Russian Views of the Saudi Oil Facility Attacks (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 134

Crews repair damage from an attack at a facility in Saudi Arabia (Source: AFP/Getty Images)

*To read Part One, please click here.

The September 14 attack on the Saudi oil facilities at Buqayq and Khurais was allegedly committed by Yemen’s Houthi militants—although it was more likely carried out with Iranian assistance or even by Tehran itself. Indeed, the Saudi Ministry of Defense claims the drone and cruise missile strikes were delivered from the north, thus pointing to an Iranian “footprint” (Izvestia, September 19). Regardless of the original source of the attack, however, the incident has clearly not only affected global oil prices but also underscored the changing nature of war.

Despite the conspicuous optimism of Russian arms-producers, which have viewed the aerial strike on Saudi oil infrastructure as a business opportunity (see EDM, September 19, 23), some in the Russian military have exhibited far less optimism. Conservative Russian information outlets suggest that, “despite the total [regional] domination of the Saudi aviation forces, their actual capabilities boil down to pompous parades and conspicuous demonstrations of military might” (Regnum, September 16). But other experts have made a more thorough attempt to analyze the event in relation to (a) the changing nature of military operations and the actual role (and effectiveness) of high-precision weaponry as well as (b) Russia’s own capabilities to confront a similar challenge.

As one analyst, Vladimir Mukhin, recently argued in a column for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “If these [attackers] were indeed Houthis, then this means that semi-guerrilla units […] are able to deliver 19 precise strikes damaging two key Saudi oil facilities.” Mukhin asserts that Russian weaponry—primarily, the S-300/S-400, the Pantsir S1, as well as the Tor medium-range surface-to-air missile systems—would have been much more effective in dealing with the threat than the Patriot system produced by the United States. But at the same time, he notes a potential “swarm” drone attack may not have been repelled by Russian weaponry either. This is due to the “simple lack of ammunition [missiles] that each [Russian air-defense] complex can curry […] repelling such an attack would be similar to shooting sparrows with a large cannon,” he writes (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 17).

In effect, the attack on the Saudi oil facilities may have been a harbinger of new type of war: “system-network warfare” (sistemno-setevaya voyna). This concept was first introduced by Russian military theorists Igor Popov and Musa Khamsatov in 2016. As stated by the authors, “the whole state and its society should be viewed as a system consisting of critical ‘knots’ [uzli] whose destruction would profoundly affect the defense potential [of the whole system] and is likely to lead to a victory with very little effort [maloii krovju]. There is, therefore, no need to fight against all military forces of the adversary, nor [to fight against] the whole population. It would just be enough to destroy the ‘centers of gravity’ [centri tiazesti]” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 13, 2016). According to this theory, the main driving force in such a war will be what the authors call an “amorphous adversary,” whose “key structural elements and subsistence systems are located not on its own territory but in the countries of near- and far-abroad—territories or entities that formally are not party to the conflict […] this makes it very hard to point a finger at the real culprit.” Despite the fact that the above-mentioned theory was applied by the authors to the Syrian civil war, where the role of the “amorphous adversary” was played by unnamed “illegal paramilitary formations” that created the Islamic State, the template also fits the recent attack in Saudi Arabia.

Another interesting idea was presented by Russian military expert Aleksei Filatov, who has drawn two main corollaries/consequences from the Saudi incident (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 16, 2019), which boiled down to the following:

  • The demonstration of a new “philosophy of attack” (monetarily extremely inexpensive) that will require the elaboration of totally new defensive measures. Simply increasing military spending will not be enough, as demonstrated by Saudi Arabia with its huge ($67.6 billion) defense budget, which actually surpasses Russia’s. Filatov claims that this type of attack is “theoretically possible everywhere in the world. No single large civilian infrastructural object, including oil-, chemical-, and nuclear-related facilities, is completely safe.” This leads the author to argue that “if particular attention was previously allocated to the protection of state borders, large cities, and strategic factories against missile- and air-strikes, now we have seen there are other types of massive attacks.”
  • The “changing battlefield,” meaning that the existing model of security should be altered from one that is “individual [separately managed by sovereign states] to international, based on coalitions… [P]reemptive wars thus are waged not on one’s own territory, but where it [terrorism] is receiving maximum support.” According to Filativ, aside from Syria, where “Russia has done a lot to fight international terrorism,” there are other places “with low social responsibility,” where, he implicitly argues, the situation might require a joint effort in the form of a counterterrorist operation similar to the Syrian example.

In the final analysis, two additional aspects must not be overlooked. In his article (seemingly unrelated to the Saudi oil facilities attack in question, but published right after the incident), Russia’s leading military expert and a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Military Science, Colonel (ret.) Anatoly Tsiganok, stated that one of the main issues Russia still needs to solve in the realm of Electronic Warfare (EW) is to find a way to “create and effectively employ so-called stealth-UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] during battle that are capable of encroaching on the adversarys airspace, remaining unnoticed while performing very close-in EW operations [radio-elektronnaya borba]” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 20). This draws on Russias apparent drive to prioritize non-linear forms of war with the use of new technologies.

In light of the drone and cruise missile attack on Buqayq and Khurais—in particular, its mode of conduct and the type of weaponry used—there is every reason to believe that from a strategic point of view, in preparation for future wars, the Russian Armed Forces are likely to increase their emphasis on counter-UAV activity while downplaying the importance of large military exercises similar to the recent Tsentr 2019 strategic-operational maneuvers across southern Russia (, September 12). Instead, the Russian military may refocus its attention on simulating non-linear operations against so-called “amorphous adversaries,”—presumably increasing Russia’s reliance on EW as well as boosting the likelihood of further Russian anti-terrorist” missions abroad.