The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
Vladimir Putin is clearly full of surprises. With great fanfare, Russia has begun at least a partial pullout from Syria. Back at their Russian bases, some of the pilots have been treated to welcome home fanfares with big bands and bunting. Putin has claimed a decisive victory, and the Russian populace is eating it up. Russia’s sleight of hand has proved costly not only to the Syrian people, but also to U.S., European, and Gulf-based interests.
Of course, we’ve seen this movie before—in Ukraine. After waging successful hybrid warfare and thoroughly upstaging both Kiev and Washington, Moscow negotiated an initial ceasefire that was little more than a feint. It then continued right where it left off, further attacking and destabilizing the country before negotiating another ceasefire that it has episodically been violating ever since. We should expect nothing different in Syria, and already Russian bombing runs have continued—in direct violation of the ceasefire it brokered.
After all, as soon as Putin publicly discussed the possibility of giving Bashir al-Assad exile in Russia, Russian forces in Syria ramped up for a highly intensive multi-week bombing campaign in Syria that included directly targeting hospitals and allowing Syrian forces to retake hundreds of towns and thousands of miles of territory. It furthermore allowed the Kurdish forces to occupy additional chunks of territory abutting Turkey, causing the latter to shift into crisis mode and begin shelling the Kurdish protection units in Syria and demanding the West help put in place a safe zone.
So what has Russia achieved in Syria? To begin with, it upstaged the West with a second surprise intervention that has caused the United States and Europe to backpedal their demand that Assad step down immediately. It has, at least for now, stabilized the Assad regime, which continues to violate the “cessation of hostilities” in its drive to unite its territorial hold in the western part of the country. In prolonging the conflict and exacerbating it as well, it gained the upper strategic hand—with sufficient leverage that Secretary Kerry actually requested U.S. cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets to eke out some leverage ahead of the ceasefire. In brokering the UN talks along with the United States, Russia simultaneously has been able to portray itself as a “peacemaker” while it continues to attack Syrian opposition forces far more than ISIS. In doing so, it decimated the previous efforts of Western and Gulf intelligence agencies on shoring up these opposition forces
Furthermore, Russia has successfully reestablished itself as a major global power. It has been able to demonstrate not only its successful ability to strike fast in the initiation of hybrid war, but also its new missile capability when, without warning, it fired a series of cruise missiles through an airspace where western planes were flying anti-ISIS attack missions. Then in the course of expanding its influence by constructing a new air and army base in Latakia, its air operations against Syrian opposition groups have involved a series of near misses with allied aircraft therein risking an accident that could touch off a Cold War–style mutual conventional escalation. Russia has notably expanded its sphere of influence, and carved out a position as the most influential player in the entire regional proxy war.
Moreover, Russia has promised the Kurds a Kurdistan in northern Syria, achieving a de facto alliance with the West’s most critical ally on the ground in both Syria and Iraq. It has so successfully wagged the dog back home that despite the Russian populace’s feeling the economic pinch ever more, Putin’s domestic approval ratings have been spiking. Moreover, the humanitarian cost of the Syrian war has been especially high—further destabilizing the European Union in the process. And what may be the most costly of all, it has caused the European Reassurance Initiative’s intended deterrent effect to be all but stillborn ($3.4 billion from the United States is slated to be spent on permanently forward placing military equipment in Poland along with a rotational multinational force likely size of a brigade). Even the Baltics are nervous all over again about potential Russian intervention in NATO territory.
What have been the downsides for Russia? First, it has been an expensive intervention, exacerbating its economic woes at home. Second, Russia did get attacked by ISIS, resulting in the loss of a domestic airliner and hundreds of its citizens. Third, a Russian fighter was shot out of the sky by Turkey, costing the pilot’s life and that of a second soldier in a botched rescue operation. Fourth, Moscow temporarily lost face in the course of its woeful response to Turkey, fearing a full-on NATO intervention—the one thing Russia actually fears in this conflict. Fourth, Russia has inadvertently solidified the Assad regime to the point that it is successfully resisting Moscow’s push for it to participate constructively in the UN peace talks, as Putin would like to pivot to being peacemaker.
So why is Russia engaging in this faux withdrawal? To begin with, it was able to achieve an additional PR coup by surprising all parties involved, though the real reasons have more to do with Putin and his advisors being rightfully convinced they have achieved more success no doubt than even they expected. These proximate causes aside, the ultimate cause involves a combination of the additional economic pain the regime is experiencing as a result of the billions spent on its Syrian intervention, as well as its desire to now make a show of playing a peace card so as to tack further against the sanctions levied by the Europeans.
The Kremlin chief of staff has stated that Russia “will not ease” the fight, but “[r]ather we will intensify it.” Clues to its true intentions also come in facts on the ground, namely the retention of substantial numbers of troops, supplies, aircraft, embedded military advisors, and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, a rather powerful capability that the other intervening actors will have to continue to take sufficient accounting of as they decide on next steps.
Russia has allowed the ceasefire to bring a modicum of peace to Syrian war zone, with some though not all UN humanitarian convoys to get through to starving Syrian civilians. Odds are, however, that it will not last—we’ve been sold this bill of goods before. The West is being forced to appear as if it is participating robustly on the diplomatic track, but with little leverage as, in actuality, it watches to see what the newly emboldened Assad regime will do next—along with its “co-peacemaker,” Putin. All of this has substantially shifted the geostrategic landscape. Russia is no longer Big Blue, it seems, but in augmented form the Google super computer that finally bested the American champion of Go.