Putin emboldened by rebounding of military
Better troops, weapons fuel new Russian aggression
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.
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.