November 10, 2015


What is the Russian military good for? (Pavel K. Baev | November 4, 2015, Brookings)

The Russian intervention in Syria is only possible at all because the "hybrid war" in Eastern Ukraine, which has tied up the bulk of Russian combat-capable battalions, has seen virtually no use of the air force. Moscow sought to use this free capacity for staging demonstrations of air power over the Baltic theater but encountered effective containment--it has since scaled down its provocations. Syria appeared an easier option, and the deployment of an air regiment to the hastily prepared Hmeymym airbase outside Latakia went remarkably smoothly. As the air war has moved into the second month, however, issues with its trajectory have emerged.

The composition of the regiment (with a squadron of light Su-25SM fighter-bombers and a squadron of Mi-24 attack helicopters) makes it most suitable for close air support. But that kind of difficult mission only makes sense if it's in support of a ground offensive by Syrian government forces, which have proven incapable of conducting any successful campaign. Sustaining the air campaign at the present level may not be very expensive (conservative Russian estimate gives the figure of $2.5 million a day, compared to the roughly $9 million per day the United States spends on its anti-ISIS fight), but a technical setback is certain to hit sooner rather than later. 

Escalation will be difficult because few other power projection options are available. The cruise missile salvo by the frigates of the Caspian flotilla on Russian President Vladimir Putin's birthday was sensational, but it has seriously upset Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and so cannot be repeated. It had little resonance on the battlefield anyway. Expanding the scale of intervention would be logistically very difficult. The Russian navy had to lease and purchase eight commercial transports in order to deliver supplies for the operation at the level of up to 50 sorties a day (which means one sortie per aircraft). Its only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is undergoing repairs (as it is most of the time), and the navy command could only dream of building an amphibious assault ship that would compare with Mistral-class ships, which France has refused to deliver.

The Russian regime's plan has clearly been to use initial battlefield success to negotiate an end to the civil war from a position of strength. But alas there has been little initial battlefield success.

Posted by at November 10, 2015 4:57 PM