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His incursion into the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008 revealed that the army had problems with its communication networks and air force aircraft had difficulties in discerning friend from foe. But overall, it succeeded in presenting Mr. Putin’s vision of a mobile force able to respond to what he saw as a local crisis.

“What you saw in Georgia was a test bed for that new force structure, basically a brigade force to replace the old divisions and regiments,” Mr. Glantz said. “I think the judgment on the part of Putin was, what he sent in there, this multiple brigade and battalion groups, worked quite well.”

‘They go nuclear’

Ariel Cohen, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said Russia today basically has two militaries: one for neighborhood incursions such as Crimea and another to guard against invasions.

“What you see in the Crimea is Spetsnaz [special forces] and air assault/airborne,” Mr. Cohen said. “Mostly contracted professionals, not draftees. Plus lots of FSB.”

FSB, the Federal Security Service, is the Kremlin’s internal security arm and successor to the dreaded KGB, where Mr. Putin learned his trade.

The transformation under Mr. Putin to a leaner, faster military is demonstrated in stark numbers.

The number of units in the ground forces, one of six distinct armed forces, decreased from 1,890 in 2008 to 172 by 2012, according to

“It used to be when people talked about the Russian military, the point was it was a steamroller,” said Mr. Kipp, of the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office. “Got steam up very slowly. It had a capacity to mobilize echelon on echelon. That’s what we feared at NATO: large, competent forces right on the Germany border and then the capacity to mobilize the entire society for a high-intensity industrial war.

“There is no great mobilization capacity in Russia today,” he said. “What that means is, in a crisis, if the military gets into problems, the Kremlin has some very unappealing options. What they’ve been doing in their exercises is, when the conventional forces fail in defense, they go nuclear.”

James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said regardless of Mr. Putin’s incursion and ramped-up military, Russia is in dire economic straits, existing on energy resources and hamstrung by deep corruption.

“Events in the Crimea do not alter this basic fact,” Mr. Russell said. “Russia is passing from the scene in this sense, with an unsustainable economic and maybe even political model. It could be argued that a central challenge of the 21st century will, in fact, be the collapse of the Russian state when the oil runs out and Putin’s mafia cronies are all enjoying themselves in their villas in the French Riviera.”

That is why, he said, the U.S. pivot to Asia should continue.

“The political, economic and military epicenter of the world is moving inexorably eastward, and the United States needs to move along with it,” Mr. Russell said. “Our continued economic health and well-being depends upon our continued economic, political and military integration with Asia.”