Uncoiled Spring: Russia’s new view of its role in the world
-- Syria and beyond --
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has begun to articulate a clear view of its role in the world, and this underpins its strategy in Syria and elsewhere. Instead of seeing Russian intervention in Syria and throughout the Arab and Islamic world as driven solely by the personal goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin, we need to understand the political philosophy which is driving Russian foreign policy. For without an understanding of Russian political strategy, we stand no chance of opposing it.
Russia – Why Syria?
The recent Russian military intervention in the Syrian quagmire has pushed the crisis to an even higher level of geopolitical significance. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s willingness to enter into another military conflict, in cooperation with Syria’s President Bashir Al Assad and Iran, surprised most Western analysts, though at NAMEA we were expecting it. After the bloody experience of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the recent annexation of Crimea and the Ukrainian civil war, only a very few analysts anticipated that Russia’s military might put boots on the ground in Syria, in what now seems to be a full-scale combined-arms military campaign. However, Russia’s new military strategy, as analyzed below, demonstrates that in fact this is a normal way of implementing the Kremlin’s national security strategy. At the same time, Russia’s involvement in Syria stands should not be viewed in isolation, as Moscow is also trying to involve itself in the Iraq conflict, while simultaneously expanding its military cooperation with former allies such as Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Iran.
The following assessment will first of all focus on strategic policy changes inside Russia’s military, while also focusing on the Russian military involvement in the Middle East and North Africa. Within the overall framework, we also discuss another major global player, China, since Beijing is slowly advancing its own geopolitical interests in the region.
Russia Sees Colors
The term Color Revolutions first came to international prominence in May 2014 at the annual Russian Ministry of Defense’s International Security conference. A senior member of NAMEA’s leadership team sat through the briefings at this conference and noted that the term ‘color revolutions’ was used by a succession of Russian analysts to describe various related movements that developed in several societies in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans during the early 2000s. The term has also been applied to a number of revolutions elsewhere, including in the Middle East. The term is now used freely by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as a general descriptor for popular democratic movements, movements which Russia believes are essentially U.S. sponsored. Some analysts have called the events a ‘revolutionary wave’, the origins of which can be traced back to the 1986 People Power Revolution (also known as the "Yellow Revolution") in the Philippines.
Participants in the color revolutions mostly used nonviolent civil resistance. Methods such as demonstrations, strikes and other forms of non-violent protest against governments seen as corrupt and/or authoritarian, and to advocate democracy, created strong pressure for change. These movements often adopted a specific color as their symbol. The color revolutions are notable for the important role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and particularly student activists in organizing creative non-violent resistance.
Such movements have had a measure of success; for example in the former Yugoslavia's Bulldozer Revolution (2000); in Georgia's Rose Revolution (2003); and in Ukraine's Orange Revolution (2004). In most but not all cases, massive street protests followed disputed elections, or requests for fair elections, and led to the resignation or overthrow of leaders considered by their opponents to be authoritarian. Some have included Lebanon's Cedar Revolution (2005) and Kuwait's Blue Revolution (2005) as ‘color revolutions’.
But the Russian establishment’s intellectual response to the color revolutions has led to the creation of a new paradigm and a new view of Russia’s role to counter Western influence. In Putin’s Russia, the notion is now widespread that there is a necessity for ‘the Russian/Eurasian civilization’ to counteract ‘aggression from the Atlantic civilization led by the US’.
This concept is enshrined in Russia’s new geopolitical doctrine, which treats the U.S. as a dangerous country which uses information warfare, intelligence, special operations, and private military security companies (PMSCs) against Russian interests. Russia sees a networked struggle, including information and psychological warfare, which the U.S. uses to achieve its goals in international, regional and domestic politics and to gain geopolitical advantage. At the extremist end of the spectrum you find political theorists like Igor Panarin and Aleksandr Dugin. Though their theories may be dismissed by western analysts because of their ultra-nationalist, paranoid, conspiracy-based writings, they are nonetheless influential on a younger generation of post-Soviet academics and the new generation of Russian geopolitical thinkers. These Russian thinkers have created an ideological basis for the geopolitical struggle in which they see Russia engaged: In opposition to the Western ideology of democratic liberalism, their ideology envisages Russia as a neo-conservative, post-liberal power struggling for a just multi-polar world, which defends tradition, conservative values and ‘true’ liberty. The Russian Eurasian civilization is set in contrast to the ‘Atlantic’ civilization led by the U.S. which allegedly intends to disassemble Russian statehood and gain global hegemony. Russia also sees itself as ‘the great Northern civilization’ that hopes to rally support from the countries on its periphery and its region. This notion of Russia’s role in the world is the main reason why Russia acts the way it does towards Syria, Iran, Iraq and the Arab world in general, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, which Russia sees as a color revolution.
