Publication: The Military Balance 2017
14 February 2017
Russia’s deployment of military force to Syria in September 2015 significantly bolstered the position of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, at a time when Assad’s hold on power was looking increasingly tenuous. With this mission now more than one year old, it allows further examination of Russia’s modernising armed forces and the capabilities of its weapons systems.
More broadly, on the defence-policy level, the Syria operation has reinforced the view that not only is Russia willing and able to deploy its armed forces, but also that it is prepared to use military force in situations when it perceives itself to be suffering – or to be at risk of suffering – geopolitical losses. As such, Russia’s employment of military force in Syria, in and on the border with Ukraine, and also perhaps its military activities in Europe, can be seen as an attempt by Moscow to use military power as a coercive tool in order to further its political objectives. However, the military lever is not used in isolation; rather, it is just one policy component and is deployed alongside a range of other tools, including information and influence operations.
In Ukraine, the direct application of Russian military power resulted in the rapid seizure of Crimea. When Moscow perceived that its interests were threatened by Ukrainian military advances, military pressure was once more applied – for instance at Zelenopillya and Ilovaisk in 2014 and Debaltseve in 2015. Moscow’s deployment of force was intended to coerce Kiev in relation to the negotiating process as much as it was to tactically assist its proxies on the ground in Ukraine. Similarly, as noted by one IISS expert, Russia’s intervention in Syria can be seen as ‘part of the international bargaining process over the civil war that began in 2011’. In addition, the ‘brinkmanship in relation to NATO’ could be perceived as being ‘linked to the efforts Russia has been undertaking for many years to push back against increased military activity – particularly US military activity – along its borders’.