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.

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MCIS 2018 Sergei Rudskoi slides

Well, it’s time once again for the annual slide show of presentations from the Moscow Conference on International Security. This was my fifth time attending. I’ll write up some overall impressions later in the week. Sadly, Valery Gerasimov was absent this year, supposedly because he was accompanying Vladimir Putin during his state visit to Turkey.  His spot on the program was filled by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, speaking about Russia’s operation in Syria. His speech is, as usual available on YouTube in both English and Russian versions. MCIS has also posted a Russian transcript. The slides are below, though some can also be viewed (including animations) in the linked videos.

(All in all, if ability to make use of advanced features of PowerPoint is a proxy for Russian military modernization, the West should be concerned, because the Russian General Staff has made giant strides in this regard in the last five years. I would estimate the gap between the best Russian and American powerpoint rangers at no more than 10 years now.)

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The US airstrike in Syria and Russia

Yesterday’s US airstrikes on the Al Shayrat airfield near Homs seems to have been calculated to allow the Trump administration to appear to be acting decisively without necessarily getting bogged down in a conflict or creating a serious confrontation with Russia. To this end, the Pentagon warned Russian authorities about the strikes ahead of time and Russia did not take any steps to activate its air defenses in Syria. At the same time, by warning Russia, the U.S. government ensured that the strike would have very little effect on Syrian military capabilities. Damage reports indicate that the aircraft that were destroyed at the air base were under repair. Most likely, Russian officials warned the Syrian government that the attacks were coming and any valuable aircraft at the base had time to depart prior to the strikes.

As Vladimir Frolov highlighted just yesterday, the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces has placed Russia in a difficult position. Russian efforts to deny Syrian government culpability in the attacks have strained credulity. At the same time, Russian leaders clearly felt that they could not hang Assad out to dry. Assad’s goal may well have been to scuttle any chances for peace negotiations to proceed, in order to force his somewhat reluctant Russian ally to agree to an offensive that would culminate in the elimination of rebel forces from their area of control around Idlib. Russia is thus put in a bind, as it can neither give up on Assad nor fully control him.

In this situation, the U.S. airstrikes may help Moscow out of its difficult situation. Russian leaders can now turn the focus away from the chemical weapons attack itself and toward the U.S. airstrikes as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. At the same time, Assad has been put on notice that the U.S. is not going to stand idly by if he persists in using chemical weapons, which may make him more reluctant to take that risk again, eliminating that method of putting pressure on Russia from his toolkit.

All in all, Russia is unlikely to take steps in response to the airstrikes beyond the usual Foreign Ministry protestations, as long as the strikes are a one time demonstrative act, rather than the start of a more sustained U.S. campaign against the Assad regime in Syria. If the United States continues to attack Syrian government forces, on the other hand, that will place Russia in a difficult position, where it has to choose between abandoning its ally and risking a serious military confrontation with the United States. How Vladimir Putin would choose to act in this circumstance is very much unclear. The consequences of forcing Russia into this choice could be very risky.

Black Sea Fleet projects power westwards

In April 2016, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the role of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet post-Crimea annexation. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT: The growing power of the Russian navy in the Black Sea region.

SIGNIFICANCE: Russia’s annexation of Crimea has reshaped the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea and its neighbourhood. New frigates and submarines are being acquired, and cruise missiles will provide a much extended range. With its strategic options no longer constrained by Ukrainian sovereignty over the Sevastopol base, Moscow can use naval and air forces to dominate the sea and create a forbidding environment for potential adversaries, including NATO.

Impacts

  • The deterioration in relations with Turkey could manifest itself in maritime tensions between the two states.
  • Access to the Bosphorus may restrain both Russia and Turkey from encroaching on one another’s maritime rights despite hostile rhetoric.
  • US and European militaries will review naval capacity and may reinforce Mediterranean patrols to counter the increased Russian presence.

