2016-01-02 By Richard Weitz
Recent weeks have offered several opportunities to better understand the Kremlin’s worldview.
On December 3, President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly at the Kremlin’s St George Hall before an audience of more than 1,000 people.
Putin again called for a World War II-grand coalition against international terrorism under Russian leadership.
Appealing to the West to set aside differences with Moscow over Ukraine and other issues, Putin warned that:
“The international community should have learned from the past lessons,” especially how the “unwillingness to join forces against Nazism in the 20th century cost us millions of lives in the bloodiest world war in human history.”
Putin rightly noted that international terrorism could not be defeated by just one country given its transnational nature, “especially in a situation when the borders are practically open, and the world is going through another resettlement of peoples, while terrorists are getting regular financial support.”
More controversially, Putin claimed that, “Russia has demonstrated immense responsibility and leadership in the fight against terrorism” through its Syrian campaign.
Putin claimed that Russia was killing terrorists in Syria who would otherwise return to their home countries, including in Russia and the other former Soviet republics, “to sow fear and hatred, to blow up, kill and torture people. We must fight and eliminate them there, away from home.”
He therefore cited self-defense as well as “an official request from the legitimate Syrian authorities” to justify Russian military operations in Syria.
Through miscalculation and malign intent, Putin accused U.S. policy of contributing to the rise of global terrorism and other disorders. He claimed that by undermining the stable and prosperous Kremlin-friendly regimes in Iraq, Libya and Syria, U.S. policy makers had “plunged them into chaos and anarchy” and created a global threat:
“They stirred up trouble, destroyed the countries’ statehood, set people against each other, and then ‘washed their hands,’ as we say in Russia, thus opening the way to radical activists, extremists and terrorists.”
Following Turkey’s downing of the Russian warplane, a new thrust in the Kremlin’s line has been accusing Ankara of colluding with terrorists.
“We know who are stuffing pockets in Turkey and letting terrorists prosper from the sale of oil they stole in Syria. The terrorists are using these receipts to recruit mercenaries, buy weapons and plan inhuman terrorist attacks against Russian citizens and against people in France, Lebanon, Mali and other states.”
Putin alleged that the “current ruling establishment” in Ankara was “directly responsible for the deaths of our servicemen in Syria” and shooting “our pilots in the back.”
Instead of treating the incident as an act of self-defense in response to the Russian military’s numerous violations of Russian air space or attacks on ethnic Turks in Syria, Putin accused the Turkish government of treachery and collusion with anti-Russian terrorism: “We have always deemed betrayal the worst and most shameful thing to do.”
In his December 17 annual news conference, Putin made clear why he was so angry at the Turkish government — it turned to NATO to cover its aggressive policies towards Russia. Instead of calling Moscow to “straighten things out…they immediately ran to Brussels…[and] started covering themselves with NATO.”
Moscow may have hoped that a combination of military threats and economic inducements could detach Turkey from NATO, and now Putin was vetting his anger that the strategy had failed.
Putin claimed that the Turkish leaders were irrational in rejecting Russian offers of partnership, claiming that Moscow was “ready to cooperate with Turkey on all the most sensitive issues it had; we were willing to go further, where its allies refused to go.”
Instead, they irrationally chose to work with NATO to confront Russia.
Putin concluded that, “probably, Allah has decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by taking their mind and reason.” Although Turkey’s nationalist government might not have seen value in becoming Russia’s proxy in the Middle East and Southeast Europe.
Now Moscow would punish Ankara: “if someone thinks they can commit a heinous war crime, kill our people and get away with it, suffering nothing but a ban on tomato imports, or a few restrictions in construction or other industries, they’re delusional. We’ll remind them of what they did, more than once. They’ll regret it.”
Although Putin’s harangue against the Turks and Americans distracts from economic problems at home, he is risking tactical gains for strategic losses, such as an end to the mutually profitable energy partnership between Russia and Turkey.
Whereas in the past the two countries were able to compartmentalize their differences to cooperate on energy, we could now see a lengthy energy standoff since both countries think they have more leverage.
Turkey can get Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar and more gas from Iran while Russia no longer considers is southern European energy projects as viable given low world energy prices and may hope that by cooperating with Iran in Syria they can dissuade Tehran from steeling Russian energy customers in Europe.
