Is a Russian military operation against Ukraine likely in the near future?

Following the November 25th Kerch Strait naval skirmish, in which Russia seized three Ukrainian boats,  Ukrainian leadership has issued warnings of a Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders. These began in early December and have led to a media echo chamber of concerns that a Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent, in part bolstered by press releases from ISW. Actual evidence of Russian preparations for offensive operations, force movements indicating an unexpected buildup, or an imminent attack, is hard to come by. In this somewhat longer post I want to explore the existing evidence, what little there is, and examine a few conflict scenarios that may be within the realm of possibility in coming months.

Unfortunately this simmering conflict is subject to frequent false alarms, while actual points of escalation are rarely predicted, as was the case on November 25th. It is relatively easy to take a week’s worth of Russian troop movements, equipment deployments, drills, and MoD announcements, compile them together into a bullet point list of nefarious activities, and then declare them ‘data points’ indicating preparations for an invasion. As of today it seems Ukraine will not be extending the 30 day state of martial law, which casts some doubt on the urgency and immediacy of the anticipated Russian threat as presented earlier this month by Ukrainian authorities.

The more problematic element in all of this has been senior official Russian statements, which suggest a change in Moscow’s stance on dealing with Ukraine is afoot. Sergey Lavrov, Maria Zakharova, and Sergey Naryshkin, have issued statements expecting a possible Ukrainian ‘provocation’ and or ‘attack’ which could be interpreted as indications and warnings of Moscow preparing the information space, i.e. setting expectations of renewed violence in the coming weeks. However, they may also be a poor Russian attempt at getting Washington, D.C. to restrain Ukraine, or otherwise influence Ukrainian decision making to Russian benefit.

The Russian narrative offers cause for concern, because it is a form of signaling not dissimilar from official statements in the run up to the Russian conflict with Georgia in 2008. That said, it is likely some officials in Moscow believed Ukraine would try to use martial law as a cover for a military operation in the Donbas, especially given their experience with Saakashvili in 2008. Although real evidence is scant, I’ll try to unpack the different stories, and the likelihood of an upcoming Russian military operation against Ukraine.

Bottom line up front: Almost every year there is a sizable artillery duel that takes place after the holiday truce (clashes likely to resume between orthodox Christmas on January 7 and perhaps the old new year on January 14th), and so a notable escalation in violence is likely in January, but there is no evidence of Russian preparations for a major assault in Ukraine, certainly not in Crimea.  It is possible, but highly improbable. Most of the information available reflects planned modernization, expected force structure changes, and troop movements on the Russian side not indicative of unusual activity or preparations for an assault. However, as covered years ago on this blog, the long term force posture and structure changes to create three divisions along Ukraine’s borders, return earlier displaced brigades, and a focus on modernizing equipment in the Southern MD, mean that capacity and capability is there to engage in a high intensity conventional conflict with Ukraine at any time. Ukrainian leadership has used evidence from these long term trends to create the sense of an imminent tactical threat, but that is not the case, and they likely know it.

Expectations of an attack are based on three disparate sets of information, if we can charitably call them that, which are seemingly being woven together by various outlets, blogs, and sites like ISW who warn of Russian preparations for an imminent attack. The first is an alleged increase in Russian hardware in the Rostov region of the Southern Military District. The second is a series of disparate troop movements in Crimea, which in and of themselves do not speak to anything, but some believe are indications of a Russian operation against Ukraine’s Kherson region, presumably to seize the Crimea-Dnepr fresh water canal. The third involves statements by Russia’s MFA, Sergey Naryshkin, and others, that indicate Russian preparations for a conflict in the near future.

Issue #1 The Russian tank build up in the east and frightening Google photos of lots of tanks

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Poroshenko on Sky News earlier this month with google satellite imagery

 

Ukraine’s chief of general staff, Victor Muzhneko, stated that there is an increase in Russian tanks near the Ukrainian border, having grown from 93 to 250 within two weeks from mid-September. This information was spread by a Ukrainian run English-language blog run by Dylan Malyasov, which is a defense news amalgamator. The problem is that these are mostly T-62 variants (M/MV), which have long been retired from the Russian military, and are not in service with Russian trained separatist forces either. This tank last saw service during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, and was considered obsolete decades ago. There is no Russian unit that fields T-62 tanks today, or T-64 tanks for that matter. The Russian armed forces use this tank for target practice during major military exercises, as was the case in recently held Vostok 2018.

Separatist forces use T-64BV and T-72B1 variants, which are different main battle tanks, but can perform the same missions and are comparable in their performance characteristics. The T-62 is a completely different design, using different caliber ammunition, sights, fire control, and so on – so it is not possible for someone trained on a T-72 to just jump into this tank and ‘invade Ukraine.’ At this point the same can be said of T-64BVs being supplied to the two separatist corps, doubtfully anyone in line Russian units is current and certified to operate either T-62s, or T-64s. Russian forces use more modern T-72BA or B3 variants almost exclusively, with select units fielding T-80Us or T-80BVM.

Here is a quick slide of T-72B3 use by Russian forces in Ukraine 2014, T-64BV manned by separatists, and a T-62M

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Below we can see the alleged tank build up near Ukraine’s borders. Note the rest of the vehicle park at the base, and the contingent, remains the same after the arrival of these tanks, which suggests that they are here for storage and not a force addition.

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August 16 – clearing for tanks
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September 23 most of the tanks have arrived
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September 30 – about 250 tanks there

The main force currently being supplied with refurbished Russian T-62M tanks is the Syrian Army, particularly the 5th Corps. These tanks are coming out of Russian reserve storehouses with T-62s and BMP infantry fighting vehicles. During Vostok 2018 there was news of T-62s being activated and shipped east, but in reality several batches of these vehicles were loaded and shipped West in October. Ukraine’s alleged tank build up is almost certainly a series of old T-62s taken out of the Central Tank Reserve Base in Ulan Ude, which were tracked through social media (you can get a more detailed story on the T-62 shipment from DFR Lab) as arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, which is where Muzhenko’s photos are from. Subsequently these tanks tend to show up at the port of Novorossiysk for shipment to Syria via the ‘Syrian Express.’

Storage base in Ulan-Ude, before September and after September of this year. A number of tanks have moved from the lot, indicating that some of the vehicles likely came from this base.

T-62M tanks heading west from Central Military District and same ones arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, some are likely destined for Syria.

The recently arrived tanks near Ukraine’s borders are most likely being stored in Rostov region near the port for shipment, or may be used in training, but the story that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine with ancient tanks that they themselves don’t use and don’t train on stretches the imagination beyond the realm of the possible. It is equally possible that these tanks are there to establish a new reserve structure. Russia has been lacking mobilization force structure, and at best has developed a territorial battalion type reserve system for infrastructure defense. Operational reserve capacity comes out of active units which force generate units from active servicemen rather than mobilize reservists. Therefore one possible explanation is that these older vehicles are designed to park equipment for some nascent reserve force structure.

What’s frustrating is that Ukraine’s military leadership doubtlessly knows all of this, which makes it hard to understand why Muzhenko would use google earth satellite images of old T-62 tanks to push this story in the media. Any military analyst who studies the Russian armed forces could likely tell you this information. Yet Petro Poroshenko went on Sky News with these very same images of Russian tanks, as though they were legitimate evidence of Russian preparations for an invasion.

My personal interpretation of the Ukrainian claims is that this is an information campaign to justify and defend Poroshenko’s controversial decision to institute martial law in advance of Presidential elections, where his chances of winning are quite tenuous. This is a cynical, but optimistic view, because the alternative suggests that Ukraine’s armed forces don’t know much about the Russian military, and use dated google earth images to hunt down old T-62 tanks that are neither here or there to anything. Ukrainian force posture doesn’t suggest that they themselves expect a Russian offensive either, and the temporary state of martial law has ended as scheduled, so this seems to be mostly a large information wave with little substance to substantiate it.

However, the Russian Rostov region is seeing a steady build up of forces as part of the formation of the 150th division in the reestablished 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern MD). This will prove a decade long process. Other units that have been announced as far back as early 2015, include the 144th MR Division and 3rd MR Division in 20th Combined Arms Army (Western MD), some shifting of brigades, and steady addition or maneuver regiments to only partially filled divisions in 1st Tank Guards Army headquartered in Moscow. The 144th Division is somewhat lagging here in formation. The 150th division is a 2×2 motor rifle and tank regiment configuration (+2 supporting regiments), which is almost filled now in its maneuver regiments. Supposedly the last motor rifle regiment is being formed as of this month. There are also interesting force structure changes afoot in the Russian VDV, creating much larger air mobile formations, which were partially covered during experiments in Vostok-2018 exercises.

