WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russia of behaving in a “19th-century fashion” because of its annexation of Crimea.
But Western experts who have followed the success of Russian forces in carrying out President Vladimir V. Putin’s policy in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have come to a different conclusion about Russian military strategy. They see a military disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully employing 21st-century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West.
“It is a significant shift in how Russian ground forces approach a problem,” said James G. Stavridis, the retired admiral and former NATO commander. “They have played their hand of cards with finesse.”
The abilities the Russian military has displayed are not only important to the high-stakes drama in Ukraine, they also have implications for the security of Moldova, Georgia, Central Asian nations and even the Central Europe nations that are members of NATO.
The dexterity with which the Russians have operated in Ukraine is a far cry from the bludgeoning artillery, airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles used to retake Grozny, the Chechen capital, from Chechen separatists in 2000. In that conflict, the notion of avoiding collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure appeared to be alien.
Since then Russia has sought to develop more effective ways of projecting power in the “near abroad,” the non-Russian nations that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has tried to upgrade its military, giving priority to its special forces, airborne and naval infantry — “rapid reaction” abilities that were “road tested” in Crimea, according to Roger McDermott, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
The speedy success that Russia had in Crimea does not mean that the overall quality of the Russian Army, made up mainly of conscripts and no match for the high-tech American military, has been transformed.
“The operation reveals very little about the current condition of the Russian armed forces,” said Mr. McDermott. “Its real strength lay in covert action combined with sound intelligence concerning the weakness of the Kiev government and their will to respond militarily.”
Still, Russia’s operations in Ukraine have been a swift meshing of hard and soft power. The Obama administration, which once held out hope that Mr. Putin would seek an “off ramp” from the pursuit of Crimea, has repeatedly been forced to play catch-up after the Kremlin changed what was happening on the ground.
“It is much more sophisticated, and it reflects the evolution of the Russian military and of Russian training and thinking about operations and strategy over the years,” said Stephen J. Blank, a former expert on the Russian military at the United States Army War College who is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
For its intervention in Crimea, the Russians used a so-called snap military exercise to distract attention and hide their preparations. Then specially trained troops, without identifying patches, moved quickly to secure key installations. Once the operation was underway, the Russian force cut telephone cables, jammed communications and used cyberwarfare to cut off the Ukrainian military forces on the peninsula.