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Expert: Syria Deployment Pushing the Limits of Russian Military Capability

Russian solider in Syria in 2016. Kremlin Photo

While the Kremlin’s newly professionalized military is armed with top-of-the-line ship-launched cruise missiles, flying more capable strike aircraft and firing precision munitions Russia, “does not have the ability to sustain forces far from the border,” a military expert said on Wednesday.

“Syria pushed Russian logistics to its limits,” Anton Lavrov, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and affiliated with the Center for Analysis and Technologies in Moscow, said.

Moscow’s logistical trouble in Syria to maintain the 5,000 personnel, helicopters and aircraft illustrate one of the serious shortfalls in President Vladimir Putin’s drive to pull Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces out of their post-Soviet decay.

“Russia doesn’t have the capability to sustain 20,000” troops in continuous operations far from its borders for any length of time. Even getting there is a challenge — from pier to pier, Lavrov said. The Kremlin had to buy old Black Sea merchant ships in Crimea and convert them into transports to move the soldiers and equipment including large trucks and heavy artillery, to its base in Syria and ports under the control of President Bashar al-Assad.

And that was for movement into an uncontested area at the water’s edge.

Moscow has not invested in amphibious assault in its current modernization program.

Undated photo of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Kremlin Photo

While noting the effectiveness of the ship-launched cruise missile strikes in how naval forces are being modernized and used in Syria, he contrasted their performance with that of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on its problem-plagued deployment to the Mediterranean. Lavrov said Moscow’s “Blue Water Navy” is smaller now than it was 10 years ago, and it “will not be better [or larger] in the mid or long term.”

Russia’s naval shipyards, largely operating in ways similar to the Soviet-era, are struggling to complete large overhaul projects of the existing surface fleet, much less build modern warships. As a result of that and tightening budgets, Russia has scrapped earlier plans to build nuclear-power cruisers and destroyers. They were to be proof of its return as a global naval power.

“It’s much more realistic” to invest in smaller ships and submarines, essentially a “Green Water Navy,” Lavrov said. It is “more able to defend the country.” In addition to precision strike and naval aircraft, that’s where naval funds are going.

That investment strategy also figures into its air defense spending, concentrating on cruise and ballistic missile threats from North Korea, Iran and eastern European neighbors, he added.

While lacking the ability project power over great distances, the analyst saw no inclination among Kremlin leaders they want to abandon their naval base in Syria. In that regard, “Syria is an anomaly.” That base is a clear demonstration of power projection, “maybe not in Europe, but the Middle East, Iraq, the Persian Gulf “where it wants influence.” And that’s why Russia is interested in Syria” as a site for a naval base.

Syria also has presented the Russians with a unique opportunity to assess American tactics, performance and equipment. “The Russian military can learn much … about Western capabilities and experience” in combat similar to theirs.

Lavrov said the Russian public, like the American, “don’t want high casualties” in the Kremlin’s interventions even in the “near abroad,” like Ukraine and Georgia, and most certainly further from their borders like Syria. Russians have been engaged in the Syrian civil war for almost three years.

They want its military leaders “to use technical superiority to fight” over putting “boots on the ground” or, when needed, use proxies for ground combat over committing Russian troops. “Russian leaders must hear the people,” he added.

Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov in transit to the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. UK MoD Photo

Lavrov said most of the modernization effort has been poured into defending Russian frontiers and moving away from a conscript military. “Russia fears invasion across the border from any coalition of forces.” He dismissed the idea that Kremlin planning and force positioning is such that it aims at capturing the Baltic nations in a matter of days if war broke out. Likewise, because the armed forces don’t train on using tactical nuclear weapons in a crisis, including its latest large-scale exercise, he doubted whether they figure highly in Russia’s military planning. “It is something for worst case scenario.”

In addition to the strategic nuclear forces, defense spending has been funneled into the army. Its contract soldiers — volunteers rather than draftees — are paid more than conscripts and bring a more professional tone to the ranks. Historically, Russia has looked to its army as the nation’s primary defense. “Ground forces still need to control territory [and they] need equipment,” and that’s where investment has gone under Putin and will continue to go, he said.

Lavrov said the impact of sanctions following the taking of Crimea and backing separatists in Ukraine first meant to modernize that former Soviet research and development projects that were feasible got the go ahead. Now after fielding them, like the precision munitions used in Syria, the Russians are looking at what will be the new tanks, fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, long-range drones with strike capabilities and laser-protection systems that they will need in the future.

To sustain the modernization effort and professionalization of the officer corps and ranks under those conditions, Russia needs to “scrap some programs.” Seventy percent of its announced defense budget goes to equipment, he added.

  • Duane

    If Russian leaders were smart and interested in defending Russia from external threats, they would have accepted our invitation to join NATO years ago, and normalized relations with the west. Tragically, that is not the nature or the strategy of their current kleptocratic murderous despotic rulers. They are bent instead on enriching themselves personally, at the expense of their own people, while faking a return to the supposed glories of the old Soviet Union.

