Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (left) with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (right). Putin wants to keep the Republic of Belarus within his country’s sphere of influence. Yet, due to regional security concerns, Belarus has gained new importance in the West. Lukashenko, once called Europe’s last dictator, is being approached by the EU and US. He has responded by trying to strengthen ties with them. Some Western analysts conclude Putin will not react well to this development. However, Belarus’s ties to the EU could actually enable its ally Russia to circumvent sanctions through a creative trade arrangement.

According to an October 29, 2016 article in the New York Times entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters,” dozens of demonstrators held a gathering in front of the headquarters building of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB in Minsk to commemorate the 1937 execution of over 100 members of the Belarusian intelligentsia under the orders of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin. The demonstrators also protested continuing repression in Belarus.  The demonstration was not authorized, however the police did not interfere. The annual commemoration provides the Belarusian public a rare opportunity to show disapproval for the government led by President Alexander Lukashenko. Nikolai Statkevich ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 Belarusian Presidential Election and was imprisoned for five years afterward. The New York Times article quoted him as stating: The fear of repression haunts Belarus as before. Today’s authorities are ideological heirs of those times.”

The EU and US now seem to be approaching Lukashenko with outstretched arms. Lukashenko, once the target of profound obloquy in the West and whose government was called “Europe’s last dictatorship” in 2005 by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is now covered with good words to the extent that his past iron fisted actions have nearly been cloaked. Belarus, in response to EU and US overtures, has engaged in a vigorous effort to curry favor and strengthen ties with them. The question of whether Lukashenko can genuinely recurvate westward after being oriented so long toward Russia has been responded to by some EU leaders with rather Delphine statements.

Putin wants Belarus to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence. He wants to keep Belarus in the Central Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Some Western foreign and defense policy analysts would quickly point out that Lukashenko has never been disposed to completely subordinating the interests of Belarus to that of Russia, or of the West for that matter. Pedictably, those Western analysts have concluded Putin, their bête noire, likely perceives Lukashenko as being disloyal, and suggest that he could react aggressively. Such analyses simply signal a fear of Russian military power. They also signal a fear that when the interests of any country in Russia’s sphere of interest is detectably at odds with those of the Kremlin, a “second Crimea” may be in the making. Crimea happened. Putin acted aggressively. However, Crimea should not be the baseline to gauge Putin’s thinking and actions going forward. Putin does not act impulsively; he acts with purpose. He can well-distinguish between what he wants for the moment and what he wants most. Putin does not want to have Russia defined as a rogue country with a military that is nothing more than an army of conquest. Having built solid relations with Minsk, especially with regard to security, for over a score of years, it is hard to imagine Moscow attempting to militarily intimidate or actually attack Belarus over its contacts with the EU. Extrapolations perpetuating such notions are counterintuitive. In fact, Putin has hardly reacted. He may very well recognize some potential in his ally’s new EU contacts for Russia to circumvent economic sanctions via a creative trade arrangement.

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Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. When Putin took office, he viewed Russia’s relations with Belarus as unsatisfactory and improved them. Belarus’s strategic importance to Russia increased following regional events such as NATO’s creep into the post-Soviet space, and the “Color Revolutions.” Belarus and Russia have had a few political and economic rows. Still, the two countries are staunch allies.

Belarus: In Brief

The Republic of Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk. While the borders of Belarus were set at the end of World War II, they were shaped mostly when some territory of the Second Polish Republic was reintegrated into them after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. During World War II, Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources. The Soviet Union redeveloped the republic in the post-war years. On July 27, 1990, the Parliament of the Belarus declared the republic’s sovereignty, and on August 25, 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared itself an independent country. Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has served as the President of Belarus. His leadership was widely criticized in the West. Lukashenko perpetuated a number of Soviet-era policies, to include state ownership of large sections of the economy. For years, political opposition was violently suppressed. Elections in Belarus were declared rigged by the international community.  The country’s rating under The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index was the lowest in Europe until 2014. Freedom House assessed Belarus under Lukashenko as “not free.”  It was labelled “repressed” in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. In the Press Freedom Index for 2016 of Reporters Without Borders, it was ranked 157th out of 180 countries.

Belarus’s Ties to Russia

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly formed Russian Federation tried to control the post-Soviet space by creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 8, 1991. However, Belarus, much as other republics in the CIS, began drifting away from Russia, which at that time was attempting to cultivate Western relations and save its broken economy. In the early 1990s, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was concerned that his country’s involvement with Belarus might put its bridge building efforts with the West at risk. Yet, while Russia was fixed on improving relations, Western capitals discerned Russia’s inability to act effectively. NATO began to expand east. Stung and threatened by what he perceived as an effort by the West to isolate it from the European environment by grabbing up Central and Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics, Yeltsin sought to improve ties with Belarus. Relations between the two countries became so congenial that in the mid-1990s, following Lukashenko’s rise to power, Yeltsin concluded Belarus would be an ideal candidate for integration with Russia. After signing the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Belarus, Yeltsin declared that “the two nations [had] shared a common historical experience over many centuries.” That, he explained, “created the basis for signing the treaty and other documents on deeper integration of our two countries. Among all CIS countries, Belarus has the greatest rights to such a relationship due to its geographical location, its contacts with Russia, our friendship and the progress of its reforms.” One year after April 2, 1996 when the integration process was launched, the Union of Belarus and Russia was established. It culminated with the founding of the Union State between Belarus and Russia on December 8, 1999. When Putin took office, he determined that the status of the relations with Belarus was unsatisfactory and criticized the Union State Treaty. He sought to put real content into it. He formulated a policy genuinely directed at realizing unification. His proposal was to complete unification either in a federation model which meant that Belarus would join the Russian Federation, or build a union which is similar to the EU. However, Belarus rejected those approaches and there was no change. Still, Putin did not abandon the idea of unification completely. The next goal became integration. The strategic importance of Belarus to Putin increased as a result of international events, to include. NATO’s activity in the post-Soviet space; the decision of many Eastern European countries to orient westward; a US plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland or the Czech Republic; and, the “Color Revolutions.”

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Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of Belarus’s purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Disagreements over profits and payments from the energy trade led to the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 row, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed Belarus owed Russia $200 million in gas arrears for that year. Belarus demanded transit fees owed by Russia. The matter was resolved and went away.