Issue #2 Russian build up in Crimea for an invasion of Kherson

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The dried up canal on the Russian side of the Crimean border

There is another concern out there, based on sighting of Russian troop movements near the Crimean border with Kherson, that Russia might conduct an offensive operation from Crimea. At least this is ISW’s thesis on the basis of a few troop trucks, some APCs, and artillery being moved towards the border – which is not at all uncommon. Basically, we have a story of an overturned Russian truck as part of a military convoy on the way to the border, with a field kitchen. What’s naturally missing from this equation is a concentration of armor, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, large volumes of ammunition, etc. moved about on flatbed trucks, i.e. there is no evidence of the sort of hardware one would expect in support of an offensive operation or the formation of battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s borders in Crimea. The Army Corps in Crimea has a dearth of maneuver elements, so units would have to cross into the peninsula via bridge from the rest of the Southern Military District (presumably 58th Army), concentrate, and deploy – which nobody is seeing happen. More than likely Russian troop movements are indicators of preparations for an artillery duel – exchanges of indirect fire that typically escalate in January/February.

Partly responsible for the confusion are two planned force additions to Crimea. First we have the formation of the 171st independent air assault battalion in Crimea, which was announced December 2, 2017. This battalion is technically part of the 7th VDV Air assault division, but will create a permanently based unit in Crimea with air mobility, and add to the ‘elite infantry’ stationed there which can serve as a rapid reaction force. However, VDV units have been rotating through Crimea for years now, so this is less of a force increase and more institutionalizing that which has already been taking place.

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171st Independent Battalion receiving its honorary title, establishing it in Crimea

The second tidbit of information regards the deployment of a 4th S-400 battalion to Dzhankoi in Crimea, which likely completes the rearmament of the 18th and 12th air defense regiments based there (31st air defense division within the 4th Air and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District). The first S-400 battalion was deployed January 2017 in Feodosia, the second January 2018 in Sevastopol, and a third in September 2018 in Yevpatoria. The S-400 replaces the older S-300 systems deployed to Crimea, and is part of a general wave of modernization which prioritized the Southern Military District. Alongside S-400 deployments one can find Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters, and Su-34 bombers steadily replacing Su-24s and older Su-27s in the Russian Aerospace Forces and naval aviation units assigned to the Black Sea Fleet.

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The 2nd Russian S-400 battalion set deployed to Crimea early this year

There is cause for concern that long term Russia may need to resolve the fresh water crisis in Crimea, but no way to know how this situation will play out in the coming year. In May 2014 Ukraine blocked off the water supply from the Crimea-Dnepr canal that links the Dnepr river to the peninsula. Although Russia was able to quickly build an ‘energy bridge’ to supply power, and Kerch strait bridge officially opened May 2018 to commercial traffic, the water problem remains a potential cause of conflict (Jane’s here briefly summarizes the issue: Ukraine supplied 86% of Crimea’s water, and this summer there was an acute water shortage in about 20% of the peninsula). The fresh water issue is problematic, but I’ve found it to be overly spun as the next “land bridge to Crimea” narrative. The only sort of offensive military operation that makes sense is a thrust to the Dnepr river, which seizes the entire canal, and the southern half of Ukraine’s Kherson region. There is no way to take part of the canal since it is easily blocked at any point south of the river itself. In scope, this is about a 65-70km push, which is equivalent to depth of territory seized in the Donbas region. Kherson may be relatively easy to cut off, but it would require a substantial number of forces to effect this kind of operation and earn Russia an entire new host of problems.

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Basic map with the path of the Dnepr-Crimea canal indicated
Kherson vector
~65km from the Crimean border to the Dnepr river to get to the starting point of the canal (beyond which it cannot be blocked)

Taking Kherson, like taking most any other Ukrainian region, is well within the realm of Russian military capability, but it would mean inheriting a new region which is also dependent on other parts of Ukraine. One of the obvious challenges Russia has faced in taking pieces of Ukraine is that it may seem easy to to dismember a country on a map, but in reality a state is full of integrated pieces that depend on each other for electricity, water, road networks, trade, supply of food, etc. Resolving the fresh water problem in Crimea by taking another region that would itself bring new supply challenges, and while it could probably be done relatively quickly, it would also require a substantial force build up and subsequent deployment. There are no ‘separatist’ or other volunteer battalions ready to take over internal security, man block posts, and create an entirely new line of control with Ukrainian forces. Also, there is the small matter than absent a ‘Kherson People’s Republic’ movement, there are no proxy forces behind which Russia can mask its invasion, and so this would have to be an overt, outright, and bloody business from the very start.

Russia could build up forces in Crimea relatively quickly, combining an air mobile airborne operation with a ground assault, but there would be indications and warnings. Unlike in February-March 2014, the West has a lot of technical and human resources now focused on the Russian problem set. Ground force movements, airborne unit shifts, forward deployment of several battalion tactical groups in Crimea, etc. These are regularly recorded by people, spotters, social media, and traditional news. Right now there is no evidence of such troop movements, though one should not discount a military solution to the water issue in 2019, but the entire scenario remains in the realm of low probability events.

Issue #3 Russian warnings and threats

Finally, Russian press statements by Lavrov, Naryshkin, Maria Zakharova are perhaps the most alarming, since they indicate a readiness of Russian forces to see through an escalation with Ukraine in the coming weeks or months. This of course brings us into the realm of political analysis and out of the world of military analysis. These warnings indicate the expectation of a conflict, with Russia positioning Ukraine as a the provocateur, something that’s become rote in Russian political statements. The messaging is probably not meant for domestic audiences, or Ukrainian audiences, but for the West, which Russian elites believe can heavily influence Ukrainian decision making. As such, they represent a pattern of thinking reminiscent of the run up to the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, reflecting the Russian perception that they can threaten the potential risk of escalation in order to get the United States to lean on what Moscow sees as Washington’s client state.

Russians do see Poroshenko as a provocateur, expecting him to “pull something” in the run up to the election, and engage in military posturing. Like many policymakers in the West, they are subscribers to diversionary war theory, which has little empirical basis, but is very much in vogue with political decision makers. Moscow thinks that Poroshenko needs Western attention on Ukraine, and the cheapest way Ukraine can achieve that is with a narrative that draws attention to the ongoing ‘Russian threat.’ Hence warnings of imminent danger tend to crop up every fall around November-December time. Putting aside the likelihood that Russia itself will execute some of the more dire plans discussed above, there is little incentive for Russia to launch any attack during the election as it would only benefit Poroshenko’s cause, in every scenario. That doesn’t mean it wont happen, because bounded rationality leads to outcomes akin to November 25th, i.e. one should not ignore the likely outcome of a chain of events that results in a conflict spiral between these two actors, but there is no sign that Russia intends to intervene in Ukrainian politics via overt military means.

There is a strong possibility of miscalculation, with January 2019 being different than previous artillery duels and skirmishes that have followed the last major operation in February-March 2015 (Battle of Debaltseve). Ukrainian forces have been slowly gaining ground in the ‘grey zone’ that exists between the two sides respective positions along the line of control in the Donbas. These steady gains are often referenced as the ‘creeping offensive’ to retake lost territory, leading to artillery duels with Russian backed separatists. Separatist units are organized and supported with logistics, technical capabilities like EW, air defense, and other equipment, by a contingent of Russian regulars in Ukraine stationed further behind the line of control. The daily exchanges of indirect fire often flare up after the holiday truce in January, particularly when one side decides to creep into the no man’s land between them, and shift the battle lines.

Russian controlled separatists have also played this game with Ukrainian forces for several years now, making small shifts in the line over the years. It’s what keeps this a hot war rather than a frozen conflict. However, there is a sense that Russia is spoiling for a fight – just one person’s opinion. Russian public statements are designed to paint them as the reasonable party seeking to deter potential Ukrainian adventurism, but in truth, it feels like Moscow is looking to bloody Ukraine at the first available opportunity.

It could be vengeance for Ukraine gaining autocephaly, splitting from the Russian orthodox church, or it could be that Moscow wants to show that it is unconstrained and feels free to use the military toolkit. The November 25th naval skirmish with the Russian FSB border guard service demonstrated that when pressed to make decisions in the moment, the Russian leadership turned what could have been a minor incident into a serious clash, overt, heavy handed, with disproportionate use of force. This is at best personal inference, but it is unlikely that Russia is planning an offensive operation to seize Kherson. It is more probable that Moscow is spoiling for a fight with Ukraine, with the intent of handing Ukraine and by proxy, the United States, a small but politically consequential military defeat.

 

 

Vostok 2018: Pre-exercise review of events

I’m going to try to cover Vostok 2018  this year, and this time will benefit from some help in covering the space. Special thanks to my colleagues Jeff Edmonds and Kate Baughman who have decided to join in the effort, and offer a welcome reinforcement. Vostok is officially listed as September 11-15. This is unlikely as the exercise is typically longer, and probably will be September 11-20 or thereabouts. However, the MoD announcements on exercises and readiness checks right now list dates of August 20-September 15 inclusive. Which suggest that the standard wave of snap readiness checks, units moving out to ranges, and similar such activities began on the 20th. Exercises that are not directly associated with Vostok are already taking place. It’s a bit of a heavy lift to cover all of these, so in the run up to September 11 I think the best course of action is to summarize preceding weeks and offer a few days of focused coverage to illustrate what is going on.

