Western analysts and–to a limited extent–leaders are slowly waking up to the fact that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has proven to be a master of foreign military interventions. He has been able to accomplish Russian objectives with a minimum of political and economic cost, while showing a surprisingly adroit mastery of informational warfare.
Apparently gone for good are the heavy-handed, inept, Soviet-like military adventures of the 1980s and 1990s. The lessons from Chechnya have been learned, and learned well. By comparison, his counterparts in Western Europe and the United States have seemed slow, ponderous, and indecisive by comparison. Military observers have drawn their own conclusions, as should we.
In this article, I will cite three examples of recent Russian military intervention to make this point. We will then attempt to extract the major lessons to be learned from these three conflicts.
The Russo-Georgian War of 2008
Trouble in the former Soviet Caucasus region had been brewing for a long time. Separatists in Ossetia began to clash with Georgian authorities in August 2008, thereby starting a tit-for-tat cycle of response and counter-response. Georgia escalated the matter by seizing control of Tskhinvali, the proclaimed “capital” of the Republic of South Ossetia. Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili claimed that this was done in response to Russia’s moving irregular forces into the region.
This, however, prompted a full-scale military response from Putin. Nominally, Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian leader at the time, but there can be little doubt that he was acting on the counsel and guidance of Putin. The operation was fast, organized, and very well-coordinated. This conflict may have been the first in which cyber warfare played an integral role in the outcome.
Before the Russian military response, Georgian government came under crippling assaults by hackers of indeterminate origin. These attacks prevented Georgia from mobilizing its informational resources in the early stages of the conflict, a deficiency from which it was unable to recover.
Putin termed his intervention a “peace enforcement” mission, showing that he too knew how to play the Western game of Orwellian double-speak. Russia brought journalists and reporters into the conflict zone to make sure that its version of events got the major airtime.
In four days of fighting, Russia, supported by Ossetian irregulars, retook Tskhinvali; a second region was then assaulted, called the Kodori Gorge. Air and naval power was also brought to bear on the Georgian president, who was soon made to look like a hysterical fool on the world political stage. Once the military objectives were reached, Russian leader Medvedev announced on August 17, 2008 that troops would begin pulling out.
In April 2014, pro-Russian activists began an insurgency against the government of the Ukraine. According to the insurgents, the Kiev government was hostile to their ethnic identity as Russians and was planning on marginalizing them. Rebel leaders then proclaimed the “Popular Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk” and sought direct Russian support.
An important backdrop to these events was the fact that a pro-Western government had recently taken power in Kiev, which apparently was interested in joining NATO. Such talk could only elicit a visceral reaction in Moscow; the Ukraine was, from the viewpoint of Moscow, an integral part of the Russian sphere of influence. No foreign meddling could be tolerated there.
Moscow has fortified the rebels, and has contributed equipment and manpower to the conflict. Negotiated ceasefires have been arranged, with the understanding that some sort of limited autonomy will be given to the Russian-speaking regions of the Ukraine. Moscow, once again, proved that it was able to enforce its will in its own sphere of influence. The conflict is currently frozen in place, but Russian objectives have been achieved.
Syrian Civil War
Russia intervened directly in the Syrian War in 2015 when it seemed that the Damascus government of Bashar Al-Assad was reaching the end of his rope. Syria had longstanding ties to Moscow that dated back to the 1970s, and Russia had no desire to see its naval base in Latakia at the mercy of Western-backed rebels. The loss of Syria would also have meant a severe curtailing of Russian power projection into the Middle East.
Russian air power was focused, sustained, and effective. Airstrikes destroyed rebel positions faster than anyone had predicted, and cruise missiles launched from Russian positions in the Caspian Sea proved that Russia could project power into the region from its own territory.
Few Western leaders have appreciated the magnitude of the Russian achievement in Syria. For one thing, the intervention turned the tide of the war. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the intervention reversed decades of Russian exclusion from the Middle East. It had long been a cornerstone of US policy in the region to keep any competing powers away. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the explicit desire to prevent any Russian influence on peace talks. For decades, this policy was continued. But no more.
Several days ago, Moscow announced its intention to begin a “withdrawal” of its military commitment in Syria. This may mean nothing more than a temporary halt in operations, so see how the progress of the peace negotiations advance. The Russian military presence in Latakia is a reality, and is not going anywhere.
Putin may also be signalling to Assad that his assistance is not open-ended, and that some sort of resolution to the conflict needs to happen. Or it could mean that Putin is simply satisfied with a state of permanent tension in the area, as this serves the purpose of draining away the attention and strength of his adversaries Turkey and the United States.
Conclusions: Essentials of the Putin Doctrine
There is clearly an intervention doctrine at work here, which we may tentatively call the Putin Doctrine. These are its main points:
1. Keep the objectives limited. There will be no more Afghanistans of the 1980s, and no more Chechnyas of the 1990s. Russia has no desire to be sucked into military morasses that go nowhere. This is a lesson, unfortunately, that has apparently not been learned by the United States.
2. Move quickly, and don’t ask for permission. The lightning operations in Georgia and Syria took everyone by surprise, and showed a level of technical mastery that few had predicted.
3. Attack on all fronts, and don’t stop until objectives have been reached. Putin has shown that he can use cyber war, air power, naval power, diplomatic initiatives, and informational warfare in pursuit of his objectives.
4. Know the limits of power projection. In all of these wars, power was projected relatively close to the Russian heartland. One might argue that these interventions show the limits of Russian power; but one could just as easily say that Putin knows how to prevent himself from overreaching. His interventions have been carefully selected to maximize gain, while minimizing the risk of open-ended commitments. This is something that Washington has pointedly not done in recent years.
The United States and Western Europe wisely recognized that Georgia and the Ukraine are traditional Russian spheres of influence, and that trying to meddle in these regions was neither practical nor realistic. In Syria, however, Moscow pulled off a military and diplomatic coup by inserting itself in a region that was traditionally conceded as being a specific US concern.
5. Be content with frozen conflict. Putin has taken the idea of “frozen conflict” and turned it into a hallmark. Who says that all conflicts need to be resolved? Sometimes it is better to let them fester, slowly draining away your opponents’ resources and attention. The belligerents in the religious wars of Europe in the 1500s and 1600s often thought this way, and it was something that Stalin tried to practice in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
At the moment, it serves Russian interests to see the Ukraine and Syrian conflicts frozen in time. Russia is not going anywhere in Syria, nor anywhere in the Ukraine. There are only periods of rising and lowering involvement.
In any case, as these examples show, Vladimir Putin has proven himself to be a master of 21st century conflict management. Over and over again, he has shown how to marry restraint with ruthless action in pursuit of Russian national objectives.