Their army’s equipment and strategy was “outmoded”; their air force’s bombs and missiles were “more dumb than smart”; their navy was “more rust than ready”. For decades, this was Western military leaders’ view, steeped in condescension, of their Russian counterparts. What they have seen in Syria and Ukraine has come as a shock.
Russian military jets have, at times, been carrying out more sorties in a day in Syria than the US-led coalition has done in a month. The Russian navy has launched ballistic missiles from the Caspian Sea 900 miles way, and kept supply lines going to Syria. The air defences installed by the Russians in Syria and eastern Ukraine would make it extremely hazardous for the West to carry out strikes against the Assad regime or Ukrainian separatists.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the US army in Europe, has described Russian advances in electronic warfare in Syria and Ukraine – a field in which they were typically supposed to be backward – as “eye watering”.
The chief of US Air Force operations in Europe and Africa, Lieutenant General Frank Gorenc, has disclosed that Moscow is now deploying anti-aircraft systems in Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed from Ukraine last year, and in Kaliningrad, an enclave between Lithuania and Poland. It is doing so, he says, in a way that makes it “very, very difficult” for Nato planes to gain access safely to areas including parts of Poland.
It is not just Nato member states watching the Russians with concern. Israel, too, sees the build-up of Russian weaponry across its northern border in Syria and wonders where it will all end. Their apprehension is that the advanced equipment already in situ in the Middle East will end up with Iran, viewed as an existential threat to the Jewish state, or with other Arab countries, thus eroding the air superiority that is Israel’s primary advantage over its neighbours.
It is this military might that is underpinning President Vladimir Putin’s strategic triumphs. His intervention in Syria has been a game changer and what happens there now lies, to a large extent, in his hands. The Ukraine conflict is semi-frozen, on his terms. The Russians are allying with the Kurds, unfazed by the Turkish anger this has provoked. And, crucially, they are now returning to Egypt to an extent not seen for 44 years, since they were kicked out by President Anwar Sadat.
One of the most senior analysts in Israeli military intelligence told The Independent in Tel Aviv last week: “Anyone who wants anything done in this region is beating a path to Moscow.”
Mr Putin has relished pointing out the significance of the West seeing “for the first time that these weapons do exist, that they are of high quality, and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use. They have now seen, too, that Russia is ready to use them if this is in the interest of our country and our people.”
One reason for the dearth of coalition sorties is that its Sunni state members are carrying out scarcely any missions, focusing instead on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Operations by Turkey, meanwhile, have been overwhelmingly against the Kurds rather than Isis.
Western defence officials also contend that the Russians are hitting other rebel groups in the guise of attacking Isis and that they are more indiscriminate in their targeting because they are less sensitive to any evidence of civilian casualties and because of their lack of precision-guided weaponry.
But Russia had never promised it was going to attack only Isis. Instead, it declared that “all terrorists” would be targeted. This, conveniently for Mr Putin and President Bashar al-Assad, has included more moderate rebel groups. Experience of the Chechen wars show that the Kremlin is, indeed, more prepared to shrug off “collateral damage” than the West. It is also true that there were not enough Russian guided bombs and missiles in the first stage of the Syrian mission: Moscow’s claim that it has used precision weapons alone does not stand up to scrutiny.
The aircraft, missiles and bombs used at first were a mix of old, dating from the Soviet era, and relatively new. There are 34 fixed-wing aircraft based at Latakia: 12 Su-25s and four Su-30SM fighter-bombers; 12 ageing Su-24M2s and six Su-34s. There are also helicopters and an unspecified number of drones.
However, more of the most advanced of these, the Su-34, codenamed Fullback by Nato, have been replacing older aircraft. One reason for this is that aircraft such as the Su-25, a veteran of the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, are vulnerable to Manpads – shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles – which Moscow suspects the Turks and the Saudis have been supplying to Sunni rebels.
The introduction by the Kremlin of advanced air-defence systems has gained impetus since the shooting down of a Russian jet by the Turks. The S-400 Triumph system is a source of great Israeli worry should it fall into “wrong hands”. This has an array radar that continuously monitors the skies, and a missile battery which can shoot down targets 250 miles away. One such array is positioned at the Russian base at Latakia and covers half of Israeli airspace.
The deployment of Russian electronic warfare equipment in Ukraine and Syria, such as the Krasukha-4 which can jam Awacs and satellite radar systems, has been another sobering experience for Nato. Ronald Pontius, deputy to the US Army head of cyber command, stated: “You cannot but come to the conclusion that we are not making progress at the pace the threat demands.”
Gen Gorenc, while bemoaning the proliferation by Russia and worrying about Nato’s capabilities, acknowledged that Russia was not breaking any international agreements and “has every right” to deploy these systems. In Syria, he said, the Russians were using “cruise missiles, they are using bombers. It is clear that they are desiring to show the ability they have to affect not just regional events, but worldwide events.”
That, indeed, is the point. The question for the West is whether to react to this by initiating a new chapter of confrontation with Moscow, or one of greater accommodation.