Most of the action so far is in the Southern MD, followed by Central MD. The troops based outside Russia in Abkhazia, Tajikistan, Armenia are conducting drills and various exercises. Greater attention being paid to logistics, communications, and coordination between different combat arms. The Northern Fleet has an exercise in progress, and ships from different fleets are gathering for a large joint exercise in the Eastern Med.

Exercises reflect similar messages: recon-strike contour, combat arms, training between different types of companies, communication, drone and counter drone, integration of ground forces and aviation. There a lot more ‘jointness’ being portrayed than last year.

Also, of course, Chinese participation. About 3200 PLA troops and 30 aircraft are expected to take part.

Chinese tanks crossing the border

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Let’s look at August 31st

Eastern MD – Engineering units are training in Zabaikal to obtain, purify, and store water. Some 4,000 troops are training on 10 different ranges in this district according to official announcements. Some exercises were focused on dealing with terrorists, who were really saboteurs, seeking to capture arms and destroy equipment. BMP-2 crews practiced fording water obstacles on a special ‘aquadrome’ in Zabaikal. About 450 troops involved. The exercise also involved evacuating damaged IFVs and rescuing crews.

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Southern MD – Iskander units in Kuban belonging to the 49th CAA conducted simulated electronic launches against coastal targets. The exercise was focused on practicing recon-strike contour. They were targeting a marine landing force attempting to seize beaches along the Black Sea coastline. The intent was to take out concentrated armor and equipment as it was being unloaded unto the beach by landing craft. This exercise is part of an effort to improve combined arms, the ‘division’ marched to a firing range and aligned C2 with a motor rifle company. Supposedly about 6,000 troops and around 2,000 pieces of equipment are conducting exercises and drilling across the Southern MD from 20 August to 15 September.

Artillery units from the district exercised separately as part of a large day of live fire drills, practicing recon-strike contour system between different service components, involving ships of the BSF, Caspian Flotilla, air force, and air defense units. Seems there are four main regions involved in the exercises right now, Dagestan, Kuban, Crimea and Russia’s units based in Abkhazia. Official claims of about 70 live fire exercises – 130 pieces of artillery involved, Torando, Smerch, Uragan, BM-21 Grad, MSTA-S, and Iskander-M. Drones were employed, and units of the 4th Air and Air Defense Army participated (about 20 planes and helicopters), and ~12 ships. Each exercise had its own command post in charge of the event.

About 20 aircraft, including Su-30, Su-27SM, and Su-25s supported the motor rifle units in their exercises across the Southern MD. They too were taking out marines attempting to establish a beach head. Coordination was done by forward observers, not part of the air force, but coordinating from field command points belonging to the CAA units. Supposedly Strelets-VR system was being used to link recon units and air strikes. Col-Gen Dvornikov has placed priority on ground units learning how to coordinate with air power, we know because his personal views are emphasized extensively in press released by Southern MD.

Abkhazia (SMD) – Armored units practiced outflanking the enemy with T-72B3 tanks. The exercise involved two company sized tactical groups practicing against each other, trying ‘non-standard’ and ‘unconventional’ tactics. (author’s note – this may mean deviating from the standard Russian system of piecing combat maneuvers from smaller prepared ‘plays’ or ‘drills’). According to this announcement Russian forces drilling in Southern MD have 6,000 training and more than 1,500 pieces of equipment.

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Engineers and recon units had a busy day. Fording across a water obstacle and taking out diversionary groups. This is an exercise where recon units and engineers worked together, with recon units covering the engineer team. The engineer company’s tasks was demining a  crossing marked it for motor rifle units, and then secured the other side ahead of their arrival.

Russian units based in Armenia, a communications unit, was raised on alert. They trained in establishing a comms link, operating drones, laying down cables, and maintaining lines of communications between other units involved in the exercise. This is another one in the theme of getting different kinds of companies working together in a combined arms exercise.

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Western MD – About 500 troops from 1st Guards Tank Army will start training in a combined arms exercise with artillery and air defense units. The drill is for different types of assault and flanking maneuvers, T-80U, T-72B3, some BMPs and MSTA-S units involved.

Central MD – CBRN units exercised, dealing with a WMD attack, while air defense units with S-400s departed for Telemba to conduct live fire exercises. They’re training against seemingly everything, planes, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, high and low altitude threats, etc. About 500 troops and 40 pieces of equipment listed for this one. Meanwhile in Samara Spetsnaz units conducted an air assault (parachute) from Mi-8MTV5 helicopters against diversionary groups who were attempting to mine an air field – recon was conducted by Orlan drones.

Tajikistan 201st base (CMD) – Russian air defense units defended themselves from attack by cruise missiles and drones. Seems like a small exercise, about 50 troops firing good old ZU-23, which can take out drones but not exactly your sophisticated cruise missile defense. Mi-8s were used to simulate low flying targets.

Eastern Med

September 1-8 there will be a joint exercise, for the first time, between Russia’s Navy and Aerospace Forces (VKS). They’ve pulled in ships from North, Baltic, Black Sea Fleets and the Caspian Flotilla. They expect about 26 ships to participate, including 2 submarines, and 34 drones. The flagman will be Slava-class Marshall Ustinov. This drill will include sorties by Tu-160 strategic bombers, Tu-142 and Il-38N maritime patrol aviation, Su-33 and Su-30SM from naval aviation (not  sure how Su-33  is going to be a part of this, skeptical on that one).

Northern Fleet

A detachment from the fleet, operating off of the New Siberian Islands, conducted live fire exercises. Seems to be mostly artillery and some Rubezh CDCM fire. This exercise combined units stationed on Kotelny Island with a small surface action group send by the Northern Fleet, this SAG is led by Udaloy-class Vice Admiral Kulakov.

A brief summary of August 29-30th

  • In SCO exercises Peaceful mission 2018, Russian forces demonstrated how they take out shahid-mobiles, together with the ‘tank carousel’ drill. The purpose was to show off experience gained in Syria to other nations who sent troops to participate in the multilateral event.
  • SMD – units specializing in drone defense (they’ve made special mobile detachments for dealing with drones now) practiced taking out drones in Volgograd oblast. This was a combination of EW, R-934BMV, R-330Z Zhitel, for jamming, and then Pansir-S1 + Tor-M2 for taking them out. Meanwhile in Chechnya EW units had something a bit more serious, Borisoglebsk-2, to jam radio communications of a hypothetical opponent. Seems they just got this system in May, and went through retraining for it. There were also sizable artillery drills in counter-battery fire, although the picture showed what looked like Pion 203mm artillery. They expect 5,000 artillerymen to practice in September from SMD.

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  • BSF’s Naval Infantry Brigade set out to destroy diversionary groups. Using drones in advance of their formation they spotted an ambush and took out the enemy instead of driving into them and the part of the road they supposedly mined.
  • In Abkhazia Ka-52 helicopters practiced taking out shahid-mobiles, and coordinating with ground units. Similar training in Armenia, with Mi-24P and Mi-8MTV, learning how to take out targets in mountainous conditions and applying experience gained in Syria.
  • EMD – Iskander-M units in Zabaikal practiced camouflage, repelling attacks, and conducting electronic simulated launches after receiving target coordinates. Their target was an enemy radar station. At the same time Buk air defense units trained at a different range in intercepting targets, including while being jammed by enemy drones/aircraft.
  • At Sea – lots of small ships drilling. Small anti-submarine corvettes from Novorosiysk (BSF) went submarine hunting. They hunt this elusive submarine every year during operational-strategic exercises. One of the Tarantul-class missile boats trained in air defense, with Su-30SM serving as the simulated attacker. More interesting – Tomsk (Oscar II), was practicing in the Sea of Okhotsk, torpedoing several enemy ships. Tomsk approached an enemy surface action group, being represented by Varyag (Slava-class), Bystry (Sovremenny), and several Udaloys. Tomsk fired 4 practice torpedoes without being detected, i.e. Tomsk is really good or ASW detection on legacy Soviet surface combatants is not so good. Earlier on Tomsk fired an anti-ship missile at a surface target on the 27th. There were quite a few simulated electronic CDCM fires in earlier days as well, from Baltic and Black Sea Fleet, including Bal and Bastion systems.

Notes on announcements:

Every exercise announcement from SMD has quotes from Dvornikov along the lines of ‘it is important to do X, and every person should know how to do X, because X is an important thing’ which seems to be a new feature. None of the other military district commanders are offering their wisdom.

