This is the first part of an article I hope to present at the ASMEA conference in November in DC. Inshallah. Adding footnotes later
Ivan Meets Ahmad copy
The war in Ukraine grinds on at this writing and will likely be continuing at the time of the presentation of this paper. The surprise has been the apparent ineptness of the Russian forces, an incompetence that has been so blatant and inexplicable that many who study military history have continued to wait for the other shoe to drop, assuming that the Russians had some monstrous deception plan at work and waiting for an opportune time to launch and overrun Ukraine.
In the past few years there have been plethora of books and articles viewing the Russia intervention in the Middle East since 2014 as a game changer, i.e., that the long-awaited military reforms have finally come about and the humiliation of the Chechen and Afghan war inflicted on the Russian army had been redeemed. Particularly this centered on Russian intervention in Syria and a lesser amount on Libya. In the minds of many military analysts, Syria became the test bed of a revolution in military affairs, with new technology, a new confidence in their military prowess and strategies. The moribund and lackadaisical military reputation was seen as reversed and a new Russian military was making Russia a world power once again. According to this theme, just as the Desert Storm operation in Iraq regained some lost U.S. prestige from Vietnam, so did the Russian intervention in Syria and Ukraine in 2014. The lessons learned were reportedly many and the Russians seemingly were making full use of them to exhibit a military prowess not seen since WWII. Alas as it turns out the military interventions into the greater Middle East has had a deep debilitating effect on the “soul” of the Russian army.
In so doing I will trace the Russian military and intelligentsia interest in the “southward” expansion of the Russian empire and the depth as of the Russian immersion in the Greater Middle East, using an example the Russian investment in the Egyptian and Syrian war against Israel in 1973. Integral to the Russian century old interest in the greater Middle East is the rather startling similarities in political/cultural traits. These traits have produced a sort of cultural bonding, being played out today in the reluctance of Middle Eastern countries to blame the Russians for the war in Ukraine. Much of the knowledge of the Russian investment in the Middle East has been revealed by former military advisors and veterans of the Chechnya and Afghan wars, disgruntled by the callous Russian government treatments after the wars.
This paper is not an exploration of Soviet/Russian policies in the Middle East except where some context is required to surface the cultural interchange between Russian and Middle Easterner.
I have written extensively on the Arab military cultural affinities and way of war and also on the generally ineffectiveness of Western training of Arab militaries. In my experience the Russians were better in training Middle Eastern militaries, not because of better systems or more knowledgeable trainers, but because of the many cultural affinities of the two cultures, Russian and Middle Eastern. There have been articles which claimed the Russians were not popular among the Arabs but from my experience that was not true. It is true that that the Russians, especially the women, sometimes outraged the more conservative Egyptians with their immodest dress and behavior, but generally there were no severe clashes. At the top, especially in Egypt, there was considerable rancor but at the bottom, Russian advisor and Egyptian soldier, got along quite well.
My contention is that the long Soviet/Russian involvement, in the Middle East has corrupted their military ethos, and gave the Russian military leaders a false sense of capabilities in conventional warfare they do not have. Since the massive wave of Soviet weaponry and trainers pouring into Egypt in preparations of the 1973 war, the Russians have been deeply immersed in Middle Eastern politics, culture, and feeding a militaristic trend in the Middle East. This has had an adverse effect for both Middle Easterners and Russian military effectiveness.
Absorbing cultural traits is a two- way impact on both the foreign trainers and the indigenous students. I learned this working with Arab and Korean soldiers. I saw the way American liaison officers and advisors with the South Vietnamese assumed some of their ways of fighting a war, I also learned this teaching high school in a poor southern rural county. While hopefully one can pull the students up, all too often the environment pulls the instructor’s standards down. Russian military advisors who have served in the Middle East generally achieved a measure of success elevating the standards of their students in improving the status and effectiveness of the Middle East militaries with which they served, especially in Egypt, but they did it at the price of lowering their own. Nor did the Russian, contrary to what some analysts believe, absorb the lessons learned by others, especially the Americans in Vietnam and Iraq. One specific problem the Russians have always had is that they cannot bring themselves to deeply adversely criticize their way of war and leadership. Like the Arabs, Russian illusionary thinking is the norm.
Moreover, they confused the successful strategy and tactics of counterinsurgency with that of conventional war. In Vietnam I observed how we applied conventional ways of war to an insurgency and now we are witnessing how the Russians applied their counterinsurgency war lessons, albeit with to conventional war. No doubt the Russians believed they had made the transition, and cosmetically they had, but in reality, the tempo of counterinsurgency, the methods applied, and the enemy faced, was so different that only delusional thinking could have convinced the Russian leaders that all was well. Just as the Arabs have a trait of self-delusion and take flights of imaginary deeds in rhetoric so did the Russians.
The immersion of the Russian soldier into Middle Eastern culture was greatly facilitated by the congruities of Russian and Middle Eastern culture. This is a crucial point as Russia soldiers participated in the expansionism of the Russian empire in a southward direction for the past two centuries and in the modern context in the last 60 years.
My sources on middle eastern culture include my nine years’ experience in a number of Arab countries, often working with their militaries in which I made a point to understand their impressions of their earlier training by Russians. For a number of years, I have studied the available information on the Russian experience training and maintaining their Arab and Greater Middle Eastern clients as well the wars fought against them. Raphael Patai’s and Sylvia’s Haim’s books, as well as the works of Ali Al Wardi were the guideposts buttressing my observations of Arab culture.
My sources for the Russians include the most informative books written in English on the Russian military, and importantly the stories of my father, a Russian from Vitebsk, himself the son of an officer in the Czar’s army.
I will support my contentions first by examining the depth of Russian involvement in the Greater Middle East, using the Russian massive support for Egypt in the 1967, and especially the 1973 war, then examining the congruities of Russian and Middle Eastern cultures. In part two I will assess the Russian military problems in Afghanistan, and Chechnya and how they impacted on the war in Ukraine.
Finally I will address the illusion of the Syrian war used as test bed for the new Russian weaponry and training of their army