WASHINGTON • Two weeks of air and missile strikes in Syria have given Western intelligence and military officials a deeper appreciation of the transformation that Russia's military has undergone under President Vladimir Putin, showcasing its ability to conduct operations beyond its borders and providing a public demonstration of new weaponry, tactics and strategy.
The strikes have involved aircraft never before tested in combat, including the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter, which Nato calls the Fullback, and a ship-based cruise missile fired more than 1,400km away from the Caspian Sea, which, according to some analysts, surpasses the United States equivalent in technological capability.
Russia's jets have struck in support of Syrian ground troops advancing from areas under the control of the Syrian government and might soon back an Iranian-led offensive that appeared to be forming on Wednesday in the northern province of Aleppo. That coordination reflects what US officials described as months of meticulous planning behind Russia's first military campaign outside former Soviet borders since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Taken together, the operations reflect what officials and analysts described as a little-noticed - and still incomplete - modernisation that has been under way in Russia for years, despite strains on the nation's budget. And that, as with Russia's intervention in neighbouring Ukraine, has raised alarms in the West.
In a report this month for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Dr Gustav Gressel argued that Mr Putin had overseen the most rapid transformation of the country's armed forces since the 1930s.
"Russia is now a military power that could overwhelm any of its neighbours, if they were isolated from Western support," wrote Dr Gressel, a former officer of the Austrian military.
Russia's fighter jets are, for now at least, conducting nearly as many strikes in a typical day against fighters opposing the government of President Bashar Assad as the US-led coalition targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been carrying out each month this year.
Yesterday, Syrian troops and their allies, backed by Russian jets, attacked rebel-held towns north of the city of Homs, targeting a long-held and strategic enclave of the opposition to Mr Assad.
The operation in Syria - still relatively limited - has become, in effect, a testing ground for an increasingly confrontational and defiant Russia under Mr Putin.
Russia's swift and largely bloodless takeover of Crimea last year was effectively a stealth operation, while its involvement in eastern Ukraine, though substantial, was conducted in secrecy and obfuscated by official denials of direct Russian involvement.
The bombings in Syria, by contrast, are being conducted openly and documented with great fanfare by the Ministry of Defence in Moscow, which distributes targeting video in the way the Pentagon did during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
But the uncoordinated air wars waged above Syria since Russia's intervention almost led to a run-in between US and Russian planes last Saturday, prompting calls for talks to prevent crashes from happening.
But Washington this week rebuffed Moscow's suggestion of broader talks on Syria, spurring criticism from Mr Putin yesterday.
"I don't really understand how the US can criticise Russia's actions in Syria if they refuse to have direct dialogue," said Mr Putin.
NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG