It was a bout of brinksmanship between two nuclear-armed giants that the world has not seen in decades, and it has revived Cold War levels of suspicion, antagonism and gamesmanship.
With the launch of airstrikes in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin instigated a proxy war with the U.S., putting those nation's powerful militaries in support of opposing sides of the multipolar conflict. And it's a huge gamble for Moscow, experts say. "This is really quite difficult for them. It's logistically complex. The Russians don't have much in the way of long-range power projection capability," said Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at New York University.
Moscow's military campaign in Syria is relying on supply lines that require air corridors through both Iranian and Iraqi air space. The only alternatives are naval supply lines running from Crimea, requiring a passage of up to 10 days round-trip. How long that can be sustained is unclear.
That and other questions about Russian military capabilities and objectives are taking center stage as Putin shows a relentless willingness to use military force in a heavy-handed foreign policy aimed at restoring his nation's stature as a world power. In that quest, he has raised the specter of resurgent Russian military might — from Ukraine to the Baltics, from Syria to the broader Middle East.
Russia's increasingly aggressive posture has sparked a sweeping review among U.S. defense strategists of America's military policies and contingency plans in the event of a conflict with the former Soviet state. Indeed, the Pentagon's senior leaders are asking questions that have been set aside for more than 20 years:
- How much are the Russians truly capable of?
- Where precisely might a conflict with Russia occur?
- What would a war with Russia look like today?
Today, the U.S. spends nearly 10 times more than Russia on national defense. The U.S. operates 10 aircraft carriers; Russia has just one. And the U.S. military maintains a broad technological edge and a vastly superior ability to project power around the world.
Russia remains weak, according to many traditional criteria. But it is now developing some key technologies, new fighting tactics and a brazen geopolitical strategy that is
aggressively undermining America's 25-year claim to being the only truly global superpower. The result: Russia is unexpectedly re-emerging as America's chief military rival.
As U.S. officials watch that unfold, they are "clearly motivated by concerns that at least locally, Russia has the potential to generate superior forces," said David Ochmanek, a former Pentagon official who is now a defense analyst at the RAND Corp. And looming over the entire U.S.-Russian relationship are their nuclear arsenals. Russia has preserved, even modernized, its own "triad" with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, a large fleet of long-range strike aircraft and increasingly sophisticated nuclear-armed submarines.
"The Russian defense industry is being rebuilt from ruins," said Vadim Kozyulin, a military expert at the Moscow-based PIR Center, a think tank. "The military balance can only be ensured by Russia's nuclear might, which isn't as expensive to maintain as many people think."
But while Russia's conventional forces are less impressive than its nuclear forces, there are specific conventional areas where the Russians excel — among them aircraft, air defenses, submarines, and electronic warfare.
The Soviet-era weapons design bureaus remain prominent internationally. Russia's aerospace industry, for example, has benefited greatly from international exports to non-Western nations, which go to Russia to buy effective fighter jets that are cheaper than their Western variants. China today spends more on defense annually than Russia, but still imports platforms and advanced weaponry from Russia.
Attempting a side-by-side comparisons of the U.S. and Russian militaries is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, many experts say; the Russians have distinctly different strategic goals, and their military structure reflects that. Russia views itself as a land-based power, exerting influence in a sphere expanding outward from its Eurasian heartland into Eastern Europe, Central Asia and possibly the Middle East and Pacific rim. It is well suited for relying on a particular set of capabilities known as "anti-access and area denial."
"The United States and Russia are going for different things," Galeotti said. "What the Russians are looking for is not to take on and compete on equal terms with us. It's denial." For example, he said, "one can look at the U.S. Navy as massively superior to the Russian navy. Most of them are legacy Soviet ships. But in a way, that doesn't matter, because Russia does not plan to send its forces all across the world's oceans."
That's reflected in the fact that Russia maintains a lone aircraft carrier while the U.S. Navy's 10-carrier fleet operates on a continuing global deployment cycle. Instead of carriers designed for offensive power projection at sea, the Russians are investing in an expanding fleet of submarines that can supplement their nuclear force and, conventionally, threaten an enemy surface fleet in nearby waters such as the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea or the Mediterranean Sea.
Its airspace also is heavily fortified. The quality of Russia's stealth aircraft is far weaker than those of the U.S., but Russia has cutting-edge anti-stealth systems, and also has invested heavily in robust surface-to-air missile systems and arrayed its forces domestically to protect its border regions. "The static airpower picture would favor the Russians because they have a lot of capability in terms of air defense and a variety of tactical and cruise and ballistic missiles," said Paul Schwartz, a Russian military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russia's electronic warfare capability is also daunting to Pentagon military planners; left unclear is the extent to which Russia could jam the radars and signals intelligence that forms the foundation of the U.S.'s advanced air power. Any attempt by the U.S. and its allies to infiltrate Russian air space "would not necessarily be easy," Schwartz said. "It would be a contested environment. But over time I think we would be able to degrade it. The problem is, with a nuclear power, you try to avoid a full-scale fighting."