A small percentage of the photos are being reused from Zapad 2017, i.e. I’ve seen them before and can tell they’re from a year ago – not showing what is actually going on in the announcement. It seems in cases where the MoD doesn’t have a photo on hand they’ve decided to search the pile and find something that looks like it might be similar from 2017.

 

What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria?

Reposting an article that just came out on the Russian campaign in Syria, co-authored with my good colleague and friend, Matthew Rojansky, who directs the Kennan Institute. This piece was published in the Military Review, Army University Press. Below we delve into the origins of Russia’s intervention in Syria, the course of the campaign, Russian strategy, and assess Moscow achieved its political objectives.

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The war in Syria has ground on for more than half a decade. Hundreds of thousands have died, entire cities and towns have been destroyed, and billions of dollars in infrastructure have been decimated. Millions of refugees have flooded into neighboring Middle Eastern states that can ill afford to house them, while others have sought safety as far away as Europe and North America, exacerbating divisive battles over immigration, jobs, and cultural identity in Western democracies.

Syria has tested every world leader individually and collectively, and has laid bare the failure of international institutions to deal effectively with the problems those institutions were designed to manage and prevent. Despite a prolonged commitment of U.S. military and diplomatic resources to the conflict, a peaceful settlement remains remote, and the bloody-handed Assad regime remains firmly in control of population centers along the Mediterranean coast. The impending battlefield defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in the desert interior of Syria and Iraq is qualified by the fact that its fighters have joined and inspired more elusive terror cells outside the region.

Meanwhile, the Russian-led coalition, including Syrian forces, Iran, and numerous allied militias, appears to be closing in on its own military and political objectives. The Syrian conflict will likely enter a new phase in 2018, as both IS and the Syrian opposition cease to be relevant forces, and the two coalitions seek to negotiate a postconflict settlement. While it is far from assured that any settlement acceptable to the principle domestic and international players can be struck, for now the main outcome of this war is that President Bashar al-Assad will stay, but the Syria that existed before the war is gone.

Russia has only been directly involved in this conflict since September 2015, but its intervention has radically changed the war’s outcome. The natural question is whether Russia has, in fact, won a victory. The answer to that question depends first on what Moscow intended to achieve—in other words, how did and does Russia define victory in Syria, what are its continuing interests there, and have those interests been secured or advanced?

While the Russian campaign might be judged a qualified success from the standpoint of the Kremlin’s own objectives, Russia’s actual performance in both military and political terms bears closer examination. How did the Russians achieve their successes, both on the battlefield and on the wider diplomatic and political stage? Finally, armed with a better awareness of how Russia’s Syria campaign measured up in terms of Russian objectives and capabilities, what lessons should Americans take away for future U.S. engagement in Syria, the Middle East, and beyond?

Origins of the Russian Intervention

That American and Russian military power came to meet on the ground and in the skies over Syria in 2015 is a kind of historical accident. The country was hardly the centerpiece of either state’s global strategy, or even their respective regional policies.

Russian-Syrian relations draw on a Cold War legacy, since Moscow first began to support Syria after the 1956 Suez Crisis. However, Syria did not become a true client state of the Soviet Union until 1971.The Soviet Union gained a well situated naval base in Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, to support its Fifth Eskadra—an operational naval squadron—along with intelligence-gathering facilities ashore.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet fleets departed the Mediterranean, and the importance of Syrian bases rapidly declined. Moscow had far less cash available to sustain its patronage network of client states; relations with Syria became decidedly transactional, as Russia sought payment for continued arms sales. Russian ships continued exploiting the port of Tartus as a minor resupply point, but with little military significance. Tartus was, in any case, ill equipped for Russian ships to dock, and for a lengthy period, there was little Russian naval activity to even merit its use. That changed in the wake of the 2015 Russian intervention. The expanded Tartus port is now much more capable of supporting operations and resupplying the Russian Mediterranean squadron, which was stood up in 2013 for the purpose of supporting Syria.

In general, Russia did not seek bases in Syria; it had to establish them and expand existing infrastructure to save the Syrian regime. Buoyed by perceived success, and looking to stay, in 2017 Russia signed a forty-nine-year lease on Tartus, which is still in the process of being upgraded into a serviceable naval base. What the Syrian relationship truly offered for post-Soviet Russia was a position in the Middle East, which helped confer great power status in international politics. A confluence of events led to what would become Moscow’s most significant military foray beyond the immediate post-Soviet space in over a quarter century.

Although Russia had lingering interests in Syria, the changing context of U.S.-Russia relations beginning in 2011 was a more influential factor in how Moscow would come to view this conflict. Russia’s response to the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in that year was categorically negative, and Moscow sought to draw a line in the sand in Syria, opposing U.S. use of force to advance what it viewed as a “regime change” agenda. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov applied the Libya logic to Syria directly in May 2011, when he said, “The calculation is that foreign players will get imbued with this problem and will not only condemn the violence there, but subsequently repeat the Libyan scenario, including the use of force.”1

The cornerstone of Russian policy in Syria became preventing the United States from carrying out a Libya-like intervention to overthrow Assad. Lavrov warned, “Some leaders of the coalition forces, and later the NATO secretary-general, called the Libyan operation a ‘model’ for the future. As for Russia, we will not allow anything like this to happen again in the future.”2 The fear of yet another U.S. military intervention, this time much closer to Russia itself, and targeting its only remaining client in the Middle East, was seemingly vindicated when President Barack Obama called for Assad to step aside.3 Russia was determined to check U.S. interventionism, initially by supplying the Syrian regime with arms and equipment, and by blocking efforts to pressure the regime in the UN Security Council.

Equally important was the firm belief among Russian elites that Assad’s downfall would result in IS and al-Qaida affiliates taking over the country, spelling disaster for the region and creating a potential superhighway for Sunni extremists into Turkey and the Caucasus. This concern was somewhat vindicated as the ongoing civil war combined with the displacement of civilians due to the rise of IS resulted in a massive refugee flow into Turkey, neighboring countries, and central Europe, causing uncertainty and threatening regional stability (see figure 1). Unlike distant Libya, a complete implosion of Syria was not only too close for Russia’s comfort, but thousands of Russian citizens and thousands more Russian-speakers from the wider region had already joined militant extremist groups fighting there.4 Moscow feared that in the event of an IS victory, some of those fighters would enter Russia and join insurgencies in the North Caucasus or plot attacks against the Russian heartland. Accordingly, some Russians described entering the fray in Syria as launching a preventive war against terrorism.

Figure 1. Syrians in Neighboring Countries and Europe

Figure 1. Syrians in Neighboring Countries and Europe (Graphic courtesy of the BBC.; latest figures up to 3 March 2016. Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

Russian interests and objectives in the Syrian intervention also stem from the collapse in Russia-West ties following Moscow’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. In this sense, U.S. and European sanctions and diplomatic pressure catalyzed the Russian decision to intervene in Syria. Rather than giving in to Western pressure and offering concessions on Ukraine, Moscow looked to Syria to broaden the confrontation on terms more favorable to itself. Eventually, Russia hoped its Syrian intervention could force Washington and its European allies to abandon Ukraine-related sanctions and diplomatic isolation in the interests of achieving a negotiated settlement with Russia over Syria.

Russian domestic political considerations were also a factor, though their role should not be overstated. Russia’s military dealt Ukraine a blow at the battle of Debaltseve in February 2015, leading to the second Minsk ceasefire agreement, which appeared to be a political victory for Moscow. The agreement quickly broke down, however, and Western sanctions remained in full effect, taxing the Russian economy at a time of persistently low energy prices. Struggling to stabilize the economic situation at home, and with policy in Ukraine increasingly adrift, there was little prospect for Russian leadership to gain further victories either at home or in Russia’s near abroad. Although Moscow hardly saw entering a bloody civil war in the Middle East as a path to easy gains, Russia’s tolerance for the risks attendant on intervention grew dramatically in the face of these domestic and international pressures.

A limited Syrian intervention, calibrated to reduce political risk at home, became the less perilous proposition. By mid-2015, Moscow had few alternatives to use of force if it hoped to shore up the Assad regime, its ally in Damascus. In April, the situation for Assad’s forces was dire. Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, had assembled a coalition of fighters into the “Army of Conquest,” which drove back regime forces in the northwest and threatened major population centers further south. At the same time, IS was pushing westward, and had captured the historic city of Palmyra. Assad’s forces were being squeezed, and they were falling back on almost all fronts. That summer, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, together with senior Syrian officials, made several trips to Moscow in an effort to coordinate a military intervention.5 By August that year, there were clear indicators that Russia was preparing to intervene, and when Russian tactical aviation began arriving at Hmeimim Air Base in September 2015, the die was cast. Figure 2 depicts the approximate Syrian situation in terms of territorial control exercised by particiapnts in the conflict near the outset of Russian operations initiated in support of the Assad regime.