Considering that integration with Belarus would be costly, it is reported that Moscow sought to maximize gains from it. Its goals became to reduce the economic burden which Belarus laid on its economy, and to take over Belarus’s energy transit infrastructure. That tack spurred many of the political and economic rows. Among those conflicts was a disagreement that arose when Lukashenko accused Russia of offering a $500 million loan to Minsk on the condition that it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko angrily retorted that the position of Belarus was not for sale. Regarding the close military cooperation between Belarus and Russia, Lukashenko compared Belarus’s population of 10 million people as a human shield for Russia against the West. That service, he said, “was not free.” The Milk War erupted in July 2009 when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, explaining that they did not comply with new regulations. Belarus accused Russia of using the ban for political reasons, but Russia denied that. In a statement presented by his press service, Lukashenko lashed out, stating: “Economy serves as the basis for our common security. But if Belarus’s closest CSTO ally is trying . . . to destroy this basis and de facto put the Belarusians on their knees, how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?” Lukashenko acted by refusing to attend the 2009 CSTO summit in Moscow. The CSTO, Putin’s counterweight to NATO, groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a security arrangement. Shortly afterward, Russia lifted the ban and Belarus resumed importing of dairy products to Russia. Additionally, there were the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 Gas War, a dispute arose over a claim by Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed that Belarus owed $200 million in Russia gas arrears for supplies it had used that year. Belarus then demanded transit fees owed by Russia. A resolution was found and the matter quietly went away.

The EEU is an economic integration bloc of post-Soviet republics. It succeeded the erstwhile Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in January 2015. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU later that year. The bloc coordinates policies of its member states in key industries. In that spirit of coordination, the argument between Belarus and Russia over the price of natural gas was resolved, although the two sides have apparently not yet reached a consensus on the scale of the price discount (if any) or the mechanism of its delivery to Belarus. Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of its purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Of Belarus’s overall exports, 39 percent is directed to Russia. Those imports from Belarus totaled only $10.4 billion. For the most part it sells Russia value-added goods in return. Aside from trucks and industrial machines, Belarus sells processed foods. A network of Belarusian grocery stores operates in major Russian cities.

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Above is an assembly line at the Minsk Motor Plant. Nearly a third of Belarus’s overall trade is with its second largest trading partner, the EU. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU has withdrawn trade preferences for Belarus, the potential to greatly expand trade exists.

The Strong Military Linkage Between Belarus and Russia

Although there have been some setbacks in the political and economic integration of Belarus and Russia, the military-integration process between them has been successful. Cooperation with Belarus fits snuggly within Putin’s vision for geopolitical order in the post–Cold War world. Putin has never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. It was practically guaranteed that Putin would push back against what he might call an intrusion into Russia’s near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. The term was reportedly popularized by former Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev in the early 1990s. For centuries, Russia has sought to ensure its physical security through its control over neighboring territory. For Putin, the term represents a concept akin to the Monroe Doctrine.

On February 14, 2013 at a conference entitled “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, provided a glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The impact of Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia is apparent. The Russian Federation General Staff believes future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” Indeed, they conclude the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and its resources. The Kremlin has accepted the threat assessment of the the Russian Federation General Staff. Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. To rehearse the defense against the West, Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, announced massive strategic military exercises Zapad 2017, scheduled to take place in September 2017. He said that the joint exercise, which would include Russian and Belarusian forces, will be the “main military event of 2017.” Further, the two countries armed forces will cooperate in over 130 events and measures. Shoigu explained: “The US and NATO are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” Shoigu further stated that Russian borders were being threatened and adequate defensive measures are being taken.

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Belarus (shaded in green), Russia (shaded in violet), and their neighbors. Providing a glimpse of the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, on February 14, 2013, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, explained the depletion of oil, gas and other natural resources will become an ultimate world crisis by 2030. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade Russia from several directions to grab its land and resources. Lukashenko insists that Belarus will remain part of Russia’s defense.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria! (Where there is unity, there is victory.) To a great degree, Russian and Belarusian regional security approaches have been harmonized. Lukashenko has pledged that Belarus will be an integral part of the Russian Federation’s defense. Indeed, he has gone as far as to say that the army of Belarus, the modernization of which was nearly completed, was ready to defend Russia’s western border. According to RIA Novosti, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russian western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.” Lukashenko has referred to the Belarus population as 10 million human shields in the defense of Russia. Lukashenko further stated that the Belarusian Army will be able to show resistance to any aggressor.  Prior to those statements, Lukashenko told the Belarus Parliament that he would not allow the country’s opposition to depict Russia in the image of an enemy. Lukashenko declared to the Belarus Parliament: “The Russians are our brothers, with whom we have been living for a very long time.”

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Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left). Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. Shoigu announced that massive military exercises would be held by Russia and Belarus in 2017 to rehearse their joint defense against the West.

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine into law. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. It views Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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Belarusian troops (above). Following deliberations in Parliament, Lukashenko signed Belarus’s new military doctrine into law. The doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, but it is apparent that NATO is deemed the greatest military threat. Accordingly, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russia western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.”

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

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Belarusian special forces in training (above). In the new Belarusian military doctrine, emphasis is placed on trends associated with the development of the concept of “Color Revolutions,” and methods aimed at provoking internal conflicts to destabilize the country and violate its territorial integrity. A year ahead of the doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko directed his government to further develop special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems: elements best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations.

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. Officials there view Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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The EU welcomed Lukashenko’s desire to have Belarus play a constructive role in the region by hosting four-party peace negotiations on Ukraine, as well as his decision to maintain political distance from Russia over Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. EU ministers have encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They have held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Still, many wonder if Lukashenko’s efforts are authentic.

Minsk and Brussels: A Rapprochement?

Some experts have said that it was Lukashenko who began making overtures to the West following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, considerable economic troubles in Belarus, and a degree of instability in Eastern Europe. He managed to grab the attention oF EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. EU governments, claiming that they based their decision on content and merit of Lukashenko’s efforts, suspended sanctions on Belarus’s leaders in October 2014. In February 2015, EU foreign ministers terminated sanctions, removing asset freezes and travel bans on 170 officials, including Lukashenko. Three Belarusian companies were also taken off the EU blacklist. The EU maintains an arms embargo and sanctions against four people suspected of being involved in the disappearance of dissidents in the 1990s. Lukashenko responded by intensifying fence mending efforts with the West. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Their approach is bicameral. On the one hand, they seek to develop bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries. On the other hand, they want to develop cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernization, and visa issues. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].” EU and US delegations continue to visit Minsk, but results have been thin. The US has expressed hope not only for improved cooperation on trade, but also on non-proliferation and combating human trafficking.

Praetio prudentia praestat. (Prudence supplies a reward.) Commenting on Belarus, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, remarked, “This is clearly not a rosy or perfect picture . . . but when we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the “beginnings” of a thaw with Belarus, and concluded, “It’s worth testing in such a situation how much willingness and reciprocity there is on the Belarus side.” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters, “This is an experiment.” He went on to state: “As a neighbor of Belarus, we are pleased as we hope this will improve relations with the EU and of course with Poland.” While the EU leaders allege they had no intention of prying Belarus from Putin’s hand, that nonetheless was viewed as possible. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. Indeed, in a statement, the EU ministers encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Lukashenko will take what is offered, but what he really wants from EU countries is financial assistance. Belarus’s international reserves are at the lowest since 2011. Although there has been some direct private investment from the US in Belarus, its development has been relatively slow given the uncertain pace of reform. The US has encouraged Belarus to conclude and adhere to agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the program of macroeconomic stabilization and related reform measures. As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund is still deciding whether it should provide Belarus with a $3 billion, 10-year loan.

