NY TimesCrimea Offers Showcase for Russia’s Rebooted Military
By C. J. CHIVERS and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
APRIL 2, 2014
PEREVALNOYE, Crimea — The soldiers guarding the entrances to the surrounded Ukrainian military base here just south of the capital, Simferopol, had little in common with their predecessors from past Russian military actions.
Lean and fit, few if any seemed to be conscripts. Their uniforms were crisp and neat, and their new helmets were bedecked with tinted safety goggles. They were sober.
And there was another indicator of an army undergoing an upgrade: compact encrypted radio units distributed at the small-unit level, including for soldiers standing such routine duty as guard shifts beside machine-gun trucks. The radios are a telltale sign of a sweeping modernization effort undertaken five years ago by Vladimir V. Putin that has revitalized Russia’s conventional military capabilities, frightening some of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe and forcing NATO to re-evaluate its longstanding view of post-Soviet Russia as a nuclear power with limited ground muscle.
Across Crimea in the past several weeks, a sleek new vanguard of the Russian military has been on display, with forces whose mobility, equipment and behaviors were sharply different from those of the Russian forces seen in action in the brief war in Georgia in 2008 or throughout the North Caucasus over nearly two decades of conflict with Muslim separatists.
Past Russian military actions have often showcased an army suffering from a poor state of discipline and supply, its ranks filled mostly with the conscripts who had not managed to buy deferments or otherwise evade military service. Public drunkenness was common, as were tactical indecisiveness and soldiers who often looked like they could not run a mile, much less swiftly.
Not so in Crimea. After a Kremlin campaign to overhaul the military, including improvements in training and equipment and, notably, large increases in pay, the results could be seen in the field. They were evident not only in the demeanor of the Russian soldiers but also in the speed with which they overwhelmed Crimea with minimal violence.
The Kremlin’s investment, analysts said, has revived Russia’s military, which has now shown that it can field a competent and even formidable force, and both guard the nation and project power to neighboring states.
“The development of Russian armed forces is going in two big trends, first strengthening of strategic nuclear forces, giving a guarantee that no one country in this world will try to attack Russia,” said Aleksandr Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow.
“Second, the development of these rapid deployment forces,” he said, “to deal with any kind of local conflict, such as the war against Georgia, or this operation in Ukraine or anywhere.”
“As a result of these reforms,” Mr. Golts added, “Russia now has absolute superiority over any country in the post-Soviet space.”
One Western official who analyzes military forces in the region said the differences from the past were striking. “It does seem to us that they are much more professional this time around,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s impressive.”
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The transformation of the armed forces has been a personal priority of Mr. Putin, who as prime minister from 2009 to 2012 and more recently in his return to the presidency, has overseen billions of dollars in new military expenditures. The military was one of the few areas of the Russian budget to receive big spending increases, along with preparations for the Sochi Olympics, the 2018 World Cup and improvements to the railroad system, which is also a military asset.
Since the start of 2012, salaries for most military personnel have roughly tripled, to between $700 and $1,150 a month for privates and sergeants — a respectable amount in Russian terms. The Kremlin has also expanded housing and education benefits.
In a speech to military officers in February shortly after the raises were enacted, Mr. Putin declared, “I have always believed that military servicemen should be paid, as has always been the case in Russia, by the way, even more than skilled specialists in the sphere of economics or administration or other civilian sectors.”
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