Russia Is Using Syria as a Training Ground for Its Revamped Military and Shiny New Toys

Following the 2008 war in Georgia, Russia projected an air of victory. Georgian forces were crushed, and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were bolstered. But the win was clouded by the poor performance of Russian ground and air forces in what had turned out to be a far messier and bloodier campaign than the Kremlin envisioned. And in the aftermath, Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s prime minister, launched a massive program to trim the country’s bloated military, beef up training, and replace its outdated hardware.
Two-and-a-half months into Russia’s air war in Syria, the fruits of those reforms are on display as Moscow ups the ante in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, Russia hit targets near Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, with cruise missiles launched from an advanced stealth submarine in the Mediterranean Sea. Combined with increased airstrikes, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed the military had launched a massive air raid over three days and helped Syrian special operations forces recover the black box of a Russian warplane downed by Turkey last month.

The latest display of force comes as Moscow continues to flex its military muscle after firing missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea in October and November.

Moscow’s operation in Syria is still relatively limited in scale, but the Kremlin has been using the military campaign as a testing ground for new weaponry and hardware. In doing so, it is alerting the United States and other Western powers of Russia’s newly restored military prowess after decades of decay.

“The missiles launched from the submarine were more of a political weapon aimed at Washington, rather than a military one aimed at ISIS,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy.

The Rostov-on-Don submarine is believed to be one of the quietest in the world, making it an excellent tool for stealth operations. But Harmer said the use of such sophisticated technology, along with cruise missiles, are a curious choice given that Russian air power would be much cheaper and more effective.

“There is no tactical reason for Russia to fire a cruise missile. They are using these to show the world that they can,” said Harmer.

The bombing campaign in Syria is being conducted openly, is heavily documented on social media by the Ministry of Defense, and is trumpeted on Russian state television. Soon after Russia fired 26 sea-based cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea in early October, footage (which can be seen below) was shared across the Ministry of Defense’s social media accounts.