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.

 

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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.

No, the Russian Navy isn’t going to collapse

Is the Russian Navy about to collapse? In a recent article on War is Boring, David Axe made this argument largely based on data from my recent articles on the Russian shipbuilding program and the Russian Navy’s priorities. While the information I provided is sound, Axe’s overall interpretation is not.

The Russian Navy is investing in a time-phased recapitalization of its navy over the next 20 years. Submarines are the first phase, already well under way, followed by smaller surface combatants, then increased amphibious capabilities. The navy is letting recapitalization of cruisers and destroyers slip into the next decade. As such, the availability of large combat ships will decrease in the near term but begin to increase in the medium to long term.

The Russian Navy has historically had four main missions: 1) strategic deterrence, 2) coastal defense, 3) protection of sea lanes of communication, and 4) out-of-area deployment.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russia and Ukraine: Not the Military Balance You Think

Moscow’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies has just published a new book on the military aspects of the Ukraine crisis. Here’s a preview of my book review, published today at War on the Rocks.

Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, 2014).

Over the last few months, the crisis in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis began with Russia’s almost completely non-violent military takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014. A new English-language volume edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov highlights the causes and nature of the conflict in Crimea, as well as provides some lessons for both Ukraine and other states that might be subject to Russian aggression in the future.

This volume provides balanced and comprehensive coverage of virtually all military aspects of the conflict in Crimea, including both Russian and Ukrainian points of view. The experts from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) are some of the top Russian military analysts and the quality of their research and understanding of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries is clear in the writing.

The book begins with a short chapter by Vasily Kashin describing the backstory of the territorial dispute over Crimea. Although it starts with the conquest of the region by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century and mentions more familiar arguments related to the legitimacy of the region’s transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, the main focus is on events after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Kashin highlights tensions over Crimea’s status within Ukraine throughout the 1990s, the role played by former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in promoting pro-Russian separatism in Crimea in the 1990s and 2000s, and the contentious negotiations over the division and subsequent status of the Black Sea Fleet and its base in Sevastopol. His key insight is that “the Russian government took no serious measures to support separatist movements in Crimea” prior to its invasion of the peninsula last February. This illustrates that Russian actions during the crisis were not the culmination of a plan to dismember Ukraine, but a reaction to the perceived security threat coming from the Maidan protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

To read the rest, please click here.

Russian reactions to the NATO summit

Here’s a preview of my new post at War on the Rocks: The NATO summit in Wales was treated in Russia with a great deal of equanimity. The official reaction was quite predictable, with the Foreign Ministry putting out a statement that claimed that interfering in the affairs of foreign states was part of NATO’s “genetic code” and flowed directly from the organization’s desperate search for a role in the global security system after the end of the Cold War. The ministry went on to claim that NATO policy is dictated by hawks in Europe and the United States who have been “striving for military domination in Europe.” Moreover, the statement claimed, these hawks have shown themselves willing to prevent the emergence of a common Euro-Atlantic security system and sacrifice international efforts to counter real threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and WMD proliferation in order to achieve this end.

The Foreign Ministry argued that the build-up of NATO presence near Russia’s borders is part of a long-nurtured plan to strengthen the alliance’s forces in the east to counter Russia, with the Ukraine crisis serving as an excuse to begin its implementation. The statement continued, insisting that these plans, together with announced plans for joint exercises with Ukrainian forces, will escalate tensions in the region and forestall progress toward a peaceful settlement in Ukraine. The head of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, stated that the buildup of NATO rapid reaction forces in Poland and the Baltic States is a hostile act towards Russia.

Read the rest of the post at War on the Rocks.

Russian Interests and Policies in the Arctic

I have a new analytical piece up on  War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview:

Russian leaders have in recent months focused on the importance of the Arctic region to their country’s security and economic goals in the 21st century. Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is economic development of Russia’s Arctic region. However, Russian leaders also see the Arctic as a location where they can assert their country’s status as a major international power. This is done by claiming sovereignty over Arctic territory, and through steps to assure Russian security in the region.

Russian policy is pursued on two divergent tracks. The first track uses bellicose rhetoric to highlight Russia’s sovereignty over the largest portion of the Arctic, as well as declarations of a coming military buildup in the region. This track is primarily aimed at shoring up support among a domestic audience. The second track seeks international cooperation in order to assure the development of the region’s resources. This includes efforts to settle maritime border disputes and other conflicts of interest in the region. Managing the lack of alignment between these two tracks, and the potential for counter-productive setbacks caused by inconsistencies between them, is an important challenge for Russia’s leadership.

The rhetoric of sovereignty claims

Russian officials have frequently made statements and taken symbolic actions to assert Russian sovereignty over parts of the Arctic. Many of these actions have had to do with enforcing Russian territorial claims in the region.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

Crimea Taught Us a Lesson, But Not How the Russian Military Fights

I have started a new collaboration with War on the Rocks. I’ll be writing for them once a month or so. Here’s the first piece, on Crimea and the Russian military.

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With the rapid operation that resulted in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Russian military returned to the collective consciousness of the American public. Many commentators were impressed with the “little green men’s” professional demeanor and shiny new equipment. In some cases, this impression was undeservedly expanded to apply to the rest of the Russian military. In this context, it is important to discuss what the Crimean operation does and does not tell us about the capabilities of the Russian military.

The first clear lesson from the Crimean operation is that the Russian military understands how to carry out operations with a minimal use of force. This observation may initially seem banal or trivial, but we should keep in mind how Russian troops acted in previous operations in Chechnya and even to some extent in Georgia. Subtlety was not a strong suit in these operations, nor did it seem to be particularly encouraged by the political leadership. Instead, the goal seemed to be to use overwhelming force without much regard for civilian casualties. By contrast, the entire operation in Crimea was conducted with virtually no bloodshed or violence. There were three keys to this success:

Diversionary tactics

The Swedish analyst Johan Norberg was perhaps the first to highlight the significance of the major military exercise that was held on Ukraine’s eastern border in late February. While the Ukrainian government, as well as Western analysts and intelligence agencies, were distracted by the large-scale publicly announced mobilization in Russia’s Western military district, forces from the Southern military district and from airborne and Special Forces units located elsewhere in Russia were quietly transferred to Sevastopol.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.