What happened to the Russian Il-20?

Here’s a text on the lost Russian aircraft, published in Russian by the New Times.


A Russian Il-20M reconnaissance aircraft disappeared from radar screens late in the evening on September 17. All 14 crew members are presumed lost, and some reports indicate that remnants of the aircraft have been located by a Russian navy auxiliary ship that was in the area. Initially, the Russian Ministry of Defense blamed a nearby French frigate, accusing it of firing rockets at the aircraft. Subsequently, the ministry accepted that the aircraft was downed as a result of friendly fire by Syrian S-200 air defenses. At the same time, the Russian MOD transferred blame to the Israeli Air Force, which was conducting air strikes against Syrian military facilities in the Latakia area at the time of the incident. Supposedly, four Israeli F-16 strike aircraft were using the Il-20 as cover while conducting strikes on Syria from international airspace. The whole operation can be seen in the map below provided by the MOD in its official briefing on the incident.

Il-20While the Russian government’s reaction included a strongly worded condemnation of the Israeli Air Force for its role in the incident, the reality is that the Israeli aircraft would not have had the ability or need to use a large, slow Russian turboprop aircraft as cover. They carried out their strikes and almost certainly had departed the area before the Syrian forces had realized they were under attack and activated their air defense systems. The Syrian military has a history of launching air defense missiles late, after incurring damage from hostile forces. The same tactic was used in response to NATO missile strikes on suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities in April 2018. One suspects that this is done so that Syrian military officials can report to their leaders that they “did something” in response. In April 2018, the response allowed Syrian and Russian officials to make false claims that the air defenses had neutralized a large number of NATO cruise missiles. Whereas the response in that case was in reality completely ineffective, in this case, unfortunately, the late response resulted in an unintended casualty of an allied aircraft.

The political consequences of this incident are likely to be limited. Both Israel and Russia are keen to limit the damage to what has in recent years become a relatively comfortable relationship. The Israeli military not only expressed condolences for the loss of life, but took the almost unprecedented step of publicly discussing an Israeli military operation. The statement noted that Israeli aircraft had already left the scene by the time the Syrian missiles were launched, thus confirming that the Israeli attack on Syria took place. At the same time, it firmly assigned blame to the Syrian forces that launched the missiles, thus rejected any claims of Israeli responsibility for the incident.

Furthermore, the Israeli prime minister highlighted the importance of Russian-Israeli security coordination while confirming Israel’s intent “to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer to Hezbollah lethal weapons against Israel.” He also offered to send the commander of the Israeli air force to Moscow to provide to Russian officials all information Israel has collected on the incident. On the Russian side, President Putin warned against making any facile comparisons to the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkish forces in 2015, since this time the plane was shot down by Syrian forces. He called the incident “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances” and noted that the result will be additional security measures for Russian military personnel based in Syria. In short, initial calls in the State Duma for a tough response against Israel will vanish quickly and once the condolence calls on the part of Russian officials to the families of those who lost their lives are completed the entire incident will be forgotten in short order.

Advertisements

5 things to know about Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises

I have an explainer article about the Vostok exercise on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog today. Here’s a sampler…


Military analysts around the world are keeping a close eye on Russia’s annual fall military maneuvers, as this year may turn out to be the largest post-Cold War show of force. Vostok-2018 kicks off this week in Russia’s Far East and the Pacific Ocean, along with auxiliary exercises before and after the main event.

The big news this year is the addition of joint exercises with China. What do these military exercises entail, and what do you need to know?

1. What are these war games?

The Vostok exercise is part of an annual rotating series of large-scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. “Vostok” means east; last fall’s Zapad-2017 took place along Russia’s western border.

Similar major strategic operational exercises took place each fall throughout the Soviet period as well. However, unlike past military readiness drills, the Defense Ministry has billed Vostok-2018 as a strategic maneuver exercise, in which the forces are divided into two groups that engage each other rather than fighting against an imaginary opponent, as was the case in all previous iterations.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Is a new Russian Black Sea Fleet coming? Or is it here?

New short article up on War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview….


Last summer, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia will continue to strengthen its forces around the Black Sea in order to “neutralize the security threat in the Black Sea region from NATO.” This rhetoric highlights the change in threat perceptions that has taken place on both sides in the region in recent years. Just 10 years ago, the Black Sea was touted as a model of naval cooperation among former adversaries. Collaborative naval activities such as BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, as well as regular Russian participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor, promised a future where all Black Sea littoral states worked together to ensure regional security and mitigate security threats such as smuggling. This cooperation started to falter after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war but was maintained through the combined efforts of Russia and NATO members – especially Turkey.

