President Vladimir Putin has turned a once-moribund Russian military into a lean, quick-strike force that can invade Chechnya, Georgia and now Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
Under Mr. Putin, Russia has developed the world's third-largest defense budget, at $70 billion. The underpaid army of post-Cold War conscripts has given way to special operations troops and experienced guns for hire, some of whom showed up in Crimea in not readily identifiable uniforms. Overall, headquarters have been consolidated and soldiers fight out of brigades, not large divisions.
Mr. Putin, who has lamented the end of the Soviet empire, is using Russia's energy riches to buy military technology overseas such as communications networks and drones. Germany, its eastern half once ruled by Stalinist countrymen, built for Russia a sophisticated training center for infantry units that can simulate an array of war scenarios, such as invading a neighbor.
After Mr. Putin's re-election in 2012, the military began a series of "snap exercises" — surprise orders to see how fast army units mobilize, leave bases and arrive at objectives. Orders for larger exercises recognize the military's inability to fight a long war and include the use of nuclear weapons to defend the homeland.
In all, Mr. Putin has built a military that can unleash a force to reclaim territory lost in the Soviet empire's demise.
"What they've done is fashion a force structure that can deal with local crises in adjoining states, and right now that means states that, by rights in their view, should belong to the Russian Federation," said David Glantz, a retired Army officer trained as a Sovietologist who just completed a book about the Battle of Stalingrad. "Crimea is the most sensitive and obvious place to operate because that is where they've had the military bases."
"Putin has left his stamp by essentially supporting a much more aggressive Russian response," said Jacob Kipp, a Russia military historian and former director of the Army's Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "The Russian military today is clearly intended early on to conduct initial combat operations. The problem is it doesn't have the capacity to conduct protracted combat operations."
A local crisis
The re-emergence of the Russian bear has rattled Europe and the Obama administration, which is pulling combat troops out of Europe and closing bases as it shifts more assets to the western Pacific and an assertive China.
"These people are still living in an era of realpolitik," Mr. Glantz said. "We've lost it. We've lost our ability to sense it. We have no Kissingers around anymore. Putin's taking advantages of this thing to the hilt."
Mr. Kipp said Mr. Putin began his foray in war planning in 1999. President Boris Yeltsin had brought the former KGB colonel into the Kremlin and put him in charge of federal security, then made him prime minister and then acting president. That October, Russian troops invaded Chechnya, as they had in 1994, in response to attacks by separatists, many of them Islamists.
Unlike 1994, when Yeltsin allowed his army to get chewed up in mountain warfare, Mr. Putin went straight for the capital of Grozny, established a pro-Russian government and fought a counterinsurgency that ended in victory.
Ever since, Mr. Putin has focused on combat readiness and technology for 2 million active-duty and reserve troops.
"He took charge of the Second Chechen War, and if you notice, you can't find anything about that war because there is a cloak of secrecy around it," Mr. Glantz said. "He was basically testing the kind of force structure he believed Russia needed down the road."
Mr. Putin's rise and that second war marked the beginning of a Russian rearmament that continues today. Moscow's 2013 defense budget funds a 40 percent increase over the next three years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, putting the Kremlin only behind the U.S. and China in military spending.
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 Globalsecurity.org.
"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."
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