“Today we are acquiring priceless combat experience in Syria. It is essential for this to be analyzed in the branches of service and the combat arms at both the operational and tactical levels,” a quote from a speech by Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
As the son of a immigrant from Russia, the city of Vitebsk, now in Belarus, I follow the developments of the Ukrainian tragicomedy every day. Although my dad didn’t talk much about his country of origin, he instilled in me the desire to know more about this country and its people who have been ravaged by a century of totalitarian Marxism or its cronyism in various forms. One of my favorites on the tragedy of Russia and communism, being short, concise, and cogent is the Dream that Failed by Walter Laqueur.
It is infuriating to view how the Biden administration of incompetent buffoons has bungling this from day one. So as a mental palliative I needed to write about this issue. From an early age I have read everything I could on Russia and I greatly admire the people, especially the great writers they have produced…. although I admit I needed cliff notes to get me through Dostoevsky’s novels. While I admire the people and many of their traits I detest communism, Marxism, socialism, and their evil spawns like wokism, and the “soft” totalitarianism of the Elite Establishment in WDC…all of them heavily influenced by the statism of the Russian version of 1984 but with none of the iron needed to make it lasting. But………. back to Syria and the Russians.
Indeed the Russians and some of our military intellectuals have studied the Russian conduct of their new style hybrid warfare (Some call it new generation warfare) that the Russians evidence in Syria Usually it is defined as a blend of conventional warfare, irregular warfare, cyber warfare, and other influencing methods such as disinformation, surprise deception, and false flag operations. And of course the Russians have studied our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan very closely and there are two salient aspects of of our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan they will avoid; They refuse to be involved in nation building in Syria nor establishing a hearts and minds campaign. Basically they use a “punishment doctrine.” For example if fire is being received from a particular village they will level it. They will not use their troops as the main fighting element if at all possible, preferring to use surrogate or Private military companies (PMC) such as the Wagner forces. As we see in the Ukraine, the Russians let the pro-Russian Ukrainians do the fighting and the Russians supply the logistics and other heavy lifting support functions.
The Russians have always been masters of certain types of this warfare, especially deception (maskirova) . As David Glantz ( Soviet Military Deception in World War II) in his seminal work of Soviet deception operations in World War II wrote,” The Soviets have long understood the the inter-relationship of political (peacetime) and wartime deception an understanding only heightened by recent study of the initial period of the war.” Glantz illustrated how the Soviets (and now Russians) integrate deception into the fabric of their operational planning. The characteristics of their deception operations are all being demonstrated against the Ukraine. The secrecy and operational intent, including demonstrative actions to conceal the main intent, simulations to confuse counteractions, and finally…,and very important….huge amounts of disinformation, and rumors, breathlessly spread by western commentators.
In Syria the Russians are very proud to demonstrate the fruits of their years of military reforms. From 2007 until the present there have been a number of reform programs: some were sort circuited by hide bound generals, and some were actually quite stupid, but as Aleksandr Golts, in his excellent study, Military Reform and Militarism in Russia makes clear, the Russian army is not the army that fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Georgia. It has become a professional army with well educated leadership. A good part of these reforms were tested in Syria. As a result, in 2014, in the invasion of Crimea “….observers noted the amazing metamorphosis the Russian military had undergone in the five years since the victorious war in Georgia. Fit, tidy, well- disciplined ( and for the record quite sober), these Russian soldiers were markedly different different from those who had brought Russia victory in 2008.” (Quote from the Golts book)
Probably the most important, aspect of the Syrian operation for the Russian military was the intense work on improving their command and control. Overall this is considered operational management. In substance it is somewhat similar to then OODA ( observe, orient, decide, act) loop concept (getting inside the opponents decision cycle)of the US military strategists. The Russians promote moving faster and with greater accuracy than their enemy combined with ” unconventional combatants” in warfare. This is what the new training of the officers is supposed to understand and put into practice.
In that regard, the Syrian operation was acclaimed a success in both military and political terms. For many years the Western analysts have often resorted to the analysis of the German general officers who wrote their analyses of the Soviets in WWII. For example in one analysis the Russian soldier is termed as brave, close to nature and accustomed to privation, but unpredictable, moody, subject to panic, and evidencing “a residue of dullness, inflexibility, and apathy which has not been yet overcome and which will not be overcome in the near future.” DA Pamphlet 20-230 Historical Study; Russian Combat Methods in World War II. As a matter of fact these characteristics were still apparent in the Afghanistan war. General Lyakhovski, “the indefatigable Russian Chronicler of the war,” paints a devastating picture of the 40th Army performance. Until the middle of the 1980’s , he says, the troops were hidebound by orthodoxy, sticking close to their vehicles in the valleys. Officers were lax about security, tactically inept, soldiers poorly trained, etc. (Roderic Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Even in the Georgian war in 2008 in which the Russians overwhelmed the Georgians in five days, there were many instances of ill discipline, looting, and robbery.
The Russians used Syria to provide combat and management experience to most of their senior commanders and about half of their brigade commanders using three month tours to do so. In so doing the Russians are working to overcome their deeply engrained way of war to be introduce more flexibility, initiative at lower levels and unity of command. In summation in Syria, the Russians used the “whole of Government”concept to better the management of all the levers of power under a command system using the National Control Center ( NDCC) to coordinate military means with political and civil operations.