The situation changed radically after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with NATO leaders expressing concern that Russia could turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake by devoting significant resources to the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and strengthening Russian military forces in Crimea more generally. Russian political leaders, naval commanders, and policy experts have been open in explaining why they have prioritized the Black Sea Fleet in their naval modernization efforts. Part of that has to do with the parlous state of the fleet prior to 2014. Due to tensions with Ukraine and a general lack of investment in military procurement, Russia had sent only one new combat ship to the fleet between 1991 and 2014. As a result, by 2014 the fleet was barely functional and ships from other fleets had to be used to carry out Russian naval missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden.


Read the rest here.

MCIS Soft power panel

Today’s MCIS slides installment comes from Lt. General Sergey Kuralenko, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief for Peacekeeping Operations of the Russian Ground Forces. This comes from the breakout session on soft power as a tool to pursue military-political objectives.

Sadly, it seems that the Russian MOD has not posted video or speech texts from the breakout sessions, so I’ll provide a brief summary here, in addition to the slides. Kuralenko’s speech can be summarized in three points:

  1. Russia is in Syria to help Syrians.
  2. The U.S. is in Syria to pursue its geopolitical ambitions and does not care about collateral damage.
  3. People in the military, regardless of country of origin, understand the consequences of conflict and seek to avoid it. More mil-mil contact would help to avert the worst consequences of war.

Kuralenko was followed by Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the Minister of Defense of Venezuela, who made the argument that many countries use soft power as a tool for political domination of weaker countries without having to resort to military force. He contrasted positive soft power, a tool for cooperation as practiced by Hugo Chavez when he led Venezuela, with negative soft power, as practiced by the United States for subjugation and regime change. He also helpfully pointed out that the United States was using the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela to destabilize the country and also noted that there was no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela…

The sole American speaker, Ariel Cohen, highlighted the transition of the concept of soft power from a national branding tool to a weapon. Starting from Joe Nye’s original conceptualization of soft power, he focused on soft power as a tool for expanding national influence through persuasion and attraction, rather than through military or economic pressure. Soft power is the idea that any product of human activity can be weaponized to achieve geopolitical goals.

He was followed by the Russian journalist and television personality Vladimir Soloviev, who gave a typically inflammatory speech. Soloviev opened by saying that he didn’t believe in soft power, since it can only be useful in addition to hard power rather than in and of itself. He argued that the West had rejected all of the norms of international law and had aggressively rejected diplomacy as well. He likened the West (and the United States specifically) to a casino owner telling the players what the rules should be. He accused Boris Johnson of lying about the Skripal case. His larger point was that the West was using soft power together with its technological advantages to solve its military and political issues, with the dollar being the most effective soft power tool. He argued that a new iron curtain was descending over Europe, but this time from the Western side.

Soloviev made the argument that Russia needs  to become more active in defending itself against soft power attacks. Russia, for him, has not been pushing an ideology. Furthermore, since it does not own or operate the platforms, it will always be behind.  It therefore needs to leave the casino altogether and stop playing the game.

Soloviev’s arguments were seconded by Yakov Kedmi, an Israeli expert who has developed a reputation for his pro-Russian positions. In discussing  soft power, he highlighted that power is the key word in that phrase, with the soft modifier being secondary. Soft power is used to pressure opponents or support allies in circumstances when military power can’t be used. He then argued that soft power is as illegitimate as any other use of force and should therefore be prohibited through international law and countered with military power, as that is the most effective tool against it.

After a completely unmemorable presentation by the first deputy defense minister of Argentina, the final (and best) presentation was given by Dan Smith, director of SIPRI. He countered Kedmi’s perspective quite effectively, noting that power is not the same thing as coercion or the use of force. The most effective kind of soft power is silent, intangible and irresistable. It comes from culture, economic strength, and reputation  and offers influence and helps diplomacy. At its most effective, it stops conflicts before they start. It can change the nature of the game. Soft power in the world has declined in general as trust of other countries has declined. No state has as much power today as it used to and none are viewed as models for others.

Here are Kuralenko’s slides… I’ll have one final post on MCIS later this week with overall impressions and takeaways.

