October 10, 2015 | In The News | USA Today
Russia Transfers Ukraine War Doctrine to Syria
If its role in fomenting conflict in eastern Ukraine is a guide, Russia has some new tricks in store for Syrian rebels and their allies.
Russia’s recent involvement in Syria’s civil war is similar in some ways to its intervention in eastern Ukraine, where it exploited ethnic conflict, provided weapons, employed volunteers and irregular forces and tried to deceive the West about its intentions.
That approach is what Russia’s chief of the general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, calls “new generation warfare.”
The Russian military doctrine “combines low-end, hidden state involvement with high-end, direct, even braggadocio, superpower involvement,” said Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation military consultancy. Karber has briefed U.S. military leaders on Russia’s military behavior in the Ukraine conflict, based on observations during more than a dozen field visits.
Despite evidence of direct Russian participation in the revolt by separatists in eastern Ukraine provided by NATO, the U.S. military, international observers and many news outlets, Russia continues to deny it. “The number of times this question is asked will not affect the answer that (the) Kremlin has,” Ilya Timokhov, a Ukraine analyst at the Russian Embassy in Washington, said in an interview.
The role of deceit and subterfuge in the new Russian way of war means opponents don’t always know when Russia has entered a conflict, how many resources are involved or what its goal is, Karber said.
Russia’s military buildup in Syria and its first airstrikes last week were met with confusion in the USA. Secretary of State John Kerry called Russia’s foreign minister several times to seek clarity on Russia’s plans and goals, which became clear only as Russian strikes began hitting U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a close Russian ally.
In February 2014, Russian soldiers appeared on the streets of Ukraine’s Crimea province without insignia on their uniforms, while volunteer fighters claiming to seek independence seized Ukrainian government buildings and held elections that the West called illegitimate.
At first, Russia denied its forces had seized the province, but Russian President Vladimir Putin, who presided over the annexation of Crimea, acknowledged later that Russian troops were involved. He also made nuclear threats. “It’s best not to mess with us,” he told military cadets in August 2014. “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
Russia’s air force put on aggressive displays along the edges of NATO airspace during this time. It conducted long-range patrols with its strategic bombers for the first time in decades, buzzed U.S. warships and sent its fighter jets to confront NATO aircraft in the Baltics and near the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.
Propaganda and deception are as important as ground fighting, according to Gerasimov, who wrote, “Information war is now the main type of war, preparing the way for military action.” The goal: reducing “the fighting potential of the enemy” and “deluding the opposite side’s military and political leaders,” Gerasimov wrote.
During its Ukraine campaign, Russia launched an organized effort to spread lies through traditional and social media and diplomatic channels. These often equated the Ukrainian government in Kiev with a small minority of right-wing extremists.
Russia is pursuing a similar approach in Syria, where its diplomats say 90% of anti-Assad forces are terrorists. Russian diplomat Aydar Aganin told USA TODAY all Russian strikes in Syria targeted terrorists.
Russia’s efforts to keep opponents off balance extends to the manipulation of diplomacy and cease-fires to gain military advantage on the ground, Karber said. On more than one occasion, Russia agreed to truces and cease-fires with Ukraine while Russian-backed separatist forces continued to press their offensive.
Among tactical methods used in eastern Ukraine that Russia would have at its disposal in Syria:
• Extensive use of drones. Russian and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine used multiple drones at different altitudes over the same area to search for Ukrainian government troops, then target them with artillery and rocket launchers. The approach delivers rapid large fire strikes “with an intensity and speed of target location heretofore not seen on any battlefield,” said Karber, who was slightly injured in such an attack last summer near the eastern city of Shyrokine near Mariupol. Russian drones have already appeared on the battlefield in Syria.
• Artillery and rocket-fired sub-munitions. Russian-supplied artillery shells and rockets were used to devastating effect against Ukraine’s personnel and armor units. They used scatterable land mine munitions that hit tanks at their most vulnerable points and thermobaric warheads, which ignite and kill everything within several acres. One three-minute combined rocket and thermobaric attack wiped out two Ukrainian mechanized battalions in Zelenopillya, Karber said.
• New tanks with active defenses. Russia’s T-90 tank, which it has sent to Syria, is impervious to most shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles and can fire a spray of pellets at incoming warheads to disable their guidance systems and send them flying out of control into the sky or the ground.