By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Russia has come to populate media headlines as of late traversing topics related to Syria, Ukraine, China, economics and, of course, U.S. policy. This is hardly surprising given the number of profound issues facing the world and Russia’s perceived place in it, yet the nearly exclusive focus on Moscow deserves analysis. Perhaps the most pressing issues, by way of media reporting anyway, is the buildup of Russian forces in the war torn nation of Syria. Granted, Russia has had boots on the ground so to speak since the early days of the conflict; however their role may be changing.
The past few years have born witness to Moscow’s intelligence operatives working in Syria along with other military advisers. Indeed, some of the largest intelligence collection operations that Russia runs in the Middle East are based out of Beirut and Damascus making their presence in the conflict inevitable. But the most recent reporting would indicate that the buildup of forces at the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia – the coastal province from which Assad and the larger Alawite community hail – portends a more active role in the conflict. A role that will certainly involve direct combat. The airport has been fortified from a security standpoint and is currently the home to large construction projects designed for a larger military presence such as new runways for heavier aircraft and soldiers’ barracks. According to the Daily Beast article that kicked off much of this discussion, open source intelligence indicates that Russia has moved the 810th Marine Brigade out of Sevastopol, Crimea to the Syrian theater. Notably, this unit played a role in the annexation of Crimea just a year and a half ago. Perhaps a unit that hasn’t been mentioned regarding the Syrian buildup would be the 45th GRU Spetsnaz. When Moscow needs a unit that is combat effective and more than capable of handling involuntary political transitions the 45th usually gets the tasking. Any indication of the 45th’s presence in Syria would instructive.
The buildup of Russian forces has certainly captured international attention, as well it should, yet there have been other, less reported issues that Moscow is facing and they may certainly be related to the impending Syrian adventure. In Ukraine, where an intractable conflict has been raging for over a year, Russian regulars have been involved in combat operations in and around the disputed city of Donetsk; however with Russia moving forces to Syria there will be a lull in fighting as Moscow shifts to dealing with multiple fronts of combat. This is likely to be short lived as information coming out of Ukraine points to a buildup of Russian forces just 15 miles outside of Ukraine territory. The mix of military in this location is a bit cloudy at this point, but Russia would likely configure its military presence at this location to reflect a small expedition force with different disciplines capable of moving into Ukraine quickly should the need arise. In military parlance this is known as a quick reaction force. Though Moscow is rather deeply involved militarily in Ukraine already, it may want to rebalance its commitment for reasons of flexibility. Ukraine will remain a political basket-case for the foreseeable future, and Russia likely finds the chaos amenable to its interests for now. Additionally, Ukraine doesn’t have an overly capable military meaning that Kiev will likely refrain from taking the initiative to launch an offensive against the city. Russia will be stretched in some areas, but it will retain the ability to project force. Ukrainian intelligence has been hit or miss and taking such a risk with information that may be unreliable – even in their own nation – might not be in the best interest of a beleaguered Kiev. This isn’t to say that Russia will abandon its efforts in Ukraine, rather it is simply adapting to expanding military operations. By bolstering some forces near the shared border, Russia is sending a message to Kiev that Moscow isn’t really going anywhere even in the face of a slowdown in fighting.
Perhaps another battle worth reviewing is the fight in Moscow over economic policy. Unsurprisingly, economic issues often take a backseat to war reporting, especially when it concerns areas as volatile as Syria and Ukraine. But the Kremlin is a place for battles and influence among different factions much as you’d find in any nation’s capital, so it’s easy to understand why these disagreements among factions don’t always gain international attention. That said, Russia is reviewing economic policy and budgetary issues for 2016 – something most nations do around this time of year – but something odd happened on the way to the parade of spreadsheets. Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov is due to present his recommendations and findings at the end of September. Again, this is all normal, but what raised a few eyebrows was the request of the Russian Security Council for presidential aide Sergei Glazyev to draft a separate policy to be presented mid-September – two weeks before Siluanov. Siluanov and Glazyev agree on very little making the request rather contentious. Glazyev’s recommendations are, to be quite frank, rather terrible. Being that Glazyev is an ultra-nationalist this shouldn’t be surprising, but he has recommended the full severing of economic ties with the west. Keep in mind that Moscow’s current policy on food imports has largely failed and the attempts over the last year to reach economic accommodation with China have also not born the fruit that Moscow would like. The further erosion of economic ties with the west would seem like a non-starter, but the Glazyev recommendations may be yet another message to a non-Russian audience. Either Russia is stating that it is preparing for more economic sanctions from the west as some observers have suggested, or it could indicate that Moscow may be willing to talk. Military operations cost money especially when they are located far abroad and Syria is considered far abroad when discussed in the Russian context. Though Russia has always had a knack for fielding a functional and capable military even in tough economic times, it seems odd that Moscow would want to cut all economic ties to the west as it is ramping up military operations in Syria.
Indeed, Russia may want to talk to the U.S. The global economic situation is deteriorating and not just because of Chinas’ issues. This isn’t lost on the U.S., Russia, or anyone else for that matter, so the buildup of forces in Syria in this context must be rethought. Also worth considering in this context is the migrant/refugee crisis that is impacting Europe just as the continent is facing its own very difficult economic challenges. Something has to give and Syria may well be battlefield that all players feel most comfortable in resolving as a means to alleviate some of these issues. Even the UK seems to have accepted many of Russia’s demands in Syria even the possibility of leaving Assad in power. Granted, Syria is a small nation and it doesn’t have much impact on the global scene despite the gains of ISIS and the global fixation on the horrors that have become common in the war torn nation. Even the use of chemical weapons hasn’t been enough to push world powers towards overt intervention which really brings home the reality of Syria’s global priority. But if the conflict were to exacerbate other issues Russia may be looking to cast itself as willing to take the direct risk in Syria – with a few other demands – in exchange for sanctions relief. For its part, Washington has instead taken to asking Eastern European nations to prevent Russian military overflights. This certainly isn’t what the Russian’s had in mind. Just hitting the news wires is a story from Reuters with the headline, “Russia to U.S.: talk to us on Syria or risk ‘unintended incidents.'” Moscow obviously isn’t pleased with the lack of direct talks with the U.S. regarding Syria, but honestly it’s seemingly disconnected overtures to D.C. likely proved difficult to decipher leading Russia to the extreme opposite of requesting dialogue in the most obtuse way possible. How Washington will react to this very thinly veiled threat will be interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that Russia will continue to pursue talks with the U.S. over any number of issues. We should read these requests not as Russia functioning from strength, rather weakness. And that weakness can breed the worst forms of desperation.