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Above are Russian “green men” in Ukraine. In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces, has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations.  Western analysts still insist that Belarus faces the threat of hybrid warfare from Russia. They conclude that Moscow will monitor Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any signs of a serious loosening of ties with Russia.

Are Problems Between Belarus and Russia Becoming Inexorable?

Ad connectendas amicitas, tenacissimum vinculum est morum similitudo. (For cementing friendship, resemblance of manners is the strongest tie.) At the Third Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions on June 9, 2016, Putin explained: “In a collaborative effort, Russia and Belarus work to deepen integration processes in Eurasia. As members of the Union State, we are carrying out about 40 programs and are jointly developing advanced technology programmes, primarily, for the aerospace industry, satellite navigation, geological exploration, and agriculture.” Putin further stated: “We are forming the Eurasian Economic Union’s common market for goods, services, capital, and labour, thereby facilitating sustainable economic growth of the member countries and enhancing the competitiveness of our producers on domestic and foreign markets.”  

Some interesting statements have been made by Belarusian officials concerning their country’s security relationship with Russia. There is the example of Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov, who, speaking on February 23, 2016, stated that security of the country relied also on military cooperation not only with Russia and members of the CSTO. He also underlined Minsk’s “strategic” military cooperation with China and “aspiration to develop a constructive dialogue with NATO in order to strengthen international and regional security.” An interview of Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei with the Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, on October 17, 2016, has been called significant because it was titled “We Are Not Dependents of Russia.” In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations. When Shoigu announced that a “joint military organization of the Union State” would be created starting in 2016, including notional unification of the two countries’ armed forces, it appeared Belarus-Russia military ties were further strengthening. Yet, in the West, it was viewed by some analysts as a unilateral statement by Russia, and an effort to save face and show the world that the relationship was still intact. Western analysts note that there was no comment from Belarus on the joint military organization of the Union State. There is a perception in the West that Russia routinely announces joint initiatives with Belarus which have not been endorsed by Minsk. When an announcement of a joint air defence system was made in Russia, Belarus did not comment on it, at least publicly. Reportedly, that same week, Belarus TV broadcasted an extended feature on the country’s Air Defense Troops without once mentioning the new military agreement with Russia. Although the general in charge of the Belarusian Air Force has been nominated as the commander for the “joint system,” Western analysts saw the move simply as a face-saver for Minsk. The lack of reaction by Belarus was said to signal Minsk’s disapproval of the effort by Moscow to control the provision of its security. When Belarus needed to purchase modern fighter aircraft to upgrade its ageing air force, Moscow announced instead that Belarus would be hosting a Russian airbase. Western analysts insist that Moscow pressured Lukashenko for the airbase. However, he insisted upon and arranged the aircraft purchase.

Alter ipso amicus. (A friend is another self.) Some Western analysts have concluded that Russia will observe Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any serious threat to its ties. Yet, that idea conflicts with the reality that Putin considers Belarus to be an integral part of Russia’s geopolitical and cultural space. Moscow has invested heavily in preserving and increasing its influence in the country. Lukashenko has no plans to have Belarus abandon Russia. If some drop in the strength of Belarus’s ties to Russia has occurred, it is negligible.From 2008 to 2010, Putin neither acted violently nor took a hostile tone toward what he perhaps regarded as a recalcitrant, yet typical Lukashenko, with his dalliance toward the West and he has no intentions of reacting aggressively toward Belarus now. Putin knows Lukashenko could never stand by wistfully in the face of Russian decisions impacting Belarus. Putin would never allow Russia to be directed by a foreign capital either. Clashing with Lukashenko is the last thing Putin would want. This may especially be true because Belarus might be able to provide Putin with the possibility to overcome EU sanctions related to Ukraine.

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Moldova, just as Belarus, is not subject to EU sanctions. Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin has proposed that Moldova allow Russia to move its goods into a “European zone” in the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia as a way for Russia to circumvent EU imposed sanctions. As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have the its goods sold to the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions.

Putin’s Possible Move Regarding Belarus?

US and EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea’s annexation will not go away unless Russia returns the region to Ukraine. Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev remarked at a press conference on November 11, 2016, “Our position is that sanctions will remain unchanged.” Just as the Baltic States were never recognized as part of the Soviet Union by the West. Crimea will always be recognized as part of Ukraine, not Russia. As it was explained in the September 30, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Putin’s Next Target May Be Moldova, But His Goal Is to Increase Trade, Not Conquer via Military Action,” Russia is well-aware that cooperation stimulates economic growth and higher standards of living on both sides of a border by improving conditions for free trade and exchange. Inter-border cooperation is understood to be a prerequisite of broader integration processes and improving relations between neighboring countries. It can serve as a mechanism for coping with the challenges and jolts resulting from the new divisions created between EU and EEU countries.

As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have its goods sold in the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions. Much as with oil and gas pipelines, Belarus would essentially serve as a relay or refining point for Russian goods targeted for Western markets. For that to even become a possibility, it would certainly be in Russia’s interest to see Belarus improve its relations with the EU, particularly with regard to trade and investment. Belarus could be handsomely remunerated with percentages of profits made or perhaps with greater subsidies on imports of Russian resources. There are certainly limits to the level of Russian products Belarus could absorb for sale to the West. Resale of Russian goods at value added prices would murder the project. Russia certainly could not attempt to move goods into EU countries via Belarus at a level equal to anything it might achieve by trading with them directly. Moscow and Minsk would surely set parameters for the bilateral deal. However, the smallest level would surely be far more than Russia could sell as long as sanctions are in place. Trading an EEU partner’s goods externally in this manner may very well be covered in the economic bloc’s trade provisions. Beyond profit, benefits of this trade arrangement would include: the preservation of Belarus’ brotherly relationship with Russia; Lukashenko’s would have no need to be concerned that the sovereignty of Belarus and its interests were not being respected; and, collective arrangements with Russia such as EEU and CSTO will remain intact. Indeed, Belarus would remain in Russia’s sphere of interest. Note that Belarus is among the few states in Europe that has not asked for membership in the EU. While Belarus has strove for better contacts with EU lately, it has simultaneously sought to further its economic and political ties with Russia.

In many ways, this hypothetical trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia would resemble the creative arrangement Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin proposed for trade with Moldova. Moldova is not subject to EU sanctions. Thus, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia and avoid restrictions. A trade arrangement of this type between Belarus and Russia would also resemble the Outward Processing Trade regime that the EU introduced for Belarus. That regime raised import quota amounts for textiles and clothing manufacturers within the EU thus allowing them to produce garments in Belarus that will return to the EU after processing. Additionally, the arrangement would resemble the somewhat awkward way in which some Belarusian firms have been relabelling food from EU countries and selling them in Russia thereby avoiding Russian sanctions. Probae est in segetem sunt deteriorem datae fruges, tamen ipsae suaptae enitent. (A good seed, planted even in poor soil, will bear rich fruit by its own nature.)

