Russia Is Using Syria as a Training Ground for Its Revamped Military and Shiny New Toys

Two-and-a-half months into Russia’s air war in Syria, the fruits of its military reforms are on display as Moscow ups the ante in the Middle East.

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Following the 2008 war in Georgia, Russia projected an air of victory. Georgian forces were crushed, and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were bolstered. But the win was clouded by the poor performance of Russian ground and air forces in what had turned out to be a far messier and bloodier campaign than the Kremlin envisioned. And in the aftermath, Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s prime minister, launched a massive program to trim the country’s bloated military, beef up training, and replace its outdated hardware.

Two-and-a-half months into Russia’s air war in Syria, the fruits of those reforms are on display as Moscow ups the ante in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, Russia hit targets near Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, with cruise missiles launched from an advanced stealth submarine in the Mediterranean Sea. Combined with increased airstrikes, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed the military had launched a massive air raid over three days and helped Syrian special operations forces recover the black box of a Russian warplane downed by Turkey last month.

The latest display of force comes as Moscow continues to flex its military muscle after firing missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea in October and November.

Moscow’s operation in Syria is still relatively limited in scale, but the Kremlin has been using the military campaign as a testing ground for new weaponry and hardware. In doing so, it is alerting the United States and other Western powers of Russia’s newly restored military prowess after decades of decay.

“The missiles launched from the submarine were more of a political weapon aimed at Washington, rather than a military one aimed at ISIS,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy.

The Rostov-on-Don submarine is believed to be one of the quietest in the world, making it an excellent tool for stealth operations. But Harmer said the use of such sophisticated technology, along with cruise missiles, are a curious choice given that Russian air power would be much cheaper and more effective.

“There is no tactical reason for Russia to fire a cruise missile. They are using these to show the world that they can,” said Harmer.

The bombing campaign in Syria is being conducted openly, is heavily documented on social media by the Ministry of Defense, and is trumpeted on Russian state television. Soon after Russia fired 26 sea-based cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea in early October, footage (which can be seen below) was shared across the Ministry of Defense’s social media accounts.

The most recent submarine cruise missile launch, on Tuesday, was also widely shared by the Ministry of Defense.

“The propaganda value of these displays at home and abroad can’t be discounted,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a Russian military expert, told FP.

In addition to propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Galeotti said Russia is “testing new technologies and new ways of operating with old technologies.”

“It’s also about showing potential customers that Russian weapons can do impressive things,” Galeotti said.

Beyond displays of naval power, Russia has used shock and awe tactics during air missions in Syria. On Nov. 17, the Russian air force launched a massive air raid from southern Russia, mobilizing its previously withered heavy bomber squadrons. Russia has also deployed its advanced S-400 surface-to-air defense system in the Syrian campaign.

And in yet another display of Russian military bravado, Putin raised the prospect during a televised address of using nuclear weapons against the Islamic State — but then backtracked by saying he hoped they “will never be needed.”

This domineering show of military force is a sharp contrast to Russia’s swift and largely bloodless takeover of Crimea in 2014, where Moscow deployed naval infantry and special operations forces to wrest control of facilities before annexing Ukraine’s peninsula. Moscow’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, while more substantial and bloody than in Crimea, has never officially been acknowledged by the Kremlin.

The Syrian campaign marks a significant escalation from those in Crimea and Ukraine, but all three missions bear the mark of the reforms borne of the 2008 war in Georgia and the ensuing military modernization project Putin launched in 2010. The program aimed to replace 70 percent of Soviet-era military hardware by 2020, including 50 new warships for the navy, hundreds of new fighter jets, and thousands of new vehicles for ground forces.

But the expensive arms buildup faces major hurdles as Russia’s economy sinks under the weight of Western sanctions and tumbling oil prices. The approximately $400 billion modernization program was conceived back when Russia’s coffers were brimming with petrodollars. About one-quarter of Russia’s military budget remains secret, according to a report by the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, but budget cuts remain inevitable in the current economic climate.

Galeotti said Moscow is now facing a race against time before economic pressures impair the pace of military reform.

“Although the Russians aren’t willing to admit it, they are already making cuts,” he said. About one-third of the military has been reformed, and some of the country’s top soldiers have been cherry-picked to deploy to brigades in Ukraine and Syria, Galeotti said.

How Moscow will manage to sustain its reforms, as well as its involvement in both Ukraine and Syria, remains to be seen. But in the short term, there’s little question that Russia’s military mission in Syria has been a boon to the resurgent Kremlin.

“Just by starting their Syrian operation, they essentially derailed large parts of U.S. foreign policy with about 30 aircraft,” Galeotti said. “That shouldn’t be discounted.”

Photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan