Senior US national security officials, diplomats and military officers are all issuing similar warnings. “If Russia steps in, they will face a tough fight.” “Russian forces will face an insurgency.” “As the bodies of dead soldiers return home, Vladimir Putin will come under increasing public pressure.” “Russia will not be able to achieve its goals and will sink into a quagmire.”
You might think this refers to the continued statements by President Joe Biden’s national security team and Vice President Kamala Harris trying to warn the Kremlin to begin a military adventure in Ukraine, but those comments echo statements that were made in September 2015 by the Obama/Biden administration prior to Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. There are a few important lessons from how the Russian military and security establishment pursued this operation that are relevant if the Kremlin decides to choose military force as a coercive diplomacy option against Ukraine. These lessons may lead to a different type of combat than the United States expects and trains and equips Ukrainian forces for.
First, Russian intervention in Syria has focused primarily on destroying anti-Assad opposition combat capabilities and formations, rather than occupying territory. The Kremlin made the decision to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict when, in late summer and early fall 2015, opposition forces gained sufficient capacity and momentum to push on Damascus and try to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. Focusing on air power, missile strikes and unmanned systems, the Russian task force focused on dismantling and degrading opposition military formations.
The subsequent reoccupation of much of Syrian territory by Assad’s army was a by-product of the massive opposition hammering, rather than the original purpose of the intervention, which was to avert the collapse of ‘Assad.
Second, the Russians have maintained a relatively light footprint on the ground in Syria. They chose not to focus on occupying the territory or assuming governance responsibilities. Indeed, in a number of cases, the Russians brokered a series of ceasefires that let local leaders and notables control their immediate territory in return for accepting overall government control. Since the Russian military has defined areas of control in Syria, it is concentrating on a few strategic real estate assets.
Third, whenever ground forces were needed, the Russians turned to private military companies or other irregular formations, limiting exposure to uniformed members of the Russian armed forces as much as possible. As in the United States, Russian public opinion seems to make a very clear distinction between the “soldiers” dying for the fatherland and the entrepreneurs who committed themselves and took the risks.
Finally, the Russians have demonstrated, in particular during the launch of Kalibr cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea flotilla, the Russian capabilities to carry out lethal strikes from assets based inside Russian territory. The subtext of using the Caspian ships was to subtly demonstrate that key Russian capabilities did not need to be dispatched and “exposed”, but could be used without fear of reprisals or counterattacks.
So contrary to predictions that Syria would be “Putin’s Afghanistan”, where a large Russian land-based force would be crushed by insurgent attacks and Putin would end up risking popular unrest at home as casualties mounted , the Russians focused on carrying out strikes. to disrupt and degrade Assad’s opponents. Watching the Russian campaign unfold, I was reminded of the comments Sergei Ivanov, then Russian Minister of Defense, made during a US-Russian dialogue in 2006 – in perfect English with a command of US military jargon – about how the Russian military was closely studying and learning from the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Avoiding large-scale ground deployments seemed to be one of them.
I don’t know if the Russians will go to Ukraine, or if the American assessments are correct that the Russians will seek to occupy and control large parts of Ukrainian territory and send personnel and systems to Ukraine to engage in a close combat. The Syrian campaign, however, suggests that if the Russian government decides to use military force against Ukraine, it will focus on long-range strikes to destroy Ukrainian equipment, especially its stockpiles of drones, and attempt to break organized military training. The Syrian case also suggests that the Russians would try to avoid people crossing the border, if possible, and directing fire across the line. (This could be part of the hair-sharing on sanctions to suggest to the Germans and others that the promise that economic and energy sanctions against Russia would only come if Russia “invaded” – i.e. by sending large organized formations across borders – and that would be considered a more limited “incursion”.) It would also increase the cost of any response, as the United States and other NATO nations would be very reluctant to see Western weapons crossing the border back to hit Russian artillery or airfields. And Kalibr’s strike in Syria from the Caspian Sea could easily be replicated without anyone wanting to respond by directing fire back into the heart of Russia. Finally, while Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is already talking about sending Chechen proxies to Ukraine, the pattern, as we have seen in Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic, could also apply here: any ground personnel needed to take strategic sites or important communication nodes would not be official Russian forces. Again, the Russian bet could be that some European states split their hairs and that private military contractors would not constitute a formal Russian military intervention.
Preparing Ukrainian special forces for partisan warfare, or assuming that US-supplied javelins would be used against Russian tanks and armored vehicles racing fast towards Kiev, will not be effective against the kind of campaign that Russia used in Syria. We expected a ground campaign to occupy the territory, but the Russian General Staff might seek to destroy capabilities, demoralize the Ukrainian army and create the conditions for political upheaval. And if operations began soon, the kinds of military aid and training that would be needed would arrive too late.
The United States assumed that Russia would be afraid of the risks of entering Syria. This is a mistake that should not be made with regard to Ukraine.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a professor at the US Naval War College. The opinions expressed are his own.