Moscow’s military operations in Ukraine and Syria expose a fundamental distinction in approach: trying to extract itself from the former while showing no sign of applying that strategy to the latter. Officially, an “all is well” message is promulgated by the Russian political-military leadership concerning the air campaign in Syria. Perhaps carried away by the euphoria of conducting its first out-of-area operations since Afghanistan, speculation has arisen about the opening of a new airbase in Syria, close to the Turkish border, prompting denials from officials (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 25). The military media works tirelessly to advance the idea that the air campaign is working, without really addressing underlying issues such as strategic aims and objectives, or acknowledging the limited scope of the close air support for disparate ground forces’ groupings (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 24).
Some breaches in the rather optimistic narrative have appeared, and may well presage the exposure of deeper systemic problems. The first stems from why the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) and defense ministry, despite President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the operation is “temporary,” appear to adopt a less than hurried approach. In fact, this originates in the terms of the bilateral agreement that laid the basis for Russian operations in Syria. The Russian government took the unusual step of releasing the content of the agreement reached and signed in Damascus on August 26, 2015. According to the bilateral agreement, the VKS can use the Latakia airbase indefinitely and free of charge. Moscow can send any weapons, equipment and materials that it deems necessary, while all military personnel enjoy diplomatic immunity. The agreement reached in Damascus stipulates that Russia’s contribution to a campaign against terrorism and extremism is for “an indefinite period.” Russian commentators regard the treaty as fairly standard, and downplay the “indefinite period,” as simply avoiding setting deadlines for the operations (Gazeta, January 15).
While the VKS may be in no hurry to end its operations in Syria, it is clear that the intervention marks a shift in Russian military policy as well as providing a new testing ground for advanced systems. A commentary in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye noted that the VKS operation in Syria is quite unlike Russia’s use of military force since the end of the Cold War. It also noted that some experts had labelled it as the “first Russian war in American style,” relying on air power, long-range strikes with precision weapons, and with minimal risk to its troops and forces. The commentary focused on how Western analysts have adopted a broadly positive interpretation of the Russian military operation, which according to the author is rooted in the tendency to overly compare it with the Five Day War with Georgia in August 2008 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 15).
Turning to consider Western criticism of Russia’s intervention in Syria, the author explored analysis by Douglas Barry, a senior researcher at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Barry acknowledged the use of the VKS high-precision weapons, but went on to add that the scale of aircraft precision weapons, reconnaissance and targeting designation possessed by the VKS is much narrower than in Western militaries. Barry also argues that Russia’s use of UAVs has not reached levels used by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, as they lack the necessary level of integration of airborne and ground hardware systems (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 15). Consequently, the author agrees with Western comparisons to the Georgia War in that operations in Syria demonstrate some advances, but concludes that the VKS is still far behind the United States Air Force (USAF).
Russia’s use of long-range aviation to fire air-launched cruise missiles was presented in the military press as a step forward and a demonstration of advanced capabilities. However, Major- General Anatoliy Konovalov, the force’s deputy commander, admitted there were “some problems.” During an interview with Ekho Moskvy on December 19, Konovalov was asked to summarize the performance of long-range aviation in Syria. Konovalov said: “There are problems with the aircraft. In particular, in the use of air-launched cruise missiles. We are now busy working on them. I believe we shall get rid of the problems that arose with the use of air-launched cruise missiles in the near future” (Ekho Moskvy, December 19).
Undoubtedly Russia’s military operations in Syria provide a testing ground for its weapons systems and hardware. Although not tested as such, the deployment of sophisticated air defense systems in the theater of operations has raised concern in Washington and on the part of NATO. In response to the downing of the Russian Su-24M by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015, Moscow reportedly ordered the deployment of S-300 Fort, the ship-based version of the S-300 air defense system, along with the more advanced S-400 Triumf. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reacted to these new deployments, stating that it fits a pattern of Moscow deploying modern weapons in conflict zones close to the Alliance. Stoltenberg said, “We have for a long time seen that Russia is deploying advanced weapons in Syria, in the eastern part of the Mediterranean and along the borders with NATO countries in Europe.” Furthermore, he referred to Russian military activity in the Baltic and Black seas, as well as in the Crimea, “All of this, part of the system, which indicates that Russia is expanding capacity to introduce a no-fly zone. And this is one of the reasons that NATO adapts,” though leaving unclear how the Alliance is adapting (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 4, 2015).
Of course, not all the problems the Russian military faces in Syria are solely of a military nature; there are numerous contradictions in the operation, and unexplained twists. Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, refers to the idea of direct support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents as a type of schizophrenia, though he acknowledges that Moscow seeks to support the sworn enemies of Turkey as payback for the Su-24M (RBK, January 13).
In an article examining the new Russian National Security Strategy, Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, suggests that the Syria campaign cannot really be explained by the strategy. He concludes that Putin faces a choice of three options: (1) Use any opportunity to end the campaign and save face; (2) Continue with the same intensity and results; or, (3) Expand significantly the operation to include ground forces (Kommersant, January 18).