Framing the Russian Intervention

Although hemmed in by tactical necessities, Moscow’s entry into the Syrian fray was also strategically ambitious. A successful intervention could offer victory on three fronts: preventing U.S.-backed regime change in Syria, breaking out of political isolation and forcing Washington to deal with Russia as an equal, and demonstrating at home that Russia is a great power on the main stage of international politics. Moscow hoped Syria would offer a new and more favorable front, where the United States could be outmaneuvered in the broader confrontation, which up to 2015 centered almost entirely on Russian actions in Ukraine.

Figure 2. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2015

Figure 2. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2015 (Graphic by edmaps.com; Twitter, edmaps.com; © 2017 Cristian Ionita)

Once military operations began, as is often the case with military campaigns, the intervention would take on additional objectives, reflecting secondary or tertiary vested interests. “Ambition creep” is a common illness afflicting most great powers when they deploy military forces. Russia may not have come to Syria with hopes of regaining power and status in the Middle East at the top of its agenda, but regional aspirations grew with each success on the battlefield. As a consequence, Russia has become a potential powerbroker, and perhaps a balancer against U.S. influence, even if it did not embark on the Syrian campaign with those goals in mind.

Whatever Russian expectations of success may have been—and there are indications that the Syrian leadership misled Moscow early on as to the true state of its forces (historically not an uncommon practice for Damascus)—Moscow pursued a campaign with both political and military objectives in fairly close alignment. These efforts were mutually reinforcing, but a path to victory had to overcome steep challenges.

On the ground, Russian forces had to find a way to quickly and dramatically alter the balance in Assad’s favor by destroying the opposition’s capacity to continue the fight, while working under severe resource constraints. In parallel, Russia had to change the calculus and policy of its principal opponents in this conflict, including Turkey, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, while entering into arrangements with other potential actors in the region. Otherwise, military gains would quickly disappear in the sand, and a political victory would be elusive. Russia also needed a political process running concurrently to lock in military gains on the ground, since as Mao Zedong wrote, political power would “grow from the barrel of a gun.”

Relations with allies like Iran, cobelligerents in the form of local militias, or potential spoilers such as Israel had to be carefully managed. The compound risk of conflicting political incentives and operational objectives among these parties made for a complex battle space. The risks of escalation to direct conflict between the intervening powers were considerable, as underscored by Syria’s use of chemical weapons in March 2017, resulting in a prompt retaliatory U.S. cruise missile strike, or the Turkish shoot down of a Russian Su-24M2 in November 2016. Russia led the coalition, but never controlled it; thus, it had to be comfortable with uncertainty and the associated risk of having the likes of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah on its team.

Syrian soldiers who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army secure a street 27 January 2012 in Saqba

Syrian soldiers who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army secure a street 27 January 2012 in Saqba, just east of Damascus, Syria. The diverse groups loosely associated under the Free Syrian Army designation became the initial primary targets of Russian operations in Syria since they most directly and immediately threatened the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo courtesy of Freedom House, Flickr)

Success for Russia entailed securing a commitment from the other parties to pursue a political settlement largely on its terms. This meant convincing Saudi Arabia and Turkey that their respective proxies had no chance of victory in the war, and pushing the United States to abandon its policy favoring regime change. Over time, Moscow achieved success on both the military and political fronts, coercing adversaries and negotiating changes to their positions one by one, though the pathway to this outcome was hardly a smooth or straightforward one. Russia’s success is not unqualified, but at the time of this writing, it appears that if the campaign in Syria is not a victory for Russia, it is certainly a defeat for those who opposed the Russian-led coalition.

Russian Strategy in Syria

To achieve this success, Russia had to secure some leverage in Syria, which in turn rested on being able to destroy the Syrian opposition and compel opponents to change their policies, forcing them and their proxies in the conflict to the negotiating table on terms favorable to Russia’s coalition. Moscow also sought the opportunity to reframe itself as a positive force in the battle against terrorism, and press the United States into military cooperation. Russian leaders hoped this would ultimately fracture Western cohesion on punitive measures imposed over Ukraine, and grant Russian President Vladimir Putin recognition as a prominent player in international affairs.

These were the desired ends, yet the Russian strategy was not deliberate. If anything, Russia pursued an “emergent,” or “lean,” strategy. This was an approach characterized by the “fail fast, fail cheap” ethos of startup business, with iterative adjustments to the operation. The centerpiece of this strategy was flexibility, with a preference for adaptation over more structured strategy. In emergent strategy, success begets success, while failure is never final or disqualifying. Several vectors are pursued simultaneously, and at times, they may even appear to be contradictory. Resources are added in favor of the approach that shows the most progress, while others are discarded without regard to “sunk costs.”6

Militant Islamist fighters parade 30 June 2014 in the streets of northern Raqqa Province, Syria

Militant Islamist fighters parade 30 June 2014 in the streets of northern Raqqa Province, Syria, to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic “caliphate” after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq. The Islamic State (IS) posted pictures similar to this one online of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, and Russian forces, after supporting Assad’s defeat of Free Syrian Army forces holding the northern city of Aleppo, turned their primary attention to defeating IS. (Photo by Reuters stringer)

To be successful in implementing a lean strategy, leadership must be agile, politically unconstrained, and uncommitted to any particular approach in the battle space, i.e. willing to improvise and adjust course. In Russia’s case, it actually helped being an authoritarian system, and having relatively few allies or other geopolitical constraints on decision-making. But Russia also had few other options. Given resource constraints and high uncertainty, including poor information about the reality on the ground from its allies, Russia was not in a position to pursue a more deliberate strategy. That limitation ultimately played to Russia’s advantage relative to other powers, which expended considerably more blood and treasure via structured and deliberate, but ultimately less successful approaches in the region. Russia’s lean strategy worked, because when flawed assumptions were proven wrong in the conflict, it could quickly pivot and adapt.

Still, the limitations of the Russian armed forces imposed hard constraints on Russia’s overall operation. The Russian military had almost no experience with expeditionary operations after withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989, Syria itself had limited capacity to host a major military footprint, Russia’s long-range supply and support capabilities were weak, and the Russian military was in the midst of major reforms and modernization. Coordinating with Iran and its associated Shia militias like Hezbollah was an added complexity on an already crowded battlefield, while Russian commanders had a generally low opinion of Syrian forces’ combat performance. In short, it was far from clear how the forces Russia could deploy would make the impact needed to turn the conflict around. Early on, outside observers doubted the prospects for Russia’s intervention, especially given recent Western experiences in expeditionary operations in the Middle East.

The campaign Russia envisioned would be based on a small footprint to keep its exposure low, reducing the chances of being steadily dragged into a conflict where local actors increasingly gain leverage over a stronger international benefactor. Russian leadership instead sought room to maneuver, retaining flexibility and the option of quick withdrawal should things go badly. In the early days of Russia’s intervention, physical constraints limited its presence. Tartus was not a real naval base, Hmeimim Air Base lacked apron space for a large contingent of Russian aircraft, other Syrian bases were exposed, surrounded, or ill equipped, and Russian logistical support would have limited throughput.

In short, reality helped dictate a more conservative and ultimately smarter approach to the battle space. It was not Moscow’s skill or experience, but the absence of abundance and limited options that made the Russian armed forces savvier in how they approached the conflict. That said, even after expanding the Syrian air base and making major investments in the naval facility, Russia’s General Staff continued to calibrate presence down to the bare minimum necessary. By 2017, it became clear that despite increased local capacity to host Russian forces, and improved infrastructure, Moscow was reluctant to use it. The opportunity to expand the means applied to this conflict was there, but Russia did not want it, judging that Syria would not be won with a means-based approach, the all too familiar “more is more” school of thought.

The Russian strategy was about Syrian, Iranian, and Shia militias doing the fighting and Russian forces providing support, not the other way around. Syria continued to reveal the general Russian preference to use local forces first, mercenaries and other Russian proxies second, and its own forces last, only for decisive effect on the battlefield. Russian military power would pulse, peaking when necessary in support of offensives and withdrawing when judged unneeded.

Russian Combat Operations in Syria

When Russian forces first arrived in Syria in September 2015, they inherently introduced a new dynamic, compelling what became a dialogue on “deconfliction” arrangements with the United States. Several Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters were shown on the runway at Hmeimim Air Base as Su-24M2 bombers began to deploy. Leveraging an upcoming UN Security Council General Assembly summit, Moscow pressed for a high-level bilateral meeting between Putin and Obama—a break from what had been more than a year of U.S.-imposed diplomatic “isolation” of Russia in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber aircraft drops a KAB-500S, a 560 kg satellite-guided bomb

A Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber aircraft drops a KAB-500S, a 560 kg satellite-guided bomb, on an enemy position 9 October 2015 in the Aleppo or Racca region of Syria. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)

Though the Obama administration rankled at the appearance that it had been coerced into restoring military dialogue, the risk of a military incident between the two big nuclear powers in the skies over Syria trumped other considerations.7 In a ninety-minute discussion, the two sides agreed to continue efforts to “deconflict” operations. Within days, Russia had achieved its first political gains from the intervention, which had yet to conduct a single sortie.

