I've been wondering why Russia had committed relatively few combat forces to its intervention in Syria. Strategy Page has some thoughts on the matter.
The Russian intervention in Syria involves some 4,000 troops and about fifty warplanes and helicopters. The small size of this force exposes a sad fact of post-Cold War Russia; the military no longer has much in the way of combat capability and few post-Cold War weapons. Thus Russia has few smart bombs and is mostly relying on unguided bombs built in the 1980s ... The Russian air force and navy are now less than ten percent of their Cold War strength and the army has fewer combat brigades than it did armies during the Cold War.
But there is one important thing that Russia does have and that the Syrian armed forces desperately needs; support for maintaining and upgrading Syria’s largely Russian weapons and equipment. Russian maintenance and technical personnel are pouring into Syria, largely unnoticed, along with spare parts, upgrade kits and special maintenance equipment. Thousands of Syrian army weapons and vehicles that had become inoperable, or only partially functional are now being returned to usable condition ... This makes the Syrian forces more effective when fighting and is a big boost for Syrian morale in general.
Russia is using the experience in Syria to upgrade its own armed forces. The Russians have already found that they are not as good at keeping combat aircraft ready (the “readiness rate”) in a combat zone as Western air forces are. American military aircraft in the Middle East have a readiness rate of about 90 percent while the Russian rate is 70 percent. The Americans have a lot more experience, especially in the Middle East. The Russians are learning, especially from the Syrians who are showing them how to deal with the dust, sand and heat. Meanwhile Russia is hustling to build more satellite (GLONASS/ GPS) and laser guided bombs and missiles. Russia is now learning which of their smart bombs work best in combat and are modifying the designs even as they try to increase production.
There's more at the link.
This makes very good sense from the Russian perspective. It doesn't have many modern combat forces (or equipment) to spare; but it does have absolutely massive stockpiles of obsolescent and obsolete Soviet-era 1970's and 1980's-vintage military equipment, the same stuff that equips Syria's armed forces. It can strip spare parts from those stockpiles and ferry them to Syria for very little expense compared to the cost of new production; and Syria is grateful to have its own equipment, long neglected and under-maintained, restored to operating condition. It's a lot of bang for the buck, to coin a phrase.
I'll be interested to see how Russian doctrines and operational tactics change as a result of the combat experience it's gaining in the breakaway regions of Ukraine and in Syria. Neither conflict is a showcase for conventional military operations, being more along the lines of counter-insurgency operations. The old Soviet Union fought guerrillas in Afghanistan, and more recently within its own borders in Central Asia, but was better known for fomenting guerrilla wars in other parts of the world, in an attempt to destabilize countries allied to the West during the Cold War. (I had plenty of exposure to that in southern Africa.) Can Russia now make the transition to a counter-insurgency expeditionary force role, while preserving at least some conventional warfare capability in the homeland? Also, its weapons and equipment aren't the best for the latter role, and its economy probably isn't in shape to produce enough of them for its needs - at least, not at present. Will combat experience teach it more about what's needed from its weapons, and help to improve their design? Does Russia still have enough hi-tech production capacity to make as many of them as it needs, and build them to Western standards of reliability and effectiveness?
This will bear watching. (Pun intended!)