Vladimir Putin says he is withdrawing most Russian forces from Syria because his “objectives” have been achieved. How to judge that boast?
On such goals as keeping the dictator Bashar al-Assad in power, increasing Russian influence in the Middle East, restoring Moscow’s seat at the table of global power, and sending a message of strength to Islamic extremists inside Russia’s own borders, the jury is still out.
But it’s not too early to consider Russian success on another front: showcasing military strength to potential adversaries, allies and arms buyers. “Essentially, Russia is using their incursion into Syria as an operational proving ground,” retired Air Force general David Deptula told the New York Times last year. And Moscow proved quite a bit.
The Russian military had not been in a conflict of this scale since its disastrous pullout from Afghanistan decades ago. The closest it came was the five-day border fracas with Georgia in 2008, and while the campaign was a political success, the Kremlin’s military was highly unimpressive against a weak opponent. Among other woes, its intelligence operations were slipshod, with troops being repeatedly being sent into ambushes; it lost six planes to either Georgian air defenses or “friendly fire”; and its tanks proved under-armored and ill-suited to night fighting. There were reports that Russian troops took to stripping dead Georgian soldiers of their superior body armor.
Just seven years later, the Russians have done a great deal to redeem themselves. In what was primarily an air campaign, they showed a good ability to keep up the tempo of sorties — by one estimate, at least 1,000 a month from its Syria-based squadrons of SU-24 fighter-bombers and SU-25 ground-support craft — indicating efficient base crews and impressive logistics. Long-range bomber attacks from bases in Russia hinted at improved air-to-air refueling capabilities. As for accuracy, it was hard to judge the efficiency of Russia’s upgraded GPS guidance system because the planes used a lot of “dumb” munitions like the cluster bombs that devastated civilian areas. Russia also allowed brief glimpses of its new Mi-35M gunship helicopter.
The red flag here is the shooting down of an SU-24 fighter by Turkey’s American-made F-16s in November. Given the unresolved ambiguities of the situation, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions, and in any case the Russian plane wasn’t designed for the sort of dogfighting at which the F-16 excels.
The Russians also showed surprising capabilities in smart weapons. In October, they launched 26 cruise missiles from Buyan-M-class corvettes floating in the Caspian Sea. While Western intelligence claims that some fell way short of the target — in Iran, actually — the fact that such small warships were capable of employing the sophisticated Kalibr NK missile system came as a shock.
In December, cruise missiles fired underwater by a super-stealthy Rostov-on-Don submarine in the Mediterranean struck targets near Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa. Given that such sea-based missiles are vastly more expensive than dropping bombs from planes, one can assume that the real aim was sending a message to Washington.
Russia also deployed some hardware that there was little reason to suppose would ever be used: sending the missile cruiser Moskva off the coast of Syria and placing advanced S-400 ground-to-air missile systems at the airbase near Latakia. This impressive air-defense assemblage might have seemed a bit much given that the Syrian rebels and Islamic State jihadists didn’t have a single plane, but the real point was flexing muscles, and the U.S. clearly took notice.
The Syria campaign should do nothing to hamper Russia’s soaring arms sales, at 25 percent of the global market as compared to America’s 33 percent over the last five years, despite Ukraine-related sanctions. Moscow is rumored to be locking its top client, India, into $7 billion in purchases including S-400 air defenses and three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates now under construction. The two nations have long discussed a joint building operation of a next-generation fighter jet. India’s mortal enemy, Pakistan, made its first-ever deal with Moscow for four helicopters last summer, and more may be on the way, especially if a Republican-led group in Congress continues to try to block fighter-jet sales to Islamabad.
What most concerns the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies, though, is Moscow’s courtship of Iran. After the signing of the nuclear-weapons deal last summer, Russia agreed to make good on a long-promised sale of an advanced air-defense system to Tehran, and discussed possible sales of multirole Su-30 aircraft and Russia’s main battle tank. Republicans in Congress are pressuring the Barack Obama administration to block any such sales using United Nations sanctions, but in the long run there’s little doubt that Moscow and Tehran will strengthen ties over weapons deals — another Putin objective furthered by his risky decision to make Assad’s war his own.
Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, military affairs and education. He was previously an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.