Meanwhile, the Russian army, still predominantly a conscripted force, is being transitioned to an American-style professional force. In effect, Russia has two armies: About two thirds of the roughly 800,000-man force remains filled with unmotivated and poorly trained draftees, but about one third is not — and those are the units outfitted with top-notch gear, including the Armata T-14 Main Battle Tanks.
In sum, the Russian military is not the equal of the U.S. military. But the gap has narrowed in recent years.
The Russians recently announced plans for a naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean this fall, but did not specify exactly when ships would deploy to the region. The exercise will feature the Black Sea Fleet's flagship, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, as well as several smaller escort vessels and large amphibious assault and landing ships, Russia's TASS news agency reported. Some military officials question whether the exercise is a cover for shipping more troops and gear to the Syrian coast.
The new forward operating base will give Russia the capability to fly combat air sorties, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions and drones across the Middle East. That could include Iraq, the leadership of which has invited the Russians to assist in the fight against the Islamic State in that country.
The base will help secure Russia's longtime naval support facility at the Syrian port of Tarus, a key to the Russian military's ability to maintain and project power into the Mediterranean. Russia reportedly is expanding its footprint at the Tarus facility.
More broadly, Moscow is signaling a long-term interest in extending its umbrella of anti-access area denial capabilities into the Middle East. The Russians reportedly are shipping some of their most advanced surface-to-air missile systems into Latakia, raising concerns inside the Pentagon because that move runs counter to Russia's claims of limiting the focus of its military activities to Syrian rebel groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
"We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into those airfields, we see some very sophisticated air-to-air aircraft going into these airfields," Gen. Phillip Breedlove, chief of the U.S. European Command and also the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, said Sept. 28. "I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA-15s or SA-22s [Russian missiles]. I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require sophisticated air-to-air capabilities. These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL ... they're about something else."
In effect, the Russians could challenge the air superiority maintained — even taken for granted — by the U.S. over large swaths the Middle East for more than 20 years. A crucial factor in this equation is Russia's alliance with Iran, another key Syrian ally. Russia depends on Iranian airspace for its flight corridors into Syria, and reportedly is prepared to support Iranian ground troops aligned with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Experts inside Russia believe the incursion into Syria, along with Putin's aggressive speech at the United Nations on Sept. 28, signal his long-term interest in becoming a key player in the region.
"It became clear that Russia is going to exercise a more ambitious policy in the Middle East. The Russian President made it clear that the western model of democracy and its way of dealing with conflicts in the region is not working," said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Russian expert on Mideast politics and Russian foreign policy. However, Barmin said, "it is doubtful that Russia has the capacity to emerge as a leading power in [the Middle East] in the near future because its presence in the region is limited if you compare it to that of the United States."
Yet some see Putin's maneuvers in Syria as some broader geopolitical gambit that aims to secure a deal on Ukraine. Russia currently occupies parts of Ukraine, but the U.S. still considers Moscow's March 2014 invasion illegal and its control there illegitimate. "It's much more about the U.S. than it is about Syria and Assad," Galeotti said. "Let's be honest, if Washington indicated that some deal could be struck where they tacitly accept the Russians' position in Crimea and parts of Donbas, they are not going to fight a war for Assad."
"It is good for us to be aware how they fight," said Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, in an interview with Military Times on Sept. 10. "We have not fought wars the way they do in kind of an urban, mixed urban and nonurban setting with UAVs, with electronic jamming."
Farkas is stepping down from her post at the end of October, after five years at the Defense Department. It's unclear who will take her place as the Pentagon's key policy maker for Russia-related issues.
For the small cadre of U.S. military professionals who've been working alongside Ukrainian government forces, the fight against Russian-backed rebels is a major change from their recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We've got a ton of experience in low-intensity warfare, counterinsurgency warfare, whereas a bulk of the Ukraine experience is facing a 21st-century, near-peer adversary," said Army Lt. Col. Michael Kloepper, commander of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, which recently began its third rotation into Ukraine to train that nation's military forces.
The Army deployments are part of a broader U.S. military effort to reassure NATO allies rattled by Russia's actions. Yet the Obama administration has been reluctant to provide more robust support, determined, it seems, to avoid the potential for a proxy war with the Russians.
Russian has lined thousands of troops and large tank and artillery units along its Ukrainian border. Those Russian troops routinely shell the border towns and make incursions into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels in the contested areas. So far, the administration has pledged only "nonlethal aid" for training and gear such as Humvees, small drones and radar.