Still, it was clear that there was no agreement on the political way forward in Syria, and early Russian targeting in the air campaign, which launched on 30 September 2015, revealed that Russia’s air wing would focus on the “moderate” Syrian opposition under the rubric of a counterterrorism fight. Moscow’s rules of engagement were relatively simple: there was little to no distinction between the various nongovernment armed groups in Syria, as all except for Kurds and pro-regime militias would be considered “terrorists.” Putin declared at the UN assembly, “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”8

This was not just a matter of convenience for the sake of establishing a free-fire zone. Indeed, from Russia’s perspective, there was no such thing as a “moderate” opposition in Syria, and the entire term was a misguided Western invention aimed at legitimizing extremists opposed to Assad. The Russian political strategy at home and abroad was to frame the conflict as binary—only Assad’s regime had legitimacy, and all others were de facto terrorist groups of varying stripes allied with IS or Jabhat al-Nusra.9 Over time, Russia would also seek to create a systemic opposition, cobbling together forces that would be amenable to sharing power with the Assad regime.

Taking advantage of the momentum in 2015, Russia set up an intelligence sharing and coordination center in Baghdad, which included Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Israel. The center’s purpose was to deconflict Russian air operations with neighboring countries. Moscow also hoped to create the public sense that it was leading a coalition of countries in a counterterrorism effort no less legitimate than the U.S.-led coalition against IS. Russia’s leadership sought to parlay this posture and the U.S.-Russian deconfliction dialogue into more formal recognition of U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria. Indeed, Moscow repeatedly asked for Washington’s acknowledgement of the Russian-led coalition as a legitimate partner in the Syrian war, which would have amounted to a recognition of Russia as Washington’s geopolitical “equal,” at least in this context.

Initial Russian combat operations were intended to change the momentum on the battlefield, providing a substantial morale boost to the Syrian forces and allied militias. Russia also hoped the United States would cede the battle space, at least by default, by focusing on its own combat operations against IS in Northern Iraq, and Kurdish allies in Syria. This would mean a rapid abandonment of the moderate opposition and other proxies seeking Assad’s overthrow, who would be powerless to deal with Russian airpower and increasingly isolated on the battlefield. In many respects, this goal was accomplished, as Russia and the United States established a de facto division of labor in Syria and complementary campaigns.

The first Russian deployment to Syria consisted of thirty-three aircraft and seventeen helicopters. These included twelve Su-24M2 bombers, twelve Su-25SM/UB attack aircraft, four Su-34 bombers, four Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters and one Il-20M1 reconnaissance plane. The helicopter contingent consisted of twelve Mi-24P attack helicopters and five Mi-8AMTSh transports.10 Later in 2015, this number would grow with four more Su-34 bombers and four additional Su-35S air superiority fighters. Mi-35M attack helicopters and Mi-8 transports arrived in the following months. A Mediterranean squadron led by the Black Sea Fleet would support the operations from the sea, though the Russian navy mostly concerned itself with providing logistical supplies to the intervention via landing ship tanks in what was dubbed the “Syrian Express.” In order to supplement limited transport capacity at sea, and equipment brought in by air via Ruslan An-124 cargo planes, Russia purchased eight Turkish cargo vessels and pressed four of them into service.

Initial Russian objectives focused on regaining access to key roads, linking infrastructure, breaking isolated Syrian bases out of encirclement, and softening up opposing forces by destroying as much hardware as possible—much of it captured earlier from the Syrian Army. Although in the early months Russia had supposedly only helped Syria regain control of 2 percent of its territory, by February 2016, it was clear the air campaign was having an effect in shaping the battlefield, and with it, the political fortunes of the Syrian opposition. The opposition’s momentum stunted, Syrian morale began to recover.

A screenshot of a YouTube video shows cruise missiles being launched 17 November 2015 from a Russian fleet in the Caspian Sea

A screenshot of a YouTube video shows cruise missiles being launched 17 November 2015 from a Russian fleet in the Caspian Sea. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reported launching eighteen cruise missiles in the salvo, hitting seven terrorist targets in Syria. (Screenshot of RT YouTube video)

Territorial control in Syria was always elusive, as local leaders would sign up with whoever was winning. Thus, “control” could swing rapidly towards the side that had the clear momentum, and Russian forces oversaw numerous “ceasefire agreements” between Syrian forces and village leaders. In reality, Assad’s forces had control over much of the population of Syria, while large tracts of opposition or extremist held territory were depopulated from the fighting. Thus, it would take less than two years for the Russian-led coalition to make the leap from gaining only 2 percent of territory to appearing to be the victor in the conflict.

Russian aircrews flew sorties at a high rate, averaging perhaps forty to fifty per day, but spiking to one hundred during peak combat times, such as January 2016. Two crews per airframe were needed to sustain the intensity of operations, along with a small village of defense contractors to support the newer platforms being fielded in Syria. Russian airpower in Syria never exceeded thirty-to-fifty combat aircraft and sixteen-to-forty helicopters of various types, a deployment many times smaller than the combat aviation group the Soviet Union fielded in Afghanistan.11 The rate of mechanical failure or combat loss was also magnitudes less than previous Russian or Soviet air operations.

During the conflict, Russian aerospace forces would be supported by around 3,000 ground troops, with perhaps 1,500 based at Hmeimim alone. These would include Naval Infantry from the 810th brigade based in Crimea, elements from the 7th Airborne Assault Division, armored companies fielding T-90A tanks, MSTA-B towed artillery, and a host of air defense units including Buk-M2, Pantsir-S1 and S-400 units. Sophisticated electronic warfare equipment was deployed as well, alongside Russia’s Special Operations Command. After the capture of Palmyra in the spring and of Aleppo in the fall of 2016, Russia also introduced demining units and specialized military police units from the North Caucasus.

Russia’s special operations command featured prominently throughout the conflict, conducting diversionary operations, targeted killings, and reconnaissance. Another two thousand or so private military contractors (PMCs), the largest of which is known as Wagner Group, bolstered Syrian forces and absorbed most of the casualties on the battlefield. With Russian air power in support, veterans-turned-PMCs made a difference amidst the poorly trained militias, taking the risk for $4,000–$5,000 per month.

On the whole, Moscow sought to keep its presence small. The initial force did not field long-range air defenses or dedicated air superiority fighters; rather, their arrival was prompted by an unexpected incident with Turkey, when Russia’s Su-24M2 was shot down by a Turkish F-16 in November of 2015. The Russian bomber had been attacking Turkmen militias in Syria, and had strayed through Turkish airspace. Indeed, Russia’s air force repeatedly violated Turkish airspace in an effort to coerce Turkey to change its policy in Syria and reach a modus vivendi with the Russian-led coalition. The crisis between Russia and Turkey was arguably the most dangerous moment of the entire intervention, and likely the closest a NATO country had been to military conflict with Russia in decades.

A Syrian man carries his two girls to safety 7 September 2015 across the rubble caused by a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Kalasa

A Syrian man carries his two girls to safety 7 September 2015 across the rubble caused by a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Kalasa in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Once Syria’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo was ravaged by fighting after the rebels seized the eastern part of the city in 2012, confining government forces to the west. As a result of widespread civilian deaths due to such bombings, Russia and Syria received global condemnation for air attacks against Aleppo and other urban targets. (Photo by Karam al-Masri, Agence France-Presse)

The Russian reaction to the incident was to impose harsh economic and political sanctions on Turkey, while showing on the battlefield that Turkish-backed forces had little hope of achieving victory over Assad. By the summer of 2016, Ankara gave in, issuing a quasi-apology in order to restore normal relations with Moscow. One by one, Russia would seek to change the positions of the major parties backing anti-Assad forces in Syria. First, Moscow pushed Washington to concede that a policy of regime change was not only unrealistic, but that its support for the Syrian opposition had no chance of success, all the while dangling the prospect of a ceasefire and humanitarian relief for civilians in the conflict. The United States did inch towards tacit acceptance of the Russian intervention, and of Assad’s de facto victory over the radicals as well as the U.S.-backed opposition.

Russian ambitions were also well served by competition among U.S. allies in the region, who frequently and vocally disagreed with Washington’s approach. Turkey was more hostile towards Kurdish fighters in Syria than towards Assad or IS, yet the Kurds were Washington’s chief ally against IS on the ground. Washington also had no interest in supporting Sunni extremist groups favored by the Saudis and other Arab states, nor were extremists seen as a viable alternative to the bloody Syrian regime. Eventually, after crushing Turkish-backed proxies in Syria, Russia got the cooperation it sought with Ankara. Saudi Arabia, too, began to show flexibility, and in October 2017, the Saudi king visited Russia for the first time in recognition of Moscow’s growing significance in the Middle East.