    • publius_maximus_III

      I’m thinking maybe we need to send in an MEU to arrest all those Mueller-indicted co-conspirators. At least then we would have SOMETHING to show for a year worth of nothing.

    • KazuakiShimazaki

      When was that?

    • Mo Richard

      You’re not a very popular lunatic.

  • DaSaint


  • D. Jones

    I think it would be really neat if ALL the members of CSIS would go to Syria and report from the front.

  • DaSaint

    Be well!

  • Duane

    Trump certainly wishes he had Putin’s powers to to do as he would. But hundreds of years of republican democracy and institutions and the US Constitution and its bill of rights have so far frustrated him no end.

    The similarities between Russian culture, institutions, and constitutional government and those of the United States of America are non-existent. Thankfully so.

    • Bob

      I think Trump appreciates China’s and Russia’s abilities to trade and act on there own behalf so independantly seperate from allied restrictions and past leadership. Thats why he finds working with then so much more reliable rather then his own allies who tend to be swayed but lobbiests and private individuals.

  • lazy susan

    Like the Us in Afghanistan?

    • Ctrot

      Non sequitur

    • publius_maximus_III

      The Soviets were there before us, just like the French in Vietnam. Remember Charlie Wilson, the Mujaheddin, and Stinger missiles?

    • Scott1945est

      Like going after Al Queda after 9/11?

    • Bob

      The british couldnt win in afghanistan the Americans wont either. The war is a disaster

      • lazy susan

        China will win in Afghanistan, but not with firearms, with powertools.

  • Ed L

    This article reads to be condescending toward the capabilities of the Russia Military. I remember being told a long time ago in 5th grade (1963) is to never underestimate your opponent. Like having a handgun while going against a machine gun. Or in a fight forgetting that smaller guy throws his punches low. In the Cold War era the Soviet Union 10feet tall. They had weapon system galore ASM’s beast of the sky that carry massive warheads and could fly 300 plus miles from the aircraft. But the weakness was in their manpower. Remember the port visit in the early 90’s of Soviet warships plus an Oiler? I went aboard the Oiler on a open to public tour. The material condition of the Oiler was Pathetic. There was painted over rust on the winches. Valves looked rusted, winch wire looked Skeptical

    • publius_maximus_III

      A couple of heavy weights, Napoleon and Hitler, learned the hard way not to try to invade Mother Russia. I doubt anyone else will ever try again, though internal strife like in Chechnya, as the Bible says, “Ye always have among you.” Winters there are killers and the defenders’ best ally except for the starvation part (siege of Leningrad), and their spring thaws are nothing but mud, sweat, and tears at least for a mechanized army. They may not be at the same level of their global force projection game now as they once were, just before the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II team took the Soviets down one generation ago. But they’re still quite another matter on and around their home turf. Invaders beware!

    • Bob

      Russia hasnt been able to invest heavily on there conventional miltitary capabilities for 20 years since the collapse of the soviet union. Only recently have they started to make significant procurement gains since 2010. Before that is was miminal but if you were to compare America’s military from the 90s to today it is a huge differance. America had to pump billions just to upgrade there military so techincally today Russia has caught up and narrowed the gap largely but im not seeing there to be a total balance in military power with the states till atleast 2027-2035 and thats only do to the time spent with no military spending for so long. Russia is still very powerful they are able to beat any adversary in a head to head war including china which some anyalists doubt but are completely misrepresenting the facts of Russia possessing far more affective airpower and airdefence missle technology which leaves China defenseless only the Usa might be able to challenge Russia and Russia eventually the usa.

  • publius_maximus_III

    “Moscow has not invested in amphibious assault in its current modernization program.”

    Well, they did try to earlier though — purchasing two Mistral-class amphibs from France. But before they were completed, “das Poot” began misbehaving in the eastern Ukraine, so the French backed out of the deal (2014), gave the Russians a refund, and eventually sold them to somebody else — Egypt.

  • Ivan Owl

    The Type 42 destroyer in the above image of photo of Admiral Kuznetsov was decommissioned ‎30 March 2012… due to the decom process it would have been rather difficult for it to be there in 2016.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Short Years and Long Years are in the eyes of the beholder. For example, I would consider a one-year tour aboard the Cough-Cough-Brothers-Karamasov to be a very l-o-o-o-ng year indeed. Have to put in for brown lung disability benefits when she returns to home port.

  • Scott1945est

    Where’s the tinfoil on sale, Susan?

  • Ed L

    Latest news in Syria. JERUSALEM – Israel Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin revealed on Tuesday that stealth fighter jets have been participating in Israel’s attacks against Iranian targets in Syria.

    “The F-35 squadron has become an operational squadron. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity, and the Adir planes are flying all over the Middle East,” he said while presenting images of the F-35 over Beirut, Lebanon. “The Israeli Air Force has twice carried out strikes with the F-35, on two different fronts