Russia’s heavy-handed conduct in the escalating conflict in Syria is a humanitarian disaster; maybe even a war crime. But it also sheds light on Moscow’s perspective on warfighting, its military capabilities, and its sense of threat. What to the West is a troubling regional conflict is, when seen from the Kremlin, a critical battle in a global conflict of existential significance.
The old ultraviolence
The approach Moscow and Damascus have taken to seizing eastern Aleppo in particular has horrified a West which has long held a view of war in which civilian casualties ought to be avoided at best, minimised at worst. The shock is not so much that the Russians are not making any efforts at sparing the innocent, but rather that they seem to be going out of their way to spread hardship, misery and mayhem, targeting aid convoys, hospitals and other basics of survival.
This should not necessarily surprise. Moscow’s methods in Aleppo are reminiscent of the devastation of Grozny in the Second Chechen War – the one fought on Putin’s watch – and even some phases of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when observers dubbed Moscow’s strategy “migratory genocide.”
But it is not inhumanity for its own sake; what is morally abhorrent may be tactically good sense. From Moscow’s perspective, a deserted and rubbled eastern Aleppo represents a victory. And its experiences have taught it that any political damage suffered today will matter little tomorrow; that the West will forgive and forget quickly enough when a new crisis emerges and it needs Moscow’s assistance. To the Kremlin, everyone is a pragmatist, and the West’s loud complaints about its methods are simply rhetorical gestures, devoid of true intent.
Brutality out of weakness
The tactics used in Syria also reflect the limits of Russia’s military capacities: the level of violence deployed reflects a lack of options as much as anything else. While Moscow’s initial deployment to Syria took the world by surprise for the efficiency with which it was conducted, it has become increasingly mired in this conflict.
Russia set out to prevent the potential collapse of the Assad regime through a display of “shock and awe” firepower intended to reverse the rebels’ momentum and reassure Syrian elites. Moscow’s big fear was a re-run of the collapse of the Najibullah government left in Kabul after the Soviets left: a tough, seemingly stable regime that collapsed suddenly once defections began. It was also, perhaps even primarily, intended to force Washington to take Moscow seriously and stop trying to isolate it diplomatically.
That kind of demonstrative intervention can be done by long-range firepower, but wars are won by the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry,’ not artillery and airpower. And despite the deployment of Russian mercenaries from what is clearly a front organisation, ChVK Wagner, and a few Spetsnaz commandos, Moscow simply lacks the capacity to send appreciable ground forces to Syria.
Its armed forces number some 922,000, but the Ground Forces only represent around 300,000 of these. And around half of these are conscripts, prohibited from being deployed into combat other than in times of formal war. Moreover, given that at least 40,000 soldiers are purportedly engaged in Crimea and the Donbas, that others need to be stationed in the turbulent North Caucasus and scattered along Russia’s lengthy border, and the need to rotate forces which have seen action, it is clear that Russia does not have enough good soldiers to mount a serious ground campaign in Syria.
It also lacks the political support for such an exercise: Russians do not care that much about the Donbas, let alone distant Syria. The very need for the Wagner front organisation demonstrates that Moscow cannot afford a high tally of official casualties.
The Motherland mobilised
More broadly, Russia’s approach to Syria connects with a wider trend in Russian military thinking, the central importance of national mobilisation. Andrew Monahan has argued that, facing what seems to be a future of increasing threats, the Kremlin is moving forward with “efforts to move the country on to a permanent war footing.” On one level, this simply means a continued emphasis on guns over butter. To this end, witness the Ministry of Finance’s recent decision to add 679 billion rubles ($10 billion) to the 2016 defence budget, while cutting welfare spending by 375 billion rubles ($6 billion).
However it is broader than that: It implies a securitisation of the whole state. In an age of “non-kinetic conflict,” when the struggle between nations is as often in the battlefield of economics and information, nothing is not a security asset. A snap military exercise in August, for example, also involved the Central Bank and the Ministries of Communications, Finance, and Industry and Trade. While soldiers were being drilled and tested on their ability to fight their battles, so were Russia’s bankers and bureaucrats.
As became clear when I was researching the ECFR report Putin’s Hydra: inside Russia’s intelligence services, there is a pervasive belief in Russia’s security community not only that Russia already is at war – an undeclared, largely covert one – with the West, but that it had been so long before Moscow even realised it. The Arab Spring, the Colour Revolutions in other post-Soviet countries, the spread of Western ideas and influences, all come together in a lurid fantasy of a conflict that Moscow must scramble to resist on every front, from the geopolitical to the ideological.
Thus, the unrestrained approach Russia has adopted in Syria is also a response to the perceived sense that this is not a local conflict which can be dealt with through limited measures, but rather one skirmish in a wider struggle of existential significance to the Motherland. All nations, after all, are capable of the most brutal of measures if they truly believe themselves at direct and serious risk.
The Syrian prism
Russia’s gratuitously brutal tactics in Syria are thus symptoms of three wider issues. Moscow is already on a war footing, seeing itself assailed both by a rising tide of instability in the world and also a covert regime change campaign from the West. In these circumstances, winning is more important than how that win is won, and the constraints are merely practical. It knows that brutal methods can work, especially in a brutal war, and it continues to believe that the West’s outrage is either hypocritical theatrics or else a passing phase that will soon enough give way to Realpolitik.
Finally, its military capabilities are far less impressive than its geopolitical aspirations. It is locked into an open-ended military, political, and economic struggle in the Donbas. It has missed its window to neatly withdraw from Syria and seems likely to be stuck there until the Assad regime falls or reaches some kind of acceptable political deal with a substantial portion of the rebels – both outcomes currently well over the horizon.
It is not that there is a string of “new Syrias” on the horizon, not least as an over-stretched Kremlin cannot afford them. Moscow has acted reactively throughout, and largely in keeping with its own logic, even though the reason why Putin chose not to take the opportunity to withdraw in March is still unclear. Nonetheless, the wartime mentality increasingly informing Russian policy is becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The decision to abandon the ceasefire in Syria and then veto the UN resolution to stop further airstrikes on Aleppo, along with this weekend’s deployment of SS-26 Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad and unilateral suspension of nuclear accords with the USA, fit within a wider picture of “aggressive defensiveness.” Russia feels itself under threat and seeks to strengthen its position pre-emptively, not least before January and the expected inauguration of Hilary Clinton, expected to be a much more hawkish interlocutor. Feeling under threat, the Kremlin seeks to collect bargaining chips and to look intimidatingly confident.
The Kremlin is a rational actor, but basing its decisions on inaccurate information and a dangerously misconceived view of the world. At present the Syrians and Ukrainian are paying the price for this worldview.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.