September 16, 2010:
The Russians continue to make incremental, but significant, changes to improve their armed forces. Surplus officers are already being retired, the size of the Russian Army is being reduced to break away from the old Soviet/Warsaw Pact line of thinking, and major exercises are being organized to increase the military's readiness and war fighting capabilities. Given their recent experiences in the '90s following the collapse of the USSR (when Russia was basically ruled by gangsters and suffered constant terrorism and insurgency in Chechnya), the Russians seem to finally be getting their collective act together step-by-step.
During the 1990s, with virtually no money for anything, readiness and skill levels in the air, naval, and ground forces plummeted to dismal levels. There was even speculation during the First, and the beginning of the Second, Chechen Wars that the Russian Army was incapable of executing anything resembling an organized operation, let alone fighting a major counter-insurgency campaign. Corruption was rampant, drug abuse common, and alcoholism (historically Russia's biggest substance abuse problem) was nearly universal. Training, funds, equipment, and quality leadership was pitiful to non-existent, and troops stationed on the frontlines in Chechnya often traded their AK-74s for drugs or vodka. Conducting large-scale exercises and maneuvers for the Army and Navy were out of the question.
As tragic as this situation was, it makes sense if one understands Russian military history. Historically, the status and quality of the Russian war machine has always been either extremely good or extremely bad (or worse) and the country goes through large up and down periods when their armed forces are either nearly invincible or virtually useless. This has been the case for many, many centuries. Four hundred years ago, during the Great Northern War, under Czar Peter the Great, Russia became the most powerful country in Eastern Europe, destroying the Swedish Empire and establishing one of the world's most powerful navies. Later, under Catherine the Great, the expansion went even further, adding more and more territory to the Russian Empire. Two hundred years ago, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was a country to be respected and feared.
However, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Russian military was in a state of disrepair, with incompetent commanders, corruption, poor leadership, dismal logistics, and outdated tactics contributing to a major humiliation at the hands of the well-disciplined Japanese Army and Navy. Foreign observers writing on the battles mentioned that Russian troops still advanced to the attack in lines like Napoleonic troops, demonstrating how moribund Russian military thought had been for years. The First World War (1914-18) had an even more negative effect on the nation and brought about the rise of the Bolsheviks (communists). There was a bit of a revival during World War II, when, by 1945, the mighty Russian "Red Army" had grown large and combat experienced. But by the 1970s, most of this ability was gone, and the Red Army was in tatters.
Right now, Russia seems determined to make the next 20 years a positive time for its armed forces, and they mean business. One thing the Russians are doing now is investing more in major war games and exercises. This year, between June 28 and July 8, the Russians conducted a massive series of multi-branch training exercises known as Vostok-2010. The games involved over 20,000 ground troops, 70 combat aircraft, and a massive naval armada of 30 warships. The naval components of the exercise involved cooperative efforts between three of the Russian Federation's fleets, the Black Sea Fleet, Pacific Fleet, and the Northern Fleet. The ground warfare portion of the exercise included simulated parachute assault and amphibious landings involving the Russian Naval Infantry.
The war games were a success given the complex coordination and skills required to pull off such a major endeavor with so many troops. It demonstrated that, despite all the work that still has to be done, the state of Russia's military is steadily improving. Of course, the fact that the Bear is once again sharpening its claws makes its smaller neighbors nervous.