WASHINGTON: Two weeks of air and missile strikes in Syria have given western intelligence and military officials a deeper appreciation of the transformation that Russia’s military has undergone under President Vladimir V Putin, showcasing its ability to conduct operations beyond its borders and providing a public demonstration of new weaponry, tactics and strategy.
The strikes have involved aircraft never before tested in combat, including the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter, which Nato calls the Fullback, and a ship-based cruise missile fired more than 900 miles from the Caspian Sea, which, according to some analysts, surpasses the US equivalent in technological capability.
Russia’s jets have struck in support of Syrian ground troops advancing from areas under the control of the Syrian government and might soon back an Iranian-led offensive that appeared to be forming on Wednesday in the northern province of Aleppo. That coordination reflects what US officials described as months of meticulous planning behind Russia’s first military campaign outside former Soviet borders since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Taken together, the operations reflect what officials and analysts described as a little-noticed and still incomplete modernization that has been underway in Russia for several years, despite strains on the country’s budget. And that, as with Russia’s intervention in neighboring Ukraine, has raised alarms in the west.
In a report this month for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Gustav Gressel argued that Putin had overseen the most rapid transformation of the country’s armed forces since the 1930s.
“Russia is now a military power that could overwhelm any of its neighbors, if they were isolated from western support,” wrote Gressel, a former officer of the Austrian military.
Russia’s fighter jets are, for now at least, conducting nearly as many strikes in a typical day against fighters opposing the government of President Bashar al-Assad as the US-led coalition targeting the Islamic State has been carrying out each month this year.
The operation in Syria still relatively limited has become, in effect, a testing ground for an increasingly confrontational and defiant Russia under Putin. In fact, as Putin himself suggested on Sunday, the operation could be intended to send a message to the United States and the west about the restoration of the country’s military prowess and global reach after decades of post-Soviet decay.
“It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use,” Putin said in an interview broadcast on state television. “They have seen, too, now that Russia is ready to use them if this is in the interests of our country and our people.”
Russia’s swift and largely bloodless takeover of Crimea in 2014 was effectively a stealth operation, while its involvement in eastern Ukraine, though substantial, was conducted in secrecy and obfuscated by official denials of direct Russian involvement. The bombings in Syria, by contrast, are being conducted openly and are being documented with great fanfare by the Ministry of Defense in Moscow, which distributes targeting video in the way the Pentagon did during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
The capabilities on display in Syria and before that in Ukraine are the fruits of Russia’s short, victorious war in Georgia in 2008. Although Russia crushed the US-trained forces of Georgia’s government, driving them from areas surrounding the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Russia’s ground and air forces performed poorly.
Since its air campaign started September 30, Russia has ramped up its air strikes from a handful each day to nearly 90 on some days, using more than a half-dozen types of guided and unguided munitions, including fragmentary bombs and bunker busters for hardened targets, US analysts said.
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