ANALYSIS:

The Black Sea Fleet ranks third in importance for the Russian navy, behind the Northern and Pacific fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea Fleet has had four main missions:

  • protecting shipping in the Black Sea;
  • controlling maritime access to the sea in general and to the Caucasus in particular;
  • supporting the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean; and
  • maintaining links with the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria.

The bulk of the fleet is based at Sevastopol in Crimea, as is its land-based air arm.

The Black Sea is of great economic significance to Russia, whose commercial ports — mainly Novorossiysk — carry 30% of its total maritime exports.

For Russia, the sea is an access route to the Mediterranean and to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and hence important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. The Black Sea Fleet is needed to underpin that access, as well as to deal with potential instability in the Caucasus. It provides logistical support to the Mediterranean squadron which was reconstituted in 2013.

Reviving the fleet

During its post-Soviet history, successive lease agreements of the Sevastopol naval base from the Ukrainian government stipulated that Russia could not base new ships in Crimea.  This clause was intentional, designed for the fleet to rust away.  By 2014, the Moskva cruiser was the only Black Sea Fleet surface ship able to operate out of area for extended periods of time. Even its basing arrangements in Ukraine were such that it had little need to defend the peninsula, since this was Ukrainian territory.

After annexing Crimea, Russia moved quickly to rebuild its forces on the peninsula. The fleet is undergoing a dramatic transformation and is rapidly rebuilding its forces. The Sevastopol base is central to Russian anti-access/area denial efforts in the Black Sea and its airspace. There are several components to the ongoing build-up:

  • up to six new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates;
  • two Buyan-M-class missile corvettes;
  • six improved Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines;
  • Su-30SM interceptors and Su-34 tactical bombers; and
  • nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.

Three of the frigates will be commissioned in 2016, while the others will take some years to complete because Ukrainian-made gas turbines are unavailable. Both the corvettes and two of the six submarines have been commissioned, with the remaining submarines to enter service within two years.

Cruise missiles extend fleet’s reach

The corvettes and submarines will carry the 3M-54 Klub anti-ship system, a supersonic cruise missile allowing the navy to deny access to much of the Black Sea. They will also be armed with the 3M-14 cruise missile designed to attack targets on land at ranges of up to 2,500 kilometres.

The combination of coastal and air defences, maritime aviation and corvette-based groups will free the submarine and frigate force to operate in the Mediterranean.

Amphibious capacity

The Black Sea had been likely to receive one of the two French Mistral helicopter carrier/amphibious assault vessels that Russia ordered in 2010. Since France cancelled the sale in August 2015, there has been no announcement from Moscow about acquiring amphibious ships from elsewhere. Nor is it clear what will happen to the old Alligator- and Ropucha-class landing ships which were instrumental to the occupation of Crimea.

Naval support for Syria campaign

The Russian military intervention in Syria, begun in September 2015, has redefined the mission of the Black Sea Fleet:

Transport

Before Russia aircraft were deployed in Syria to bomb rebel forces, vessels from the fleet were playing a key role in the military supply operation known as the ‘Syrian express’. Initially, older landing ships were used to supply arms and equipment to the Syrian military. Once Russia decided to launch air attacks, the Black Sea Fleet provided the maritime transport.

The conventional wisdom that Russia was incapable of conducting military operations beyond its immediate vicinity was confounded by the successful use of large transport aircraft, naval freighters and even Turkish commercial cargo ships reflagged as Black Sea Fleet vessels.

Missile strikes

The Russian navy provided long-range air defence with the S-300 missile system carried on the flagship Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defence system allowed Russia to protect Syrian airspace while avoiding tensions with Israel, which had made it clear it would be unhappy if such weapons went to the Syrian army.

In October 2015, the Russian navy launched 3M-14 cruise missiles against targets in Syria from relatively small vessels in the Caspian Sea. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated its strike capacity from well inside its air defence perimeter. The cruise missiles were also meant to show NATO military planners and neighbouring states the successful development of a missile capability that would be difficult to neutralise.

