Russia’s experience in Syria informs Ukraine and NATO’s approach

Six Russian landing ships from the Baltic and Northern Fleets, which had earlier arrived at the Russian Tartous naval base in Syria, were transferred to the Black Sea on February 8 to participate in military maneuvers of the Russian army and navy.

The passage through Tartous once again demonstrated the importance of this installation for Moscow’s Mediterranean fleet. Tartous serves not only as Russia’s foothold in the Middle East, but also as a piece of military infrastructure for Moscow’s global confrontation with Washington and Brussels. The same goes for the Russian Khmeimim air base in Syria, whose capabilities have been recently expanded.

The Russian military campaign in Syria, which began in 2015, has in many ways prepared Moscow on a military-technical level for the current confrontation between Russia and the United States and NATO, as well as for the escalation Russian-Ukrainian.

Russian President Vladimir Putin inherited an incompetent Russian army with an archaic structure and obsolete weapons, which struggled to suppress the guerrilla actions of separatist militants in the Chechen Republic. The 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict revealed major problems in the Russian army, associated with the obsolescence of not only military equipment, but also auxiliary means (for example, communications). This called into question the ability of the Russian armed forces to defeat an enemy equipped with modern weapons, such as the armies of NATO countries.

The Syrian campaign has become an important preparation for the Russian armed forces to face stronger opponents than the small Georgian army or the Chechen separatist guerrillas. It is not certain that the rearmament of the Russian army which started after 2010 could meet modern requirements, and the Syrian countryside has become a testing site to experiment with these weapons under combat conditions.

While Russia began the Syrian campaign relying on the old but proven Su-24 frontline bombers, it then moved its main strike force to Syria to rely on newer Su-34s. The latter showed great combat effectiveness in the event of a hypothetical conflict in Europe.

In addition, Russian activity in Syria has allowed the testing of Russian-caliber cruise missiles with a range of 1,500-2,000 km, which are launched from both warships and aircraft. If necessary, these missiles can even be equipped with a nuclear warhead. When Moscow started using these missiles in Syria, problems have arisen, but these flaws were eventually eliminated, and now the Caliber is recognized as a very effective combat weapon. It can be used from small tonnage vessels, for example, river-sea missile ships of the Buyan-M type. This circumvents the agreement limiting the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe.

It is open to debate whether there is a direct link between the Syrian campaign and the current escalation between Russia and NATO. However, the Russian military operation in Syria has clearly given Moscow the confidence to challenge the West.

“The Syrian campaign has certainly played a role in the Russia-West confrontation,” Samuel Ramani, associate researcher at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), told Al-Monitor. “Russia has proven that it can intervene decisively militarily with an inconsistent Western response. … Moreover, Russia’s use of new military technologies has set a useful precedent for interventions elsewhere, including in the post-Soviet space.

Leonid Isaev, an assistant professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, told Al-Monitor that the Syrian campaign has helped shape Russia’s image inside and outside the country as a great power with corresponding military might.

“It was the last stone in the foundation of the ‘great power’ of Russia, after which even critics of the Russian regime had no doubt that Moscow was truly a great military power capable of playing on equal footing. with the United States and NATO,” said Isaev.

Besides the military-technical dimension of the Russian campaign in Syria, Moscow’s experience with NATO member countries like Turkey also plays a role in the confrontation.

In particular, the game of continuously raising the stakes has become an integral part of the relationship between Moscow and Ankara over Syria. A similar strategy was tested in 2015, when a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 frontline bomber, which led to the collapse of Russian-Turkish relations and put both countries at risk. a military confrontation in Syria. In early 2020, Turkey and Russia again approached open military conflict in Idlib after Syrian – and, presumably, Russian – warplanes carried out strikes against the Turkish military.

However, at that time the parties were still able to compromise, despite the fact that they had initially presented demands that were unacceptable to each other. This experience may have given Russian leaders confidence that the Kremlin will be able to get out of any escalation by finding a mutually acceptable solution with the West.

As Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs put it the new yorker“It looks like a classic diplomatic game of escalation, in which both sides, including Russia, demonstrate their inflexibility with rather dramatic gestures.”

In turn, Leonid Isaev told Al-Monitor: “Undoubtedly, the Syrian operation also gave Moscow confidence in actions in other areas. Both in terms of behavior in Ukraine and in terms of behavior towards NATO. Thanks to Russian policy in the Middle East, the Kremlin has learned to gamble for higher rates, learned to bluff, and learned to articulate its position and issue ultimatums.

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