Publication: The Military Balance 2016
09 February 2016
Russia’s decision, in September 2015, to deploy combat forces to Syria resharpened focus on the capabilities of the Russian armed forces and the results of Russia’s ongoing military-reform programme. A year after they occupied Crimea and deployed in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have remained active near the border with Ukraine – and some, it is widely reported, are still in eastern Ukraine itself.
The decision to militarily support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime and to take an active part in the Syrian civil war was a departure in a relationship previously limited (at least publicly) to diplomatic support as well as the supply of defence materiel, and constituted a significant step. At the end of October, the intervention seemed to comprise mainly combat air assets, particularly air-to-ground capabilities, operating primarily against rebel groups in direct combat with regime forces in the west of the country, though Russian airstrikes have also targeted Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham forces more widely in the country.
Moscow may be keen to avoid involving regular forces from service branches other than the air force and any special forces operating in a training-and-support role, particularly in extended ground operations. Broadly, Russian activity is designed to support the actions of regime and allied ground forces. But for military as well as political analysts, the deployment is significant as it allows a chance to assess the performance of another arm of Russia’s armed forces on active service. Since 2014 there has been an opportunity to examine elements of Russian ground forces, but the Syria operation provides a chance to analyse the air force, in a manner that has not been possible since the 2008 war in Georgia. It also allows for the examination of the modernisation process eight years after the start of the Novy Oblik reforms (see previous editions of The Military Balance), and possibly also an insight into how that process has changed since the defence-ministerial portfolio passed from Anatoly Serdyukov to Sergei Shoigu.