Once the Black Sea Fleet acquires vessels armed with 3M-14 cruise missiles, its range will extend to most of Southern and Central Europe and the Middle East.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015, when Kalibr cruise missiles were launched against targets from a new diesel-powered submarine which was transiting the Mediterranean en route to its permanent base at Sevastopol. This use of hard-to-track platforms further highlighted the threat to Russia’s potential opponents.

New missions for the post-Crimea context

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has remade the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea. Crimea’s geographic position allows the country that controls it to dominate the maritime environment. Sevastopol is by far the best harbor on the sea. By taking Crimea, Russia has ensured that its military will not be constrained by Ukraine. This will allow its navy and air force to dominate the Black Sea, creating a forbidding A2/AD environment that will be difficult for any potential adversary, including NATO, to penetrate.

Given the adversarial nature of Russia’s relationship with the West, the Black Sea Fleet will take on additional missions beyond the Black Sea in the coming years. In addition to continuing to provide sealift for Russian operations in Syria, the BSF’s cruise-missile equipped ships and submarines will have a power projection role in the Mediterranean. Even with a fairly small number of frigates and diesel submarines, the fleet will present a potential threat to other naval forces in the region, even U.S. carrier strike groups.

This does not mean that the Russian Navy should be expected to undertake aggressive actions in the Med. Rather, its objective will be to create conventional deterrence against a Western attack by threatening to use its air and sea capabilities to inflict unacceptably high casualties on enemy naval forces attempting to engage Russian forces in the Black Sea or eastern Mediterranean.

CONCLUSION: In the context of Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West, the fleet is likely to be assigned tasks outside the Black Sea such as sustaining a capable naval force in the eastern Mediterranean and continuing to support the Russian military presence in Syria. The fleet will also deliver conventional deterrence through its implicit capacity to inflict unacceptably high casualties on potential adversaries in the Black Sea or the eastern Mediterranean.

Russian planes in Syria

Recently, Michael Kofman and I published an article arguing that Russia’s claimed withdrawal from Syria is not really a withdrawal, but rather a public relations move to normalize Russian military presence in Syria for the long term. Events over the last 10 days have confirmed our analysis and also provided more details on the air forces that Russia is continuing to maintain in Syria. A photo made by the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales and distributed via IHS Jane’s shows that as of March 20, there were still 12 Su-24M bombers at Hmeymim, as well as four Su-34 bombers, three Su-30SM fighters and three Su-35S fighters. Zero to three additional aircraft may have been out conducting airstrikes, for a total of 22-25 remaining Russian fixed-wing strike aircraft in Syria. There were also 14 helicopters, including two Mi-28Ns and two Ka-52s.

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This means that in the first week after the withdrawal was announced, Russia pulled out three Su-24Ms, four SU-34s, all 12 Su-25s, and four Mi-35M helicopters, while adding at least two Mi-28N and two Ka-52 helicopters. The photo also shows IAI Searcher Mk2 Forpost UAVs.

In other words, the current size of the Russian air presence at Hmeymim is comparable to what Russia had at the start of the operation, minus the Su-25s, but with the addition of Su-35s.

 

There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria

With characteristic deadpan delivery, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the sudden withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria earlier this week, declaring their campaign a success.  Before the day was through, Russian aircraft and crews were already departing from Hmeymim air base in Latakia.  Since this announcement, the media has been alight with speculation on the meaning of Russia’s sudden departure, its political and military implications, and the reasons for this seemingly unexpected move.  Much of the discussion has thus far missed the mark.  There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria, but rather a drawdown of the air contingent present in Latakia. Putin simply moved pieces on the board, without altering the equation.

This maneuver is more about political perceptions than military reality. It constitutes a political reframing of Russia’s intervention in order to normalize Moscow’s military presence in Syria, and make it permanent, while convincing Russians at home that the campaign is over. Putin’s statement is yet another successful effort to achieve a domestic and international publicity coup.

The “withdrawal” announcement is not about how Russia leaves, but about how it stays in Syria.

Click here to read the rest of the article, which is co-authored by myself and Michael Kofman.