By Samuel Rachlin
With the attack in Syria, Moscow has performed a military attack in a different part of the world and with much greater impact than a year and half ago in Ukraine, but there is something very recognizable both in the run-up, the military execution and the Russian propaganda storm. It is a new variation of modern Russian warfare with smokescreen, confusion and prompt establishment of facts on the ground.
Here you go: a new edition of a full-blown Russian hybrid war while everybody is wondering what Moscow is up to now. It is classic Russian disguise and deception, maskirovka, as it was called in 20th century. This time around though Moscow is not pretending that the planes, the pilots and the cruise missiles are not Russian. On the contrary, they are featured all over the media as Russia’s version of pride parade. But like the world was watching in amazement when Russia’s hybrid war unfolded in 2014, for many today, it’s hard to comprehend that what appears as Russian strength and clout is, in fact, rooted in Russian weakness.
The Stuntman statesman Vladimir Putin has inflated himself as a superman, bursting with macho and virility, but in reality he is only a short man of no more than 170 cm, roughly the same height as Napoleon. In the same fashion, he has for years been pumping his country up as a superpower without Russia — with the exception of its nuclear weapons — being neither militarily nor economically a superpower. And now, he is performing his biggest stunt, and the most foolhardy.
Russia, the world’s largest land mass, with over 140 million inhabitants and its immense natural wealth, is ranked as number 15th on the IMF’s list of world economies behind countries like Spain, Mexico and Italy. Part of the reality Vladimir Putin tries to hide and escape from, is that Russia, during his 15 years in office has turned not into a modern industrial giant, but a dysfunctional, corrupt kleptocracy. Instead of more prosperity and social security, the Russians got a promise from President Putin that he, in return for their sacrifice and deprivation, will give them a new Russian empire in a variation of a familiar theme: The President’s new clothes.
If Russians find it hard to understand what Russia’s national interests is in Syria, it will not be easier for them to understand it when they see the budget, which the Russian government has just adopted. Defense spending will rise to 33 percent, while the social sector accounts for less than 28 percent of the total. At the same time, Russian TV screens were overflowing with images that symbolize the strength and power of the Russian Empire in the shape of Russian precision bombs hitting targets in Syria, and cruise missiles that cross distances of over 900 miles from ships in the Caspian Sea. This is the first time in recent history that Russia demonstrates its ability and willingness to strike far from its borders.
There is broad agreement among both Russian and foreign analysts about a string of reasons for the Russian operation in Syria. Putin is not a strategist with a long-term foreign policy worldview, but rather a clever tactical improviser, acting when the opportunity arises and opens a window for Russian interests. Russia wants to protect President Assad, and wants to secure her interests in the area including a naval base and an airbase by drawing a line for what the US and the coalition can do in the region. A few thousand Russian citizens are fighting for ISIS and pose a terrorist risk in the Russian homeland. Moscow would like to act as a great power that can show the world how to handle an international threat that America and the West have failed to do anything about for four years. Russian commentators write that the Russian military has exerted pressure on the Kremlin to test the latest military hardware that it has developed, and never tested in battle. The Russian political scientist, Maria Snegovaja, writing in the journal, The American Interest, points out yet another of Moscow’s motives — a desire to destabilize the situation in the whole region in the hope it will make oil prices go up because the low prices are driving the Russian economy into the ground.
These elements came together and convinced Moscow that the time to act was now. If the beleaguered Assad falls, Moscow risks losing its strategic bridgehead in the region. Now, Putin excels again as two years ago, when he prevented an allied attack on Assad with a proposal on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. Now, it is about ISIS and the flood of refugees in Europe. From a Russian perspective, these were ideal circumstances to set the plan in motion. Putin rushed to New York to give a speech and meet with President Obama with a hidden agenda in his back pocket.
With the recklessness of a stuntman, it’s not farfetched for Putin to think that when you have done it once, you can do it again and preferably do one better. The military buildup in Syria began several weeks before the bombing raids. It followed a carefully organized plan in which Moscow, step by step, had choreographed its diplomatic and military moves. The pieces fell into place with Putin’s speech at the UN. Once again, Putin appeared in his favorite role as the arsonist who acts as a firefighter and peacemaker. The speech the started Russia’s new hybrid war.
Putin rose to the higher oratorical layers when he, with great moral authority, spoke about the need for a concerted international coalition against terrorism and the need to forge compromises. No one paid any special attention to these phrases, and no one sounded the alarm when they heard the words of a leader who does not have the word compromise in his active vocabulary. Compromise in Putin’s world, is a synonym for weakness. When he utters this word, it is a signal that something else is afoot.
Now, Russia’s attention has shifted from Donbass to Damascus. It was clear for some time that the conflict in Ukraine was fading away. It does not have the same appeal anymore. The confrontation between the separatists and the government in Kiev has been pushed into the background. Separatists have even declared that the war in Eastern Ukraine is over. They called off the announced local elections, and some of them have said that they want to go down and fight as volunteers in Syria. Serial volunteers obviously do not quit. The long-awaited de-escalation in Ukraine has started without fanfare. Kremlin spin doctors have resaddled completely and changed the content, but the format is the same and well tested in Russia’s punitive expedition in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The problem for Putin and his team is that they have created a system that constantly requires conflict, enemy images and crisis with a significant portion of nationalism disguised as patriotic zeal. In the past eighteen months, it brought the nation together, provided Putin with unprecedented support among voters and distracted attention from Russia’s growing economic problems. But it requires that the Kremlin keeps the kettle boiling with new crises and conflicts. With falling energy prices and growing defense expenses, there is no prospect of reversing the critical economic situation. What looks like Russian strength in Syria is in fact something that will put Russia’s economy on a serious stress test. To maintain the military pressure in Syria and ensure the supply lines will require substantial resources and could become a major burden for Russia’s economy. As one visible example, civilian ferries that used to supply the Crimea, have been taken out of operation and are instead carrying military supplies, fuel and equipment to the Russian naval base in Tartus. In his latest TV Interview, president Putin said that Russia’s defense will become the engine that will drive economic growth like in the U.S., Europe, China, and India.
The challenge for the Kremlin is that its need for external enemies and crises will continue to exist as long as it is a prerequisite for keeping Putin’s system running and the country under control. Hybrid war and this special kind of crisis management have become two of Putinism’s basic doctrines. It seems as if he and his top advisers have become hostages to these doctrines. This is quite ominous for Russia and the world.
It is hard to say that how well Putin knows one of the great American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, to whom this quote has been attributed: «You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can not fool all the people all the time.” Maybe Putin should play some attention to these words. His court tailors should do it, too, when they dress the P resident for his next performance at home on the big international stage like at the UN. Meanwhile, we should learn from the President’s performance in Ukraine and Syria and be better prepared for when, where and how the president will carry out his next stunt. To keep the pot boiling.