There have been a number of articles in Western press trying to analyze Russian military performance in Crimea. Some of them, such as the April 2nd piece in the New York Times, compare this performance with the conduct of Russian forces in Georgia and Chechnya to draw conclusion that the Russian armed forces’ capabilities have improved thanks to radical military reforms pursued by Anatoly Serdyukov accompanied by substantial increases in defense expenditures.
I would argue that while the conclusion is right, the underlying comparison is not.
The Russian-Georgian engagement during the 5-day war featured elements of your classical 20th century interstate warfare with regular units of the Russian armed forces fighting and defeating their Georgian counterparts. The second Chechen campaign combined elements of urban warfare, in which Russian army units seized and seized Grozny, with elements counter-insurgency in later stages.
In both Chechen campaigns and 2008 war, the adversary of Russian forces offered organized armed resistance with Chechens fighting both more fiercely and for longer period of time than the Georgian armed forces.
In comparison, the operation in Crimea was largely a covert operation, in the course of which Ukrainian soldiers may have fired a shot or two, but left the Russian forces’ improved fighting capabilities untested.
Also, while the Chechen campaigns and Russian-Georgian war employed not so well trained Russian conscripts deployed in regular army units that spearheaded the assaults, the Crimean campaign was carried out by professional Special Forces (Spetsnaz) units with some assistance from local paramilitary activists. The exact composition of the Russian forces that have participated in the Crimean operation is unknown and Russian military and political leaders have staunchly denied deployment of any Spetsnaz units to Crimea, insisting it was the work of local self-defense. But reports in media and social networks indicate that personnel of the Russian General Staff’s Military Intelligence Directorate as well as from the Airborne Forces and Marines took part in the operation.
Nor have the Russian forces in Crimea displayed any qualitatively new, game-changing equipment compared to the 2008 war with Georgia. Yes, the digital pattern camouflage uniforms look slick, as do the new helmets. The goggles are also en vogue, but did they or the Russian version of Humvees (Tigr) or smaller-size encrypted radios constitute a game changer that forced the Ukrainian military to give up without putting up a fight? I don’t think so.
In fact, the Crimean operation has reaffirmed what Russian military watchers have known for several years now: Russian Special Forces are rigorously trained, well equipped, highly disciplined and, therefore, effective in what they are supposed to do and that includes rapid covert operations to carry out reconnaissance and seize key facilities without being detected or interdicted. It is only natural for these forces to conceal their preparations, communications and operations as for them detection amounts to failure.
The successful concealment was a decisive factor in ensuring the strategic surprise during the Crimean operation and the special forces’ prowess in maskirovka does stand out if compared to some of the past performance by the regular Russian army units. One may, for instance, recall a news report of how during the 2008 war a Russian army commander decided to borrow a regular satellite phone from a journalist to issue firing orders.
Had the March 2014 operation had to be conducted on a larger scale, requiring greater use of regular ‘non-special’ forces and had the Ukrainian military decided to put up a fight, chances are that we might have again seen some of the command and control flaws and other inefficiencies that the Russian side suffered from during the 2008 war and that I analyzed in a Moscow Times article shortly after that conflict.
Of course, the scale and depth of these flaws have shrunken considerably since 2008, thanks to the reforms and better financing, and Russia’s Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin did have Plenty of reason to crow on May 28th that "the recent events in Crimea …. demonstrated both the completely new capabilities of our Armed Forces and the high morale of the personnel."
Nevertheless, comparing a covert operation conducted by Special Forces against an adversary, which chooses not to fight, with a larger-scale military campaign, which involves mostly regular units and features intensive military-to-military fighting, is like comparing the Crimean apples with the Georgian oranges.