Russia’s decisive action in Syria and the use of long-range cruise missiles and long-range aviation have made Moscow a full-fledged member of the “private” great military powers club. The Russian military operation in Syria has caused a very painful response in the U.S. military. However, the reasons and implications of this response are not as obvious as it might seem at first sight.
The Russian military operation in Syria has caused a very painful response in the U.S. military. However, the reasons and implications of this response are not as obvious as it might seem at first sight.
“They wish to attack us!”
Ahead of the operation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria, General Philip M. Breedlove, Commander, Supreme Allied Command, Europe, voiced his concerns over the strengthening of the Russian Armed Forces. According to him, Russia is building up the regional “anti-access/area denial” capability  in the Kaliningrad Region, Arctic, and, since 2014, in Crimea. General Breedlove believes Syria may become the next such platform.
He notes that some very sophisticated air defenses are going into Syria, along with means to ensure control in the air, and air-to-air fighter aircraft, while the Islamic State has no air force. According to the general, Russia’s top priority is to protect its access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second priority is to prop up the Assad regime, whereas Russia’s counter-ISIL work is only a means to legitimize its approach to Syria.
Russia in a Changing Middle East
The tonality of Breedlove’s statement and its interpretation by many U.S. media indicate their willingness to discredit Russia and accuse it of “imperial ambition.” However, the idea for a country to protect its main attack force from hypothetic air strikes far from that country’s borders is absolutely clear and natural. Moreover, the recent tragic events showed that there are threats in the Syrian sky other than ISIL.
Until very recently, only four Su-30SM fighters and several Pantsir anti-aircraft artillery weapon systems have ensured Russia’s air-to-air defense and supremacy in the air; however, by any stretch of imagination, they cannot pose a serious threat to the United States in the region. The deployment of the S-400 air defense systems became a predictable response to Turkey’s activities.
Admiral Mark E. Ferguson, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, in early October 2015 noted that the United States was observing the manifestation of a “more aggressive, more capable Russian navy” and “the construction of an arc of steel from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.” In his words, in the eastern Mediterranean, Moscow pursues a strategy of “contesting the sea aimed against the NATO navy” and wishes to be able to “threaten fleets in the region and thus deter NATO’s operations.”
The statements by Breedlove and Ferguson were not the first ones made by the U.S. military administration concerning the “Russian threat.” Back in June 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James referred to the activities of Russia as “the biggest threat” to the United States. Ferguson’s colleagues – Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, Commander, U.S. Army Europe, and General Frank Gorenc, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe – also voiced their concerns about Russia’s military power in Europe.
“Long arms of little green men”
Following the Downing of its Su-24 Russia
Changes the Rules of the Game in Syria
Russia’s operation in Syria, just as the operation to reunify with Crimea, is the obvious proof of the success of the Russian army reform that was originally launched by Anatoly Serdyukov and Nikolay Makarov and continued by Sergey Shoygu and Valery Gerasimov. The reform commenced right after the peace enforcement operation in Georgia in August 2008. Back then Russia, owing to the resoluteness of its political administration and absolute superiority of power, as good as “overrode” the Georgian army. However, the five-day war revealed some significant weaknesses, primarily in the use of aircraft, intelligence, enemy air defense suppression, coordination, and control of operations.
The five and a half years between the operations in Georgia and Crimea saw an enormous amount of work completed. In Crimea, the Russian Armed Forces relied on secrecy and “soft power.” The symbol of the operation was the “little green men” (aka “gentle people”) and the “maskirovka” that shocked our western partners. Decisiveness, swiftness, and secrecy played a critical role in the successful return of Crimea to Russia, the operation that did not result in bloodshed.
According to the general, Russia’s top priority is to protect its access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The operation in Syria, albeit different from the Crimean campaign, also demonstrates the results of the military reform. In Syria, Russia has showed its hard power and capability to project its power far from its own borders. Over a short period of time, a small yet effective and well protected force was established in Latakia. In the eastern Mediterranean, the task force of the Russian Navy ensures the combat stability of the “Syrian express,” operational since 2012, and covers the Latakia force from the sea.
The West notes that the Russian military reform yields real benefits and restores lost capabilities. The “effective media campaign,” including in social networks, is also mentioned.
