Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his way to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day. The Feb. 23 national holiday was once known as Soviet Army and Navy Day, and Shoigu, dressed in the uniform of a general, came to boast about the Russian military’s latest achievements.
“We tested 162 types of contemporary and modernized weapons in Syria, which showed a high level of effectiveness,” Shoigu said. Only 10 weapons systems performed below expectations, he added.
The Kremlin has never made a secret that its intervention on behalf of the Syrian government has been an excellent opportunity to show off its new military prowess.
Shortly after Russia entered the conflict in September 2015, the country’s navy fired cruise missiles at Syrian targets 900 miles away – an event that coincided with President Vladimir Putin’s 63rd birthday. The air force sent long-range Bear and Backfire bombers on round-trip missions from bases in Russia. And the country’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, traveled all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Syrian coast to launch airstrikes.
Of course, testing weapons was not the primary reason for Russia’s war in Syria.
“There were two main goals: to force the West to talk with Russia and break the isolation from the Ukrainian crisis, and secondly, to support Syrian President Bashar Assad,” said Aleksandr Golts, a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington. Trying out new arms was just a bonus.
As cynical as it may sound, Golts said, combat is the best way for any military to test the condition of its weaponry.
There were also domestic political reasons for the Syrian operation.
Many Russians felt humiliated after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and lost its superpower status. Russia stood on the sidelines as the United States led military interventions in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. For Putin, one of his most important priorities has been modernizing the military to show that Russia is a player on the world stage again.
Russia’s performance in the Syrian war has sent a signal that the country is capable of putting together an expeditionary force far from Russia’s borders, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a defense analyst with the CNA think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
“By American standards, it was a small operation. But it was more than the experts thought they were capable of,” Gorenburg said.
For example, by launching the cruise missiles, Russia showed that it could reach potential targets deep within Europe.
Yet as much as Russia is celebrating the recent air campaign, human rights groups say it has come at a terrible cost for civilians on the ground.
“Every statement we’ve sent to the Russians about a strike and questioning the legitimacy of the strike has been met with denials. But that doesn’t change what the obligations are,” said Lama Fakih, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
Where the laws of war were violated, she said, Russia is obligated to conduct investigations and pay compensation to survivors.
“The U.S.-led coalition does publish information on a monthly basis about strikes they’ve investigated. We aren’t seeing the same level of transparency from the Russian defense ministry,” Fakih said.
The Russian government categorically rejects reports by Human Rights Watch and other groups as part of what it calls an “information war” against Moscow.
“My sense is that they didn’t care that much – certainly not compared to how much Western countries’ militaries care about collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Gorenburg said.
He said that Russian military thinking hasn’t changed since the Kremlin crushed a rebellion by Chechen separatists 17 years ago – just as Putin was rising to power.