Coming out of an extremely busy summer due to market volatility – more on that later – I have been generally tracking world events on these pages; with my fellow contributors and columnists doing a great job summarizing, analyzing and commenting on key events ranging from volatility in Emerging Markets, the European refugee crisis and of course, the whole (new) mess in Syria. Generally the coverage has been tremendous, leaving me with pretty much nothing to add.
Going back to my “odd man rule” which I first explained in my article about Iran a few moons ago (see “Iran nuke deal is good news” dated April 14, 2015) though, I felt that the recent articles about Russia’s military intervention in Syria appeared overly charitable to the country and fairly one-sided in their praise for President Putin’s apparently “decisive” and “strategic” thinking. The general narrative has been:
- Syria is a mess (well, no contest there)
- Current actions by the US, GCC and EU are basically futile (no contest)
- ISIS is evil (again, no contest)
- By entering the battle against ISIS directly, Russia is providing leadership (hmmm…)
- Russian intervention will prove a decisive turning point (hmmm…)
- Iran will benefit from Russia’s intervention the most (hmmm…)
Reading from the “Hmmm” sheet
In general, I find very little evidence that corroborates the notion of President Putin being a strategic thinker with strong, decisive leadership instincts. His stewardship of the Russian economy has been nothing short of catastrophic while his management of the former USSR client states has displayed consistent myopia. Think about Cuba for example, or indeed, Vietnam where Russia basically abrogated a long-held strategic presence for no ostensible geopolitical gains.
The second aspect driving my thinking here is that one should never initiate a military campaign unless the objectives are clear and victory is assured (Sun Tzu). Putin’s campaign in Syria fails on both counts as I will explain below – a good analogy for the Russian campaign is that they are shooting at a falling object, and so risk turn one falling object into multiple falling objects. They have form in this regards – look at Ukraine.
Russian intervention in the Ukraine displays all the characteristics of a poorly thought out campaign, whatever may have been the longer term strategic objectives. A few months ago, I wrote in “Era of Thugs” after the MH-17 disaster:
“Russia’s President Vladimir Putin decided to teach a lesson to Ukrainians for daring to tie their skirts to the moronic European Union. Having annexed Crimea almost too easily, Putin decided that an open show of force on the Ukraine border wouldn’t go down well for his global ambitions and instead decided to arm militias to take on the ill-equipped, confused and corrupt army of Ukraine.
And just to ensure that air superiority didn’t play a part in the escapades of his rogues, he gave them a bunch of SAMs (surface-to-air missiles for the rest of us). Ah well, chaos theory has another idea – how about if the ruffians use the missile to down a civilian airliner and kill nearly 300 people in the process. Oops.
His strategy for Ukraine was learnt from the Russian losses in Afghanistan that were engineered by the United States and Pakistan: arm a band of thugs and let them roam free, killing Russians and bringing down military aircraft. Over time, the thugs helped to wear down the mighty Russian army, but someone forgot to remove the weapons and command structures. Chaos theory took over and sure enough unemployed thugs turned to drug smuggling and worse; eventually rising up as the Taliban that overran Afghanistan and harbored nutcases from around the Islamic world. One of those nutcases had the weird idea of sticking passenger aircraft into buildings as a physics experiment. Oops (this time for the US).
Not content with picking up a fight with the rest of the world, the Taliban turned on its own masters, the Pakistan Army, disagreeing in public about ideology but in private more about drugs smuggling, weapons trading and the control of precious natural resources, including rare earths and various metals in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
As a side note, the above section about Russian involvement in Ukraine drew a fair number of critics, who assailed me for alleging this whilst themselves stating baldly that it had been Ukrainian fighter jets that downed the ill-fated airline (never mind the logical fallacy that fighter jets cannot operate at the cruising altitude of airliners). In any event, as the Independent and other UK newspapers reported yesterday:
“Pieces of missile have been found in the bodies of victims from the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crash last year, it has been claimed. The fragments are believed to be from a Buk missile, Vasyl Vovk, a senior officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) who worked on the case for nearly a year, told Dutch news site NOS.
“The fragments found in the bodies of the victims and the remains of the aircraft, are elements that resemble samples from Buks given to experts for comparative research,” he said, according to The Telegraph.
Mr Vovk told NOS there was evidence the BUK “was ordered by the terrorists”, adding that “Russian politicians and high-ranking military knew [it was] brought to Ukraine in July last year, aiming to knock down a plane”, the Mirror reported.”
The trouble with using ‘plausible deniability’ as an offensive strategy is that you tend to lose control of the cat’s paws as both the US and Russia did in Afghanistan and Ukraine respectively. Apparently learning from this debacle, instead of only arming Syria’s government to fight ISIS as well as “moderate” rebels sponsored by the US, Russia has decided to take direct action with first air attacks on ISIS and subsequently (perhaps) an enhanced military presence on the ground.
Mishaps aplenty … but that’s not the problem
Already, the Russian campaign has encountered a few mishaps
- US and European media have accused Russia of causing significant civilian casualties over the air attacks (although why anyone would listen to Americans complaining about ‘collateral damage’ is beyond my immediate comprehension)
- Russian fighter jets strayed into Turkish airspace apparently due to bad weather but triggering concerns that Russia was trying to “light up” Turkish radar installations as part of a broader intelligence campaign against NATO of which Turkey is a member
- The CIA has alleged that Russia appears to be primarily targeting the “moderate” rebels fighting the Assad regime, rather than ISIS as the Russians claim. This is one story where I wouldn’t bother to believe either side (or would believe both), given that the very notion of a “good terrorist” is utter bunkum
- For good measure, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has “requested” that President Putin authorizes him and his troops to launch a ground war inside Syria to directly combat ISIS. This could do as much to unite Sunni tribes with ISIS than perhaps even a direct Iranian assault could
- Some missiles launched from Russian ships in the Caspian, aimed at ISIS targets in Syria fell short of their targets, landing instead in Iran. The leaders there are probably wondering if it was a good idea to get Russia involved directly, if that was indeed their bright idea
Barely a few days in, here’s what we can surmise:
- Russia doesn’t have much on-the-ground intelligence about ISIS, so may be depending on the Assad government for all its intelligence and target areas
- With US, GCC and EU powers not co-operating with Russia apparently, the chances of devastating attacks on Sunni or Kurdish populations considered inimical to Assad’s interests are quite high
- Given the failures of missiles launched from the Caspian to hit their targets; as well as the incident of a Russian aircraft straying into Turkish airspace, it is quite likely that Russia doesn’t actually have the technical wherewithal to pull off its venture
Based on the above, it could well turn out that Russia’s little misadventure in Syria ends up making matters considerably worse than they already are. Going back to “don’t shoot one falling object lest you make it multiple falling objects”, it does appear to me that Russia has moved to precisely achieve that result.
Not quite what a “great, decisive, strategic” leader would be doing, at this point.
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