Furthermore, Putin implied U.S.-Turkish collusion in the downing of the plane, saying “I can imagine that certain agreements were reached at some level that they would down a Russian plane, while the U.S. closes its eyes to Turkish troops entering Iraq, and occupying it.”
He went even further and suggested that the Turks and Americans had created ISIS to protect the illegal truck conveys delivering Iraqi oil: “Of course, they needed a military force to protect smuggling operations and illegal exports….. That’s how I think, ISIS came about.”
In any case, Putin has confirmed that Russia has responded by increasing its military presence in Syria by raising the number of its warplanes, strengthening the Syrian government’s air defenses, and deploying Russia’s most advanced air defense system to the country, the S-400.
The intent is clearly to present Turkey and its allies with a robust ground-based air defense systems which they hope will be viewed as and capable of providing an Anti Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capability that excludes their establishing a no-fly zone or freely operating in Syrian air space: “Turkish planes used to fly there all the time, violating Syrian air space. Let them try it now.”
In his news conference, Putin said that the Russian contingency would leave Syria only when that country’s government desired such a withdrawal.
“When we see that the process of rapprochement has begun and the Syrian army and Syrian authorities believe that the time has come to stop shooting and to start talking, this is when we will stop being more Syrian than Syrians themselves. “
But while Putin said he agreed with the Western call for a political solution, he rejected the Western demand that Syrian President Bashir Assad had to leave the political scene as part of that process.
Putin expounded in his October 22 speech at Sochi that the ultimate solution to the Syrian War would require “a political process with participation by all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society,” Putin insisted that this must occur “with exclusively civil, respectful assistance from the international community, and not under external pressure through ultimatums, blackmail or threats.”
Putin brushed aside the objections to Assad: “I think it wrong to even ask this question. How can we ask and decide from outside whether this or that country’s leader should stay or go. This is a matter for the Syrian people to decide” with at most “international monitoring of these procedures, including election procedures, but this must be objective monitoring.”
For the near future, however, Putin saw the priority as “strengthening state institutions in the conflict zone” through economic and other assistance and improving international cooperation between Russia and the West on the issue of fighting international terrorism.
With respect to fighting international terrorism, Putin highlighted the cross-cutting role of the United States in the Syrian situation.
“As far as we know – although it would be great if I am mistaken” that the Pentagon was providing anti-tank and anti-armor weapons systems and are training gunners” among the Syrian government’s opposition notwithstanding that this weaponry will certainly fall into the hands of terrorist organizations” who will use these weapons and skills against Americans as well as Russians.
In his end-of-year news conference, Putin addressed the budgetary implications of the Syrian conflict, terming the costs manageable: “We are conducting limited operations with the use of our Aerospace Forces, air-defense systems and reconnaissance systems. This does not involve any serious strain, including strain on the budget.
Some of the resources that we earmarked for military training and exercises – we simply retargeted them to the operations of our Aerospace Defence Forces in Syria.
Something needs to be thrown in, but this does not have any significant impact on the budget.”
Interestingly, Putin was coy whether Russia would retain its newly expanded military facilities in Syria. “I don’t know if we need a base there. A military base implies considerable infrastructure and investment.
After all, what we have there today is our planes and temporary modules, which serve as a cafeteria and dormitories. We can pack up in a matter of two days, get everything aboard Antei transport planes and go home.”
Putin also noted that Russia had demonstrated in the campaign that its long-range strike capabilities could hold targets at risk with the “1,500-kilometre-range Kalibr sea-based missile and aircraft-carried Kh-101 missile with a 4,500-kilometre range.”
But it seems unlikely that Russia would willingly withdraw from its newly augmented military facilities in Syria, which can allow Russia to sustain naval and air systems that can extend its military network deep into the eastern Mediterranean.
Russian military strategy in Syria still seems aimed not at returning all of Syrian territory to the government’s control but at ensuring that the country’s critical areas, including the Russian bases, remain under the control of a Russian proxy regime.
Whatever happens to the Russian bases in Syria, the downing of the Russian third-generation warplane by Turkey and the enhanced Russian-provided air defenses in Syria (and Iran) should make clear to NATO militaries that only fifth generaton planes such as the F-35 can operate in the contested weapon-engagement zones of the modern Middle East, and it appears the F-22 is doing so and enabling the Western coalition as a fifth generation enabled combat force.