On Thursday, the 22nd of October, the Russian military did something it hasn’t traditionally been famous for; it flew a bunch of journalists, including several from international news agencies, to its base in Latakia, Syria, to give them a first-hand look at Russia’s version of the war on terror. Putin’s armed forces seem to have learned a lot from watching the west; the press were allowed to see most areas of the base – including its multi-layered defense systems – and were introduced to a wide range of spokesmen who briefed them on operations. To counter allegations of indiscriminate bombing, there was cockpit video showing precision strikes demolishing terrorist targets. True, the journos weren’t allowed to talk to most of the troops getting on with their jobs around the base, but when I was in uniform I wasn’t allowed to talk to the press either.
So, the Kremlin seems to be using a two-pronged strategy to affect public opinion about their entry into the Syrian war. They’re refuting the more serious accusations, like attacking civilian targets, with evidence. Others they’re just cheerfully admitting to. Obama or Cameron claims that the Russians are bombing non-ISIS groups; the Russians just say, “Yep! We sure are!” It’s hard to keep accusing someone of something when they don’t even bother denying it.
But, there’s a much more serious purpose to this photo op than just countering western criticism of their intervention to prop up Assad. At the end of the day, Putin doesn’t really care if we approve of what he’s doing in Syria or not; after all, he’s willing to play for much higher stakes in eastern Europe, right on NATO’s borders. The real aim is most likely to remind everyone how Russia’s armed forces are rapidly evolving.
I started my military career learning about the Soviet army. That was a formidable opponent, in a brute force way, and it was pretty well equipped. NATO’s technological advantage couldn’t be counted on until the late 1980s and even then it wasn’t complete. Soviet artillery and air defense always had an edge; for significant periods, their tanks were better than anything the west could field (and that gap is closing again). Soviet major combat systems were usually fit for purpose, and often they were innovative enough to be game changers. Where the system fell down was in individual training and equipment.
The USSR relied on mass conscription, and the numbers were too large to deliver the sort of quality training western armies are used to. Low-level drills were generally good but the system favored simple tactics that could be put into effect quickly; the Soviet doctrine was that operational tempo and holding the initiative would compensate for crude tactics (a philosophy that fans of George S Patton might recognize). More seriously, almost no attention was paid to the comfort and welfare of the troops. Uniforms were old-fashioned – wool tunics and leather jackboots with a greatcoat and furry hat for winter. Even in barracks, meals were monotonous slop. Cabbage soup, Kasha buckwheat porridge and black bread were daily staples. Field rations were unspeakable if they were provided at all. Doctrine called for units to be committed to combat for up to three days and then pulled out of the line to regenerate, and it simplified logistics to just supply fuel and ammunition during those three days; the survivors could eat on day four.
What the journalists were shown in Latakia is that this is changing fast. Footage from Ukraine shows that a lot of money is being spent on basics like boots, uniforms and protective gear. Old, but effective, weapons like the AK series are being enhanced with new optics and accessories and secure comms are proliferating down to the lowest levels of command. Now we know that money is being spent on basic welfare too. Soviet troops in Afghanistan lived in ramshackle tent cities with crude infrastructure, causing massive sickness rates through insect bites and poor hygiene. The Russians in Syria have air-conditioned containerized accommodation, a high-tech water purification plant and decent welfare facilities. There’s a PX, and luxuries like ice cream get flown in from Russia. It probably isn’t Ben and Jerry’s, but it’s a big step up from what Soviet-era conscripts got.
And that’s the final point. A high, and rising, proportion of Putin’s front-line troops are regulars. There are still plenty of conscripts around, but the Russian military is slowly professionalizing. Its total combat power is lower than the USSR could deploy, simply because it’s so much smaller, but the qualitative gap with the west is narrowing.
Russia doesn’t want to take over the world, but it’s becoming increasingly assertive in its “near abroad.” Putin is smart enough that he must know his limits. The US military has global expeditionary capability and a couple of allies – Britain and France – come close; Russia just can’t match that capability. It can exert a lot of force across its own borders though, or where a friendly power – like Syria – gives basing rights. As Putin builds his new model army, that power is growing and the recent publicity stunt at Latakia is just another way of letting the world know that. Hopefully our leaders are paying attention because, as the west shaves money from defense budgets, it would be much too easy to let the capability gap get dangerously small.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.