"Russia's venture has been remarkably economical in terms of time and resources"by Robert Fry / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
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Kremlinology is a pastime for consenting adults in private. Trying to divine Russian motives and objectives is a speculative game for anyone other than the deep specialist and usually ends with a Churchillian reference to riddles wrapped in a mysteries inside enigmas. So let’s try a different approach. Let’s take the universal principles of strategic calculus, apply them to Russian actions and see what we can come up with in terms of both short and longer term aims.
During their recent intervention in Syria, the Russians deployed around 4,000 personnel to facilitate the operations of an expeditionary airgroup of about 80 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. They maintained a consistently high sortie rate because the Khmeimim airbase, south east of Latakia, a city on the western coast of Syria, allowed a short and convenient commute to work in sharp contrast to the long transits and air to air refuelling of western aircraft operating out of bases in the Gulf, Cyprus and from aircraft carrier decks. At the same time, they maintained a small flotilla of ships and submarines in what has become a virtual standing maritime force in the Eastern Mediterranean, operating out of the naval base of Tartus.
And what have they achieved? They have bombed the Syrian opposition to the negotiating table, a table at which Russia is a prominent actor. They have given the Assad regime the strategic depth that comes from the recapture of 4,000 square miles of territory, facilitated by close air support. From strategic space Assad can derive strategic time and get ahead of his enemies. They may or may not have deliberately exacerbated the refugee crisis in order to create further tension in Europe, as NATO’s senior commander in Europe claims. But they won’t care; a little inconvenience to the EU and NATO is a broader bonus to a localised campaign.
By any standards, this looks like a tactical engagement that has achieved a strategic objective. It has been remarkably economical in terms of time and resources, and, with the advantage of unconstrained unilateralism, the Russians are not burdened by any form of longer-term commitment. The operation this most closely resembles is the initial western intervention in Afghanistan in 2001/2: quick, effective and strategically transformational. What the Russians will be careful to avoid is the subsequent 13 years of Western and NATO tactical engagement which failed to bring about any subsequent strategic conclusion.
Lest this appear as a eulogy to Russian arms, some of the techniques they have used look unsophisticated and indiscriminate by Western standards, and hospitals and refugee camps have suffered as a result. Unfortunately, neither the hard-eyed men running the Russian campaign nor the unremitting gaze of history will pay much attention if the current strategic opportunity is consolidated into some form of sullen peace.
So what about longer-term Russian aims? Any nation that has a shrinking economy, a declining population, high rates of capital flight, a “brain drain” and a political system based on patronage and favours will need to play a bad hand well, and the Russians have. Taking the sequence of the Crimea (annexed in 2014), the subsequent military intervention in Ukraine, and now Syria, the first and last are textbook economy-of-force operations where limited tactical engagements have had strategic impact. Ukraine looks more like a score draw, but, for so long as the Donbass region is unstable, Russia can reserve the right to stir up trouble again–and two out of three ain’t bad.
But behind all this is a grander vision of Russia’s place within a global system where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry can co-author peace deals, where Russia is accorded the respect due its size and history and where the legacy of Peter the Great—tough at home, decisive abroad—can be freely evoked in praise of Vladimir Putin. To the dispassionate observer this can look unrealistic, certainly needy and perhaps fantastical, but riddles wrapped in a mystery sometimes are.
However, that same dispassionate observer will also see EU institutions that might be overwhelmed by migration and a Union about to unravel through Brexit. This is at a time of dangerous populism in both Europe and America and a US foreign policy that is both supine and, to judge by President Obama’s musings in his recent Atlantic interview, complacent. Taking all this on balance, our observer might judge that the view from Moscow is more clear-sighted than from anywhere else.
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