Putin em­bold­ened by re­bound­ing of mil­i­tary

Bet­ter troops, weapons fuel new Rus­sian ag­gres­sion

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

MOSCOW | With an air­craft car­rier de­ployed off Syria’s shores and hun­dreds of new jets, mis­siles and tanks en­ter­ing ser­vice each year, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin can pro­ject Rus­sian mil­i­tary power on a scale un­seen since Soviet times.

A mas­sive re­form ef­fort launched in the wake of Rus­sia’s 2008 war with Ge­or­gia has trans­formed a crum­bling, de­mor­al­ized mil­i­tary into an ag­ile force ca­pa­ble of swift ac­tion in Ukraine and Syria. Long gone are the days when Rus­sia was forced through fi­nan­cial hard­ship to scrap dozens of war­ships and ground most of its air force. Whereas many young men long dodged their oblig­a­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice, re­cruits to­day speak of ex­tend­ing as­sign­ments in a bet­ter equipped, trained and paid army.

“The mil­i­tary re­form has given Rus­sia, the Krem­lin [and] Mr. Putin a us­able in­stru­ment of for­eign pol­icy which Rus­sia did not have for a quar­ter cen­tury,” said Dmitry Trenin, di­rec­tor of the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter think tank.

This dawn­ing re­al­ity casts a shadow from Moscow to Wash­ing­ton and be­yond. The key ques­tion: Will an em­bold­ened Mr. Putin keep de­ploy­ing his forces in uni­lat­eral ac­tions, or could the U.S. elec­tion of Don­ald Trump mean a potential thaw in re­la­tions and new era of co­op­er­a­tion? Both Mr. Trump and his nom­i­nee for na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, re­tired U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, have said they see Rus­sia as a pos­si­ble mil­i­tary part­ner in Syria and else­where.

Mr. Putin’s mil­i­tary power to­day stands in stark con­trast to the dy­ing days of the Soviet Union, when Rus­sia in­her­ited the bulk of the 4-mil­lion-strong Soviet army, con­script-heavy forces it could barely af­ford to feed. Rus­sia rapidly re­duced those ranks to just over 1 mil­lion and then found it­self strug­gling through much of the 1990s to de­feat rebels in the break­away repub­lic of Chech­nya. Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary has 1 mil­lion soldiers to­day.

Dur­ing its five-day war with tiny Ge­or­gia in 2008, army units starved of new equip­ment for 15 years ex­pe­ri­enced chronic ve­hi­cle break­downs, com­mu­ni­ca­tions fail­ures and friendly-fire ca­su­al­ties from in­ac­cu­rate salvos. In­censed by those set­backs, Mr. Putin and mil­i­tary com­man­ders com­mit­ted to a pro­gram of rad­i­cal re­struc­tur­ing and spend­ing.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant change to­day is in the cal­iber of the soldiers them­selves. While all men aged 18 to 27 still face a manda­tory year of mil­i­tary ser­vice, Rus­sia in­creas­ingly is at­tract­ing vol­un­teers for at least two years and build­ing a cul­ture em­pha­siz­ing the mil­i­tary as a ca­reer.

While con­scripts are paid a pal­try $31 a month, those sign­ing con­tracts for longer tours of duty re­ceive 10 times the start­ing pay and ex­tra priv­i­leges. Pro­mo­tion to sergeant could mean a monthly pay­check of around $620, bet­ter than av­er­age civil­ian wages.

Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry says con­tract soldiers, most of them for­mer con­scripts who opt to stay, have out­num­bered con­scripts in the ranks since 2015.

Moscow-based mil­i­tary an­a­lyst Pavel Fel­gen­hauer said Rus­sia’s 2-year-old re­ces­sion had weak­ened the jobs mar­ket and made it “much eas­ier to re­cruit vol­un­teer con­tract soldiers.”

The im­prove­ment in the ranks comes as the prospect of de­ploy­ments has grown. An em­bold­ened Mr. Putin has chal­lenged the West mil­i­tar­ily in ways un­seen since the Cold War.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Rus­sian navy ships and he­li­copters take a part in a land­ing op­er­a­tion dur­ing drills at the Black Sea coast in Crimea. Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is pro­ject­ing Rus­sian mil­i­tary power over­seas on a scale un­seen since Soviet times.

Rus­sia’s young men once typ­i­cally shunned their oblig­a­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice, but to­day’s re­cruits talk ea­gerly of longer-term en­list­ments.

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