Russia's military hardware falls apart

»Russia wants to keep all the cards in hand«

zenith: In Syria, many states are now involved. Does Russia have the edge?

Joris van Bladel: Right now, yes. Russia was able to demonstrate its power not only through military strength, but also in the negotiations on various local peace agreements. However, that does not mean that it will stay that way. Syria has long been a fragile state in which conditions can be thrown upside down at any time. Idlib could be a trigger for this.

Will Russia use the momentum to also get involved in Syria in the future?

There are certainly indications that Russia is striving for a long-term presence in Syria, especially on the coast, and is already preparing for it. One example is the Russian barracks. Their size and their fortifications are designed so that their families can live there as well as the soldiers. Russia is also supporting Syria in reforming the Syrian army, for example, and is playing a key role in establishing long-term state structures.

Is this new? Do we currently see a completely different Russian strategy in Syria for dealing with such crises militarily?

Not in the long term. Moscow has always relied on demonstrations to emphasize its status as a superpower. In Syria, this is mainly possible because the military has developed enormously through reforms. Nevertheless, the Russians have always shown a certain restraint in their operations in Syria, which at first glance seems atypical. There is great concern about a military disaster and high personnel losses - one could speak of a kind of »Afghanistan Syndrome«. It should not be overlooked that the armed forces were in deep crisis in the 1990s. Things have been improving since 2008. I think that we have seen the first results of the army reform since 2015.

What are you up to?

The Russians are able to handle modern equipment and use it in combat. They use the findings of their intelligence services sensibly for their missions. Above all, however, it is about the fact that Moscow has managed to strike a balance in Syria between military strength and political and strategic restraint.

Certainly the Russians pay less attention to the protection of civilians than the West

It is often assumed that the Russians from Western Europe do not care about civilian victims.

I think this claim is, to some extent, justified. This is mainly due to the weapons that Russia is using in Syria. The Russian armed forces are pursuing a strategy that is very focused on wiping out the enemy. Only five percent of the weapons used are guided missiles. The remaining weapons are accordingly significantly less precise and thus lead to collateral damage more quickly and more often. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the spread of fear and brutality in wars is often used as a means to an end. So it can be said that the Russians certainly pay less attention to the protection of civilians than the West.

Are issues such as civilian victims even part of the security debate or the public debate in Russia?

I don't feel There are several reasons for that. For one thing, propaganda plays a role. The focus is often on the aspect of humanitarian aid in order to counter the bad reputation of the Russian mission in Syria. Moscow is well aware of the importance of public opinion, both domestically and globally, to the success of the operation in Syria. On the other hand, we mustn't forget that we see the mission from a very western perspective. Many client and former client states of Russia, but also disappointed client states of the West, assess Russia's actions in Syria as positive. You see Russia as a state that takes responsibility.

What is the relationship between the Russian and Syrian armed forces like? Can you speak of a relationship on an equal footing or is there a clear hierarchy?

You can't say that in general. There are situations when the Russians have absolute authority. If the Russian army is directly involved, they will not accept any Syrian orders or control. But there are also situations in which they only provide advice to the Syrian armed forces.

Is it possible that a Russian lieutenant could give orders to a Syrian general?

Not directly, but there is a certain hierarchy in which the Syrians are subordinate to the Russians. Especially in the operations in which the Russians are directly involved.

Another key player is Iran. Iranian and Russian troops are actually supposed to work together in Syria, but reports of rivalries between the allies continue to crop up.

So far, both sides have managed to balance these tensions, but that can change at any time. How tense the relationships are has been observed several times. For example, the Russians were unable to persuade Iran to withdraw its militias near the Israeli border.

In addition to regional allies, Russia is increasingly relying on local militias. On the other hand, the Russians are focusing on a strong central state. How does that fit together?

Of course, Russia prefers the regime to be in power. The personality of Bashar Al-Assad is a different question, but in general the state should be preserved as an institution. State stability in Syria is an incredibly important element - it is the basis for the official legitimation of the Russian operation: an anti-terror operation. Nonetheless, Russia naturally wants to keep all the cards in hand. This also includes the understanding that one has to come to terms with militias that have established themselves in some parts of the country. That is why Russia is very pragmatic in entering into cooperation with militias that Moscow considers trustworthy.

The Russians are well aware that they should maintain a positive relationship with Israel

The September 17, 2018 incident when Syrian air defense accidentally shot down a Russian jet sparked significant diplomatic tension between Moscow and Jerusalem.

First of all, it should be emphasized how risky and brazen the Israeli operation in the demilitarized province of Latakia was. But of course, it was a huge mistake by the Syrian armed forces, for which they now do not want to take responsibility. Russia's initial reaction to the shooting down was initially very emotional. After all, 15 people were killed in the incident. In similar cases, such as when militias allied with Turkey shot down a Russian plane, they showed that international crises can be triggered by just two deaths. That Putin now tried to relax relations with Israel again shows the importance the Israeli armed forces have now achieved in Syria. The Russians are well aware that they should maintain a positive relationship with Israel.

So does the political leadership have more to say than the military?

Yes, definitely. Political-strategic issues have priority over tactical ones.

The Wagner Group? They do not have a high reputation and are therefore dispensable

A similarly complex incident occurred in Deir ez-Zor earlier this year. He killed a not insignificant number of Russian mercenaries, presumably the Wagner group. How close their relationship with the Kremlin was leaves room for discussion.

The information about the Wagner Group is overshadowed by secrecy and a lack of transparency. You know they exist. We know that it operates not only in Syria, but also in the Central African Republic and Libya. And there is much to suggest that they are directly linked to the Kremlin. But all the secrecy surrounding the Wagner Group makes it difficult for experts to make an assessment. Many of its members are former soldiers, social outsiders or simply adventurers. They do not enjoy a high reputation and are therefore dispensable.

But why would Russia then allow them to operate in Syria?

With regard to Russian domestic politics, their use is very beneficial for the leadership. She doesn't have to justify having mercenaries of the group killed. At least 80 mercenaries were killed in the incident in Deir ez-Zour, others speak of 150 dead. Russian citizens killed by Americans.

And Moscow is downplaying the incident.

Exactly. The hesitant response makes it clear that Moscow is interested in ensuring that the incident does not have a major impact.

Putin was re-elected in March. But rumors are circulating that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is to be positioned to succeed Putin in office as a war hero.

There is a lot of speculation about this. We have seen in the past that the selection of the candidate that Putin supports can be very surprising. It is too early to think about it right now.

But it is true that the Russian defense minister in Russia enjoys greater political influence than defense ministers in other countries.

Yes that's true. The foreign policy aspect has gained in importance not only in actual operations, but also in propaganda. Along with this, the status of the Ministry of Defense and its political influence have increased. To conclude from this that the Defense Minister will succeed Putin, I think it is wrong. One could, for example, bet on long-time deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin. He was responsible for the modernization of the Russian armaments industry and therefore also plays an important role within the Russian armed forces. But it could also be someone who is so far completely unknown to us.


Joris Van Bladel studied Social and Military Sciences at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels and Slavic Languages ​​and Eastern European Cultures at the State University in Ghent. He is currently a member of the Science Commission of the Austrian Armed Forces. He is a regular guest commentator on security and defense issues as well as Russian affairs on public radio and television in the Netherlands.