Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to his Russian counterpart Tuesday. / Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON - Russia's military operations in Crimea and on Ukraine's border suggest the country's poorly resourced armed forces have made improvements in recent years but would struggle to extend operations in central Europe and elsewhere, experts say.
"You don't have to be good to win - just better than your foe," said James Howcroft, a retired Marine intelligence officer with experience in the region.
Russia faced a weak foe in Ukraine's armed forces and conducted operations close to its border, where it could easily establish secure supply and communications lines.
Russia's armed forces would struggle if it had to deploy and sustain forces beyond its borders and among a hostile population, according to experts.
"We should not extrapolate from this to think Russia is capable of extending into Poland and Hungary," said Kevin Ryan, a retired Army brigadier general at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The United States has deployed airborne troops to Poland in an effort to allay the fears of NATO members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, about Russian aggression.
"The Russians were capable of confronting an inferior force that is right next door," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute.
The Ukraine operations also didn't test critical weaknesses highlighted in Russia's 2008 conflict with Georgia, including the need to modernize its command and control capabilities, said Olga Oliker, an analyst at RAND Corp.
Russia's individual services remain reluctant to share information with each other, a critical requirement on the battlefield.
"It's an impressive operation, but it's an 80% political operation," Oliker said. "The military are there to stand around and look menacing. It's not as if they took Crimea."
Russia also appears to have tapped out its best units in its Ukraine operations. If the troops confronted a larger foe Russia would be forced to rely on less-disciplined and trained conscript forces.
"They are geographically restricted," Ryan said.
Despite its limits, Russia's armed forces proved adept at the low-tech deployment of elite special forces troops into Crimea, helping to support and organize pro-Russia militias, which helped drive out Ukraine's fledgling military.
Ryan said the tactic was similar to what the United States did in Afghanistan in 2001 when it used small teams of Special Forces to support anti-Taliban militias, called the Northern Alliance, and overthrow the regime.
Analysts point out that these tactics are not new and don't test Russian technology or command and control capabilities.
"We have never doubted their ability to do the asymmetric missions we have seen them do so well these past couple months," Howcroft said in an e-mail.
The Pentagon believes Russia is using the tactic in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia militias are confronting Ukraine authorities.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on his Russian counterpart to rein in irregular forces operating there, Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu denied to Hagel that Moscow controlled the irregular forces.
But the shadowy militias confronting Ukraine authorities and taking over government buildings have raised questions about Russian involvement.
In an interview insurgent commander Igor Strelkov acknowledged that he and his men entered Ukraine from Crimea, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. He did not, however, address allegations from Ukraine and the European Union that he is a Russian intelligence agent, the AP said.
Russia's military declined sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Starved for resources, it became an army of underpaid conscripts led by corrupt officers.
Its conflicts with Georgia in 2008 and Chechnya, beginning in the 1990s, further highlighted a need for modernization.
"When I think of the Russian military, I think corrupt, conscripted and decrepit," Thompson said.
Russia has made some headway in reforming its organization, modernizing weapons and building a smaller, more agile force. It has also reduced its reliance on conscripts.
"Military reforms have been going on for 23 years in fits and starts," Oliker said.
Limited money and wavering political will has often stood in the way. "The modernization has been slow," Ryan said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the size of the armed forces was slashed to about 1 million troops from more than 4.5 million, according to a report by Jonas Grätz, a researcher at the Zurich-based Center for Security Studies. The size of the full-time force now is more than 700,000.
About half remain conscripts, though commanders intend to reduce that percentage further.
With a smaller military, commanders can boost pay and improve training for troops. Russia has increased its defense budget in recent years and tried to modernize weaponry.
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Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Russia's Ukraine actions highlight its military limits