What Might Encourage Putin and Lukashenko to Take This Course?

What might encourage Lukashenko and Putin to seek this arrangement is the fact that after Russia, the main trading partner of Belarus is the EU. Nearly, a third of the country’s overall trade is with the EU. That trade could most likely be expanded with a nuanced cultivation. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU withdrew its trade preferences to Belarus under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences in 2007 in response to Belarus’ violations of the core principles of the International Labour Organization, exports from Belarus to the EU did not cease. The decision only required Belarus to pay import tariffs at the standard non-preferential rate. Trade was also promoted through the Outward Processing Trade regime,which was mentioned earlier.

Lukashenko stands on terrain high enough to survey the liabilities involved in moving closer to the West. Voices in the West have indicated that not all are impressed with Lukashenko’s positive words and a perceived unwarranted rapprochement to Belarus. Even when EU ministers decided to lift most sanctions against Belarus in 2015, they said concern remained “with the situation of human rights in Belarus.” Ministers called on Minsk to abolish the death penalty and implement Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) recommendations on democracy before the 2015 Belarusian Parliamentary Elections. An OSCE report said October’s election showed Belarus had a “considerable way go to” on democratic standards, noting the absence of safeguards against multiple voting, limited choice available to voters and the uneven playing field between Lukashenko and his political opponents. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus, Mikloś Haraszti, stated after the 2015 Belarusian Presidential Election that he had seen no changes in “the dismal human rights situation.” Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might inadvertently trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

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Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. However, Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, a physician’s daughter, chooses to marry Bertram, a man of high social position in the French court, but he rejects her love. In response, Helena engages in a plot to wed Bertram by employing what has come to be known as the “Bed Trick.” As she begins to execute her plan in Act 3, Scene 7, Helena states: “Why, then tonight, Let us assay our plot: which, if it speed, Is wicked meaning in lawful act; Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact: But let’s about it.” A trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia as outlined here will likely cause discomfort for those who reasonably demand compliance with imposed sanctions. There is nothing inherently wrong with finding and exploiting a loophole in a regulation, business contract, or sanctions. One must have the will to seize the opportunity.

As the leader of a world power, Putin fully understands that his policies should make the Russian people hopeful for the future, not anxious or intimidated. Negative outlooks only advertise the limits one has. Reacting negatively to growing Euro-Belarus ties would not be useful. Inter-border cooperation has greatly assisted in harmonizing domestic policy priorities and international and regional security issues between Belarus and Russia. Inter-border cooperation between Belarus and Russia, albeit from different perspectives, is a prerequisite for improving the relations of both countries with the EU. (The EU is drawing closer to Belarus due to the nature of its ties to Russia. Russia may move closer to Belarus to exploit its improved ties to the EU.) Belarus is already a priority for Russia’s diplomatic, military, political, and economic resources. If Putin senses that he can, with Lukashenko’s cooperation, exploit the rapprochement between the EU and Belarus to circumvent imposed sanctions, that tack could eventually be accepted by Moscow as a mechanism for coping with problems stemming from the divisions between EU and EEU countries. 

Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria

A Russian-built BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher (above) fires on ISIS’ positions in Syria. Despite airstrikes from a US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the impact of Western countries on the ISIS fight has been limited. Since September 2015, Russia, Iran, and Syria have been driving the true ISIS fight on the ground. Given their progress, many capitals have sought to get in on the planning for the creation of political, social, and economic conditions in Syria that will allow for its rebuilding. Yet, before broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated militarily.

According to a July 20, 2016 New York Times article entitled “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield,” officials from the US and its’ coalition allies in the ISIS fight hammered out details in how to stabilize and govern the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, strongholds of ISIS, in the event that Iraqi and Syrian fighters retake the cities in the coming months. The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was present at the meeting at Joint Base Andrews in the US state of Maryland, noted the many setbacks ISIS had suffered, pointing to its losses in Iraq as well as its loss of Qaiyara and Manbij in Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated, “We need to destroy the fact and the idea that there can be a state,” adding that battlefield success in Iraq as well as Syria was “necessary.” After those statements, US General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command, explained that discussion at the meeting mostly centered on how to stabilize Mosul in Iraq, assuming Iraqi forces can take it back from ISIS. Focusing on Iraq at the Joint Base Andrews meeting was reasonable given the efforts of the US and its allies there. The need to resolve struggles for power among Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish groups is pressing. However, focusing on what might be done in Syria is somewhat surprising given that the US and its allies, despite US-led coalition airstrikes, are not playing the main role in the ISIS fight there. The fight in Syria is being driven by a Russian-led coalition.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its Iranian and Syrian allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has return Syrian territory back to the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. As its main objective, Russia seeks to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leaderhip, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. Western complaints and commentary on Russia’s combat operations in Syria have been nonstop since its’ first sorties in country. The US and United Kingdom have constantly accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” Putin has ignored such insistent voices from the West. He would likely prefer Western governments saved their ministrations for their own operations on the margins in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has engaged in multiple talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. They have discussed the possibility of acting jointly against ISIS. However, on the ground in Syria, Putin has decided to get on with the matter rather than allow it to languish in the halls of inaction. Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. Yet, most recently, Russian Federation commanders and planners have noticed that their allies have faced difficulties in responding to new challenges from ISIS on the ground. Russia must resolve that problem. Much as officials at Joint Base Andrews acknowledged, the end of the war in Syria has begun to take on defined features. Questions exist over what type of peace will take shape in Syria. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said that he fully grasps the challenges that lie ahead regarding the rebuilding of Syria. Putin explained, “We must act carefully, step by step, aiming to establish trust between all sides to the conflict.” He also explained that a new and effective government could be formed in Syria once such trust is finally built. Putin said that a political process is the only way to reach peace, and he claimed Assad “also agrees to such a process.” However, the war has not been won yet. Before fully broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated via the military operation and peace must be secured. Only then can the focus become creating political, social, and economic conditions that will allow for Syria’s rebuilding. Festinare nocet, nocet et cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit.  (It is bad to hurry and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units, were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger for troops among the allies to feel too strong, lose their heads, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion. ISIS seemed to have found an advantage in this situation. Indeed, ISIS units have displayed a surprising new capability to organize effective counterattacks. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were often unable to protect their forces.

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger that troops among the allies would begin to feel too strong, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion in combat. ISIS seemed to find an advantage in this situation. ISIS began to display the capability to organize effective counterattacks which the allies were unable to beat them back.

