He wasn’t standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” behind him, but Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was a lot more credible than former US president George W. Bush when he declared his country’s military intervention in the Middle East a success. And most of the Russian forces in Syria are going home after only five months, not the eight years that American troops stayed in Iraq.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” said Putin on 14 March. And it has indeed been a remarkably intelligent and successful intervention.
The Russians said right from the start that it would be a limited operation both in scope and in time, and that their goal was not to help the Assad regime reconquer Syria but to restore the military stalemate in the civil war as the necessary preliminary to a ceasefire and peace talks. And that is exactly what they did.
Western media were surprised by Putin’s announcement on Monday, but only because they had come to believe their own governments’ propaganda. If you have convinced yourself that the evil Russians are backing the evil Syrian regime in order to extend its evil rule, and that the preferred Russian tactic is the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, then you are bound to be bewildered when reality intrudes.
The real reason for the Russian air campaign in Syria was not to “reestablish Russia as a major player” in the great power game, or to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new-generation weapons to potential buyers overseas, or to maintain their access to a small naval base on the Syrian coast. All these petty explanations were offered by Western politicians and journalists who diligently ignored the obvious reason for the intervention.
Last summer, the Syrian army was at the breaking point. If it cracked then the whole Assad regime would go under, and all of Syria would fall under the control of the Islamist extremists of the loathsome “Islamic State” and of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. (By 2015 the “good” rebels fighting Assad were only a small fraction of the opposition forces.)
A triumphant and vastly expanded “Islamic State” was definitely not in the national interest of Russia, which has an 8 percent Muslim minority and is not that far away from Syria. So the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad from defeat – but not to win him a decisive victory.
Even with Russian air support, the Syrian army was too weak to destroy all the rebel forces and retake the whole country. Moscow just wanted to make sure that the Islamists didn’t win, and to push the other rebels back far enough to make them understand that they couldn’t win either. Then it would call for a ceasefire and a peace conference that specifically excluded the Islamists.
Russian aircraft carried out more than 9,000 combat sorties in five months, according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and helped the Syrian army to regain control over 10,000 sq. km. of lost territory. That done, Moscow started pushing hard for ceasefire talks between the Assad regime and the non-Islamist rebels.
Both sides needed to be pushed, so Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov enlisted the aid of US Foreign Secretary John Kerry to put pressure on the rebels. Meanwhile he started twisting the arm of Bashar al-Assad, who sometimes fantasised aloud that with enough Russian help he might one day reunite Syria by force – and Lavrov’s main tool of persuasion was the prospective withdrawal of the Russian air force.
Each great power delivered its Syrian partners to the ceasefire talks, and the ceasefire was agreed two weeks ago. Both great powers agreed that the two parts of Syria controlled by the Islamists (al-Nusra in northwest Syria, “Islamic State” in the east) would be excluded from the talks, and would remain legitimate targets for attack.
And both parties also agree that Assad will not be allowed to stonewall and simply refuse to discuss the question of his own departure from power as part of a compromise peace settlement. That is why Moscow has made an early announcement of Russia’s troop withdrawal (without any published timetable): to make Assad understand Moscow’s real position.
Russia doesn’t care whether Assad stays in power personally in Syria, although they would clearly like to see a friendly government in Damascus that continues the long-standing alliance with Moscow. In fact, they see Assad as a brutal and inflexible man who should be replaced by a more acceptable figure when it is safe to do so.
But it will probably not be safe to do that until the Islamist-controlled territories are isolated, blockaded and besieged, so Assad will remain in power for a while yet.
It has been an elegant diplomatic operation backed by a very precise and effective military strategy. There is still a chance that it could all go wrong, but the Russians may have actually given Syria a chance for a decent future.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Western…intervention”)
“Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” said Dr Strangelove to the Soviet ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. Fifty years later, it would appear that the Russians have finally watched the movie.
In Kubrick’s film, a rogue American air force commander orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union – but he doesn’t know that the Russians have built a Doomsday Machine that will automatically explode and spread lethal radioactive contamination all over the world if American nuclear weapons land on the USSR. So everybody dies.
Moscow doesn’t want the United States to make the same mistake in real life, so it has just let us know that it is building a mini-doomsday machine. It wouldn’t destroy the whole world, just a half a continent or thereabouts – like, say, all of the United States east of the Mississippi River, or all of China within 1,500 km of the coast.
It is awkward to say this sort of thing through diplomic channels – “I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that we can now destroy half of your country with only one explosion” – so the preferred method is to get the word out by an accidental “leak”. In this case, the leak occurred on 10 November in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin was meeting with his senior military officers.
A cameraman for state-owned Channel One television “accidentally” filmed a general studying a poster of a new weapon called “Status-6”, a giant torpedo (a “robotic mini-submarine”, the poster called it) that can travel up to 10,000 km at high speed carrying a huge payload – like, for example, a truly gigantic thermonuclear weapon. And the film clip was broadcast all over Russia before the “mistake” was discovered.
The text on the poster was clearly legible. The “oceanic multi-purpose Status-6 system,” it said, is designed to “destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time.”
