LONDON (Reuters) - Refitting Soviet-era warships, fielding new aircraft and tanks and seeking new overseas bases, the Russian military that now has troops on alert amidst a crisis in Ukraine is more potent than the force which briefly fought Georgia six years ago.
Moscow is seriously investing in building its clout. Since 2008, it has raised military spending by almost a third and drastically reformed both the armed forces and defense industry to tackle post-Cold War decay.
But Russian forces remain much weaker than at their Soviet peak and face huge problems ranging from corruption to a long-term shortage of recruits, not to mention the risk of insurgency if they ever set foot in Ukraine.
Moscow denies any direct link between its surprise military drills announced on Wednesday and Ukraine, where largely pro-Western demonstrators ousted Viktor Yanukovich, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, last weekend.
Nevertheless, the decision to put 150,000 troops on high alert along with jet fighters on Russia’s Western borders - where Ukraine lies - raised memories of Putin’s invasion of Georgia. Moscow’s expressions of concern for the safety of Russian citizens in Ukraine have also used similar language to statements that preceded the Georgian campaign.
In that five-day war, Russian troops evicted their Georgian counterparts from the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But the outdated forces suffered losses at the hands of the sometimes more technically advanced, Western-equipped Georgians, prompting soul-searching and criticism in Moscow.
Complaints included a lack of sophisticated radar, night vision and communications equipment. According to some accounts, three of the four Russian aircraft lost were downed by their own side.
London’s Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimates defense spending rose 31 percent between 2008 and 2013 to $68.2 billion. Russia is now firmly established as the world’s third-largest military spender behind the United States and China, and the chaos under President Boris Yeltsin, who stood down in 1999 to make way for Putin, is a thing of the past.
“There is a sense in the broader U.S. political discussion that Russia is still the basket case military of the Yeltsin era, but that is wrong,” says Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official and now fellow at the Washington-based Centre for a New American Security. “(It) is not the Red Army of the 1970s but it has made considerable strides.”
While Russian officials say Moscow will not intervene in Ukraine, many Western analysts are skeptical about their assertions that the exercises are not linked to the crisis in the former Soviet republic. Russia’s sabre rattling, they say, is another sign of its military confidence and willingness to use it to dominate those countries it once controlled.
“There is certainly an element of intimidation to it,” says Dmitry Gorenburg, Russia specialist at the U.S. government-funded Centre for Naval Analyses, part of the not-for-profit CNA Corporation. “They have put a great deal of effort into military reforms since Georgia and some of it has worked. They probably do have a greater ability to intervene in Ukraine than they did then - it’s not that big a step up.”
While any actual invasion could initially succeed, he said Moscow might struggle in the face of a resultant insurgency. A more limited operation in majority Russian-speaking Crimea - already home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet - could prove more achievable but is also seen unlikely for now.
Russia says it is ready to work with the West on resolving the crisis but the interests of all Ukrainians must be taken into account. It accuses the new leaders in Kiev of violating a Western-backed peace deal and ignoring the interests of Russian-speakers.
The wargames scheduled to last from Friday until next week are not the first of their kind. In September, the “Zapad-13” exercise in Belarus saw 10,000 Russian troops deployed along the border with the Baltic states, former Soviet republics which now belong to the European Union.
Another surprise exercise last July in Russia’s east involved 160,000 troops and was seen by some as a reminder that Moscow also remains nervous about its border with China.
Both exercises involved a level of activity its forces would have been incapable of even five years ago, analysts say.
Russia is also asserting itself on the world stage. While its ability to send the army much beyond former Soviet borders seems limited, its warships have increased operations in the Arctic, Pacific, Baltic and Atlantic while returning to a near permanent presence in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean for the first time in years. Russian long-range bombers are again periodically probing NATO airspace.
On Wednesday, defense minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow was planning to expand its presence outside its borders with new military bases in a number of countries including Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles and even Singapore.
How viable these plans might be is unclear.
Since Georgia, Russia has abolished its cumbersome structure of undermanned divisions designed to fight on massive European fronts, replacing them with much more flexible smaller brigades and reducing the size of its officer corps by a third.
The armaments industry was reorganized into a small number of largely state-owned firms, while Moscow promised that by 2020, 70 percent of its military equipment would be modernized.
It has also partnered French manufacturers in building helicopter carriers, other European firms on ground vehicles and Israeli specialists on unmanned drones.
In 2013, Russia began testing of its new Armata tank and hopes to acquire more than 2,000 over the next decade.
New SU-35 fighter jets are entering service as it also works on a new T-50 stealth fighter. Older Soviet warships are being upgraded and others entering construction.
According to IISS, Russia now operates one aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 18 destroyers, nine frigates and 82 coastal warships as well as 64 submarines - 11 carrying ballistic missiles. Its air force is believed to have about 1,400 combat capable aircraft.
The size of the army has long been unclear and Western analysts say boasts of one million men under arms have long been empty as Russia struggles to attract and retain conscripts and professional recruits. IISS estimates Russia has 845,000 military personnel with a largely theoretical reserve of 2 million people with recent military service.
How much further the military will grow is also unclear. Its 2013-30 State Defense Plan, experts say, appears based on 6 percent annual economic growth while actual growth in 2013 was under two percent.
Corruption remains a serious problem. In May 2011, Russia’s chief military prosecutor acknowledged that as much as a fifth of state defense spending every year was stolen.
Demographics are also not going Russia’s way. According the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the number of 18 year-old men will fall from 1.1 million in 2007 to 630,000 by 2017, only two thirds of whom may be fit enough to serve.
Militarily, however, it still far outclasses Ukraine.
According to IISS, Kiev has 129,950 military personnel but has struggled to make its own military reforms. Aircraft availability and serviceability are low while its navy is struggling to repair its sole diesel electric submarine.
“Moscow’s armed forces have already accomplished the organizational transition from mass mobilization army to modern combat force,” analysts Margarete Klein and Kristian Pester wrote in a January report for Germany’s SWP. “Greater military muscle flexing must be expected.”
editing by David Stamp