The partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria earlier this month, after a campaign of bombing that began last September in support of the Syrian regime, isn't the end of president Vladimir Putin's involvement in the country. Russia is keeping its Latakia airbase and promising to go back to using force against ceasefire violators. Even so, Putin can take a victory lap. The campaign to shore up president Bashar al-Assad's faltering army has been a success, and it has accomplished another major goal for Moscow: It has shown the world that an immensely expensive, multi-decade program to rebuild Russia's armed forces is working.
The impact of the new weapons and training it brought had been on display first in Crimea in 2014, and then in the skies over eastern and central Syria over the past six months.
In Crimea, Russian troops (which Russia has denied using) proved that Moscow can use highly trained and disciplined soldiers to execute a swift, effective campaign, one which resulted in the seizure of a large chunk of territory. And in Syria, Russia demonstrated a significant growth in its capability to project force far from its borders, as well as tangible changes to its arsenal.
Russia had already fought successfully abroad in recent years, with the invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008. Its army and air force overwhelmed the Georgians, but also displayed serious problems with command and control, intelligence, and organization. The air force even lost a number of planes to friendly fire, during an engagement that lasted little more than a week. By comparison, in the nearly six months of its Syria campaign, Russia lost only one plane, shot down by Turkey.
"If you were to have told them back then," said Michael Kofman, a CNA Corporation analyst and fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute who specializes in Russia, "that in 2016 they would deploy to Syria, much further away, with a much more modernized air force, and they would conduct an air campaign for months without a single loss to ground fire, and they would be using drones and satellite imagery … it would sound like science fiction."
Shortly after the Russia - Georgia war, then-Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov launched an ambitious program to reform and improve the Russian military. The plan is to spend 20 trillion rubles on weapons systems between 2011 and 2020, with the intent of modernizing 70 percent of the armed forces by the end of this decade.
That ambitious goal wasn't mere vainglory. It was a crucial element in the foreign policy of the biggest nation on Earth, heir to a superpower but unable, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, to muster the clout that comes from being able to credibly fight anybody, anywhere on the globe, at any time. Putin wanted to change that.
The return to Russia's ability to behave like a superpower is "the premise" of Putin's presidency, said Dr. Nina Khrushcheva, a professor and associate dean at The New School's Milano Institute for International Affairs in New York. Russia's leadership thinks its voice cannot be recognized without a strong military, said Khruscheva — whose grandfather, Nikita Khruschev, was incidentally the Soviet leader who flexed that global military reach the most, when he sent nuclear missiles to the doorstep of the United States in Cuba, in 1962.
"From the Russian point of view," said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at the Strategic Studies division of CAN and a leading expert on Russia's military, "they see themselves as being surrounded by potentially hostile adversaries and so they see a lot of the modernization as being defensive in nature. The focus now is to build up their capabilities so it's not just Georgia that has to take them seriously, but NATO and China as well."
Russia has had significant successes in creating a more responsive and organized force, and building up air power and air defense capabilities. In Syria, it has shown off to deadly effect the reliability and long range of its bombers, and it has defended the country's airspace with sophisticated missiles and fighter planes.
"The big change," said Gorenburg, "has been a shift to a more mobile response military. We've seen this with the operation in Syria –– up until even last summer most analysts would have said that we didn't think that Russia could really get its military out in an expeditionary kind of mission beyond its immediate neighborhood."
Increased mobility is the largest shift in Russia's military reformation, along with better, less bureaucratically-hobbled command and control. This is credited to Serdyukov's successor, current Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who fine-tuned the overall plan, notably shifting the focus to include training and combat readiness and relying on an increase in military drills and snap inspections to improve the force.
That ability to move forces quickly gives Russia a political tool that Putin has shown he is willing to use. In his first public comments after the Kremlin announced it was bringing its forces home from Syria, the president reminded the international community that Russia could easily return there at a moment's notice.
"If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal," he told attendees at a military awards ceremony.
But military modernization is expensive, and Russia's economy is not doing well. When the Kremlin first announced its plans in 2011, that 20 trillion rubles was equal to about 700 billion US dollars. In 2016, the ruble is worth far less; 20 trillion amounts to fewer than 300 billion dollars. The then-and-now comparison is prime evidence of the challenges for Russia in continuing its ambitious programs while the economy is in a deep recession.
"What modernization to 70 percent means is quite flexible," Kofman said. "That's not an objective statement. That's a statement of goal. It can be redefined."
A prolonged recession might actually help the Kremlin's plans in one area, increasing the number of professional soldiers compared to conscripts. Military service is a much more appealing option in times of economic hardship.
But on the whole, a tanking economy is bad news when what is needed the most is hugely expensive, new high-tech hardware.
Russia "has a colossal amount of legacy Soviet equipment," Kofman said, and these decades-old systems need replacing.
The classic tool of power projection is a large oceangoing navy, and that's where Russia has the most to catch up. "Russia's main worst-performing industry is the shipbuilding industry," Kofman said. In part, this is because Russia used to rely on Ukraine for ship engines, which Ukraine is no longer willing to provide. This is a challenge both in repairing old ships and building new ones. Progress on a number of new surface ships, from a minesweeper to a frigate, was recently delayed. These types of ships are intended to be central to the Russian Navy in the next decade.
However, "for the Russians," Khrushcheva said, "it's never just about the numbers… it's about a larger idea of Russia as a great country."
That link between Russia's public image and its developing arsenal was on clear display a year ago, during an enormous Victory Day parade to honor the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The parade showed Russia's dedication to presenting itself as a powerful force to be reckoned with, but it also featured an enormously embarrassing incident when the much-vaunted new T-14 Armata tank, touted as the best in the world, broke down during a rehearsal and had to be towed away.
Despite that snafu, the anniversary celebrations, with long-range bombers over Red Square and nuclear missiles on display, are an excellent example of the ideological and nationalistic power of military modernization. "World War II was the greatest victory that Russia had in modern times," Khrushcheva said. "That is a very easy promotion of what Russia can do when it is forced to respond to an enemy. And [Putin] has been really very good at manipulating that."
The next steps for rearmament are likely much harder than the ones Russia has already taken. The path forward for Russian military modernization will be expensive and difficult. However, the successes of the Syria campaign demonstrates how much it has already accomplished. As Kofman said, comparing the Russian military performance in 2008 with the campaign in Syria is "night and day."