Gerasimov Revamps Russian Military Hard Power, Based on Syria Lessons

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 14

Army-General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff (Source: Sputnik News)

While the reputation and prestige of Russia’s Armed Forces was damaged abroad by its involvement in Ukraine, the intervention in Syria has been reaping dividends both at home and abroad. The General Staff attaches greater importance to learning lessons based on the Syria conflict than its performance in Donbas (eastern Ukraine). Recent statements by the top brass as well as the promotion of the Russian commander of operations in Syria point to the overall utility of this conflict in Russia’s force development. It is less clear as to what the lessons are for Moscow and how these may be applied to Russian military strategy in the future (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 5).

From the outset of Russia’s first foreign military intervention beyond the former Soviet Union since Afghanistan (1979–1989), the country’s media has transitioned from speculation concerning the risks of conflict escalation and possible embroilment on the ground to a recognition that the Kremlin’s relatively low-key intervention has avoided such traps (Ekspert, RIA Novosti, accessed, February 7). Moscow has used force at a minimal level to influence the politics of the conflict much more than the war. Across the Russian media there is widespread praise for the role of the country’s Armed Forces since the intervention began in the fall of 2015, but little attention to anything that went wrong (RIA Novosti, accessed, February 7).

Judging by such news coverage, the Russian campaign in Syria is well used to praise, implying the General Staff is left only with the challenge of incorporating some of this into future military planning while excluding a lessons-learned approach. The ongoing nature of the operation renders a full assessment premature at best. Nonetheless, it certainly is difficult to ascertain what may have gone wrong and how the General Staff could remedy such issues. According to the chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valery Gerasimov, the Syria conflict is simply way beyond Russia’s experience of conflict in terms of magnitude and importance. As such, Gerasimov suggests that the officer promotion policy should now prioritize officers with combat experience from operations in Syria (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 5).

Gerasimov based this on the assertion that real officers are “born in combat,” rather than trained and educated, which he sees as a path to produce only competent administrators. He also assesses the experience in Syria as “priceless” for the Russian military. Gerasimov notes the high priority during the campaign for the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), but also states that other branches and arms of service gained invaluable experience. Gerasimov notes, “We need real military leaders in every sphere of the armed struggle.” This also, therefore, relates to ground forces commanders as well as the VKS and other services operating in Syria, including the special forces. The purpose is to foster initiative among strong-minded and energetic commanders who will be better equipped to secure future objectives in conflict. It seems this experience was narrower and less useful in Donbas, at least in Gerasimov’s estimation (, February 4). Gerasimov also highly esteems the role of Russian military advisors working closely with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), though sometimes compelled to step into combat roles due to the degradation of the SAA. Underscoring these views, in September 2016, the commander of the Russian operation in Syria, Colonel-General Aleksandr Dvornikov, was appointed to command the Southern Military District (Izvestia, September 20, 2016; see EDM, July 26, 2016).

An analysis of the Russian military’s performance in Syria, published last year by the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Siriyskiy Rubezh, outlined among a number of themes the operational achievements of the campaign to the summer of 2016. The same book, however, also stresses the highly impressive logistical achievement by Russian combat-service support in moving supplies across great distances through air and sea lines of supply. Its summary of the operational success in Syria suggests it should be seen as an unprecedented performance by the VKS: as of July 2016, the VKS had sustained only one operational loss, the Su-24M shot down by the Turkish Air Force. And among three helicopter losses, only one resulted from combat. The campaign in Syria offered the VKS an opportunity to test new systems and tactics. Moreover, the air campaign had interdicted rebel and terrorist supply lines, inflicted high levels of damage on enemy forces, and arguably prevented the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It also promotes the idea that since the VKS gained significantly more operational experience in Syria compared to air operations in the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War, the Syrian experience will be used exponentially in the development of the Russian Armed Forces. The work reflects the sine quo non of Russia’s role in the conflict as affording a testing ground for the Russian military, but offers no clear insight as to the purpose or unifying trends of what the testing was about.

Of course, such assessments risk ignoring the simple fact that the operation and, indeed, the civil war in Syria is not yet over. Much remains at stake in deciding the conflict, handling the ensuing peace, and trying to cobble together a working arrangement between the interested parties. Some Russian Middle East specialists see parallels with Moscow’s experience of the Civil War in Tajikistan in the 1990s, with the need to pacify or stem a flow of militants toward Russia’s borders followed by declining interest in the years afterward. How the Russian military handles the remainder of its conflict involvement may prove just as important as how it entered in the first place and conducted its various divergent missions (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 31, 2017;, December 21, 2016).

Syria is now being put forward as the cornerstone for future Russian officer promotion, presumably to capture some of these lessons and instil higher standards in a new generation of officers. The defense ministry boasts that 95 percent of all officer posts are now filled as well as commanding more attention to incoming officers on the part of their superiors (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 5).

Although Gerasimov confirmed the importance of the Syria campaign for Russia’s military development as an experience above recent conflicts, he also had something unusual to say: Returning to his theme expressed in 2013 considering the ratio between soft and hard power in modern warfare as “4:1,” Gerasimov recently told the General Staff Academy that hard power is no less valuable (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 5). Perhaps this is the fundamental lesson for the top brass.