“Some Western Scholars have already admitted that in recess conflicts, Moscow demonstrated an aptitude for learning , transformation and scale of improvisation that are rather unorthodox for the post-Soviet Russian military.” Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, Russain Lessons Learned in Syria: A preliminary Assessment in Russian’s Military Strategy and Doctrine, Ed. Glen Howard and Matthew Czekaj.
“The Russians saw Syria as a testing ground for almost all their type of modern Russian weaponry from each of the branches and services of the armed forces , and specifically the systemic uses of ISR, C@ and fire systems integrated into unified reconnaissance strike complexes.” Particularly the Russians improved their drone warfare capabilities and intelligence systems.
To most Russians the Ukraine is a domestic concern. They almost all consider the Ukraine a part of Russia and consider the Ukrainian language a dialect of Russian. On the other hand, the Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi invaders in 41 and were complicit in the eradication of the populous Jewish population of the Ukraine. But from my studies it appears the Ukrainians wanted out from under the Stalinist communist yoke more than separation from Russia. Putin’s reoccupation of the Crimea was wildly applauded by the Russian people in 2014 and Khrushchev reviled for giving it away to the Ukrainians in 1954, originally termed by the state run media, as a “noble act on the part of the Russian people “to commemorate the 300th anniversary of “reunification of the Ukraine with Russia.” In fact, because Stalin had forcibly removed the Muslim Tartars (the original people of Crimea), to Kazakhstan after WWII, 75% of the peninsula became ethnic Russian. Why did Khrushchev hand it over to the Ukraine? Keeping in mind that the Ukraine was still part of the USSR, he needed it to shore himself up in an byzantine internal power struggle within the Kremlin. You can read about it in the book Khrushchev Remembers, the memoirs of the old man himself.
The communists under Stalin had literally starved the Ukrainians to death in 1932, in a genocide known as the “Holodomor” (see Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. in which 4 million people died….. and this is taught in the Ukrainian schools who know more about their history than Americans know about our own. But it seems many Ukrainians have a love hate relationship with Russia. Many admire the part the Ukrainians played in the Soviet army in defeating the Germans in World War II. This of course happened after the Germans, in their usual teutonic blindness, managed to turn themselves from liberators to oppressors. On the other hand, Ukrainians also feel that they are cultural civilizational superiors to the Russians. The Ukrainians under their former president, Victor Yushchenko, tried to instill a greater sense of nationalism into the Ukrainians by lionizing anti-soviet insurgents during World War II and especially Stephan Bandera, as a “hero of the Ukraine.” Many considered him as merely a thug and not representative of the Ukrainian liberal spirit. Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe, the History of Ukraine.
So what is the future of Putin’s re introduction of the “cold war?” Putin has already made public what he had done semi-covertly some time ago, , make the eastern part of the Ukraine, the “Donetsk People Republic,” and The “Luhansk peoples Republic,” formally part of Putin’s new Russian empire. Gradually, without a formal invasion of the remaining parts of the Ukraine he will up the pressure both economically, politically, and militarily until the Ukrainians, understanding that no one will come their aid, succumb to Russian gradual and increasing demands, and be drawn back into the Russian orbit. Putin will win but only because the West lacks any semblance of leadership.
Some Sources other those mentioned in this posting;
I used some information from a really great article by Mason Clark, “Russian Military’s Lesson Learned in Syria,” published by the Institute for the Study of war ( 2021)
Theodore Karasik and Stephan Blank, Russia in the Middle East. . A number of good articles
Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev
Galia Golan Soviet Policies in the Middle East: From World War II to Gorbachev
Two books on Putin; Masha Gessen: The Man without a face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Angus Roxburgh The Strong Man: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Europe . He is a thug but a smart one and he smells weakness.
A sort concise book about the astute policies of the Putin regime in Syria by Peter Von De Waals The Russian Eagle over Syria. The Russians have proven that hearts and minds are not winners in the Middle East. ” Overall the Syrian civil war has made Russia a central and important factor in the Middle East.”
And couple of old favorites. Yegeny Primakov , Russia and The Arabs and Walter Laqueur . The Struggle for the Middle East
Finally a couple of books that might cause you to clinch your teeth, especially Andrei Martyanov; Losing Military Supremacy. He sees the US military well behind the Russians in almost everything and makes a lot of sense in saying so. He sees the US military establishment as hidebound, resistant to change and filled with hubris. I agree with himas he pinpoints the cause of our losing superiority. ” American power elites are simply not qualified to grasp the complexity, the nature and application of military force. The majority of them have never served a day in uniform nor ever attended a high ranking military academic institution.”……” Yet ( America elites) being a product of the American pop-military culture also known as military porn and propaganda, these people – this collection of lawyers, political scientists, sociologists, and journalists who dominate the American strategic kitchen which cooks non stop delusional geopolitical and military doctrines- can understand one thing for sure: a bulls eye on their backs or forehead.”
Another Paul Revere in surfacing the Russian threat is Anatoliy Golitsyn : New Lies for Old. He writes, ” Where the West should see unity and strategic coordination in the communist world, it sees only diversity and disintegration; where it should see the revival of ideology it sees the death of idly and evolution toward a convergence with democratic system.” Country to most analysts of the Russians he sees no diminution of communist ideas and doctrine.