Putin's Russia seeks to project power with modern military

2016-12-07 06:20
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Manish Swarup, AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Manish Swarup, AP)

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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, demoralised military into agile forces 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.

Military power

READ: Russian military considers return to Cuba, Vietnam

The key question: Will an emboldened Putin keep deploying his forces in bitterly disputed unilateral actions, or could the US election of Donald Trump mean a potential thaw in relations and new era of co-operation?

Trump's nominee for national security adviser, retired US Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn , has said he sees Russia as a possible military partner in Syria and elsewhere.

Putin's military power today stands in stark contrast to the dying days of the Soviet Union, when Russia inherited the bulk of the four million-strong Soviet army, conscript-heavy forces it could barely afford to feed.

Russia rapidly reduced those ranks to just over one million and then found itself struggling through much of the 1990s to defeat rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russia's military has one million soldiers today.

During its five-day war with tiny Georgia, 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, Putin and military commanders committed to a programme of radical restructuring and spending.

Perhaps the most important change today is in the calibre 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 emphasising the military as a career.


While conscripts are paid a paltry 2 000 rubles ($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 salary of around 40 000 rubles ($620), better than average civilian wages.

Russia's Defence 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 two-year-old recession had weakened the jobs market and made it "much easier to recruit volunteer contract soldiers".

At a newly opened recruitment centre in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in Russia's central heartland, officers in crisp new uniforms distribute colourful army leaflets and run computerised assessment tests on candidates.

"The military is getting stronger as the number of contract soldiers is rising," said Major-General Alexander Yarenko, who oversees the Yekaterinburg recruitment office. "Weapons are quite complex, requiring a high level of training."

Read more on:    russia  |  security

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