As Washington and Moscow join efforts to initiate a ceasefire in war-torn Syria, there is growing evidence that Russian policymakers believe the cost-benefit side of the military intervention is yielding political dividends. Despite the low-cost and low-risk side of the military equation, limited in terms of the deployment size or sustaining this even over the long term, Moscow perceives its diplomatic benefits as outweighing any potential damage. Indeed, as the frequency of bilateral contact on Syria with Washington continues to grow, Moscow interprets this as confirming its indispensability. Russian analysts appreciate the complexity of the conflict, noting that the intervention is unlikely to offer any military solution. Yet, the political and diplomatic impact of Russian air operations, and signs of success in aiding the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) reveal careful planning. For instance, Moscow’s air campaign in Syria is reportedly also closely tied to a “multi-layered” intelligence system functioning on the ground alongside its coalition partners (Bmpd.livejournal.com, February 18).
One factor frequently raised by Western experts is the potential for Russia’s assertive foreign and security policies to be scaled back due to straightened economic times. However, despite trimming the overall defense ministry spending plans, there seems little prospect that economic considerations will drive the Kremlin to change its Syria policy. A source close to the defense ministry leadership told Vedomosti that military expenditure will be reduced this year by around 5 percent. Apparently, since the economic crisis began, the defense ministry was compelled to reduce its budget, with an approximate reduction for 2015 at around 3.8 percent. Based on current defense budget plans, the spending levels for 2016 will be cut by 160 billion rubles ($2.1 billion). Although these cuts appear quite significant, it is unlikely to have any real bearing on capabilities or on the ongoing air operations in Syria. Procurement priorities will remain the same, with some delays and projects moved around in order to compensate for such budget cuts. This is likely to delay lower priority areas such as on conventional weapons systems for the Navy and the Air Force. Vedomosti’s interlocutor is convinced that the 5 percent cut to defense expenditures will have no implications for the air campaign in Syria, which he characterizes as planned from the current budget and at relatively low “annual costs” (Vedomosti, February 19).
Clearly, the cost-benefit analysis is viewed very differently in Moscow. One Russian Middle East expert with close ties to the Kremlin offered a range of perspectives on plausible scenarios for ending the Syria conflict. Vitaliy Naumkin, the head of research at the Institute of Oriental Studies, sees no possibility of creating a “no-fly zone” in Syria, nor does he consider as serious the threat of Turkey or Saudi Arabia deploying ground forces in the conflict. On the latter issue, Naumkin believes that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are merely “making loud noises,” and that their “saber-rattling” is designed to pressure Damascus and the countries that support it. Indeed, Naumkin places the emphasis on settling the conflict squarely on the diplomatic process, though some parties to the conflict have vested interests in its continuation: “There is no other way out. Agreement has to be reached in any case because a military victory for anyone, which all conflicting sides are counting on, is in reality impossible. There should be national conciliation in Syria” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 16).
Consequently, the Kremlin-connected expert assesses the conflict as highly unpredictable, with a great number of scenarios for its future course being possible; Naumkin sees the sluggish diplomatic process continuing until the main players (Russia, the United States and the European countries) impose a decision. Yet, there are potential complicating factors, not least Russia-Turkey tensions, or the difficult relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 16).
These considerations, perhaps reflecting a sober and realistic picture presented to the Kremlin by the Russian expert community, raise the question as to the nature of Moscow’s calculus in its Syria intervention. It is unclear if the Kremlin ever believed that the military campaign alone could yield success in terms of delivering a resolution of the conflict. What seemed to drive Kremlin policy was the need to protect Russia’s interests, prop up the al-Assad regime, avoid a Libya scenario from unfolding in Syria, and guarantee that Moscow would be included in any conflict settlement. In fact, it seems that far from Russia becoming involved in a “quagmire” in Syria, the longer-term and careful defense planning that preceded the deployment was geared toward avoiding precisely such risks. Two factors are important in this regard: the way Moscow views modern warfare and the lessons it may have drawn from Donbas, as well as the considerable though less well scrutinized intense scale of logistical support for its operations in Syria (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 19).
Moscow has invested considerable effort in supporting its deployments in Syria, especially in relation to using its reformed military logistics system: Materiel-Technical Support (Materialno-Tekhnicheskogeo Obespechniea—MTO). Considerable fine tuning went into the MTO over the past two years. And although problems remain, the operation in Syria has witnessed an efficient development and use of air and sea lines of communication. The combat service support effectively delivered by the MTO could only have been implemented so smoothly on the basis of long-term planning. In this case, it is most likely that contingency plans for military intervention in Syria began several years ago, with an increase in their priority levels approximately one year prior to commencing operations. The advances in the MTO infrastructure are also reflected in the ongoing construction of fueling stations at several airfields (Krymsk, Lipetsk, Engels, Kursk, and Domna Koltsovo), with an additional 23 facilities planned by 2020. The MTO is also involved in the delivery of advanced fuel products to extend the range of cruise missiles, using Detsilin-M fuel (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 17; Bmpd.livejournal.com, February 16).
Ultimately, in defense terms, the Kremlin’ use of hard power in Syria is rooted in its asymmetric and limited use of military power. It judged the SAA as the weaker player against the rebels and Islamic State and planned accordingly. Russian air power and on-the-ground training for the SAA gradually shifted the balance away from the rebels, while Russian diplomats rapidly distanced themselves from al-Assad’s aspiration to retake all lost territory: Moscow’s limited use of military power in Syria was never intended to achieve “total victory.”