In tranquillo esse quisque gubernator potest. (Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.) The situation stood in great contrast to that in the days immediately after Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces captured Palmyra. The allies appeared to have coalesced as a team and it seemed possible that they would soon rush into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. ISIS engagements units of the allies repeatedly developed into routs. ISIS showed no signs of having contingency plans for the loss of cities, towns, and villages in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. The allies did observe ISIS laying mines and setting booby traps on avenues of approach to their battle positions. However, counterattacks, which would be expected from a professional fighting force to regain territory or cover its’ withdrawal, were not seen. Since that time though, ISIS has learned how to retreat, and has repeatedly generated difficult situations for the allies.

Many of the top commanders and planners in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. In 2014, those Iraqis were behind the impressive capability of ISIS to move its units with a professional acumen. Their skills were seemingly brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their battle positions all around Syria to push the allies back. There were even clashes with ISIS units around the main Jazal Field near Palmyra. Intense Russian Federation airstrikes were required to push ISIS back. Unexpected difficulties, friction, should be expected in any military operation. Yet, the problems that beset the allies to a large extent resulted from bad decisions and inadequate military moves. Syrian Arab Army commanders have been unable to avail themselves of Russian Federation air support and artillery. Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, specifically, continued to take a one-dimensional approach to ground maneuver in Syria much as it has in Iraq. Both forces had the ability to request support from Russian surveillance technologies, air power, and artillery, but those resources were not utilized to pound attacking ISIS units.

ISIS fighters (above) organize for an attack. As Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces began to take territory from ISIS, it seemed at first that the terrorist group had no contingency plans for losing territory in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. However, ISIS appears to have learned how to retreat. Many commanders and planners behind the movement of its’ forces across Iraq and Syria in 2014 were former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. Their acumen was brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their defenses around Syria and pushed the allies back.

Shoigu Investigates

Experto credite. (Trust in one who has experience.) Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to meet Assad and surely to examine the problem of increased ISIS infiltration and counterattacks. The added significance of Shoigu’s arrival was the fact that he is known as Putin’s “Do It” man. His ability to achieve success in almost any undertaking is the basis for what greatcharlie.com calls the “Shoigu factor.”  Once Shoigu allayed Assad’s concerns over ISIS’ new moves and Russia’s military cooperation with Syria, Shoigu likely discussed the problem in granular detail with the commander of the Russian Federation’s Military Expeditionary Group in Syria, Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, and his air and ground commanders. Shoigu was concerned. He was well-aware that the allies would not be able to limp into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor while ISIS clawed their units to pieces with counterattacks.

Volo, non valeo. (I am willing but unable.) At first look,  Shoigu likely recognized how difficult it was for the three main allies perform with assorted forces under their control, each possessing varied degrees of size, strength, military capabilities, experience, and leadership. Regarding leadership, Shoigu likely discovered how much the acumen of militatry commanders among Russia’s allies differed. Those rdisparities and others should have been underscored and factored into planning, and when possible, compensated for. Instead, perhaps to promote goodwill and unity among the allies, they seemed to have been played down.   Indeed, there was probably plenty of head nodding in agreement in meetings between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military officials when there was discussion on topics as how to win the war, the need to maximize advantages resulting from the inoperability of Russian-built weapons systems all of the allies used, the integration of ground and air capabilities, and the coordination of action against ISIS.

When Russian Federation military advisers and instructors began trainnig Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they discovered that regular army units needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned existed throughout the Syrian forces. Advisers and instructors did their best. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, managed to resurface as ISIS began to put pressure on the allies via counterattacks.

Shoigu, himself, was likely part of a number of meetings of that type. As recently as June 9, 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Dehghan welcomed Shoigu, and Syrian Arab Republic Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces Colonel General Fahd Jassem al-Freij for a meeting in Tehran. Shoigu stated prior to the meeting that topics discussed would include “priority measures in reinforcing the cooperation between the defense ministries of the three countries in the fight with the Islamic State” and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Yet, when ISIS applied pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and by launching counterattacks, it was revealed that what was being proffered in theory at senior military meetings was not being translated into practice. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units could not act fully in a unified, coordinated way with Russian Federation forces in response to unexpected and creative maneuvers by ISIS. Effectively working alongside very sophisticated Russian Federation forces required an agility and flexibility in thinking that Syrian Arab Army commanders and paramilitary unit commanders did not possess. Unable to respond otherwise, they held fast to their own ideas for the command and control of their forces and their own plans and timetables for moving their forces against ISIS.

Interestingly when Russian Federation military advisers and instructors set out to train Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they immediately discovered that regular army units, despite having a good amount of discipline and combat experience, needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned officers existed throughout the Syrian Arab Army due to battle casualties and a large number of defections to both the Syrian Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Platoons that supposedly held 20 to 30 troops held around 5 to 10 troops, the commander included. Even before the war, signalmen, gunners, engineers, and other military specialist for the most part were only assigned on paper. Russian Federation military advisers and instructors also discovered that there was the need to instruct Syrian Arab Army commanders on better coordinating actions at the brigade and division levels and among higher military authorities. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. No single commander’s concept or operational plan guided them. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Troops of the pro-Assad paramilitary group, the Desert Falcons (above), are being addressed by their commanders. Military advisers and instructors not only trained Syria forces, but also distributed new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from their inventories. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Regarding paramilitary units (shahibas) loyal to the Assad regime, it was observed that all of them needed to be retrained. That was a difficult task. Despite the fact that many troops in the paramilitary units had seen several years of war, few were aware of how to properly shoot and move on the battlefield. Few had any worthwhile physical training. Volunteer commanders were typically appointed by paramilitary unit members despite the fact that they had no training or experience in leading troops in battle, properly making appropriate decisions in complex military situations, as well as making decisions in everyday situations on the frontline. The discipline of paramilitary troops was a problem that reared its head when the paramilitary units manned checkpoints. A further problem was the unwillingness of paramilitary units to defend areas other than their hometowns. Paramilitary unit volunteers had to be provided basic training then instruction on fighting as part of part of a squad, platoon, company, and then the battalion. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad paramilitary units into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army, brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.  Only Republican Guard and Special Forces units and a few mechanized brigades possessed satisfactory levels of readiness. Republican Guard units were well-equipped and staffed with professional soldiers and stood practically self-sufficient with organic artillery, airborne, and special purpose forces. Still, its units were only 70 percent manned at best.

Russian Federation military advisers and instructors, as well as those of the IRGC, and IRGC-Quds Force, were unlikely delinquent in their duty. They likely did their best to prepare Syrian Arab Army units for the fight to eject ISIS from their country given the troops and time available. Their solicitude extended to the distribution of new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from Russian inventories among the newly trained Syrian Arab Army units. Those units were also provided with new Russian vehicles to enhance their mobility. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, resurfaced despite those efforts

Russian Federation Air Force Tu-22M3 bombers (above) strike ISIS targets in Syria. Russian Federation air power can hit ISIS hard, destroy its units, and delay and disrupt their movement. Iranian and Syrian forces must be able to fully avail themselves of that Russian military resource if the allies hope to defeat ISIS. When air power is synchronized with, compliments, and reinforces friendly ground movement, it can help drive friendly units forward.

