Three weeks ago, Russian paratroopers under the command of Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov sent 4,000 km from Moscow to Kazakhstan at the invitation of its government to help curb mass protests. They completed their peacekeeping mission in just 10 days and traveled.
Compared to the limited and lightning-fast operation in Kazakhstan, the international community today warns that Russia seems to be preparing for a very different operation: a comprehensive invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has repeatedly denied plans to invade, despite open source intelligence shows that it continues to mass troops on the border between the countries. But should President Vladimir Putin order an attack, 62-year-old Serdyukov, the leader of Russia’s VDV paratroopers – the world’s largest airborne force – is likely to play a leading role.
“The VDV is typically the spearhead,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the CNA and author of a much-cited article on Putin’s military strategy. “It has already fought a lot in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. You will see a lot of VDV formations in any new invasion.”
Serdyukov’s career, which has included deployments in Chechnya and Crimea, illustrates how Russia’s army has developed under Putin, where the military, along with the country’s nuclear arsenal, has become a key instrument in the president’s foreign policy, analysts say.
Two decades ago, the military was a enslaved and ill-equipped Soviet force of poorly paid conscripts, padded with officers – almost one for every soldier – who took heavy losses during the brutal repression of the Islamist uprising in Chechnya.
Today, analysts say, it is a streamlined force capable of conducting peacekeeping operations in Kazakhstan, interventions outside the theater, such as in Syria in 2015, and more covert missions, such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The Ukrainian army may be better than it was in 2014, but Russian forces are still far stronger and have also modernized,” said Bettina Renz, author of Russia’s military revival and Professor of International Security at Nottingham University. “[Russia] has more options, and with that comes more options. ”
The turning point came in 2008, when Russian forces fought a war with Georgia. The operation lasted only five days, yet several planes were lost to friendly fire, and the field communication was so poor that the commanders allegedly had to use their own mobile phones. Reconnaissance drones could only send images after landing instead of in real time.
A massive renewal followed. Salaries were raised, equipment modernized, combat strategies refined, and a demoralized officer class increasingly put into action. Poorly trained conscripts began to be replaced by career soldiers.
“Now [army] is able to select and recruit. . . maybe not the absolute best, but not the worst either, ”said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategy and Technology Analysis.
The Pentagon warned last week that Russia had deployed enough troops and equipment to invade Ukraine at all times and had a “range of options”, including an attack aimed at occupying the country.
Analysts estimate that 52 Iskander ballistic missile launchers have been deployed near the border, plus 76 combat-ready battalion tactical groups, which average 800 troops, more than double the usual number.
In total, Russia has an army of about 900,000 men, including 280,000 land troops. Over the past decade, it has added new aircraft, modernized its tanks, and reduced the ratio of conscripts to conscripted soldiers from nearly half to 30 percent.
Ukraine has an active force of 261,000 men, of whom 145,000 are in the army, plus a further 900,000 reservists. Although hardened by eight years of conflict in the Donbas, where separatists are fighting to break out of Kiev, the Ukrainians lack comprehensive air defense systems, most of which remain in Crimea and are in Russian hands.
The fruits of Russia’s reforms became clear during the annexation of Crimea and were confirmed the following year in Syria, analysts say. “To the surprise of many people here, including my Russian actions [in Syria] were successful, efficient and cost-effective, ”said Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, in a recent interview at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for International Studies.
Syria also served as a test site for precision missile attacks and unmanned vehicles and as a training ground for more than 60,000 crews, including officers.
“Serdyukov’s experience is the rule rather than the exception,” said Henry Boyd, a military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Russia has a deep front bench of senior commanders.”
The reforms have not always matched the ambitions, analysts believe. Lack of qualified personnel and high-tech components, especially advanced chips, have delayed deliveries of next-generation equipment. “Have you heard of many cases where our people went to study at MIT, for example, and then returned to Russia? I have not,” Pukhov said.
Yet military experts say Russia’s modernized forces are capable of delivering a massive dose of blunt force.
“Russian missiles may not be accurate enough to target the top right window of a building that the United States and its allies can. But they are still accurate enough to blow up the entire building,” said Samuel Cranny-Evans, a military science analyst at Royal United Services Institute.
With Ukraine, Russia has also retained a moment of surprise. By parking equipment against the border, which can then be manned by troops advancing quickly, Kofman said, the extent and timing of any final operation would not be revealed until late in the preparations.
“If the VDV starts moving forces to take a stand near Ukraine’s borders, it is a good indicator that they are planning an offensive,” Kofman added.