For much of the post-Soviet era there was a widespread belief that improving capabilities required for dealing with local small wars and insurgencies was the central focus of Russian military reforms. As a result, Moscow's military assertiveness and return to geopolitical rivalries since 2014 came as a surprise to many in the West. The article argues that small wars were never the major focus of Russian military transformation and reforms. Tracing the country's experience of war and conflict regionally and internationally since the end of the Cold War, and the impact this had on Moscow's views on what kind of armed forces it required, the article shows that the Kremlin's military ambitions started to diverge dramatically from western expectations as early as the mid-1990s. Russia never really saw armed forces geared towards small and ‘new war’-type scenarios as sufficient for upholding its regional and international status ambitions. Moreover, the Kremlin's growing preoccupation with internal order and regime stability has increasingly reinforced the rhetoric of a hostile West, which is used to justify the increasing centralization of domestic politics. Russia's military revival has been long in the making and poses serious challenges to its neighbours and to the West.