WASHINGTON — Russia's first foreign war since Soviet troops stormed into Afghanistan nearly three decades ago is showcasing a resurgent military that's trying to overcome years of decline after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russia's oil wealth and Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin's ambition to return his country to its position as a world power have fueled the buildup. But analysts are quick to point out that Russia has picked on a weakling in its invasion of neighboring Georgia and is still a long way from developing a world-class military.
"They are still, by no means, back," said Stephen Blank, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "What they were able to do is take out a small conventional force like Georgia."
Nevertheless, television images of Russian troops and tanks pressing into Georgia provoked reminders of Soviet military might and Cold War invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to the five-day-old conflict Tuesday, although Georgian leaders said the Russian attacks continued.
Although Russian defense spending is a small fraction of that of the United States — roughly $30 billion a year compared with more than $500 billion — the country's nuclear-equipped military is vastly improved from the early and mid-1990s, when soldiers foraged for food in potato fields and officers often had to hold second jobs to provide for their families.
"The Russian military pretty much went into free-fall in the early 1990s," recalled Steven Pifer, who was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000 and is now a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington.
After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Russia's military expenditures dropped to one-tenth of the Soviet Union's military budgets during the preceding decade, according to GlobalSecurity.org, an online military research site. Spending on weapons declined by 75 percent.
After Putin became president in 2000, the former KGB spy embarked on a military buildup as oil production boosted Russia's economy by an average of 26 percent each year. Putin has since become prime minister after serving two terms as president, and he remains a driving force behind Russia's military policies.
The Defense Ministry launched an eight-year, $189 billion plan last year to build a new generation of intercontinental missiles, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and radars and make other upgrades. Russia also is improving the training, pay, benefits and treatment of soldiers, many of whom notoriously have been subjected to bullying and harassment by superiors.
Thousands of Russian soldiers received combat experience through two conflicts in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Additionally, the Russian military leaders behind the Georgia attacks apparently studied the NATO air campaign over Kosovo and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Nathan Hodge, a land-warfare specialist for Jane's Defense Week, said Tuesday in an analysis of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"The Russian incursion into Georgian territory — and the air campaign against Georgian military targets — show a confident Russian military," Hodge said. "Clearly, the Russian military is still capable of launching complex, combined arms operations." Combined arms operations employ ground troops, air power, armor, artillery and other tools to achieve a common objective.
The Russian strikes into Georgia, which was once part of the Soviet Union, appeared designed to reverse Georgia's attempts to modernize and rearm, Hodge said. Georgia's $1 billion defense budget is much smaller than Russia's, but the smaller country nevertheless had developed a small, well-armed force with updated equipment, Hodge said.
Retired Col. Christopher Langton, an analyst at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, called the Russian attack a "classic Soviet-style invasion" featuring tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers and aerial assaults. In a display of 21st-century military tactics, the campaign also included cyber-warfare that hacked into Georgian government computer systems.
Other analysts said Russia's dominance of its smaller adversary wasn't an accurate test of Moscow's military strength, noting that it was relatively easy for Russian troops to move across the border from their own country without the need for a long supply chain.
"If we're talking about a theaterwide war in Europe, it would be a very different picture," Blank said.
According to the Center for Defense Information, Russia ranks ninth in military spending — the United States, China and the United Kingdom are first, second and third, respectively — and has about 1 million active troops, compared with about 1.4 million for the U.S. military.
One ominously distinctive feature — particularly with the Kremlin's increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward Washington and other Western governments — is Russia's stature as the second largest nuclear superpower, behind the United States.
Although the two countries are committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles under a 2002 arms agreement, Russia still has an estimated 7,200 nuclear warheads, compared with 5,730 for the United States, according to the Center for Defense Information.
"A military confrontation with Russia would be unlike a confrontation with any other country because they still have a superpower-sized nuclear arsenal," said defense analyst Loren Thompson, an executive with the Lexington Institute, a defense-policy research center in Arlington, Va.
Russia also boasts one of the world's most respected air forces, with sophisticated multi-role warplanes such as the MiG-29 and the Su-27. It's moving aggressively to develop unmanned aircraft similar to those the United States is using in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More from McClatchy: