Putin’s Strategy is Far Better than You Think


in War on the Rocks

by Michael Kofman

Is Vladimir Putin a strategic genius or not? In a recent War on the Rocks article, the scholar Joshua Rovner comes down hard in the “not” camp, arguing that Putin is a terrible strategist and laying out the ramifications of his strategic incompetence for the United States and its NATO allies. This is another salvo in a long-running debate between competing Western narratives of Russia: an alarmist position perpetually worried that “the Russians are coming,” and a dismissive one that believes Russia is a giant Potemkin village destined to fall apart as a result of self-defeating behavior. Unfortunately both views are wrong, but Western analysis often see-saws between these two perspectives as soon as one falls out of favor. One of the shortfalls of Rovner’s article is that it fails to explain what Russia’s strategy is, which in turn raises a more important question: Does American failure to understand Russia’s strategy make it a poor one?

Russia in perspective

First, there needs to be a more balanced and informed understanding of Russia. A quote, variously attributed over the years to Churchill, Talleyrand, or Metternich sums it up well: “Russia is never as strong as she looks, nor as weak as she looks.” Russia is a regional power in structural decline, but retains a remarkable capacity to muddle through, hang around, and cause trouble. It has often appeared to be the sick man of Europe (a term originally used to describe the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century), technologically backwards, with a political system that does not meet the demands of modern society. Napoleon and Hitler, among others, have made the mistake of assuming that Russian weakness and backwardness made the country an easy mark.

Since early 2014, Russia has suffered from a recession followed by an economic crisis, largely due to a sharp decline in oil prices. While Western sanctions have multiplied the hardship, Russia’s economic problems are structural and its current economic crisis a result of global factors that have nothing to do with events in Ukraine. They are due, in fact, to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to keep oil prices low in an effort to crush the U.S. shale extraction industry (and from a U.S. point of view, this is nothing to be happy about, even if it comes at Russia’s expense). China’s economic downturn is also little cause for cheer.

Whether a good or bad strategist, Putin is no economist. Even his close associates like former finance minister Alexei Kudrin reminded him of this on a regular basis. Russia’s budget is inexorably tied to the price of energy, as was the Soviet Union’s. Vladimir Putin did not invent this dependence, but he has done little to improve it beyond some technological bright spots and the defense industry. Yet Putin’s domestic support is somewhat explained by the fact that Russia experienced an economic boom for much of his rule, which translated into higher standards of living and expendable income.

Despite economic weakness, Russia is militarily the strongest it has been since the Cold War, fielding the most capable, modernized, and well-funded force it is likely going to have for the foreseeable future. This year, spending on defense as a share of GDP will likely peak at 4.2 percent, up from 3.4 percent in 2014. The total force has been growing and could be over 800,000 today, with a consistently increasing percentage of contract soldiers that are tested through snap drills and exercises. No NATO country is increasing defense spending, the size of the force, and its readiness, and procuring new equipment, at the rate Russia has been since 2009. Due to the current economic crisis, Russia’s modernization programs will take a haircut, but its main limitations are technical rather than financial. Russia may not be able to defeat NATO, but its conventional power is sufficient to impose major costs in a conflict with the West or crush any former Soviet republic.

The Kremlin knows how to use force

Rovner argues that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is “ham-fisted” and states that Putin lacks understanding of the “relationship between military violence and political objectives.” This is a puzzling assessment given that Russia has consistently demonstrated its ability to use military force to achieve desired political ends. Russia’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign in Chechnya was by all accounts brutal, but successful. It stabilized a notoriously restless region to the point that Russia could be bold enough to host the Sochi Olympics nearby in 2014. Russia’s brief war with Georgia in 2008 demonstrated terrible military inadequacies, but still achieved its strategic purpose by ending any serious consideration of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Eventually, that defeat also resulted in an inglorious end to President Mikhail Saakashvili’s political career in his country; Georgia seeks him on political charges and he now serves as governor of Odessa in Ukraine.

Compared with the war in Georgia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea demonstrated a decisive and competent use of force to achieve political ends. Without losing a single soldier, Moscow seized the most strategically important part of Ukraine, from which it can control almost the entire Black Sea. This secured basing rights for its fleet, and will allow it to deploy anti-access and area-denial weaponry, covering most of the sea and southern Ukraine. In and of itself, the loss of Crimea creates a permanent territorial dispute in Ukraine’s borders — a frozen conflict of sorts with strategic consequences for its aspirations of Western integration. In eastern Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated flexibility and willingness to escalate. In the span of only a few months, it has cycled from political warfare to state-sponsored insurgency, hybrid war, and limited conventional war. Granted, the first three proved ineffective in getting Ukraine and the West to negotiate a compromise that would lead to federalization, but they were economy of force measures, leaving room for escalation and improvisation as necessary.

Lawrence Freedman has also criticized Putin’s strategy in War on the Rocks. These assessments often fall victim to reading Putin’s speeches and statements as though Russia’s strategy can be found therein. Putin’s statements are not official declarations of policy, but instead a supporting theatrical role to whatever strategy is being implemented. Freedman believes it is unhelpful to call Putin a good strategist, but it is even more problematic to underestimate and misunderstand your opponent. From a purely analytical standpoint, Russia has done reasonably well in pursuit of his objectives in Ukraine. Whether weak or strong, Russia faced a basic challenge: how to impose control and influence on Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe. Certainly Moscow lacks the military strength to occupy all of Ukraine, but that is a null point. The point is to control Ukraine without owning it. The memory of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is still fresh in Russia, and its leadership has no interest in a costly proxy war with the West, especially one that would also destroy Ukraine in the process.

Even if Moscow had requisite military strength, the United States has aptly demonstrated by invading Afghanistan and Iraq how difficult it is to get an occupation right. What Russia could have done easily is invade, beat Ukraine’s army, and fragment the country in a number of pieces. This was likely debated in the Kremlin, but ultimately Moscow wanted all of Ukraine in its orbit, not ownership of a few defunct pieces and a geopolitical mess. This approach would largely nullify the Maidan’s ability to govern Ukraine and reorient it towards the West, while allowing Russia to retain influence.

In February 2014, Russia capitalized on local agitation and discord in eastern Ukraine through informal networks. Many in the West see this as a pre-planned contingency, but it is difficult to understand the basis for this theory. If it was a well planned-out special forces mission, a pudgy historical re-enactor named Igor Girkin, with a paramilitary rabble from Crimea, would not be leading it.640x369

Instead Moscow tried to leverage the networks of business elites, oligarchs, and pro-Russian agitators that had been on the fringe of Ukraine’s politics. Ukraine was an oligarchy, with plenty of powerful non-state actors in the east that lost big when the president was ousted. They worked with Russia to take advantage of the confusion and public anxiety, setting up “people’s” mayors and governors, with Russian intelligence helping to orchestrate the protests. These self-declared anti-Maidan leaders barely lasted days and were arrested by local Ukrainian authorities. The effort was cheap political warfare, hardly the professional special forces operation that is often described in the West. The investment was actually quite low compared to what Russia hoped to gain out of it: Ukraine’s capitulation to a federalization scheme. One can conclude that this was either the worst planned and executed subversion effort in recent history, or more likely, the best Russia could come up with in a hurry.

Separatism in eastern Ukraine began as an ad hoc approach to get Ukraine on the cheap, and Russia simply kept escalating in a quest for the lowest price. After political warfare failed in March, Russia switched to direct action in April and May in the hope of scaring Ukraine into believing that a large-scale secession of “Novorossiya” was possible. Putin’s speeches were part of the effort to convince and frighten Kiev, not official statements of Russian strategy. A brief “hybrid war” followed from June to August, when Russia understood that Ukraine did indeed have the will to resist and still had some functioning military capability, enough to take on a small force of insurgents. At that point, only overt use of force would accomplish what Moscow wanted, hence it openly invaded.

Freedman calls this process poor strategy, but the quest for achieving strategic objectives in another country at the lowest price is probably borne out of witnessing the American experience of trying to achieve them — and failing — at the maximum possible price. When we ask “compared to what” and survey recent military history, the strategy does not seem so poor in retrospect. Russia’s assumptions that Ukraine had no sense of national identity, could not muster resistance, and lacked the will to fight proved incorrect. However, this flexible approach ensured that the price paid for each false assumption was minimal, and the Kremlin’s political ownership of the war from the perspective of its own citizens remained negligible. Instead of staking his regime, the country’s wealth, and its military power, by diving head first into Ukraine, Putin chose a cautious approach with opportunities for an exit.

Rovner, along with numerous other commentators, have suggested that Russia might not take seriously NATO’s collective defense guarantees enshrined in Article V. In his view, Russia may try similar tactics against the Baltics, where they would likely prove ineffective. Although Rovner sees little threat, because Russian “hybrid war” wouldn’t work in the Baltics, the more important point is that all these hypothetical scenarios have a domino theory sound to them. There has never been evidence to support the argument that Moscow does not take NATO’s Article V guarantees seriously and there is almost nothing in common between how Russia views Ukraine and how it perceives a country like Estonia. The lack of faith in Article V seems largely on the alliance side. This is a confidence and assurance problem.

What most discussions of a possible Russian invasion of the Baltics share in common is their inability to explain what is in it for the Russians. Exactly why Russia would risk war against the most powerful military alliance in the world led by the United States in order to seize something in the Baltics remains an analytical quandary. Russia’s cautious and measured approach against a relatively weak, incapable, and non-aligned Ukraine offers little support to the notion that it would risk war with NATO. Russia is acting aggressively on its periphery, but the prospect of nuclear war still outweighs whatever it is Moscow supposedly stands to gain from invading the Baltics.

The U.S. military has internalized that war remains an uncertain and chaotic business. Russia changed approaches in Ukraine four times in less than one year until it found a winning strategy, and has beaten Ukrainian forces in every battle in which its soldiers were in the lead. Putin’s 15-year track record of achieving political ends through force does not look bad compared to the U.S. experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Indeed, the Kremlin understands quite well the interaction between violence and politics. It has to, because it does not have access to strong alternatives compared to countries like the United States. Russia’s economic, information, and diplomatic powers are highly contextual and often geographically limited.

Russia’s response to Ukraine revisited

The Maidan’s unexpected victory in February 2014 caught both Russia and the West equally by surprise. For Moscow this was a geopolitical defeat in the largest and most prominent country that Russian elites consider within their “zone of influence.” Ukraine served as an important buffer state for Russia, and one where it had consistently drawn a red line when it came to NATO expansion. Putin had warned in the past that he saw the country as largely artificial and might not respect its integrity if it was pulled so sharply to the West.

Accepting such a defeat would mean Russia could forget about being a global or even a major regional power. The countries on Russia’s periphery only respect hard power. Their political systems are shades of autocracy and clan rule politics, while their leaders are on the same frequency as Putin. Why should any former Soviet Republic listen to Moscow or participate in Russian led economic and security institutions if Russia couldn’t even secure its interests in Ukraine? Russia was looking into a geopolitical abyss unless it could nullify and reverse this Western victory.

Seizing Crimea was not a strategy, but a reaction. Just as the United States chose to follow a CIA plan for Afghanistan as a first response after 9/11 and came up with the Global War on Terror afterwards, Russian leaders pulled out what was probably the only contingency plans they had on the books at the time: In the event Ukraine became hostile, Russia would execute the invasion and annexation of Crimea. Full stop. Moscow then launched a campaign in eastern Ukraine designed to neutralize the post-Maidan government, prevent Western integration, and retain Russian influence in the country. Some have argued that Russia might have been better off not using force and letting the Maidan peter away as the 2004 Orange Revolution did, but that analysis assumes very little of Ukrainians and their agency. Force was Moscow’s best and likely only reliable option in an unfolding crisis.

By August of 2014, the conflict in the Donbas had escalated into a limited conventional war in which Russia had almost complete operational control and the ability force Ukraine to sign the Minsk protocol. The initial deal only gave the parties breathing space; Ukraine rearmed while Russia consolidated. In February of 2015, Russia inflicted a more strategically costly defeat for Ukraine and imposed another ceasefire agreement that was highly favorable to its interests. This ceasefire has clear sequencing for implementation that places the political burden on Ukraine first. Kiev must carry out decentralization and grant some sort of status to the separatist regions prior to any elections, and later hope that it might get control of the border restored. In all likelihood, Ukraine will not see a restoration of the border, but the occupied Donbas will be granted legal status and therefore shape the direction of the country.

Even if the terms of this deal are not implemented, the annexation of Crimea and a frozen conflict in the East will make integration into NATO and the European Union a distant, if not impossible, prospect for Ukraine. It is the West now that has to see Ukraine succeed. Russia only needs to make it fail. In the Kremlin’s view, Western leaders will eventually grow tired of dealing with Kiev, allowing Russia to pick up the pieces.

Russia appears to have largely achieved the strategic gains it sought in Ukraine, but is still calibrating the use of military force to get the political concessions it wants from Kiev in order to freeze the conflict on favorable terms. In July, Kiev began to address its obligations under the Minsk II agreement, launching the political process to grant special status to the Donbas and carry out decentralization. If this falls through, the West has no alternative to the Minsk II agreement and therefore will not declare it a failure even if fighting resumes. Russia may not close out a victory, but right now it can’t lose, either.

Putin doesn’t seem to be doing too badly

From the perspective of domestic politics and regime survival, this conflict with the West is a paradoxical success story for Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine may have even saved Putin’s presidency. In January 2014, he was looking at 65-percent approval ratings (great for any democratic leader but dangerously low for a populist autocrat), a creeping recession, and a sclerotic political system. Instead of wilting away, Putin became the glorious leader who returned Crimea and its famed city of Sevastopol to Russia, along with facing down the West in Ukraine. Now the Russian people are mobilized as part of the confrontation and Russia’s economic woes are blamed almost entirely on the West instead of resting on Putin’s shoulders.

Despite the disastrous state of Russia’s economy, his approval hovers at 80–90 percent with the Russian people. Putin is the most popular leader in Europe, and rather than weaken him, Western sanctions have achieved a remarkable consolidation of opinion across Russian society behind him. Detractors have said that his approval has nowhere to go but down, but these sentiments have been pronounced since Crimea, and at each turn his support has remained steady.

Broadening the lens

Russia challenged the Western-dominated rules-based international system and largely got away with it, demonstrating that geopolitics and hard power are still the best currency in today’s world. Putin made NATO’s eastern members worry about their security guarantees, while his own neighbors were disabused of any doubts that friendly relations with Moscow might be optional. Rovner suggests Putin could have integrated into the European economy while chipping away at the unity of the European Union, but the limiting factor on integration was Russia’s primitive economy and absence of rule of law. Arguably, Russia was as integrated as it possibly could be given its systemic limitations.

European nations did not impose damaging economic sanctions on Russia when it annexed Crimea, but only after the shooting down of MH17. When they did so, many western European members grudgingly went along with Germany. The price of extending sanctions this July was a serious reconsideration of their merits this winter, and they may not be renewed again, given the surface-level initial consensus. It is important not to confuse the temporary success of Germany’s leadership and good old-fashioned arm-wringing with a collective European belief in the need to face down Russia.ka0002

European unity and NATO’s renewed sense of purpose are largely semblance masquerading as substance. The European response to Russia, the Greek debt crisis, and more recently the migrant crisis, shows more discord than solidarity behind the scenes. Meanwhile, NATO’s invigorated sense of self seems to consist mostly of exercises and speeches. Even messaging components, like the Baltic Air Policing mission, have been cut in half. The United States is deploying companies on rotation to NATO states on the alliance’s eastern flank, an indicator that it will stick by the commitments in the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act not to station permanent or substantive forces in those countries. Little appears to have changed on the ground. For most NATO members, the funding isn’t there to match this rhetoric. Conventional military capability has been steeply cut, and threat perceptions of Russia vary substantially within NATO.

If there is a visible Russian strategy today, it is to appear aggressive, particularly against the United States, in order to impart the belief that conflict escalation up to and including nuclear exchange is a real possibility. The objective is to deter a forward-leaning Western policy on its periphery, limit the NATO military response to exercises and symbolism, and effectively retain a free hand to shape events on the ground in Ukraine. By all accounts, this approach is working. Moscow still considers conflict with NATO as highly unlikely, thus giving up nothing of its own security, while NATO increasingly sees conflict with Russia as a real contingency solely based on Russia’s change of intent, and must scramble to figure out a way forward.

Russia’s long-term goal is to accelerate the decline of U.S. power in the international system, even if it chiefly transfers to China. On the international stage, Moscow has traded the prestige and trappings of Western integration for being feared. Prestige is great for pursuing opportunities, but fear is much more useful when defending core geopolitical interests. These are not strategies, but maneuvers, that have proven effective in the interim, though they could prove unbearably costly in the long term.

Long-term consequences are the known unknown

Moscow is not isolated as Rovner suggests. This is another slogan in defiance of objective reality. Not only does Russia continue to figure prominently at major international forums, but the overwhelming majority of countries continue to deal with Vladimir Putin — who will be at the UN in September to rub it in America’s face. In reality, Russian “isolation” is equally a strategic problem for the West. Russian integration into a Western-dominated international system was how the United States hoped to keep Moscow’s behavior normative and encourage its adherence to a rules-based order. This policy was implemented in place of including Russia in a European security or economic framework.

For Moscow, this confrontation is probably a more comfortable and normal state than the past two decades of cyclical relations with the United States. Punitive sanctions and containment have replaced integration, but where exactly does that leave the West’s strategy for Russia? The United States is not ready to commit to containment and regime rollback, while Europe is wholly unprepared to return to a Cold War-like adversarial relationship with Russia. Nobody wants Russia’s collapse, either. Blaming Putin’s lack of strategy seems to be a knee-jerk response for the rapid conclusion of two decades of Western policy toward Russia and the absence of any replacement.

There are real costs here for Russia, just not the frivolous ones often described. Vladimir Putin ruined his best and most important Western relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel. Russia was surprised by Germany’s strong reaction to its invasion of Ukraine and the leadership Berlin showed in corralling a diplomatic and economic European response. Putin will likely outlast Merkel in power and seek to make amends with the next leadership, but his dishonesty in recent dealings has permanently damaged Russia’s credibility.

Russia is also in deep economic trouble — the worst it has seen since the 1998 financial crisis — and there is no way of knowing if the Kremlin will be able to navigate through these waters. Moscow seems unprepared for the numerous legal challenges and lawsuits to come as a result of its actions, and in these hard times desperately needs access to the West’s banking system to recapitalize corporate debt. Those sanctions are taking their toll as long as oil prices continue to fall. No surprise that Vladimir Putin, who does not believe in rule of law, has a poor appreciation for the legal consequences of Russia’s actions and the financial costs it could bear later on.

Ultimately, 18 months cannot be considered sufficient time to determine the success or failure of Moscow’s strategy. Analysts and commentators have been calling this game too soon at every turn. Great strategy or not, Russia retains the initiative in Ukraine and in its confrontation with the West. Thus far, reports of Putin’s strategic incompetence, along with his imminent overthrow, appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an analyst at the CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views presented here are his own.



  1. The Westphalian Post said,

    Rift in Obama administration over Putin
    The president’s reluctance to respond assertively is signaling U.S. weakness and indecision, some officials say.
    By MICHAEL CROWLEY 10/13/15

    Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria is creating new rifts inside an exhausted and in some cases demoralized Obama national security team, where officials pushing for bolder action see the president as stubbornly unwilling to assume new risk as he nears his final year in office.
    Current and former Obama officials say the president’s reluctance to respond more assertively against Putin is signaling U.S. weakness and indecision. “We’re just so reactive,” said one senior administration official. “There’s just this tendency to wait” and see what steps other actors take.
    Story Continued Below
    Putin’s direct military intervention — following years of indirect support for Syrian ruler Bashar Assad — has broken any momentum Obama had after sealing his nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry had hoped to follow through on the agreement by working with Iran and Russia to win a political settlement in Syria, a goal that now seems fanciful. Adding to the frustration is the high-profile failure of the Pentagon plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, which is being downsized.
    “They’re on their back feet right now,” said a former senior Obama foreign policy hand.
    Obama has recently approved the supply of ammunition to Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria, and the Pentagon training program is being repurposed to arm trusted rebel commanders in the field. Mid-level officials throughout the administration have also been asked to “dust off old plans,” as one put it, and brainstorm new potential approaches to Syria and Russia.

    But expectations are low that those efforts will lead anywhere. Sources familiar with administration deliberations said that Obama’s West Wing inner circle serves as a brick wall against dissenting views. The president’s most senior advisers — including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough — reflect the president’s wariness of escalated U.S. action related to Syria or Russia and, officials fear, fail to push Obama to question his own deeply rooted assumptions. “Susan and Denis channel him,” says a former administration official who has witnessed the dynamic.
    That dynamic is not new. But Putin’s escalation has combined two of Obama’s biggest foreign policy headaches — a newly aggressive Russia and Syria’s civil war — into one throbbing migraine.
    In senior meetings, some of Obama’s top national security officials have pressed for a bolder response to Putin’s muscle-flexing in Syria. They include Kerry, who has argued for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, an option Obama recently suggested is “half-baked.”
    A former Cold War nuclear deterrence expert, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has fretted that the U.S. isn’t standing up firmly to Putin’s provocations. And CIA Director John Brennan has complained that Putin is bombing Syrian rebel fighters covertly backed by his agency with seeming impunity.
    “The optics are that we’re backing off,” said a former Obama official who handled foreign policy issues. “It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”
    Obama’s refusal to take firmer action against Moscow has increasingly isolated several of his administration’s Russia specialists, who almost uniformly take a harder line toward Putin than does the president himself. They include Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs; Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Eurasia; and Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Farkas’ recent announcement that she will exit the Obama administration this fall raised eyebrows among officials aware of her frustration that Obama hasn’t responded more forcefully to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. (Farkas has told friends that she is not resigning over policy disputes.)

    Obama did face a public challenge in the form of an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, in which the president grew visibly annoyed as interviewer Steve Kroft pressed him on the modest results of his campaign against the Islamic State and on whether Putin was successfully “challenging your leadership.”
    Standing his ground, Obama repeated his argument that it would be a mistake to overreact to Putin, who he says is acting out of weakness, and that the Syria morass defies the kind of “silver bullet” solution sought by his critics.
    The critics increasingly include Democrats. White House officials are said to have reacted with irritation when Hillary Clinton proposed a Syria no-fly zone earlier this month, lending credibility to an idea mainly backed by Republicans. Kerry has also pushed for a no-fly zone in northern Syria along Turkey’s border, which could provide a humanitarian haven for refugees — but would also create a de facto challenge to Russia’s freedom in the skies.
    This is not the first time Obama has dug in against national security officials urging bolder action, both in Syria and against Putin’s Russia.
    In late 2012, Clinton, then secretary of state, joined CIA Director David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in presenting Obama with a plan to arm and train a moderate Syrian rebel force. Obama vetoed the idea. (He did approve a modest covert CIA training program in 2013 after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, and last year he approved the $500 million Pentagon training program that is being downsized after a sputtering start.)
    The pattern repeated earlier this year, when a consensus emerged among Obama’s top national security advisers, including Kerry and then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, that the U.S. should supply lethal military aid to Ukraine, including shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missiles. During his February confirmation hearing, Carter said that he, too, was “very much inclined” to provide heavier weapons to Ukraine. Again, Obama knocked down the idea, worrying that Putin would simply further escalate in response.
    Some officials argued that Obama should keep the possibility of supplying of lethal weapons as a card to play against Putin in the event the Russian took newly provocative steps — which he now has in Syria.
    But there are no signs Obama is seriously reconsidering the idea.

    In a sign of the complexities the Obama team faces, few officials can be easily placed in a neat hawk or dove box. Kerry, for instance, has long favored a no-fly zone in Syria. But he frustrates the administration’s Russia hawks, who prefer to isolate Putin, with his reliable belief in the benefits of continued dialogue with Moscow.
    That reflects a view that pragmatic engagement with Moscow is the best way to accomplish U.S. aims. That theory may have received a little-noticed boost earlier this month. While critics point out that Putin began airstrikes two days after his sit-down with Obama at the United Nations, there was unexpected good news from Ukraine soon after, when Russian-backed rebels agreed to postpone disputed elections that threatened a fragile truce. The elections had been a key discussion point between Obama and Putin in New York. Even so, the Russia hawks believe that Putin and Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, generally string along and mislead the U.S.
    On the flip side, many Pentagon officials want the U.S. to more actively counter Russian ambitions in Europe — while doubting the efficacy of proposals to take more action in Syria. Martin Dempsey, the recently retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, argued that the U.S. should consider sending lethal aid to Kiev. But Dempsey was a vociferous opponent of a Syria no-fly zone, which he called risky and said could cost $1 billion per month at a time of Pentagon budget cuts.
    A new paper published by the Army War College concludes that the Russian intervention in Syria “is not necessarily a major setback for U.S. policy.”
    “I feel that we have a much more deeply held concern about what is going on in Ukraine than we do about pulling a rabbit out of a hat in Syria,” said the paper’s author, W. Andrew Terrill, a professor at the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “The Lebanese civil war lasted 14 years and was very difficult to stop.”
    Other military officials believe the U.S. can stand up to Putin without getting entangled in Syria by contesting Russian aggression in other theaters, from the Arctic to Eastern Europe and the Baltics, where Russia has stepped up provocative overflights challenging foreign airspace. In a speech last week at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, NATO’s top naval commander proposed a stronger U.S. response to the recent deployment of six Russian Kilo-class attack submarines to the Black Sea.
    The commander, U.S. Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, called for a more active allied response, including identifying new bases where the U.S. Navy’s P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft could operate, saying that “you do not get better sitting in port doing synthetic exercises.”
    It’s unclear whether Obama is entertaining that idea. But even officials who grumble that Rice and McDonough discourage dissenting views — sometimes by invoking exaggerated, straw-man versions of recommendations — concede that there is plenty of discussion in national security meetings at the White House. Just little action.
    As one of the former officials put it: “This is driven by one man, and one man only, and it is Barack Obama.”

  2. The Westphalian Post said,


    Facts on the ground change so quickly in Syria that one could be forgiven for suffering whiplash. Still in December of last year we were reading headlines that depicted a lackluster Russian military campaign, unable to change much on the ground for the fledgling Syrian Arab Army. Not long after the winter holidays, the opposite appears to be true. Moscow seems to be making strategic gains and has seized the momentum on the ground. Just a few months ago, in early October 2015, President Obama stated, “An attempt by Russia to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” As Syrian forces surround Aleppo, backed by the Russian military on the ground and in the air, it is hard to square the situation in Syria with those predictions. Thus far, the Russian quagmire in Syria has not materialized.

    In a fantastic piece for Foreign Affairs, titled “Assad Has It His Way,” experts Joshua Landis and Steven Simon have sounded the alarm that Assad is winning in Syria. Is he? And if so, what explains this reversal in fortune? At first glance, it could be that the press is suffering a typical case of sharply changing the narrative on Russia from one incorrect assessment to another. Where Russia was achieving nothing in Syria only two months ago, today it is winning handily. Now the recently suspended negotiations in Geneva are cast as a Russian-crafted ruse, designed to busy the United States with dreams of a peaceful settlement. For Moscow, one is not a substitute for the other. Both the military and the political track are part of an evolving strategy to end the war on Russian terms. The United States should put this quagmire narrative to bed and get a bit more serious about dealing with Russia in Syria. Below is my take on how we got here and where this conflict is going.

    Russia’s changing approach to the battlefield

    Today Syria is essentially divided into two wars: one fight led by the United States to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a separate battle led by Russia to stabilize the Syrian regime. Albeit uncoordinated, over the past several months both Russia and the United States have been steadily winning their respective military campaigns. While U.S. forces look set to sever the linkages between the ISIL capital of Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq, the Russian-led coalition is making advances both north and south in Syria, clearing the way to regain Aleppo. Having taken Rabia in Latakia province, Syrian forces may have a clear path to the Turkish border by the coast, while elsewhere to the south they have been consolidating regime territory and clearing pockets of rebels behind lines.

    After a stymied offensive south of Aleppo in mid-October 2015, Western observers quickly judged the Syrian army to be incapable, and the Russian air campaign as insufficient to change the balance of forces. While Russia put on a show with cruise missiles strikes of various kinds in an effort to demonstrate a parity of capability with the United States, it was also adding aircraft, helicopters, and ground equipment. Thousands of sorties with locally based aircraft and a mix of bombers from bases at home have chipped away at the forces opposing Assad. Meanwhile Russia provided Syrian forces with modern equipment, some undoubtedly operated by the Russian army. The Russian contingent is relatively small, perhaps numbering 4,000 to 5,000, with 70 aircraft based in Syria, but it is having an outsized impact.

    Unable to deal a decisive blow to the amalgamation of Syrian groups fighting Assad in October, Russia had settled in for a lengthier campaign, designed to pick apart pockets of rebel resistance, destroying them one at a time. Instead of major offensives, the ground effort shifted to relieving besieged Syrian bases and freeing access to roads between major cities. Perhaps drawing on its experience in the second Chechen War, Russia is signing ceasefires with some groups of fighters and assassinating the leaders of others. Steadily, Moscow is killing off and diminishing the existing prospects for any moderate alternative to the Syrian regime, radicalizing some groups and crushing the rest.

    Far from perceiving themselves in a quagmire, some in the Russian leadership may even see the war in Syria as an opportunity. From a training and weapons-testing perspective, it is better than any of the large-scale exercises Russia throws annually. The mix of ship-based, submarine-based, and bomber-based missiles being used is part political theater and parts arms expo, outclassing anything you could see at MAKS (Russia’s annual air show). Algeria, a regular Russian customer, has already announced that it will be the first foreign buyer of the Su-34s. So far the war has cost Russia one plane and one helicopter, while potentially landing it several lucrative arms deals, some already in the works

    Why were U.S. predictions wrong?

    At the outset of the Russian air campaign, U.S. officials called it a predetermined failure. Here their foresight proved as faulty as many other a time when predicting the course of events in the Middle East. This incorrect reading stems from an inherent bias among the ruling policy establishment. Since Washington had judged that force could not be used to achieve political ends in Syria, it assumed the same would be true for Russia. Indeed, why would a great power or a major power be successful where a super power had decided to stay out after a careful analysis of the facts. The Middle East absorbs military power like a sponge, giving little back in terms of desired political end states. Surely only a fool would seek gains here. Hence the early narrative on Russia’s intervention seemed an accurate reflection of American experiences, and in some respects an alibi for U.S. recusal from the war surrounding Assad.

    When Moscow approached Washington with a serious plan for peace talks in Vienna on October 30, 2015, it was viewed in light of that attractive analytical lens. Russia was seen as looking for a political way out, having failed to make major gains in October, and disappointed with the Syrian army’s performance. The unexpected progress on talks in Vienna was viewed in stark contrast to supposed Russian military failures on the ground. Far from seeking an off-ramp out of the conflict, Moscow instead was looking to shift the U.S. position on Assad’s fate closer that of its own, postponing the decision on his future.

    Instead of the United States seizing on Russia’s desire to get out, it was Moscow that took advantage of the American wish to see an end to the humanitarian catastrophe without having to intervene. Washington is not gullible — any ceasefire was worth the political effort. The Russian plan for this war was better anyway, since the United States had no plan. Suddenly Washington gained a policy on Syria, a negotiations scheme, and a political way forward with prospects. Russia, entering this vacuum, would produce a win-win scenario for itself and the West. If that sounds too good to be true — it is. Everything has a price.

    The political track

    The Geneva talks reflected battlefield realities. The demands of the opposition groups, coming together into the High Negotiations Committee, are for lifting of the sieges, suspension of the Russian air campaign, and release of captured prisoners of war. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that these are the demands of the losing side in a war. Russia agreed to a format of negotiations whereby the two sides talk while they fight so that it could shape the Syrian opposition on the ground, by eliminating those parts of it that it finds disagreeable at the negotiating table. This is why Moscow agreed to Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham being present, even though it considers them to be terrorists. Both the military and the political effort are meant to divide the rebel groups, pitting them against each other. If Landis and Simon are right in their analysis, that plan is working.

    The recently negotiated “cessation of hostilities” in Munich will not hold. It is, at best, a diplomatic offering by Russia for the West to save face, and engage in a humanitarian mission, while the Syrian opposition stands on the precipice of defeat in Aleppo. If Russia and its allies are intent on making such strategic gains, and have the means to do so, why would they stop? Even if a ceasefire is declared, Moscow will conclude hostilities only after it has achieved military objectives. This is exactly what we saw in Ukraine in early 2015. The tentative deal in Munich has far less firm footing. It will fail predictably with recriminations from both sides of the conflict. As long as the Russian-led coalition has the momentum on the ground, there is no logical basis for a ceasefire.

    In a recent War on the Rocks article, Sen. John McCain lamented:

    Russia presses its advantage militarily, creates new facts on the ground, uses the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war, and then chooses when to resume fighting. This is diplomacy in the service of military aggression. And it is working because we are letting it.

    This is the swan song of the era when the United States had little need to worry about other powers intervening. The United States fired much of its economic and political ammunition already in response to the invasion of Ukraine, with debatable results. Outside of scornful op-ed pieces in the Western press, what is there left to fire over Syria, besides actual weapons?

    Yet those who dream of seeing Assad out should not despair. Assad is not necessarily winning in Syria. The Russian-led coalition, together with Iran, Hezbollah, and what’s left of the Syrian army, is winning. That is a distinction with an important political difference for Assad to play out at the end of this conflict. While Saudi Arabia and Iran have intractable positions on Assad’s fate, Russia seems much more open-minded on alternative futures, though it will not condone regime change by discussing his removal publicly. It is difficult to see how Russian leaders could count on Syria being stable in the long term under his leadership. They’ve made a much larger political and military stake in the country, and Assad does not look like the man to keep it secure in the long term. Some are certain that Russia will never give up Assad, but who has a good track record in predicting events in the Middle East?

    The Geneva negotiations are not just a ploy; Russia needs that settlement eventually in any scenario. It is simple battlefield reality. The more territory the Russian-led coalition regains, the more a political settlement is a necessity. If Assad’s forces could not hold the rapidly dwindling piece of Syria they had left in 2015 how can they defend much larger real estate, together with major cities? The answer is they can’t. We can see how the Assad regime might retake Aleppo, but what’s the plan for holding it along with other cities for the next decade or so? Gaining terrain is one thing, keeping it is another. Assad said he plans to retake the whole country — a dictator can dream. Russia started the negotiations precisely to avoid retracing America’s steps in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military victory is day one of the quagmire to come. Certainly Russian leaders remember the Soviet Union’s own fruitless struggle in Afghanistan. Political settlement is the only way for Russia to lock in any gains in Syria.

    If this is so, then why have the Geneva talks been suspended through February, while Russia keeps bombing? The short answer is that the Russian-led coalition is not done capturing the territory they feel must be regained, especially the city of Aleppo, and as a result have no intention of giving rebel groups a respite. Russia’s intervention forced them to the table, but they are not weak enough and some of them Moscow does not want to see in Geneva at all. Aleppo is a hulking ruin, but its fall would be a colossal symbolic defeat. It could split the rebel groups Saudi Arabia worked hard to unite in Riyadh. Russia is pressing its advantage, hoping to secure the major cities for the Syria regime, while leaving the ISIL-held eastern part of the country as an “American problem.”

    We should not expect anything otherwise from Moscow. The cost of getting a deal in Syria while staying out is that it will be on Russian timetables, and in many ways, Russian terms. Munich is a good example. Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal was a “nationwide” cessation of hostilities, which is “ambitious.” It’s not ambitious, but impossible, by Russian design. The larger the scope of the agreement, the more obvious its lack of feasibility. Nobody controls, or speaks for, the myriad of groups fighting across Syria. Of course hostilities will not cease, and Russia will blame them and continue bombing (assuming it will even take a break). This agreement is a consolation to ameliorate Western humanitarian urges, and give the United States something to do.

    A valuable lesson for future dealings with Russia

    The Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 in November certainly made this military adventure a more serious undertaking for Moscow. Yet for all the technical inadequacies and deficiencies in its operations, the question we should ask is whether or not Russian use of force in Syria is achieving their desired political ends. The answer is yes. The United States made a mistake by waving off this intervention as a doomed adventure. Failing to take it seriously has ramifications for the region beyond the Syrian war.

    If Moscow shows that it can get the job done in Syria, and secure Assad’s fortune from what appeared to be certain defeat, then other dictators may see Russia as a potential alternative guarantor of their rule. Few in the region were happy with the U.S. policy during the Arab Spring. If there was another power capable of providing security and acting independently, but one that prized stability over democracy (the way the United States used to), it would be welcome in the Middle East. This is why U.S. success against ISIL is even more paramount from a geopolitical perspective. America no longer has a monopoly on being the only viable actor in the Middle East.

    Syria reveals an unhelpful pattern of U.S.–Russian interaction, visible in other exchanges over Ukraine: The United States spends its time explaining to Russia what will be, while Moscow works to change what is. That could be evidence of a chasm within the U.S. policy establishment between the desire to do something about Russia and the knowledge of what to do. Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of DIA, testified earlier this month that “the Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely.” If we go back through official statements last fall on the Russian intervention, will we find a calculus at work?

    Occasional suggestions from interventionist circles to unilaterally declare a no-fly zone over Syria are not only unhelpful, but demonstrate a base lack of understanding for how to deal with another major power. This is the “do something” school of international affairs, and more evidence that the debate on how to respond to Russia’s intervention in Syria is largely between no ideas and bad ideas. Of course, years from now the U.S. read on Syria could prove prescient, but right now the quagmire is less visible in Russia’s military operations, and more in U.S. thinking on how to deal with Moscow’s intervention.

    Michael Kofman is an analyst at the CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

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