Russia’s operation in Syria, just as the operation to reunify with Crimea, is the obvious proof of the success of the Russian army reform.
The high-precision nature of the Russian operation is emphasized. Commentators refer to not only high-precision weapons, but also upgraded aircraft capable of engaging targets using conventional ammunition with increased effectiveness, and thorough intelligence and selection of targets. The latter was repeatedly praised by the official spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense Major General Igor Konashenkov. “... Our aircraft in Syria have a state-of-the-art targeting system that allows hitting a spade handle with a rock from a high altitude. We only make use of special ammunition for special facilities of terrorists,” he said.
The intensity of the use of striking aviation has been characterized as “highly impressive.” Over the first 48 days of the operation in Syria, there were 2,289 sorties, although the total strength of the main attack force was less than 30 aircraft. The operation features the first ever operational use of Russian long-range cruise missiles and strategic aviation.
General Breedlove outlined three key dimensions to counter the “Russian threat.” The first one is investment in forces and facilities addressing A2/AD. The second one is the joining of the U.S.’ NATO allies around their leader in a bid to increase the readiness and responsiveness of the entire NATO force structure as a military bloc, as well as the fast response capacity. Thirdly, in time of peace NATO members are supposed to show Russia that international airspace and waters around the Russian strongholds are “not forbidden spaces.”
Admiral Ferguson echoes his counterpart, calling for effectively deterring Russia at sea. To this end, he suggests increasing the capacity of the fleet to withstand the “Russian threat,” invest in R&D and integrate effects of high-intensity conflicts into exercises.
Five-day war revealed some significant weaknesses, primarily in the use of aircraft, intelligence, enemy air defense suppression, coordination, and control of operations.
I will not oppose the viewpoint that, theoretically, Russia has the capability to pose a military threat to the USA and other NATO members. But first and foremost, Russia’s actions jeopardize the U.S. political influence. Washington fears that Russian operation in Syria is not a one-time response to the threat posed by the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, but the beginning of a long-term consolidation of Russian position in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Strengthening of Moscow-Damascus, Moscow-Tehran and Moscow-Baghdad relations, their military and weaponry cooperation and especially the fact that Russia is maintaining its military presence in the region after the operation in Syria clearly present a challenge for Washington that has been viewing the Middle East as its national interest zone.
The West notes that the Russian military reform yields real benefits and restores lost capabilities.
Russia’s decisive action in Syria and the use of long-range cruise missiles and long-range aviation have made Moscow a full-fledged member of the “private” great military powers club. These powers have a wide range of power projection tools and are ready to use them to protect their national interests. Russia is entering this club, and China and India will probably follow. And as the club comprised only the USA and (under certain conditions) the UK and France, the recent developments land another blow on the unipolarity concept heavily rooted in the minds of some of the U.S. military and political leaders.
Moreover, the Russian Armed Forces and modern Russian weaponry, having become even more attractive following the demonstration of its capacities in Syria and as the Russian rouble continues to fall, pose a threat to the U.S. warfare as usual. Since Operation Desert Storm the USA has been used to “operate“ as recognized and uncontested air and sea overlords. This supremacy ensures that the strikes on enemy territory go virtually unpunished, it enables to bring the fleet and air force closer to the enemy targets, to drastically reduce the amount of effort and funds used to protect their own group and lines of communication.
USS Porter, Odessa, Ukraine, October 2015
According to F. Gorenc, “supremacy in the air makes everything possible, without it one is able to do nothing”. The U.S. air supremacy is currently shrinking, as Russian aircraft gains higher quality and develops the ability to create «anti-access/area denied zones that are very well defended».
But let us not exaggerate the U.S. concerns. The U.S. military and political leadership does, to a certain extent, profit from Russia’s recent foreign policy forced to address the security threats in the former Soviet Union and in the Middle East. And it’s not only that both powers, though each one on its own, are fighting against the common enemy, the Islamic State.
The U.S. military force and military-industrial complex are clearly beginning to view Russia as a “peer competitor” again. China has been another competitor since late 2000s, though its primary focus has been a slow South China Sea expansion.
I will not oppose the viewpoint that, theoretically, Russia has the capability to pose a military threat to the USA and other NATO members. But first and foremost, Russia’s actions jeopardize the U.S. political influence.
