After the annexation of Crimea, the military campaign in Syria, and the expansion of the Wagner network in Africa, an opinion was formed about the weak predictability of Russian foreign policy. The Kremlin’s adventurism in relatively low-budget conflicts has come to be perceived as an indispensable resource for legitimizing Putin’s power. But this logic of the media, where the terms “Gerasimov doctrine” or “hybrid wars” are widely used, is as erroneous as the terms themselves. There is no such doctrine, and all wars in world history have always been hybrid.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s line has indeed changed, primarily its approach to political-military strategic containment. On the one hand, this was due to the transformation of the worldview of President Putin himself, who, obviously, in the wake of the Crimean euphoria, began to perceive himself as a historical figure capable of carrying out successful geopolitical missions. On the other hand, this was influenced by the military-political anti-crisis measures taken by Moscow to contain the consequences of its activity in Crimea and Donbas.
At the end of 2014, the vague and therefore convenient term “non-nuclear deterrence” was introduced into Russia’s updated official military doctrine. Although the Russian military and diplomats now interpret it in their favor, this was an important change in the conceptual document. For the first time, the Russian military leadership has declared that it would seek to deprive the enemy of an advantage by not relying on tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
The core element of conventional deterrence is high-precision weapons, including a wide range of missiles, which the military then refined based on the experience in Syria. But it’s not just that. In 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry made it clear for the first time that it favors an active-defense strategy that also includes nonmilitary methods of winning the strategic initiative. It was officially recognized that “humanitarian operation” is a new form of military use, which combines actions to simultaneously withdraw civilians from the combat zone and suppress resistance. Although no one officially spoke about PMCs, it was clear to all experts that the mercenaries are also an important element in Moscow’s understanding of asymmetric methods of warfare.
Obviously, the Kremlin, without any regulatory documents, could have intervened in the civil war in Syria and engaged in rattling near the border with Ukraine, seeking some kind of guarantee from NATO. After all, the previous version of the military doctrine did not prevent Moscow from annexing Crimea. But the military doctrine and several other documents are the results of the ruling elite’s subjective perception of objectively existing national interests.
It was precisely in the doctrine that it was clearly stated that the goal in relations with the European Union and NATO is a dialogue on equal terms. This is exactly what the Kremlin sought by intervening in the wars in Syria and Libya to overcome the sanctions isolation. This is what it is doing now near the borders of Poland and Ukraine, with a maniacal persistence seeking to impose his vision of a European security architecture on NATO. Previous successes in combining the two wars in Syria and Donbas inspire Moscow to take new steps to issue ultimatums not only to its traditional opponents but also to its partners, for instance, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Is there a connection for the Kremlin between the Ukrainian and Syrian files? There are opinions Russian aviation is increasing the intensity of strikes on Idleb, depending on the degree of Turkey’s involvement in the Ukrainian dossier. The precedent for the unification of several theaters of military operations was during the war in Karabakh when the Russian side by a strange coincidence bombed opposition groups in Syria, involved in the conflict in the South Caucasus. However, there are arguments against this version. The Russian command in Syria acts according to its own logic, and the Kremlin does not need to come up with combinations and send unambiguous signals to Ankara, which has already supplied drones to Kiev.
Another thing is that in terms of military planning Crimea and Syria are logistically connected, but the main thing is that the Russian bases in Tartus and Hemeimeem are a key element in the defense of the peninsula and the western borders of the country. Active use of these facilities reduces the U.S/ 6th Fleet’s positioning zone for a hypothetical strike from the Eastern Mediterranean. Given Moscow’s understanding of the tasks of active defense, the Kremlin is systematically creating an advanced hub in Hemeimeem for the transfer of military personnel and mercenaries to Africa and Venezuela and basing Tu-22M3 nuclear bombers and MiG-31K fighter-interceptors with high-precision long-range missiles.
The termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has opened the door for Russia to deploy high-precision ground systems in Syria fairly quickly if long-range anti-ship cruise missiles are adapted to land-based systems. The Russian military is also continuing to turn the Tartus facility into a full-fledged base. As far as is known, at various times the Defense Ministry has even deployed fighting animals into the waters of Tartus to conduct anti-sabotage drills. Previously, because of the high cost, only the United States could afford to bring combat dolphins into the Black Sea for exercises.
Thus, a deliberate expansion of Russian influence combined with unconventional methods of warfare is fixed in the conceptual document, which by itself rules out chaotic interference to achieve tactical advantage. However, one should hardly overestimate the Kremlin’s strategic foresight and Russian military planning horizon. For example, Moscow itself becomes a hostage of the expanding activities of the Wagner Group, as it is not able to seek guarantees without the involvement of force “parallel diplomacy”.
Actually, the stoppage of construction of the base in Sudan and the uncertainty about its future is due to the fact that negotiations about the official military facility were conducted by people associated with the Wagner PMC. In fact, the stoppage of construction of the base in Sudan and the uncertainty of its future is due to the fact that negotiations about the official military facility were initially led by people associated with the Wagner PMC. In addition, Khartoum needs investment, not controversial militarization, which implies the creation of additional threats to the US and its Arab allies.
Anton Mardasov is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, focusing on Russia in the Middle East.
The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.