Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reveals a change in the approach of the Russian armed forces, as well as an uncompromising political approach. This reflects lessons learnt from military operations over two decades and observing others.
The Kremlin has used its military power on a number of occasions since 1991 to achieve strategic and foreign policy goals. In the process it has achieved a number of firsts.
The 1994-1996 Chechen conflict was Russia’s first post-Soviet war. In 2008, Georgia was Russia’s first war of the era against a foreign state. And Syria was portrayed as Russia’s first western-style intervention, fought as much as possible at distance, either through the use of long-range precision strike or proxy forces.
One of President Vladimir Putin’s first priorities on taking power in 2000 was to halt the perceived decline of the Russian armed forces, which have undergone a comprehensive programme of reform and modernisation. There was a clear transformation between the 1994-96 Chechen conflict and Russia’s ongoing operations in Syria and Ukraine.
Lessons from Georgia
The 2008 war with Georgia saw the Russian armed forces fight a conventional war, after years of conflict against insurgents seeking independence from Russia in Chechnya and the north Caucasus. Despite overwhelming numerical superiority and the rapid expulsion of the Georgian armed forces from South Ossetia, Russia’s military performance in the 2008 war highlighted some continuing significant weaknesses.
These included a lack of precision-guided munitions and an inability to gain air superiority in the area of operations. This led to the conclusion that Russia was still poorly prepared to fight a modern conflict, even against a weaker opponent.
In the wake of the war with Georgia, ambitious defence reform was initiated by former defence minister Anatoly Serdyukhov. There was considerable investment in modernisation and rearmament. The biggest reform was a ten-year weapons-modernisation programme launched in 2010. The aim was to go from only 10% of kit classed as “modern” to 70% by 2020.
A particular focus has been on the development of long-range and high-precision weapons. Russia believes that such weapons play a decisive role in contemporary conflict, used to target an adversary’s critical national infrastructure. Russia demonstrated its new capabilities in precision strike in October 2015, when it fired Kalibr missile strikes from ships in the Caspian Sea to hit targets over 1,500km away in Syria.
The Kremlin has also drawn lessons about how to present its military interventions. Putin has framed the invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” to protect civilians from “genocide”. This is a cynical attempt to portray the invasion as a humanitarian intervention.
Moscow took a similar approach in 2008. It maintained that its invasion was intended to stop the alleged genocide of the Ossetian people by Georgian forces, and to protect Russian citizens resident in South Ossetia.
Nato’s air campaign against Serbia in 1999 appeared to set a precedent for military action. The alliance circumvented the UN, arguing that its campaign was necessary to halt crimes against humanity that were being conducted by a state within its own borders.
Critics argued that humanitarian intervention was a pretext for the use of force against a sovereign state. This emboldened others (including Russia) to follow suit and pursue their own interests under the guise of humanitarian intervention. Moscow did not hesitate to use associated arguments to defend its actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Learning from western responses
The Russian intervention in Georgia demonstrated the lengths Moscow was prepared to go to in order to prevent countries in what it considers to be its sphere of influence integrating more closely with the west. Russia’s invasion of Georgia also demonstrated the apparent weakness of the west, highlighting a lack of unity.
There was a very limited response to the invasion and subsequent recognition by Russia and a small group of allies of Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as independent states. Georgia continues to consider them under occupation. This action has clear parallels to that of the breakaway pro-Russian regions in Ukraine.
Moscow exploited the lack of consensus amongst western allies during its 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russian involvement was deliberately ambiguous, such as the use of troops in unmarked military uniforms, in order to confuse and forestall any international response.
The 2008 crisis revealed the limits of western influence within Russia’s “zone of privileged interest”. It also drew attention to the lack of internal unity within organisations such as Nato over relations with Moscow and future engagement with the area. It could be argued that this emboldened Putin to take action in Ukraine.
Part of the problem is Europe’s over-reliance on Russia as a supplier of natural gas. This has been a long-running issue for European energy security and Europe has long been aware of the dangers.
Little progress has been made in reducing dependence on Russian gas since the wake-up call of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. In 2020 Russian gas giant Gazprom exported 174.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas to Europe. This was down from the record highs of around 200bcm in 2018 and 2019, despite diplomatic tensions and the EU’s long-running objective to reduce its dependence on Russia.
Revenues from oil and gas exports have enabled Russia to continue investing in its military capabilities. These exports are also a critical vulnerability for a number of European states.
Unlike Russia, the west did not learn from 2008. Putin clearly considered western sanctions to be a price worth paying, and calculated that western support for Ukraine would not extend to direct military intervention. Because of this, western warnings about the consequences of a military invasion have not been taken seriously and failed to deter Putin from sending his troops into Ukraine.