The “Russian threat” justifies extra support for expensive military programs such as the next-generation strategic bomber development program, allows the U.S. not to reduce the military expenditure and the European Regional Command to consolidate their authority and increase their importance. Some call for expansion and intensification of the key military programs.
At the end of 2014, Chuck Hagel, the U.S. defense secretary, announced the new long-term strategy for maintaining the U.S. technological superiority, its power projection capacities and the stability of its global military presence. Technologically, the «Third Offset Strategy» (by analogy with the 1950s Dwight Eisenhower and the late 1970s Harold Brown strategies) envisages a long-term R&D program. The focus areas are robotics, miniaturization, big data and autonomous systems development. And here the “Russian threat” comes in handy for the U.S. military force and military-industrial complex, as it allows them to get funding.
Russia’s decisive action in Syria have made Moscow a full-fledged member of the “private” great military powers club. .
The “Russian threat” is equally important for the rallying of the NATO members around Washington and consolidation of America's wavering position in Europe. While reducing its presence in Western Europe, the USA increase it in the East, in particular in the framework of the European Reassurance Initiative.
Trident Juncture – 2015, the NATO’s biggest military maneuvers of the last decade recently took place in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The USA, their allies from the North Atlantic Treaty, Australia, and other states including Ukraine participated in the training. About 36,000 servicemen, 140 aircrafts, and 60 ships from 30 states were involved in the maneuvers.
The Russian Armed Forces and modern Russian weaponry pose a threat to the U.S. warfare as usual.
The USA and their allies are developing partnership relation in the framework of Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum founded in 1999. In the late October 2015, the USA, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Germany, and the UK organized a major training exercise at the coast of Great Britain in order to secure integrated operation of their air and missile defense systems.
Finally, the USA and their allies keep coming closer to Russian strongholds. This was first mentioned in 2008 when an American destroyer USS McFaul demonstratively entered the Black Sea during the Russian peace enforcement operation in Georgia. Since then the ships of the U.S. and their allies have been regularly seen near the Russian shores. The destroyer USS Porter visited the Black Sea in October 2015 and entered the ports of Ukraine and Georgia, and HMS Duncan visited Romania in November.
Let us not exaggerate the U.S. concerns. The U.S. military and political leadership does, to a certain extent, profit from Russia’s recent foreign policy.
Most importantly, Russia's power projection abilities (apart from the strategic nuclear force) are limited both quantitatively and territorially. Russia is considerably inferior to the USA in terms of the number of long range cruise missile carriers (strategic bombers, surface vessels, and submarines). The USA is also expected to keep its absolute supremacy in another key power projection tool – aircraft carriers and deck-based aviation – for the foreseeable future.
It should be mentioned that, unlike during the Cold War, NATO states (except, maybe, for Baltic countries) do not view modern Russia as a threat to their existence. Current animosity is considered a regional problem, not a battle between two superpowers. Revealingly, both the USA and NATO expressed their solidarity with Turkey, but tried to distance themselves from the incident with the Russian bomber.
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“Russian threat” comes in handy for the U.S. military force and military-industrial complex, as it allows them to get funding.
In the Crimea and Syria, Russia demonstrated that its military forces have overcome the state of deep crisis they remained in in the 1990–2000s. The implementation of modernization and re-equipment programs will strengthen them even more. Since 2008, Russia has been demonstrating its determination to defend national security, also beyond its borders. From military and political perspectives, it is impossible to ignore Russia as a great state. Naturally, this raises serious concerns of the United States that strive to preserve their military superpower status.
However, direct military confrontation between Russia and the USA is still highly unlikely. Talks about the “Russian threat” serve as a useful tool to protect corporate interests of the U.S. military force and defense industry and to rally the allies around the US.
In the mid-run, we will witness the USA struggling to consolidate its influence, particularly in the key regions – Europe, the Middle East, Indo–Pacific region. Russia, China, and, probably, India will follow their own policies, but regionally, not globally. New conflicts of interests of the great powers connected with numerous risks are, perhaps, inevitable.
1. A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) – one of the terms of the American military strategy that has been popular in recent years (http://www.nationaldefense.ru/includes/periodics/conceptions/2014/0618/115913442/detail.shtml).