- - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Last weekend was a trip back in time for an intelligence officer who well remembers the Soviet military machine that once threatened Western Europe, particularly its ability to project power with elite airborne and naval forces.

Stay tuned: Their campaign may have only begun, since the assault-force mission is simply preparation for any follow-on attacks that may be required.

By any measure, it has been a remarkable fortnight for that new post-Soviet man, Vladimir Putin. He neatly flipped Egypt from the U.S. to the Russian orbit, won the Olympics and then executed the surprise airborne intervention that swiftly subdued Crimea.

It was unlikely that the wily KGB apparatchik was unduly troubled by his 90-minute phone call from President Obama.

Instead, the Russian leader was probably recalling one of Lenin’s great teachings, equally useful in bayonet fighting and testing the mettle of your opponent: If you hit steel, then pull back. If your blade strikes only mush, then thrust forward.

There was little steel available to deter Mr. Putin. He must have savored the irony of a week that began with precipitous cuts being scheduled for the U.S. Army — and ended with Russia’s stunning demonstration of what boots on the ground can actually achieve. Among other things, they produced a psychological shock wave that shook the Western alliance to its thoroughly demilitarized core.

The speed and scope of Crimean events also stunned the usual cast of correspondents and media pundits. For them, the only things more shocking than Mr. Putin’s sudden transition from affable Olympic autocrat to steely-eyed Cold Warrior were the instruments of the Russian blitzkrieg.

Reporters accustomed to thinking of war as a really neat video game with precision missiles zapping defenseless targets were woefully unprepared to grasp what was happening. CNN and BBC commentators had trouble connecting the dots — linking the swift movement of helicopters and troop transports into the broad red arrowheads that seized control of Crimea in only a few short hours.

First their breathless reports innocently mentioned Ilyushin-76 transports landing in Crimea. Then the first videos revealed a distinctive striped T-shirt beneath the open collars of Russian fatigues.

Both are signature items of the elite Russian airborne forces, whose presence instantly revealed much about Moscow’s capabilities and intent. Since Soviet times, the use of those forces signals the Russian Sunday punch, the knockout blow that is as stealthy as it is swift and decisive. Its strategic objective: crippling the opponent’s ability to react.

An article I wrote in 1980 for “Parameters,” the Army War College journal, serves as a long-standing Cold War reference. Written shortly after the Russian “airbornski” spearheaded their invasion of Afghanistan, the article showed how elite forces inserted far from Soviet territory could instantly create “decisive facts” on the ground.

The Russian air-transport service was numerous enough to carry those forces in a few sorties — not endless return trips. While airborne troops are usually considered vulnerable to heavier, better-armed forces, the Soviets featured the BMD, a light armored personnel carrier that could easily accompany Russian paratroops.

I finally got to experience those assault vehicles directly as my career was ending, as a peacekeeper with the U.S. First Armored Division in Bosnia. Oddly enough, the Russians were there as our allies, so a senior American officer was welcomed in formations that would once have treated him only as a POW.

The BMD lived up to its billing. So did the Russian airborne troops, their officers and their training. On patrols with them, I always experienced cool professionalism and the routine sophistication of a well-disciplined combat force, either on the move or in well-sited entrenchments.

Nearly a generation later, the deployment of those forces to Crimea suggests to me nothing so much as the stern intent of Mr. Putin and the highly disciplined Russian military establishment he commands. These are serious people who can read maps and defend national interests, none more important than the security of the Russian homeland.

Mr. Putin seems like the product of a culture steeped in history, including those frequent occasions when the perception of weakness invariably preceded attacks. He is less the new Soviet imperialist ideologue and more the latest throwback to the days of Imperial Russia.

He reminds me as well of the general who commanded that Russian airborne unit. Refilling our glasses with Stolichnaya, he toasted his troops.

“Comrade Colonel, always remember that the Russian soldier, whatever he is asked and wherever he is sent, will always do his duty.” We clinked our glasses together as I responded, “And, Comrade General, may he always do it close to home.”

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.