Alphen, Netherlands. 15 March. His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan said that Russia’s September 2015 intervention in the Syrian war “shook up the tree”. With yesterday’s decision by President Putin to withdraw at least part of Russia’s forces from Syria President Putin gave the tree another good shaking. Why?
First, the facts. Since September 30th last year 48 Russian aircraft have flown over 9000 sorties and ‘liberated’ 400 communities over some 10,000 square kilometres. These operations have been supported by 2400 military personnel, comprised of armoured infantry, artillery, marines (naval infantry), Special Operating Forces (SOF), and reconnaissance units. In spite of the announced withdrawal it is clear that Russia will continue to maintain its strengthened naval supply base at Tartus on the coast to project power across the Mediterranean. The Russian Air Force will continue to operate an air-bridge to Russia from its airbase at Latakia to enable rapid reinforcement of President Assad’s forces. Russia will also continue to conduct cyber operations in Syria, and use its long-range bombers from their base in Dagestan.
Grand strategy I: Russia has succeeded in humiliating the West the political leaders of which have been reduced to impotent political hand-wringing over Syria (and much else). Not only has President Putin seized the agenda by revealing the weakness of the West he has in his mind helped renovate Russia’s wider strategic credibility.
Grand strategy II: Western sanctions on a fragile Russian economy are impacting the strategic room for manoeuvre of the Kremlin. By withdrawing forces from Syria and being seen to support the cessation of hostilities (and perhaps the Geneva peace talks) Moscow might convince Germany and France in particular to lift EU sanctions. In March 2015 EU leaders linked the lifting of sanctions to the implementation of the Minsk II agreement in Ukraine. If Moscow now moves to implement Minsk the pressure to lift the sanctions will grow.
Regional strategy: President Putin has markedly enhanced Russia’s influence across the Middle East. As King Abdullah implied President Putin has also succeeded in getting most regional leaders to look to Moscow as well as Washington, whilst Brussels has been revealed as a toothless paper tiger. President Assad is in Putin’s pocket. Russia has established a de facto alliance with Iran. Russia is also helping to de-stabilise Turkey, a cornerstone NATO power. King Salman of Saudi Arabia is also understood to be keen to visit Moscow, but only when the bombing campaign is over.
Oil politics: As part of its regional strategy Russia also needs to see a marked increase in the price of oil. For President Putin an increased oil price is a critical Russian national interest. This goal is shared by other oil-producing states in the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran. That aim is also implicit in the planned visit of King Salman to Moscow.
Military Over-stretch: Russia wants to withdraw its force from Syria before its limitations are revealed. Even deploying a limited force over medium time and distance has proved challenging for Russian military commanders and planners. If the extent of those challenges were revealed it would undermine the entire cold hybrid warfare strategy Russia is engaged with in Central and Eastern Europe. The deployment is also proving expensive at a time when Russian public finances are stretched.
Ukraine: As a corollary to the military over-stretch challenge, and if President Putin so decides to act, the military campaigning season is about to begin in Ukraine. Critically, Russian forces can only conduct one medium-sized campaign at any one time. It is well-established that the taking of Mariupol by Russian-backed forces would in effect seal off much of eastern Ukraine and the Donbass from the control of Kiev. The seizure of Mariupol would also enable the separatists to negotiate a ‘peace deal’ from a position of strength.
Avoid another Chechen war: The Kremlin is acutely sensitive to the concerns of the Russian public about Russian forces once again becoming trapped in a military quagmire. Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the two Chechen wars of the 1990s, one of which was the personal responsibility of a newly-minted President Putin, remain painfully strong in the Russian popular-political consciousness.
Pressure on Assad: President Putin wants President Assad to hold presidential elections in Syria. President Assad has resisted the proposal because he knows that Moscow has a candidate in mind to replace him who is controlled by Russian military intelligence, the GRU, which is extremely active in Syria and environs.
Just shaking the tree: President Putin’s over-arching strategy concerns the playing of a relatively weak but coherent strategic hand to maximise Russian influence, against a far stronger but far less cohesive group of powers – the West. Part of the strategy involves seizing every opportunity to appear to be the equal of the United States. Another part of the strategy is to keep European powers permanently off-balance, eternally unsure as to what an unpredictable Russia might do next…and where. This decision fits neatly into such a strategy.
Conclusions: First, President Putin remains wedded to an aggressive strategy of promoting Russian prestige at the expense of the West focused on extending influence around the entirety of Russia’s borders. Second, President Putin is prepared to act pragmatically in the short-term by shifting deployments, engagements, and rhetoric in an effort to keep the West divided by hinting at the prospect of co-operation. Third, when President Putin sees a chance to advance his influence strategy he will not hesitate to act decisively. And, if needs be, he will resort to force if an opportunity avails itself to him.
Recommendation: The West must speak softly, but carry a bloody big stick. Danger: The West, particularly the European West will engage in a lot of talk, but carry a little stick...or no stick at all!