Russia also saw Syria as a testing ground for new weapons and platforms, giving as much of its military an opportunity to participate in the conflict as possible. This included rotating countless crews through the theater of operations, giving ships and bombers the opportunity to fire cruise missiles, and fielding a small ground force as well. After a period of military reforms from 2008 to 2012 and a large modernization program begun in 2011, Moscow wanted to bloody its air force in conflict.

Syria has had a profound impact on the Russian armed forces, as countless officers have been rotated through the campaign on three month stints to gain combat experience. According to Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the commanders of military districts, combined arms armies, air force and air defense armies along with many of the divisional commanders have gained experience in Syria.12 Promotions in 2017 further advanced those who served in Syria. The experience will shape Russian military thinking and personnel decisions for years to come.

Russian military engineers clear approach routes of mines 2 April 2016 in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria

Russian military engineers clear approach routes of mines 2 April 2016 in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. Russia deployed few ground troops to Syria in order to keep the Russian “footprint” small. Instead, it relied on Syrian army forces, Shiite militias, and Iranian “volunteeers” to serve as the primary ground forces for combined operations primarily planned by the Russians. (Photo by Valery Sharifulin, TASS)

Alongside these training objectives, Russia also used combat operations in Syria as a technology demonstration for arms sales abroad, showing off the latest generation of Russian tech alongside older Soviet workhorses that did most of the fighting.

Starting with an initial strike on 7 October 2015, over the course of the conflict, Russian ships and submarines fired numerous Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Similarly, Russia’s long-range aviation joined the fray in November 2015, and since then, Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers have flown a substantial number of sorties deploying Kh-555 and newer Kh-101 air launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria.13 The Tu-22M3 medium bomber force supplemented combat sorties from Hmeimim Air Base, though these aircraft exclusively dropped FAB unguided bombs from medium to high altitude. Later Moscow would also field Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile systems, Bastion-P antiship missiles, and other advanced weapons in an effort to demonstrate their capability.

Although the precision-guided weapons involved in the conflict represented a tiny portion of the actual mixture of weapons used, perhaps less than 5 percent, Russia demonstrated the capacity to employ long-range guided weapons from various platforms. Syria showcased both the advances Russian airpower forces had made since their dismal performance in the Russia–Georgia War of 2008 as well as the remaining limitations of Russia’s armed forces. Much of the bombing was done by older Su-24M2 and Su-25SM aircraft, and almost all of it with unguided area-of-effect munitions. With the exception of systems on the Su-34, which was used to employ the KAB-500S satellite-guided bomb, among other precision weapons, Russian fixed-wing aircraft as a whole lacked targeting pods to effectively employ precision-guided munitions.14

Russian naval aviation was not impressive. The carrier strike-group sortie to Syria ferried by Russia’s vintage Kuznetsov heavy-aviation-carrying cruiser in 2016 was a publicity disaster, losing a Su-33 and Mig-29K to equipment failures. Otherwise, remarkably few Russian aircraft were lost, with most of the casualties among helicopter crews. Russian technicians kept both old- and newer-generation aircraft in the sky, with only one Su-24M2 lost to technical failure.

Russian air strikes were certainly effective, but incredibly costly in civilian casualties and collateral damage inflicted, some of which appeared intentional. Much of the ordinance used was for area of effect, and much too large in payload for targets in Syria. The Russian Aerospace Forces as a whole are still confined to an early 1990s form of fighting (though still a generational leap from where they were in 2008), but relying almost entirely on unguided weapons and, more importantly, lacking in the ISR assets necessary to conduct information-driven combat operations. Russia’s Aerospace Forces also lack the means to engage small moving targets with guided precision, relying on unguided weapons and munitions that are truly overkill.15 Just as the Soviet Union before it, the Russian military is a brutal mauler in close quarters, but continues to struggle in finding and seeing its target.

Russian military engineers clear approach routes of mines 2 April 2016 in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria

Citizens of Aleppo display portraits of fallen Russian servicemen killed while fighting in Syria during a 22 December 2017 parade in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrians were expressing appreciation for the Russian Federation’s contributions during the first anniversary celebration of the capture of Aleppo. (Photo courtesy of the Russian Embassy’s Twitter account, @EmbassyofRussia)

Russia made heavy use of drones to supplement its manned air campaign, conducting battle damage assessment and reconnaissance. Russian drones are rumored to have flown more sorties than manned aviation over Syria. The best Russian drones were licensed production variants of Israeli models—a product of Russian-Israeli defense cooperation. Despite substantial spending on development, Russia still has no armed unmanned aircraft systems, and thus lacks a real time recon-strike option for its drone platforms. Syria highlighted the need for Russian armed forces to invest further in the development of unmanned strike systems, and develop a larger repertoire of guided weapons for the Aerospace Forces, particularly for tactical employment.

Those limitations aside, Moscow did use the Syrian campaign effectively as part of a broader diplomatic and political engagement with the United States, demonstrating capability and resolve to use long-range guided weapons, many of which have nuclear-tipped variants. Syria did much for Russian coercive credibility, painting a clear picture about the resurgent capability and capacity of its armed forces to impose costs on NATO in a conventional conflict and its ability to reach out at long ranges to hold much of Europe at risk, if need be. Long-range strikes by strategic bombers, ships, and submarines should not be viewed simply as combat tests to gain experience; they were also intended as strategic messaging to boost Russian credibility writ large.

Not Home by Christmas

Upon entering the conflict, Russian armed forces quickly discovered that the intervention would take considerably more time than initially expected or desired. Syria’s army had degenerated into armed militias that were formally unified under the Assad banner but that no longer represented a coherent fighting force. Russian leadership was aghast at the large amount of Syrian and Iraqi hardware captured by the opposition and various militant groups while the Assad regime held barely 10 percent of territory. Some Syrian units were still capable of action, but Russian officers would have to embed across these units to conduct military operations and start rebuilding the Syrian army’s fighting potential.

Despite an influx of Iranian and Hezbollah troops in October 2015, it was clear that the warring sides were all leveraging proxies on a battlefield with a low density of forces. Their combat effectiveness was poor, and Syrian forces would continually call in Russian air strikes, make small gains, and retreat at the first sight of counteroffensives by well-motivated Jabhat al-Nusra or other fighting groups.

Over time Russia would train up lower ranking Syrian officers, and establish the 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, led by Russian commanders and equipped with more advanced Russian equipment. The 5th has been Syria’s primary assault force for the past year. Combining Syrian fighters, PMCs, and Russian leadership to put together offenses has yielded battlefield victories at minimal cost.

Russian operational objectives were suited to its strategy: make decisive gains where possible, fragment the Syrian opposition, and seek to parlay victories in Syria into broader political objectives with the United States. To this end, the Russian General Staff sought to avoid exhaustive battles over population centers, especially given that Syrian forces lacked the manpower to hold anything they took. Such an approach would, and eventually did, result in having to retake the same terrain multiple times, as in the case of Palmyra. Russia also genuinely wanted to turn the fight eastward towards IS in an effort to glue together its effort at cooperation with the United States. Syria and Iran were not interested, instead seeking near total victory over the opposition and the recapture of all the major population centers in the west.

While Russia retained the image of a powerbroker and leader of the coalition, in reality, it did not have buy-in for such a strategy from its allies and cobelligerents; nor could Moscow compel them. In this regard, Russia suffered from the same deficit as the United States. Both were outside powers intervening in Syria without the necessary influence over local and regional allies to broker big deals. These differences came to the fore in March 2016, when Russia declared its withdrawal from Syria while turning the attention of its forces to Palmyra. In fact, Moscow had no intention of withdrawing, simply deleveraging and settling in for a longer fight, while Assad was focused on retaking Aleppo.

With its March declaration, Russia sought to recast the intervention in Syria as a sustainable longer-term security presence in support of a political settlement, rather than combat per se. The idea was to normalize Russian operations in the eyes of Russia’s domestic audience and to declare victory in some form. Medals were handed out and a small contingent was rotated back home, but meanwhile, Russia prepared to turn the Syrian campaign into smaller “campaigns” to avoid the perception that the intervention could take years. The first segment was concluded with the Russian capture of Palmyra in March 2016. Syrian and Iranian forces then turned towards Aleppo, a battle that ultimately scuttled Russian attempts to negotiate a joint integration group with the United States. The second cut was made in January of 2017, after the seizure of Aleppo, and a third “victory” has been set at the closing of 2017 as Syrian forces capture Deir ez-Zor and IS appears on the verge of defeat.

igure 3. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2017

Figure 3. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2017(Graphic by edmaps.com; Twitter, @edmapscom; © 2017 Cristian Ionita)

This latest declaration of victory, ahead of the March 2018 presidential election, is fraught with risk since Russian forces are not just staying but further expanding the infrastructure at Tartus and Hmeimim. As Gerasimov said in a recent interview, “we’re not going anywhere.” Not long thereafter, a mortar attack on 31 December damaged several planes and killed a number of Russian soldiers at the airbase. The strike was followed by a drone attack from militant groups against both bases on 6 January. Both were a stark reminder that triumphalism is somewhat premature, and Russian forces in theater remain at risk. Figure 3 depicts the approximate Syrian situation as of November 2017 in terms of territorial control exercised by participants in the conflict near the official close of Russian operations initiated in support of the Assad regime. (See figure 1 for a comparison to the situation at the beginning of the campaign.)