Effects of the failure of Russia’s allies to avail themselves of Russian military resources included a decrease in the tempo of the allies’ offensive action and near loss of the initiative. It resulted in a need for more sorties during air support missions and increased firefights with ISIS, creating the potential for greater friendly casualties. Robust Russian Federation air power should have been used liberally all around Syria to delay and disrupt movement by ISIS units and when possible destroy them. Russian Federation air power should have been synchronized with, complimented, and reinforced movement by friendly ground forces.

Russian Federation commanders and planners are aware that in the fights for Aleppo, Idlib, and other urban centers, the ground forces of allies could do more than simply chisel away at enemy lines. Numerical advantages are rare on the frontlines in Syria, yet an attacker can economize in less active areas in order to develop local superiority at the point of his main effort. The attacker, after concentrating quickly, can strike hard at an unexpected place and time to throw the defender off balance. Once the attack is underway, the attackers’ chance of success can be improved if he moves fast, aggressively pressing every advantage, and if he capitalizes on opportunities to destroy the enemy’s forces and the overall coherence of his defense.

Russian Federation commanders and planners also know air power can greatly impact enemy moves in urban centers. If forced to move quickly in the face of Russian air power, an enemy commander would be allowed less time to ensure his unit’s concealment. It could cause him to move when conditions would not impede aircrews’ search of his unit. Rapid movement could also decrease the effectiveness of his air defense systems, allowing aircrews greater freedom to search for his unit, increasing the chance for it to be spotted. So far in Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. When aircews cannot identify targets, airstrikes are made in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuring and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to address the problems of increased ISIS infiltration and damaging counterattacks. In meetings with Russian Federation military commanders and planners, Shoigu surely explained that it was not feasible to wait for their Iranian and Syrian counterparts to communicate with them when they are on the attack or facing counterattacks. He undoubtedly directed them to better coordinate with their allies.

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

In his meetings with Russian Federation military commanders, Shoigu surely emphasized that it was not enough to simply stay in communication with Iranian and Syrian Arab Army commanders while they are on the attack or when they are facing counterattacks. Shoigu likely stressed that they had to maintain situational awareness, and authentically coordinate their actions with their allies and help them exploit opportunities created. There was also a shake up in the Russian Federation’s military command structure in Syria. Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev replaced Dvornikov. Zhuravlev is known best for helping to plan the Palmyra offensive.

Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 stated Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.” It seems Russian Federation air power and spetsnaz will also be relied on to underpin the allies’ ultimate victory in Syria. Responding to the problem with resources available, Shoigu ordered increased air strikes and the increased deployment of Russian spetsnaz advisers among Syrian Arab Army units. The goal would be to improve the direction of artillery fires against ISIS counterattacks along the Syrian Arab Army’s axis of advance toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and in support of battle positions of allies all around Syria. Russia had already supplied Russian-built heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to its allies, to include: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Spetsnaz units could assist Syrian Arab Army units in coordinating ground assaults with air support and artillery fire, in building hasty defenses, and in improving unit security. By degrading enemy forces with fire in support of assaults, the goal is not to create attrition battles but to enable the successful, rapid maneuver of friendly forces.

Soon after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made improvements in Syria, desired results seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division (above) supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating points along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. As they push forward, commanders of these Syrian units will be better able to coordinate with their Russian Federation counterparts and to avail themselves of Russian military resources.

Soon after Shoigu’s visit to Syria, improvements seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating towns and villages along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. In Deir Ezzor’s Industrial District, the Syria Arab Army’s Special Task Force “Al Qassem Group” undertook the task of clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from the district’s streets. They joined the Republican Guard’s 104th Airborne Brigade and 137th Artillery Brigade of the 17th Reserve Division in the fight for Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Arab Army High Command also ordered a change in command of the 17th Reserve Division from Syrian Arab Army Major General Mohammed Khaddour to Syrian Arab Army Major General Hassan Mohammed.

Regarding fights in urban centers, it was reported from southern Aleppo that a mix of Iranian-led units, primarily Iraqi Shi’a militias such as Harakat An Nujba, Katayb Hezbollah, and Assaib Ahl Al Haqq — two of which are operating Russian-made T-90 main battle tanks acquired by the IRGC in early 2016 —launched repeated counterattacks against the Jaysh Al-Fateh coalition, and Free Syrian Army units. Allies loyal to the Assad regime to include private military companies such as Liwa Suqour As Sahra and Liwa Dir As Sahel, Shi’a militias such as Liwa Nussr Az Zawba’a and Quwwat Al Galilee as well as a Lebanese Hezbollah unit, have launched attacks in southern Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation Air Force is engaged in a campaign in western Aleppo and targeting the towns of Hayyan, Anadan, Hreitan, Kfar Hamra and Ma’arat Al Artiq positioned along avenues of approach into northern and eastern parts of Aleppo city. Most recently, Russian Federation Air Force airstrikes have targeted Castello Road, the last route out of the Syrian opposition-held eastern part of the city. As for the Syrian Arab Air Force, it continues to hit targets in Idlib city, Ma’arat An Nauman and eastern Aleppo.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu led to questions about the progress of the Russian Federation Military Expeditionary Group in Syria. After his visit with Russian Federation commanders and planners, the decision was made to replace Russian Federation Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov with Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev. Zhuravlev will oversee the allies’ capture of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and the final destrustion of ISIS in Syria.

Retaining the Initiative to the End

In the April 6, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy Failure on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?,” it was stated that ISIS could potentially establish a redoubt east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among attacking forces as possible with a suicide defense. However, well-planned offensive action by Russia and its allies might serve to obviate that possibility. The military principle of offense prescribes that maintaining the initiative is the most effective and decisive way to dominate the battlefield. On the offensive, there must be an emphasis on the commander’s skilled combination of the elements of maneuver, firepower, protection, and intelligent leadership in a sound operational plan. The initiative must be retained. Moving forward, firepower, the allies’ greatest strength, must be used to its’ maximum advantage. Firepower can serve maneuver by creating openings in enemy defenses, but also destroy an enemy’s vital cohesion, his ability to fight, and effectively act. Indeed, one of the most important targets is the enemy’s mind. The allies should engage in actions that will sway moves by ISIS to enhance the opportunities to destroy it.

