Russia’s Low-Risk Gambit in Syria

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday that four Russian cruise missiles fell in Iran rather than in Syria. To Carter, the errant munitions reflect Russia’s “unprofessional behavior.” To the Russians, they may be part of the reason they are in Syria in the first place.

Syria’s Civil War

Strategically, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war looks like a terrible idea, or at least a big gamble. “Doubling down” on President Bashar al-Assad, as Carter put it, could give the Syrian strongman some breathing space, but not necessarily a lease on life. At the same time, Russia is alienating Turkey, where President Vladimir Putin until recently had a comfortable partner in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It also threatens to make enemies in the Sunni Arab world just when relations with Saudi Arabia seemed to be improving.

What happens if the land offensive started by Assad’s forces Wednesday with help from Iranian troops and the Iran-backed Hizbullah militia fails to recapture lost territory? Does Russia have a specific goal or at least a time frame? What about an exit strategy?

These questions matter only if Russia is in this for the long haul. It has done nothing to suggest that it is, however. The Kremlin only appears to be setting short-term tactical goals for now because it’s not heavily committed to an outcome in Syria. One of these objectives is to battle-test and show off new hardware.

Although the U.S. has been involved in several foreign wars since 1991, Russia has only fought on its own territory or within the former Soviet Union. These conflicts provided limited opportunities for a modern army to show what it can do: They consisted of either large-scale police operations or covert, hybrid warfare. Fighting small, agile bands of Chechen guerrillas in the mountains, helping separatist rebels surround Ukrainian units or running through overconfident but tiny Georgia in just four days is no general’s dream. It also is no way to demonstrate new weaponry to potential foreign buyers or test it for Russia’s own armed forces.

It might seem absurd to get involved in a war as a training exercise, but in Putin’s Russia, it could make some sense. The country’s defense spending has risen to about 4.5 percent of gross domestic product this year from just 1.5 percent in 2010, and Russia now has one of the world’s 10 most militarized economies. It is also the second-biggest arms exporter, with 27 percent of the global market. Last year, it exported $15.5 billion worth of weaponry; that was about 5 percent of its non-commodity exports and 2.6 percent of the total.

The Caliber 3M14 missiles launched toward Syria from the Caspian Sea on Wednesday couldn’t have been tested under battle conditions previously because international treaties only allow the export of a modified version with a 300 kilometer (186 mile) range, which Russia has sold to India and China. But the 26 missiles fired at against Syrian targets were long-range, capable of doing damage at 1,500 kilometers and beyond. If four of the 3M14’s fell in Iran — though Russia has denied this and Iran has not confirmed — that wouldn’t be unusual for the first battle use of a new weapon.

Even though Russia has exported its Su-30 fighter jets to a dozen countries, it has never used them under battle conditions. Now, there’s a chance to test four of the aircraft. The state-of-the-art Su-34 fighter-bombers were used in a limited way during the Georgia campaign, but they, too, are getting extensively tested in a real war for the first time. Russia has sent six to Syria.

One benefit of the real-life “exercises” is that it makes for impressive video and powerful domestic propaganda.

As things stand, Putin is getting these benefits without risking much. According to Western estimates, he has about 2,000 troops in Syria and a few dozen aircraft. The 2008 operation in Georgia involved about 9,000 crack troops and hundreds of tanks. At the current scale, the Syrian operation is not much more than an exercise.

So far, Putin’s commitment, along with the military, financial and domestic political risk, is minimal. Things may get serious if Assad’s ground operation sputters, which is likely. Then Putin will face a choice between really doubling down and sending ground troops and telling Assad that he could do no more and that it was time to negotiate a power transition.

Putin has proved to be a risk-taker in Ukraine, and he will be tempted to take the first path. His generals and defense industry managers will be pushing him in that direction: There are plenty more weapons to test and crack troops to try in battle. The risk of a lengthy conflict, casualties and diplomatic losses in the Middle East would, however, be considerably higher than it is now. By comparison, the second path would be painless: Russia would have brought Assad to the negotiating table and helped end the war, which could be sold as a victory both domestically and internationally.

At this point, the Russian leader’s options are open. I doubt he has a long-term plan or thinks he needs an exit strategy. That won’t last. Soon, almost certainly before the end of this year, Putin will need to decide whether to commit himself or end the game.


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