Does Russia’s Syria Intervention Reveal Its Ukraine Strategy?

The United States assumed that Russia would be scared of the risks to go into Syria. That is a mistake that should not be made when it comes to Ukraine.

Senior U.S. national security officials, diplomats, and military officers are all sounding similar warnings. “If Russia intervenes, they face a difficult fight.” “Russian forces will have to cope with an insurgency.” “As the bodies of dead soldiers return home, Vladimir Putin will come under increasing public pressure.” “Russia will not be able to achieve its objectives—and will become bogged down in a quagmire.”

You might think this is referring to ongoing statements coming out of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ national security team trying to warn the Kremlin over starting a military adventure in Ukraine, but these comments echo pronouncements that were being delivered in September 2015 by the Obama/Biden administration prior to the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. There are some important lessons from how the Russian military and security establishment has pursued that operation that are relevant if the Kremlin decides to choose military force as its option for coercive diplomacy against Ukraine. These lessons may lead to a different type of fight than the United States is expecting and has been training and equipping Ukrainian forces for.

First, the Russian intervention in Syria focused primarily on destroying capabilities and fighting formations of the anti-Assad opposition, rather than on occupying territory. The Kremlin made the decision to become directly involved in the Syria conflict when, in the late summer and early fall of 2015, opposition forces acquired sufficient capabilities and momentum to push on Damascus and attempt to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. By focusing on airpower, missile strikes, and unmanned systems, the Russian task force concentrated on breaking up and degrading opposition military formations.

The subsequent reoccupation of much of Syria’s territory by Assad’s military was a byproduct of the massive pounding the opposition took, rather than the initial purpose of the intervention, which was to stave off Assad’s collapse.

Second, the Russians have maintained a relatively light footprint on the ground in Syria. They chose not to focus on occupying territory or taking on the responsibilities of governance. Indeed, in a number of cases the Russians brokered a series of ceasefires that left local leaders and notables in control of their immediate territory in return for accepting overall government control. To the extent that the Russian military has defined areas of control in Syria, they are focused on a few pieces of critically strategic real estate.

Third, whenever ground forces were needed, the Russians turned to private military companies or other irregular formations, limiting as far as possible the exposure of uniformed members of the Russian armed forces. As in the United States, Russian public opinion seems to draw a very clear distinction between “soldiers” dying for the motherland versus contractors who signed up and took the risks.

Finally, the Russians demonstrated, particularly in the launch of Kalibr cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea Flotilla, Russian capabilities to deliver lethal strikes from assets based inside Russian territory. The subtext of the use of the Caspian ships was to subtly demonstrate that key Russian capabilities did not need to be sent out and “exposed” but could be utilized without fear of reprisal or counterattack.

So, in contrast to the predictions that Syria would be “Putin’s Afghanistan,” where a large land-based Russian force would be ground down by insurgent attacks and eventually Putin would risk popular unrest at home as casualties mounted, the Russians focused on delivering strikes to disrupt and degrade Assad’s opponents. Watching the Russian campaign unfold, I was reminded of comments that Sergei Ivanov, then Russia’s defense minister, delivered at a U.S.-Russia dialogue in 2006—in perfect English with a command of American military jargon—about how the Russian military was closely studying and learning from the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Avoiding large-scale land deployments seemed to be one of them.

I do not know whether the Russians will go into Ukraine, or whether U.S. assessments are correct that the Russians will seek to occupy and control large pieces of Ukrainian territory and send personnel and systems into Ukraine to engage in close combat. The Syria campaign, however, would suggest that if the Russian government decides to use military force against Ukraine, it would focus on long-distance strikes to destroy Ukrainian equipment, particularly its stockpiles of drones, and try to break up organized military formations. The Syria case also suggests that the Russians would try to avoid having people cross the border, whenever possible, and direct fire from across the line. (This might be part of the hair-splitting on sanctions to suggest to the Germans and others that the promise that economic and energy sanctions on Russia would come only if Russia “invaded”—that is, sent large, organized formations across borders—and that this would qualify as a more limited “incursion.”) It would also raise the cost of any response, because the United States and other NATO countries would be very skittish about any Western weaponry crossing the border in return to strike at Russian artillery or airfields. And the Kalibr strike in Syria from the Caspian Sea could easily be replicated with no one willing to respond by returning fire into the heart of Russia. Finally, with Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov already talking about sending Chechen auxiliaries to Ukraine, the pattern, as we have seen in Syria, Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic may hold here as well: any ground personnel needed to take strategic sites or important nodes of communication would not be formal Russian forces. Again, the Russian gamble may be that some of the European states will hair-split and that private military contractors would not constitute a formal Russian military intervention.

Preparing Ukrainian special forces for partisan warfare, or assuming that U.S.-supplied Javelins would be used against Russian tanks and armored vehicles making the rapid dash to Kyiv, is not going to be effective against the type of campaign Russia used in Syria. We have been expecting a ground campaign to occupy territory, but the Russian General Staff may be looking to destroy capabilities, demoralize the Ukrainian military, and create conditions for political upheaval. And if operations begin anytime soon, the types of military aid and training that would be needed would come too late.

The United States assumed that Russia would be scared of the risks to go into Syria. That is a mistake that should not be made when it comes to Ukraine.

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