The drive against Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in a way resembles the circumstances in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Israelis, after defeating the Syrians, pushed up to the Golan Heights at its northern border, and then executed an economy of force operation. Israel kept a portion of its forces on its border with Jordan, even though hostilities did not break-out between the two countries. Israeli forces in the Golan Heights conducted artillery attacks on Damascus with long range guns to give the impression that they were going to seize that city while sizeable Israeli forces were concentrated south against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula to their southwest. After concentrating against Egyptian forces in the Sinai, Israeli forces threw their strength at Egyptian weakness, the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies. The Israelis subsequently encircled the Third Army eliminating it as a threat to Israeli territory,

Before the final push against them begins, Russian military spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. They could also be positioned to block ISIS infiltration into Syria from Iraq and territory now controlled by the Assad regime. Spetsnaz units could conduct raids, set up ambushes, and establish kill zones. They could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Much as with the Egyptian Second and Third Armies in the Sinai in 1973, ISIS units in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, albeit in a limited way, could move units into territory controlled by the Assad regime. They could also become hubs for the reestablishment of lines of communication between ISIS in Iraq and Syria. By hunkering down in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the face of an onslaught from Russia and its allies, ISIS can claim that it held on to the capital of its Islamic Caliphate. Raqqa, in particular, would likely become a symbol of resistance and power for ISIS to a greater extent than it is now and its narrative on the city’s defense would become an invaluable recruiting tool for the organization. For Assad to claim that he has retaken control of Syria, he must control urban centers and the surrounding areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs, Palmyra, Darra and certainly Damascus. For Putin to claim that it stabilizes the legitimate authority of Assad. Putin must destroy ISIS in Syria or, at a minimum, leave it scattered and tattered, reduced to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power and unable to resurrect itself. If Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cannot be taken rapidly, Russia and its allies must encircle the cities. After assembling overwhelming force to direct against ISIS units, both cities could be attacked. Before that fight would get underway, spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. Spetnaz could also be positioned on known and suspected ISIS infiltration lanes into Syria from Iraq and lanes into territory now controlled by the Assad regime. They could block those lanes coconducting raids, setting up ambushes, and establishing kill zones for air strikes and artillery fire. Spetsnaz could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

The loss rate of ISIS could be increased by having aerial platforms capable of stand-off attacks continuously engage ISIS defenses, and by stationing fighter jets and bombers in orbit 24-hours a day above ISIS locations identified by spetsnaz to engage in continuous strikes. They could also hit targets of opportunity identified by aircrews whenever they might be authorized to fly at lower altitudes.

The Way Forward

According to the Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus, as they walked on stage during the first performance of Eumenides, the chorus of furies was so hideous and frightening in appearance that “they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labor.” ISIS, during its grand entry on the world stage, in Syria and Iraq, put on full display its very bloody, murderous side. ISIS mercilessly murdered hundreds of military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. ISIS left no doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. While concerned about the rise of ISIS, Putin was never impressed with the group. In a speech on his deployment of Russian Federation forces to Syria, Putin remarked on ISIS’ behavior in a disdainful tone, saying, “We know how they do such things; how they kill people; how they destroy cultural monuments. . . .” In that same speech, Putin explained that in the ISIS fight, Russia would provide Assad and other allies “the necessary military and technical support.” Russia has done that and ISIS may soon be defeated in Syria.

Omne initium difficile est. (Every beginning is difficult.) Once Russia and its allies squeeze the life out of ISIS in Syria, they must not allow ISIS to resurrect itself. A capable military presence must be set up in Syria to keep ISIS out or at least under control. The success of the joint military efforts of Russia and its allies may provide the foundation for a peace enforcement mission in Syria and an eventual reconstruction effort. With reconstruction costs in mind, the possibility exists that Russia and its allies would cooperate with the US over what remains of the ISIS fight in Syria and the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq. Among other possibilities, Iranian and Iranian-led forces, in support of the Assad regime and their Syrian Arab Army allies, could coordinate actions with units of their comrades in Iraq. Both forces fall under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani. Locking down the border will collaterally support the ISIS fight in Iraq. It was hypothesized in 2015 by the Middle East Institute that Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) might be co-opted to help establish a security zone incorporating their own territory and some more along the border with Iraq to help keep ISIS out of the area and help maintain a sustainable peace. How Putin will proceed is uncertain, but right now, Russia is playing a central in Syria and he is free to decide as he pleases.

Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS; An Agreement Is Needed on Assad

The Russians are coming! Stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a main reason for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the Russian Federation Armed Forces into Syria, but defeating ISIS is also a priority. So far, that effort has been manifested in the use of air power and sea based missile strikes. However, use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz (as above), will likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific ISIS leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units.

According to a November 27, 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria,” Russia, after initially offering hope that Russia would cooperate with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, has played down that possibility. That position was made clear by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, during a November 27th press conference at the Kremlin. For their part, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have tried to bring Putin into a US-led coalition instead with an understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. French President François Hollande has traveled to both Washington and Moscow following a spate of horrific terrorist attacks tied to the militant group. As part of the effort to find middle ground between the US and Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius floated the idea of using Assad’s forces against ISIS but only in the context of a political transition that would remove Assad from power.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has sought cooperation with Western countries, but solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms include providing diplomatic and military shelter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that oppose the Assad regime. Ties between Russia and the West were further strained when Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter that allegedly crossed into its airspace and ignored warnings. One Russian pilot was killed. Russian and Syrian forces rescued the navigator. A Russian Marine was killed during the rescue.

On January 28, 2015, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian Opposition Movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.”   Now required to come to terms with the West on Syria to create a unified front against ISIS, Lavrov finds himself in a similar impasse with his Western counterparts. For many senior officials in Russia, the stalemate with the US was expected not only due to a disagreement over Assad but due to a perceived unyielding US hostility toward Russia. This perspective has been manifested in Putin’s speeches and interviews. Variance can occasionally be discerned whenever Russia seeks to cultivates ties with the US for their usefulness. For example, as the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, an April 18, 2015 Reuters article reported Putin told Obama by telephone, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” Yet, only two days before on an annual TV phone-in show, Putin accused the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” This is the perspective that Putin’s paracletes in the Kremlin also espouse. In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered that there is an unwavering US hostility toward Russia. He claims that hostility is due to Russia’s resistance to US efforts to achieve world hegemony and to control Russia’s immense natural resources in order to seal that hegemony. The idea that a US animus exists toward Russia and US policy is perfectly designed to promote it may be called an exaggeration. It may be viewed as typical of an intelligence official to find external causality for domestic events. Still, what is important is that Patrushev and others in Putin’s circle believe it.

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. That was the case with the Iran Talks which ended in an agreement after nearly two years of negotiations. All sides are working very hard to understand the entire matter regarding Syria. If some middle ground can be found, it will concern the disposition of Assad. The solution is only temporarily hidden. Conditions can change, and possibilities will exist. However, regardless of his position on Assad, Putin says Russia is committed to the battle against ISIS in Syria. With or without cooperation from the US-led coalition, which Putin has called illegal, Russia must succeed.

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, he also seeks to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to undercut Assad.