Postconflict Settlement and Beyond

Now that the bulk of Syrian territory and population centers have been wrested from the hands of anti-regime opposition groups, Russia can turn its full attention toward the postconflict settlement. It is true that Assad has committed to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory, and that even if Russia does not support this ambition, it will have little choice but to back continued regime efforts to secure energy and water resources in the country’s north and south. However, the main focus of both the Russian military and political action will be around the diplomatic settlement and supportive conditions on the ground.

Most importantly, Russia has apparently gained Washington’s acceptance of its role as a key broker in Syria’s future. In their November summit meeting in Vietnam, Presidents Trump and Putin confirmed not only continuing U.S. and Russian deconfliction dialogue and support for “de-escalation zones,” a largely Russian initiative, but also underscored the centrality of the political process for negotiating a postconflict future for Syria. That process is shaping up in line with Russia’s main strategic interests.

First, Russia has broken the monopoly of the Geneva process, and of U.S. diplomatic leadership. It has successfully integrated both the Astana-based negotiations it launched in 2016 to the formal UN-backed international process, and has regularly convened meetings of various opposition groups in an attempt to foster the emergence of a common opposition grouping, which will be amenable to compromise with the Assad regime. Moscow’s progress on the political front is fitful, but at this writing it appears to be the only plausible path forward.

Second, Russia has managed to maintain productive ties with each of the other key regional players, ranging from Saudi Arabia on one end of the spectrum to Iran on the other. In fact, despite continuing disagreement with Saudi Arabia over the composition of the “legitimate” Syrian opposition to be represented at Geneva, and with Turkey over the role of the Kurdish self-defense forces, Russian diplomacy (backed by military force) has won recognition from both, a fact that is especially welcome in Moscow in the run-up to Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. Iran has proven a thorny ally for Russia; however, the relationship between the two countries remains largely stable, since the Iranians expect to be able to maintain their de facto dominance on the ground in much of Syria, solidifying their corridor of power from Iraq to Lebanon.

Finally, Russia will retain its ally in Damascus, because for the foreseeable future, the Assad regime appears back in control. In fact, Assad’s stock has risen so much since the Russian intervention two years ago that he is largely able to set the terms of his participation in the Geneva process. The opposition can howl in protest, but the regime has simply refused to engage in negotiations if the question of its own departure is on the agenda.

This is also clearly a victory for Russia, since Moscow has capitalized on its victories to secure long-term leases on its military facilities at Hmeimim and Tartus, as well as to position Russian firms to play potentially prominent and lucrative roles in Syrian reconstruction, especially in the energy and energy transit sectors. Russia not only needs these bases to continue supporting Syrian forces, but the conflict is now part of a larger bid for becoming a power broker in the Middle East, and a balancing option for those seeking to hedge against U.S. influence.

The main area in which Russia’s Syria campaign fell clearly short of initial objectives was in the effort to broaden the platform for diplomatic engagement with Europe and the United States in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and associated Western sanctions. Although Moscow did break through the Obama administration’s attempted isolation policy by forcing Washington to conduct deconfliction talks, those talks have not expanded into the full-fledged Russia-U.S. cooperation for which the Kremlin had hoped. Moreover, there has been zero willingness from Western capitals to think of Syria and Ukraine in quid pro quo terms. As much as Westerners may lament the death toll and flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war, the Ukraine conflict is simply much closer to home, and European governments have held firm in their support for sanctions tied to fulfillment of the Minsk agreements, while the United States has actually ratcheted sanctions dramatically upward in the wake of Russia’s apparent attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.

In sum, Russia appears to have won at least a partial victory in Syria, and done so with impressive efficiency, flexibility, and coordination between military and political action. On the one hand, Russia’s embrace of the Assad regime and its Iranian allies, its relative indifference to civilian casualties, and its blanket hostility to anti-regime opposition groups are fundamentally at odds with widely held U.S. views on Syria. On the other hand, Russia’s “lean” strategy, adaptable tactics, and coordination of military and diplomatic initiatives offer important lessons for the conduct of any military intervention in as complex and volatile an environment as the Middle East. More than a decade and a half into the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, with ongoing fighting in Libya and Yemen, and countless other tinderboxes that could ignite wider regional conflict threatening U.S. interests, Washington should pay close attention to the Russian intervention and how Moscow achieved its objectives in Syria.

Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation, where he serves as director of the Russia Studies Program. He is also a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Washington, D.C., and a nonresident Fellow at the Modern War Institute, West Point. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. His research focuses on security issues in Russia and the former Soviet Union, specializing in defense and military analysis. He holds a BA from Northeastern University and an MA from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He holds an AB from Harvard College and a JD from Stanford Law School. Previously, he was deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also served as an embassy policy specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, and as a visiting scholar in the Research Division at the NATO Defense College.

Notes

  1. Sergei Lavrov and Russian Media, “On Syria and Libya,” Monthly Review (website), 17 May 2011, accessed 15 December 2017, https://mronline.org/2011/05/17/on-syria-and-libya/. The text is an excerpt from “Transcript of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Interview to Russian Media Following Attendance at Arctic Council Meeting, Nuuk, May 12, 2011,” published on the Russian Foreign Ministry website on 13 May 2011.
  2. “Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at Joint Press Conference with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Al Nahyan,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (website), 1 November 2011, accessed 10 January 2018, http://www.mid.ru/en/vistupleniya_ministra/-/asset_publisher/MCZ7HQuMdqBY/content/id/186758.
  3. Macon Phillips, “President Obama: The Future of Syria Must Be Determined by Its People, but President Bashar al-Assad Is Standing in Their Way,” White House Press Office (website), accessed 19 December 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/08/18/president-obama-future-syria-must-be-determined-its-people-president-bashar-al-assad.
  4. Vladimir Frolov, “Signing In is Easier than Quitting,” Vedomosti (website), 29 September 2016, accessed 19 December 2017, https://www.vedomosti.ru/amp/a00ffd6a64/opinion/articles/2016/09/29/658952-voiti-legche-viiti.
  5. “Iran Quds Chief Visited Russia despite U.N. Travel Ban: Iran Official,” Reuters, 7 August 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-iran-soleimani-idUSKCN0QC1KM20150807; Michael Kofman, “A Tale of Two Campaigns: U.S. and Russian Military Operations in Syria,” Pathways to Peace and Security1, no. 52 (2017): 163–70.
  6. Michael Kofman, “The Moscow School of Hard Knocks: Key Pillars of Russian Strategy,” War on the Rocks (website), 17 January 2017, accessed 19 December 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/01/the-moscow-school-of-hard-knocks-key-pillars-of-russian-strategy/.
  7. Teresa Welsh, “Obama, Putin Meet in New York,” S. News & World Report(website), 28 September 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/09/28/obama-putin-meet-in-new-york.
  8. Washington PostStaff, “Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly speech,” Washington Post (website), 28 September 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/28/read-putins-u-n-general-assembly-speech/?utm_term=.48d2be2b7823.
  9. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “Moscow’s War in the Air: Russia Sends a Message in Syria,” The National Interest(website), 1 October 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/moscows-war-the-air-russia-sends-message-syria-13983.
  10. Ruslan Pukhov, “Russian Military, Diplomatic and Humanitarian Assistance” in Syrian Frontier, ed. M. U. Shepovalenko, 2nd ed. (Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2016), 105–107, accessed 9 January 2018, http://cast.ru/upload/iblock/686/6864bf9d4485b9cd83cc3614575e646a.pdf.
  11. Ruslan Pukhov, “The War that Russia Won,” Izvestia (website), 13 October 2017, accessed 10 January 2018, https://iz.ru/652856/ruslan-pukhov/voina-kotoruiu-rossiia-vyigrala.
  12. Valery Gerasimov, “We Broke the Back of Terrorists,” interview by Victor Baranets, Komsomolskaya Pravda (website), 26 December 2017, accessed 10 January 2018, https://www.kp.ru/daily/26775/3808693/.
  13. The initial employment of long-range aviation was in response to the terrorist bombing of Russia’s MetroJet flight out of Egypt.
  14. Pukhov, “The War that Russia Won.”
  15. Ruslan Pukhov, “Polygon Budushego,” Russia in Global Affairs (website), 8 March 2016, accessed 10 January 2018, http://www.globalaffairs.ru/number/Poligon-buduschego-18032.