“It’s true some secret data got into the shot. Therefore it was subsequently deleted,” said President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. But the complete text and a cutaway diagram of the Status-6 are now available on a hundred websites, and the Kremlin doesn’t seem particularly upset.
Indeed, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta later reported details of the weapon, without showing the diagram, and speculated that it would carry a gigantic cobalt bomb – just like the Doomsday Machine in “Dr Strangelove”, although a little smaller.
The explosive core of the warhead would be a massive thermonuclear bomb – perhaps as big as 100 megatonnes, almost twice as big as any bomb ever tested. Around this core would be wrapped a thick layer of cobalt-59, which on detonation would be transmuted into highly radioactive cobalt-60 with a half-life longer than five years.
“Everything living will be killed,” the paper said. Konstantin Sivkov of the Russian Geopolitical Academy helpfully explained to the BBC Russian Service that a warhead of up to 100 megatons would produce a tsunami up to 500 metres high, which together with the intense radiation would wipe out all living things up to 1,500 km deep inside US territory.
This is crazy talk, but the Russians have always lived in fear that the United States might somehow develop the ability to destroy Russia without suffering serious retaliation. And the truth is that the American military have never stopped looking for some way to do exactly that.
Back in the 1950s, when US Strategic Air Command really could have destroyed the Soviet Union with impunity, physicist Andrei Sakharov (later the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) actually proposed a weapon rather like System-6 so that Russia could take revenge from the grave.
The latest US gambit is anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences to be based in Eastern Europe, allegedly to defend against nuclear missiles coming from Iran.
But Iran doesn’t have any nuclear weapons, and it may never get them. Yet the American ABM system is going to be deployed in Poland and Romania in the near future. Moscow is therefore convinced that the whole project is really intended to shoot down its own missiles shortly after launch.
There is no realistic possibility that the American ABM defences could really destroy all or even most of Russia’s missiles, but that is exactly what Putin is saying to his generals on the sound-track just before the TV clip focusses on System-6.
System-6 is not scheduled to be operational until 2019-20, and it may never be built at all. But the old game of nuclear one-upmanship goes on even though the two countries are no longer really enemies. It is pointless and potentially very dangerous, and President Obama might usefully spend the last of his political capital putting an end to it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The text…time”; and “Back…grave”)
The current ceasefire in the war in eastern Ukraine, the so-called Minsk-2 agreement, was signed last February, but they never actually ceased firing. At least a thousand more people have been killed in the fighting since then, and on one night last month (14 August) the monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded 175 separate ceasefire violations.
On a visit to Kiev that week, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the conflict was “still red-hot” and that he could not see an end to the fighting “any time soon.” As late as 11 September Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was condemning Russia’s “neo-imperial aggression” in eastern Ukraine, where an estimated 9,000 Russian soldiers are on the ground in support of the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
But then the music changed. When the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum opened in Kiev on 12 September, Poroshenko announced that the previous night had been the first in the whole conflict with no shelling. “This is not the end of the war,” he said, “but instead a change in tactics.”
Maybe that’s all it is, but if it stops the shooting, that would certainly be a step in the right direction. And by and large the shooting really has stopped in the past two weeks, although there is no sign yet that Russian troops are leaving Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Poroshenko claims that the shift in Russian tactics is merely a switch from military offensives in the east to political attacks intended to destabilise Ukraine “from the inside.” He was presumably referring to a grenade attack outside the parliament building in Kiev on 31 August that killed three soldiers and wounded more than one hundred people. But it’s very unlikely that Russia was behind it, and Poroshenko should know that.
The demonstrators outside the parliament were from various extremist right-wing nationalist parties. Moreover, the proposed law they were protesting against was one that would change the constitution and give greater autonomy to the regions now held by the separatists. It’s clear why Ukraininan ultra-nationalists would want to stop that, but why would Russia want to stop it?
It was really Russian President Vladimir Putin who took the initiative to stop the fighting, although it was his local allies declared that they would observe a complete ceasefire from 1 September. Since the better-armed rebels, with Russian support when necessary, have consistently outfought Ukraine’s ill-trained forces – all the changes in the front line since the ceasefire have been rebel gains from Ukraine – it was the rebels who had to move first.
They moved because Moscow has decided to freeze the conflict, which has now served its main purpose of saving Putin’s face. He was deeply embarrassed when the Ukrainians overthrew the pro-Russian president in Kiev eighteen months ago. His illegal annexation of Crimea, like his encouragement and military support for the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, was partly motivated by his need to restore his political position in Russia.
Having “lost” Ukraine, Putin also needed to ensure that it didn’t become a base for Western influence, and maybe even NATO troops, on Russia’s southern border. The best way of doing that was to ensnare the new government in Kiev in a chronic low-level conflict with Russia that would cripple Ukraine’s economy and make Western governments very nervous about getting too close to it.
Those goals are now accomplished. Ukraine has effectively lost three provinces (all with Russian-speaking majorities), and a permanent military stalemate between Kiev and its rebel-held provinces means that the likelihood of its ever joining the European Union or NATO is approximately zero. There is no need for further shooting, and Russia does have other fish to fry.
