The Russian army on the March is a terrifying sight—part Stalingrad, part Mad Max. In the Georgian town of Gori late last month, Russia's advance guard rode freshly painted tanks and armored personnel carriers in neat formation, crushing barriers and rolling over the Georgian Army with ease. "Behind the vanguard trailed Chechen and Ossetian irregulars in beards, skullcaps and running shoes, riding dirty Ladas and Soviet ambulances. Russian officials shrugged off reports of looting, calling it a "tradition of war." Some things, in other words, haven't changed. But for all that there was no denying that the Russians won with ease—and that in itself shows that something is going right with Russia's military machine.
Remember that just a decade ago this same Army was humiliated by a gang of Chechen rebels. Now the Russian steamroller is back in business, and able to execute the plans of an increasingly ambitious Kremlin. Last week, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced he was recognizing the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he said that he "wasn't afraid" of a new cold war. That may have been empty swagger—analysts agree that Russia is still very far from being able to take on NATO. But it is slowly and steadily creating an Army more than capable of dominating its own backyard.
As with most things in Russia today, the change is in part because of the country's vast new oil wealth. In 2006, then President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a $200 billion military overhaul. Annual budgets were increased to $40 billion a year, up from $15 billion in 2000, when Putin came to power. This money has been used for better training and morale-boosting measures like better pay and perks. Deputy Head of the Russian General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn says that the lessons of defeat in Afghanistan and Chechnya have been obvious for years—but "there were no resources" to capitalize on them. "Now," he says, "a new era has started." Russia's military today is "a reinvented institution and a military force to be reckoned with," says retired British general Sir Michael Rose.
The architect of the military revolution is Anatoly Serdyukov, a chubby 46-year-old former lawyer who managed a chain of St. Petersburg furniture stores before being recruited by his old friend Putin to reform Russia's armed forces in February 2007. According to defense analyst Ruslan Pukhov of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, in the year and a half since Serdyukov became Defense minister, the Army has seen "one grandiose scandal after another." But that's meant as a compliment: hired to end corruption and inefficiency, Serdyukov has delivered by firing nearly a third of the top officers of the Central Military Administration, selling off billions of dollars worth of land and real estate and launching an anticorruption audit soon after his appointment last year. Just days later, Viktor Vlasov, a general responsible for providing apartments to officers, shot himself with his own engraved Makarov pistol, and dozens of top-level resignations followed, including Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky. Their replacements are considered by analysts to be more forward-thinking, better trained and younger.
Perhaps Serdyukov's most important move has been to take on the military's insistence on universal conscription. In reality, only 8 percent of eligible Russian youths have served in recent years, but fines on draft dodgers provided income for corrupt officers, says Ella Polyakova of the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg. The old system was so badly managed that, as the Air Force's commander in chief, Col. Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov, complained last year, up to a third of recruits were "mentally unfit, drug addicts or imbeciles."
Serdyukov didn't scrap conscription altogether, but he reduced compulsory service from 18 months to 12. By 2010 he hopes that 70 percent of Russia's soldiers will be volunteers. He's also moved to crack down on egregious abuses, such as officers forcing conscripts into prostitution. "[Serdyukov] has never fought or smelled partianki [foot wraps Russian soldiers wear instead of socks]," says Pukhov. "But he knows that to win modern wars the Russian Army needs brigades of professional soldiers."
Ossetia showed Serdyukov's cleaned-up Army in action. Only volunteer soldiers with at least two years' training were used there. The 58th Army managed to deploy 23,000 troops to the region within 12 hours of the commencement of Georgia's shelling the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali—a huge improvement over the 10 days it took Russia to respond when Chechen rebels invaded Dagestan in 1999. According to independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, the quick deployment owed to the fact that the operation had been war-gamed extensively since April. Russian engineers had also repaired railway lines deep into Abkhazia to allow the faster movement of Russian armor.
While the invasion went smoothly, however, the tactics used were old fashioned. Tank columns trundled slowly down a single road—and would have been massacred had they faced a modern Western military. Analysts say that coordination between Russia's forces was also dismal, with aircraft operating almost independently. The Russians, in addition, inexplicably used Tu-22 strategic bombers for reconnaissance and to strafe ground targets. And communications and field intelligence were less than impressive: one Russian officer asked a NEWSWEEK reporter if she could lend him a Georgian SIM card for his phone; he also asked if she knew where the nearest Georgian front lines were (the latter request was politely declined).
In many ways, however, these shortcomings were beside the point. Today's Kremlin doesn't need a world-beating Army—just one that's better than Moscow's planned adversaries, namely the weak, post-Soviet states on Russia's periphery. Much of Serdyukov's overhaul has been remedial, aimed at facilitating the execution of basic strategies. The Kremlin is in no position to take on NATO. Yet it may not need to. According to a gloomy analysis circulated last week by the NATO college in Rome, "Moscow is likely to see NATO as a paper tiger unable either to provide real support to its partners or to respond to conflict in the wider Euro-Atlantic area."
That may be overstating things; in terms of cold military force, NATO remains vastly superior, outspending Russia (despite Moscow's budget boost) by a factor of more than 20. Russia does produce some good hardware, such as the air-defense systems coveted Iran and Syria, and its attack helicopters and fighter-bombers are relatively modern, says Felgenhauer. But "Russian conventional forces are still decades behind most NATO countries," says one NATO military attaché in Moscow not authorized to speak on the record. Moreover, recent NATO advances in command-and-control systems, the integration of battlefield intelligence with air cover and electronic surveillance "leave Russia standing," the attaché says.
But if Moscow's right, it needn't worry. To regain its old dominion, all Russia need do is get its old military machine up and running again. And the signs are that's just what it's done. Steamrollers may not be agile, subtle or fast. But as Georgia showed, they do a very good job crushing most anything that gets in their way.