Since President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s Armed Forces to commence operations in Syria, the campaign has provoked controversy and criticism abroad. Criticism ranges from asserting that it would repeat the experience of the Soviet-Afghan conflict (1979–1989) to risking proxy conflicts with other powers, including the United States. While Moscow has carefully managed these operations, aimed at achieving its objectives with minimal risk and costs to the Russian state, it has generally proved successful in shaking off the legacy of Afghanistan; and the General Staff is certainly exploiting the Syria operations to boost military prestige and extrapolate the lessons learned. However, the potential lessons the General Staff may glean from the complex variety of operational experience in Syria reveals something about the Russian approach to military science. Like no previous conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has been able to use Syria as a testing ground for personnel, equipment, weapons and experimental systems (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 22, 2018; Technowar.ru, August 23, 2017).
The most outstanding features of the Russian military performance in Syria relate to its use of airpower in support of regime forces as well as the limited numbers of Russian troops engaged on the ground. Russia has also gained experience in conducting a train-and-equip program in wartime that has contributed to preventing the collapse of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Moreover, Russian sources constantly frame these observations in terms of avoiding a “second Afghanistan.” Western sceptics find much to criticize in Russia’s military operations and how they are reported—especially the successful US attack on the Wagner private military company (PMC) (see EDM, February 15) or in Putin’s “premature” declaration of victory (see EDM, November 27, 2017; December 14, 2017). Nonetheless, while these developments will not be ignored by the General Staff, they do not appear to take primary place in its considerations of possible lessons from the conflict (Warfiles.ru, December 26, 2017).
In a sense, the lack of perception by the General Staff that the conflict has exposed weaknesses on the part of Russia’s Armed Forces mitigates a “lessons learned approach.” Other factors also limit this reflective analysis. These include the fact that the conflict continues, making such assessment provisional, and the tendency for Russian officers to see more weaknesses in the SAA for which they must seek ways to compensate. Undoubtedly, some concern is apparent regarding the performance of Russian-supplied air-defense systems to the SAA, but the best and most advanced air-defense assets Russia has deployed during the conflict are tasked with protection for its own forces (Izvestia, February 14).
By far the most revealing insight into General Staff thinking on these issues was provided by the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, during his interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda in late December 2017. It is clear from Gerasimov’s comments that the General Staff assesses Russia’s involvement in Syria in ways that are far removed from the opinions of foreign observers. First, Gerasimov identifies what is so unique in Moscow’s approach to these operations, noting operational planning difficulties, assessing the role of military advisors and concluding by offering an overview of the lessons for the General Staff. Taken together, these observations provide valuable insight into how the top brass views the performance of the military in Syria, some possible lessons to be drawn and perhaps most importantly how the senior leadership of the Armed Forces perceives a “lessons learned” analysis (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 26, 2017).
In the context of discussing military operations in Syria, Gerasimov singled out the important role played by the National State Defense Management Center (Natsionalnyy Tsentr Upravleniya Oboronoy— NTsUO), in Moscow, which facilitates operations in real time. Gerasimov explained, “The establishment of the National State Defense Management Center has cardinally changed approaches to the command, control, and management of the state’s entire military organization. This, specifically, is what we experienced during the conduct of operations in Syria. All forms of communication are accessible when the daily data collection and situation analysis is organized. We have begun to feel comfortable in our work, and we have no sense that we are lacking any information” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 26, 2017).
Turning to the difficulties in operational planning, Gerasimov noted the most serious challenge was at the very early stage in preparing the operations and in the initial phase of commencing combat, which was compounded by the need to train local forces and integrate these with Russian forces, as well as organize the supply lines. Later, at the Hmeymim airbase near Latakia, a “state-of-the-art” command post was established to support command and control over the Russian groups of forces operating in Syria. Additionally, the complex nature of the conflict demanded constant adjustment and refinement and improvements in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Moreover, on the issue of Russian military advisors, Gerasimov rated their performance highly. Regarding their level of integration with the SAA, he explained, “Within every subunit—battalion, brigade, regiment, division—there is a military advisor’s staff. It comprises the essential officials: namely, operations staff, intelligence officer, artilleryman, engineer, interpreters and other officials. They essentially plan the combat operations. They provide assistance in subunit command and control during combat mission performance. In all sectors, actions are linked by a common concept of operations, by a single plan; leadership is exercised from the grouping’s command post at Hmeymim” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 26, 2017).
Noting the extent to which weapons and equipment were tested, Gerasimov pointed to the interaction between the military, engineers, designers and military scientists to work on the flaws and improvements to such systems in the future. But on the “lessons learned,” Gerasimov made perhaps his most striking points. He explained that this is a constant process “carried out from the first day of the campaign,” involving sharing experience and delivering the results of analyses to commanders in the field. Gerasimov added, “We have held several conferences on sharing experiences. A whole range of training manuals that generalize this experience has been published” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 26, 2017).
Based upon Gerasimov’s comments, it seems the General Staff has drawn numerous lessons from the conflict in relation to combat operations, combat support and combat service support, integrating forces with proxies and exercising command and control in real time. Significantly, Gerasimov confirms that the Russian approach to “lessons learned” differs from their Western counterparts, and it seems many of these lessons are already feeding into ongoing operations.