12 While the politico-economic benefits of such transfers are well documented, what is often ignored is the ‘rouble dividend’13 that Russia earns through exports. The additional income can cushion the economic crisis from getting worse.
However, there exist significant limits to Russia’s power projection capabilities beyond its periphery. The escalation dominance that Moscow enjoys in its immediate neighbourhood diminishes exponentially away from it. The economic crisis continues to fester while the technology hurdles remain high. The modernisation plan also appears to be geared more towards the augmentation of defensive capabilities, given Russia’s size and the evolving regional security landscape. This involves an increased NATO presence in the west and the north, the threat of Islamic terrorism from the south, and latent fears of China from the east. It is unlikely that Russia envisions a global expeditionary role in the same vein as the United States. Its focus is more likely to be on Eurasia – the area of its core interests.
Russia’s plan, therefore, appears to be to raise the stakes in order to project its vital role in resolving some regional disputes. This helps dispel the notion that it can be isolated. The U.S. and Turkey have already been compelled to negotiate Syria’s future with Russia. The strong posture allows Russia to bargain for a better outcome in its standoff with the ‘West’. The nuanced interplay of several events involving Syrian developments, NATO military build-up, economic sanctions, and the Ukrainian crisis will involve a grand trade-off in the future. When the time comes, each party would like to hold an upper hand. Similarly, upping the ante strengthens the domestic narrative of a strong Russia resisting ‘Western’ pressure. It helps distract attention from the mounting economic problems within.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.