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin stated, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” However, despite what has been publicly outlined by Putin, some in the West believe his intervention in Syria was a way to end the isolation its has faced since the collapse of the pro-Russian Government in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s support of pro-Russian separatist in The Donbass. The conversation ostensibly would shift away from it and creating circumstances for the easing of sanctions which have had an impact. Such perspectives reinforce Putin’s determination to avoid doing anything that could create the perception Russia was wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance.   Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He would demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the US had so far failed. That would be the real prize for Putin and his confidants. Exitus acta probat! (The result validates the deeds!)

Above are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patruchev. Reportedly, the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s as well as Shoigu and Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria.

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly directed Suleimani to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements despite a UN travel ban on the IRGC set by the UN Security Council in 2007. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 27, 2015, Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow covering regional and bilateral issues and the delivery of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces. He indicated that Syrian opposition was advancing toward the coast and posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatening Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This alarmed the Russians, who could see that matters were in steep decline and there were real dangers to the regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained that there was still time to reclaim the initiative. Putin acted. Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur! (A friend in need is a friend indeed!)

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort in Syria was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly directed renowned Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements. Suleimani met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He outlined the deteriorating situation for the Syrian Armed Forces, but explained, using a map, that there was still time to reclaim the initiative.

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even in his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

Via rectum ad astra! (The path to success is through bad places!) Law enforcement and intelligence organizations globally use a variety of convoluted methods against subjects of investigations to include: buy and bust operations, using an informant to engage in clandestine conversations with subjects or act as an agent provocateur, sting operations, and plausibly deniable covert operations. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, using an odd gambit known as provokatsiya, penetrating and co-opting terrorist groups, has actually influenced the hijrah or Islamic militant migration into Syria as a means to facilitate the pacification of the insurgency in North Caucasus. Using local intermediaries, FSB would allegedly arrange the departure of Islamic militants to Turkey where they would find their way into Iraq or Syria. The arrangements would be made under the condition that the Islamic militants would deal only with the FSB and none of they would not inform any of their Islamic militant confederates of their FSB sponsorship. It has been estimated that since this operation was undertaken, between 2000 and 3000 Russian Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. (During an October 19, 2015 meetng with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–twelve former Soviet Republics, Putin, himself, said there were approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS republics in ISIS.) The operation has supposedly allowed Russian countrrterrorism officials to take credit for the halving of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus since the Syrian civil war began. If Islamic extremists returned and began attacks, Russia, in theory, could claim ISIS was the cause for terrorism in the region.

The Novaya Gazeta article quotes sources in North Caucasus with ties to Islamic militants to support its claim. In investigating the Russian newspaper’s report, The Daily Beast learned from well-known Putin detractor, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin who said Russian intelligence had a long ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.” The Daily Beast article also discussed parallels of the alleged operation and the reported strategy the Russian Government during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Islamic extremist warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Russian Federation Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, in order to destroy the secular, democratic Chechen movement. Basayev proved to be a less of useful tool for the Kremlin when it was discerned that he wanted to create an emirate in the Caucasus. He was assassinated, but his efforts “cast a pall” on the secular separatist struggle and offered a cause for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in Grozny’s destruction. History without fact is at best theory and at worst myth. If some provokatsiya operation helped create the threat ISIS now poses to Russia, its use was foolhardy. However, Russia’s focus now is defeating ISIS in Syria. Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum. (There is an optimal condition in all things. There are therefore precise boundaries beyond which one cannot find the right thing.)

Russia is the latest state actor to intervene in Syria, but Russia’s fight with Islamic extremist did not begin with Syria. Russia has been combatting Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s first term. Islamic exfremist terrorist attacks have occurred since in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. After ISIS injected itself into the Syrian Civil War, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks. Putin is concerned Syria will become the starting point for the movement of ISIS into Russia

In the Crimea, Russian Federation forces engaged in a stealth operation, referred to as hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troop, propaganda, and economic pressure the West says Russia used there. In The Donbass, the presence of a rather considerable number of Russian Federation forces has been denied by the Kremlin. However, in Syria, the actions of the Russian Federation Armed Forces are very visible and made very public. Indeed, the operation in Syria has become a testing ground for new weapons systems. Systems being utilized include the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile, of which several were launched from the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles from their targets in Syria. Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets are conducting almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. They have attacked targets in support of Syrian ground forces and presumably will provide close air support for an Iranian-led offensive.

In response to chatter from Western defense analysts about the new weapons that were revealed, Putin explained on state television, “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria may face challenges beyond those presented by ISIS and Western backed FSA fighters. Claims have been made that the Russian Federation Armed Forces are still trying to eliminate problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of post-Soviet era. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of efficiency in the military investigations department. Officers have been accused of trading in travel warrant, stealing soldiers’ meals, and the extortion of pay from officers by commanders. Accusations of extortion in the distribution of supplementary pay in Army units have been investigated in every district and fleet. Murders, bribery, and drug trafficking have also been considerable problems. Efforts have been made to improve conditions and raise morale in the ranks. These problems could potentially manifest themselves in the poor performance of some units in Syria.

In response to chatter from Western analysts about new weapons used in Syria, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explained on state television “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria could face challenges caused by problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of the post-Soviet era unless units deployed there are selected based on their capability to perform with a high level of proficency.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov will surely be diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself.

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (above) will surely be diligent in the deployment of his forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but also must ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself. Neither the Syrian Opposition nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. The world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed.

The Way Forward

Russia’s intervention in Syria has not received much support from Western capitals. To some degree, they have discouraged it. The US and United Kingdom have accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. On October 12, 2015, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” She was especially worried about recent violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets. Turkey’s decision to shoot-down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was undoubtedly the strongest manifestation of disapproval of Russian’s intervention given all accounts of what actually occurred and the excessive level of the response. Putin equated the action to being “stabbed in the back” given Russia’s commitment to defeating ISIS.

Putin went into Syria not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he will neither allow an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize the efforts of the Syrian Opposition to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. There is a deadlock now with the West concerning Syria, but Putin has hope. Red-lines and deadlines have been set over and over by the Obama administration, but they have been overcome by opponents. Iran, once told it had to surrender its nuclear program, managed to retain a good amount of it after talks. Even Assad managed to quash the issue of airstrikes against his regime in September 2013 by unloading his chemical weapons arsenal. If the US and EU want a resolution on Syria, there is need for compromise. Surely, Putin expects that compromise to come from them. Neither the Syrian Opposition’s FSA nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. If Russia, a military superpower, is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS in Syria, and not just doing things on the margins or posturing to influence a political outcome for Assad, the world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed. To that extent, Russian Federation Armed Forces are a strong bargaining chip in negotiations concerning Syria. Putin will proceed carefully until others come to that realization or perhaps until his support for allies in Syria results in a favorable outcome for Assad.   Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)