IMG_1504IMG_1505IMG_1507IMG_1508IMG_1510IMG_1511IMG_1513IMG_1515IMG_1516IMG_1517IMG_1519IMG_1520IMG_1521IMG_1523IMG_1524IMG_1525IMG_1526

MCIS slides on regional security in the Middle East and North Africa

Today’s installment of MCIS slides comes courtesy of Sam Charap, who attended the breakout session on regional security in the MENA region. The panel was led off by Lt. General Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, the Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff. Unfortunately, the Russian MOD has not made available speech texts or video of the breakout sessions. (I’ll have a report on Monday on the other breakout session on soft power, which I attended.)

IMG_0077IMG_0063IMG_0065IMG_0067IMG_0069IMG_0071IMG_0073IMG_0075

MCIS presentation on Asia-Pacific security problems

One more set of slides today, this one from a speech by Vice Admiral Igor Kostyukov, the first deputy chief of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff, on the topic of security in the Asia-Pacific region. MCIS has put on its website the text of his speech in Russian and video in Russian only.

IMG_1544IMG_1546IMG_1549IMG_1552IMG_1554IMG_1557IMG_1560IMG_1561IMG_1562IMG_1565IMG_1568

Quick thoughts on Syria strike

I wrote this up quickly on Saturday for friends, and it seemed to get a positive reaction, so I decided to expand a bit and send it out to the wider world…

The United States (and the Trump administration) came out well. The would saw a measured response that showed US willingness to follow up words with actions, while also showing that Trump’s rash tweets do not equal rash actions (at least vis-a-vis Russia). Jim Mattis in particular showed that he is the chief voice of reason and restraining figure in the administration.

At the same time, the strikes accomplished little in practical terms. Syria’s ability to make and use chemical weapons was largely unaffected, because what they are using now is chlorine gas, rather than the sarin that was made in its chemical weapons program prior to 2013. Chlorine gas is much easier to make and is almost certainly made at sites other than the ones that were targeted (and even if it was being made there, it can relatively easily be made elsewhere).

For this reason, Syria (and Assad) also came out well. For the price of a few destroyed buildings they got to take over Douma and wipe out the last rebel controlled zone near Damascus. The main question is the extent to which the strikes will deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. My guess is that there will be some short-term deterrent effect (because of worries that the next strike will be more damaging), but little long-term effect — because of beliefs that US memories fade and because of cost-benefit calculations that show that use of chemical weapons in certain situations is highly effective in demoralizing enemies and causing them to surrender (see Douma) while also forcing somewhat reluctant allies such as Russia to publicly support Assad.

Russia is a (minor) loser for this round — Russian officials made big loud statements early on, but then clearly got scared of being painted into a corner and started backing off a few days ago. In the end, the situation showed that Russia cannot deter the United States from hitting an ally, but it can limit the extent of the strike and the choice of targets. Also, Syria’s (older) Russian-made air defenses were completely ineffective, while potentially more effective modern air defenses under Russian control were not activated. In other words, the US strikes clearly showed both the extent and the limits of Russian influence in the region. Russian leaders clearly care about this image problem, thus the somewhat ridiculous statements about Syrian air defenses successfully intercepting US missiles supposedly aimed at airfields that the US and its allies did not target.

The military balance in the region is clearly revealed. In a few days, the US and its allies were able to gather a set of forces that are much stronger than what Russia could bring to bear in the region. This is not the early 1970s, when much of the world believed that the Soviet Union could more or less match the maximum US presence in the Eastern Med (even if present-day Russian analysts are skeptical about the actual strength of Russian military forces in the region at the time). The Russian military (in terms of conventional forces) is stronger than it was a few years ago and is more than a match for any of its other adversaries, but it’s still far weaker than the US military.

Finally, the impact of the strike on US domestic politics is pretty certainly going to be short-term and very limited. Some of Trump’s isolationist allies on the far right were appalled and highly critical, but they will come back to the fold soon enough since they have no alternative to supporting Trump. What’s more, Democratic politicians’ critiques that the attack should not have been done without Congressional authorization are not likely to last long, because actually having that debate in Congress is not in their interest politically (which way to vote — to authorize Trump to use force or to allow other countries to carry out chemical weapons attacks with impunity?). Better to just carp from the sidelines on this issue and go back to the various scandals after a couple of days.

So, to sum up, the world avoided a big international crisis through a combination of US restraint, Russian desire to avoid escalation in a situation where it did not have escalation dominance, and good use of US-Russian deconfliction channels. The strike itself was not particularly effective at achieving its stated goals vis-a-vis Syria, but was good at signaling US intent and capabilities for the future (including the limits of that intent). The major problem that remains is that given what I described above, Assad is unlikely to have been deterred from future use of chemical weapons and therefore we may well be back in the same place again a few months or a year from now.