Right through the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow has avoided doing other things that would alienate the West. It went on providing essential transit facilities for the American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. It cooperated with the West in the negotiations that led to the agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It continues to transport Western astronauts to the International Space Station, since they have no transport of their own.
Putin never wanted a “new Cold War” that Russia would surely lose. The cost of the old Cold War broke the Soviet Union, and Putin’s Russia is much weaker. He just wanted to limit the options of a hostile Ukraine. Now that he has succeeded it’s time to freeze the situation – and both Poroshenko and his Western supporters have tacitly accepted that this is the least bad outcome.
They took a poll of the assembled experts at the end of the YES conference earlier this month, asking what they thought Ukraine would look like three years from now. 53 percent of the Ukrainian participants, and 58 percent of the international guests, believed that it would see economic growth and stabilisation despite a contained, “frozen” conflict in the east.
Only 3 percent of each group believed that it would see “economic decline, destabilization, and a further loss of territory.” So move along, please, sir. There’s nothing more to see here.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Poroshenko…it”)
US Secretary of State John Kerry has just phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning him not to “escalate the conflict” by increasing Moscow’s military support for the beleaguered Syrian regime. He stamped his foot quite hard, telling Lavrov that his government’s actions could “lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-Isil coalition operating in Syria.”
What the Russians have actually done, so far, is to send an advance military team to Damascus of the sort that is normally deployed to prepare for the arrival of a much larger military force. They have also sent an air traffic control centre and housing units for its personnel to a Syrian airbase.
It suggests that Moscow is getting ready to go in to save President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has given Assad diplomatic support, financial aid and some weapons over the course of the four-year-old Syrian civil war, but it will take more than that to save him now. That would include at least an airlift of heavy weapons, but maybe also direct Russian air support for Assad’s exhausted troops.
They need it. Since the fanatical fighters of “Islamic State” (or Isil, as the US State Department calls it) captured Palmyra in central Syria in May, they have advanced steadily westward from their new base.
One month ago they captured the mostly Christian town of al-Qaratayn, north-east of Damascus. (The inhabitants fled, of course). And now IS forces are within 30 km. of the M5, the key highway that links Damascus with the other parts of Syria that remain under government control.
The jihadis captured Palmyra, by the way, because the “anti-Isil coalition” – the US Air Force, in practice – did not drop a single bomb in its defence. It made at least a thousand air strikes to save Kobani, the Kurdish city on the border with Turkey that was besieged by IS fighters, because the Kurds were US allies. Whereas Palmyra was defended by Assad’s soldiers, so the US let Islamic State have it.
One can imagine Kerry’s (and Obama’s) horror at the idea that by defending Palmyra they would be seen as protecting Assad’s brutal regime, but if Islamic State troops manage to cut the M5 it will be seen as a sign of the regime’s impending defeat. At that point, up to half the people who still live in government-controlled areas – around 17 million – may panic and start trying to get out of Syria.
They would obviously include the religious minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze), some 5 million people who have good reason to fear slavery, rape and murder at the hands of Islamic State. The millions of Sunni Muslims who have served the Syrian government and its army would also be at risk. So let’s say 4 or 5 million more refugees pouring out across Syria’s borders, to join the 4 million who have already fled.
What they left behind would be a Syria entirely controlled by the extremists. The only remaining question would be whether the jihadis roll on through behind the refugees, overrunning Lebanon and Jordan as well, or whether they fall to fighting among themselves.
All three major Islamist groups – Islamic State (which Turkey and Saudi Arabia no longer support), and the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (which they still do) – are virtually identical in their ideology and their ultimate goals. However, they have some tactical differences, and Islamic State and al-Nusra fought a quite serious turf war last year, so maybe they will get distracted again. But even if they do, Syria will be gone.
This is what the Russians see coming, and they may be willing to try to stop it. When asked on Friday if Moscow intended to get involved directly in the Syrian fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin would only say that the question was “premature”. Nobody, including the Russians, likes Assad’s regime, but it is the least bad remaining option.
Indeed, it is the only alternative left to a jihadi victory. Most of the “moderate” anti-regime rebels went home or fled abroad years ago, unable to match the jihadis in firepower, in money or in frightfulness. The notion that the US can now create a moderate “third force” able to defeat both the jihadis and the Assad regime is a shameful face-saving fantasy
Moscow used diplomacy to save the Obama administration from itself two years ago, when Washington was getting ready to bomb Assad’s forces in response to a (possibly spurious) allegation that they had used poison gas on civilians. The only way Russia can avert disaster this time, however, is to put its own air force into the fight – and maybe its own ground troops too.
If it does, the key question will then be whether the United States lets Russia do the job that it is too fastidious to do itself, or whether it gives in to the clamour of its Turkish and Saudi allies – and they would be clamouring – to “stand up” to the Russian intervention.
Since the United States doesn’t actually have a coherent strategy of its own, it’s impossible to predict how it will respond. For all Kerry’s bluster, they don’t know yet in Washington either.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10 . (“The jihadis…it”; and “All…gone”)