Washington has placed economic sanctions on Russia, sent U.S. troops to help train Ukrainian forces and has ramped up military exercises across Eastern Europe. But it has not yet provided any offensive weaponry and ammunition, and it has not threatened military action against Russia. Since March 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine, the U.S. has contributed $244 million in nonlethal security assistance and training. For comparison, that amount would pay for about three weeks of operations in Iraq and Syria.
Ukrainian officials in Kiev have made repeated pleas for more. "We need anti-tank Javelin systems, intelligence and combat drones, ... fighter jets, helicopters, electronic and signal intelligence systems, radars and sound intelligence systems" to counter Russian military equipment used by Moscow-backed separatists on the eastern front, said Colonel General Victor Muzhenko, the Ukrainian military's top officer. They've also asked for anti-aircraft guns and more equipment to neutralize enemy snipers, he told Military Times.
There are between 30,000 and 35,000 Russian-backed fighters in Eastern Ukraine, about 9,000 of whom are coming solely from the Russian front, Muzhenko estimates. They're using sophisticated electronic warfare systems to jam the Ukrainians' communications, radar, GPS and early warning-detection equipment, said Ihor Dolhov, Ukraine's deputy defense minister for European integration.
It's a unique battlespace, and the Americans who have provided training to Ukrainian forces are eager to collect intelligence about the Russians' new mode of combat. "It has been interesting to hear what they have learned," Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told Defense News, a sister publication of Military Times. "No Americans have been under Russian artillery or rocket fire or been on the receiving end of significant Russian electronic warfare, the jamming and collecting, for example, not at tactical levels."
The future of the Ukraine conflict is unclear. In late September, all sides agreed to withdraw tanks and heavy artillery from Ukraine's eastern front. A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine also appears to be holding, although each side remains wary, and local parliamentary elections set to take place Oct. 25 may be upended by pro-Russian separatists, who aim to hold their own elections.
For now, Obama shows no signs of conceding to Russian control the regions Ukraine has controlled for decades. "We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated," Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in a major speech on Sept. 28. "That's the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners imposed on Russia. It's not a desire to return to the Cold War."
Putin and his military have menaced the Baltic countries, who are among the newest and weakest NATO partners. Russia has repeatedly sent military aircraft into Baltic airspace, patrolled submarines in the Baltic Sea and allegedly mounted cyber-attacks. And Russian officials have voiced support for Russian-speaking minorities, raising the specter of future agitation.
The aggression in the Baltics, especially Estonia, which has a large Russian-speaking minority, has been more ambiguous than Moscow's overt operations in Ukraine and Syria. The argument goes that Putin would employ a type of hybrid warfare perfected in Ukraine to rally ethnic Russian populations in the Baltic states to rise up in support with special operations forces — the so-called "little green men."
That has sparked concern in the West that Putin's ultimate goal is to break NATO with force, if intimidation fails. NATO is struggling to figure out how to respond, with member nations holding differing perspectives on when Russian behavior crosses a red line. It's about "working out at what point a military response is the correct response," said Nick de Larrinaga, a London-based analyst for IHS Jane's Defense and Security Group. "Hybrid warfare casts doubts about when there should be a military response, or whether this is a civilian issue that should be taken care of by local law enforcement," he said.
Another option for Russia, of course, is to shift to a conventional fight. A review of the military balance in the immediate Baltic theater would seem to give Russia an initial advantage in an aerial campaign against NATO, if Moscow's political objective was to push NATO out of the Baltics.
According to a recent report by international think tank Chatham House, Russia's military strength in its Western Military District stands at 65,000 ground troops, 850 pieces of artillery, 750 tanks, and 320 combat aircraft. Other estimates are much higher, but in general there is a high degree of uncertainty about how much of those forces exist only on paper, and how many are truly prepared for combat.
Another aspect of the Russian military that gets overhyped is its Baltic Fleet, the smallest of Russia's main fleets and truly a shadow of its former self. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the coastal infrastructure that stretched from Kalingrad to Leningrad was lost to the newly independent Baltic states.
Today, the fleet is split between Kalingrad and St. Petersburg, making it difficult to support a larger fleet. The Baltic Fleet's assets today include only two small Kilo-class diesel powered submarines, one of which is used mostly for training, along with a handful of Sovremenny-class destroyers, a frigate, four corvettes, and a smattering of support ships.
For a conventional operation, Russia also could bring assets from its Northern Fleet, which frequently patrols the North Atlantic, into the Baltic theater to support a larger action.
That threat could become a powerful one if Russia's true goal in the Baltics is to force NATO into showing that it won't honor Article V, the key element of the alliance treaty that holds an attack on one member nation will be met with a swift and unified response from all member nations.
Defense News' Russia correspondent, Matthew Bodner, contributed to this report from Moscow.