According to the Russian leadership of the Defense Ministry, the NGOs, often seen as inseparable from PMSCs, are part of a force that, under the guise of democracy promotion, the U.S. is using to spread alien ideas and encouraging the people to rise up against the state. Russia sees evidence of this in Ukraine, Venezuela, and the countries of the Arab Spring including Libya, Egypt, Syria and even Mali. The Russian view is that the U.S. uses citizens in a state to rise up and create chaos in order to change the political order. If a color revolution fails to change the political order, chaos ensues, and the long term instability affects other countries. The US’ actions are leading to West Africa fracturing and Jihadists returning to Europe to head a global campaign.
How America destabilizes the world – the Russian view
Russian military geopolitical theory describes several strategies that the U.S. uses to advance its aims and encourage color revolutions. For instance, one way the U.S. searches for a pretext to encourage a color revolution is described as the Traditional Approach. This approach was manifest in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and Haiti. Essentially, the actions of America and its allies have brought about state collapse in these countries, threatening the concept of the state as it removes the power of the state over its own citizens. Hence, Afghanistan is a major failure of state power because of the “civil war within the state”- drug traffickers and networks of terrorists and militants with no competent national security structure have taken the place of the state. Now, according to Russian defense officials, we are witnessing a new approach: The “Adaptive Use of Force” is the military training of rebels, providing supplies, and the use of foreign fighters to destabilize a state. This theory describes a model under which the U.S. and her Atlantic civilization partners search for a pretext to launch a color revolution based on humanitarian needs or the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Similarly, Russian strategic thinkers describe another American approach as the “Concealed Use of Force” which includes special operation forces and PMSCs who work as “non-state actors” to disrupt, deny, and destroy the economic means of production.
For Russian military theorists, American manipulation of color revolutions is made easier for four main reasons: First, the ineffectiveness of the UN in preventing military conflict. Second, armaments safety controls imposed by international agreements that causes governments to lose control over military bases and arms depots, leading to weapons leakage and outright looting. Third, the collapse of the system of international military relations, allowing grey zones to emerge in which militias and PMSCs thrive and fight each other. Fourth, color revolutions are often accompanied by extremist modes of thought stemming from nationalism and xenophobia and leading to fascism and nihilistic extremist terrorism, as seen in the Balkans, or the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Spring, or more recently in the re-emergence of neo-Nazism in Ukraine.
Russian military theorists also fixate on the offensive aspect of color revolutions, calling it Aggression in the Form of Color Revolutions. According to this theory, color revolutions result in never ending civil war and terror, reduction in the international status of the country, partial loss of territory, a ruined economy, and a 15 to 20-year setback in development. This aggression by the U.S. and the Atlantic civilization tries to split a state from the inside because of low cost of such actions, the fact the adversary is not evident, there is no front or rear lines as found in a traditional war, and the end result is the state’s destruction. The target country is normally rich in minerals or other natural resources, and the U.S. and the Atlantic civilization want to “unhinge” the stability of their target to access natural resources.
Russia is attempting to counter global color revolutions by forming alliances, participating in international organizations, regional military groups, and especially by cooperation on air defense systems. Ever since the air war over Kosovo in 1999, Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and China have been coordinating on lessons learned in air defense and applying these techniques to their own militaries and defense industrial sales.
The Kremlin’s New Geopolitical Outlook
Russia’s security and foreign policy elites have formulated a new Russian security and foreign policy doctrine based on the need to identify and alert the world to the U.S. and Atlantic civilization’s desire to upend the international order in order to capture key states for geopolitical expansionism. In this view, America and its allies are essentially a dangerous destabilizing force. The Russians, by announcing this new view, have openly shown their intent to counter this perceived American destabilization by developing geopolitical strategies that encourage stability. It is clear from the content of the new Russian strategic theory that Russia sees a bi-polar world emerging in which an alternative to the West, an antithesis, is necessary. Combating the West’s strategy includes building international networks, sharing information, expanding arms sales, alliance building, and the creation of an alternative economic system that decouples Russia’s allies from the Western free market capitalist system. An example is the Kremlin’s deal with Beijing to supply gas to China by 2017 at the cost of $400 billion. Sources in Moscow stated that there are six more deals in the works by the end of the year, which will bring the total to $1 trillion. In addition, Russia plans to create an alternative to the SWIFT banking system as well as new banking systems with their own credit and debit cards. Thus the Kremlin seeks to distance itself from the “chaotic and dangerous” West. One other major strategy is to force an end to the U.S. dollar’s dominance of international economies. Russia, China and Iran especially, have set up strategies to denominate their exports and trade in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, forcing increased pressure on the overall position of the latter.
The implications for Europe are significant. Moscow’s pivot to the East is a direct response to Western sanctions as well as NATO’s creep up to Russia’s borders and a seemingly increasing series of NATO exercises over the last few years. Russian security officials estimate that Ukraine’s path forward will be chaotic and ultimately lead to a more through intervention by Moscow to protect the Donetsk and Lugansk regions followed by moves towards Odessa and beyond to capture all of the Black Sea’s northern and western coastline. Putin is patient and waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
The Arab world will also be affected by Russia’s new geopolitical paradigm, especially Syria, Iraq, Egypt and probably Libya (where Russia has been quietly supporting the legitimately elected government in Tobruk). The Kremlin is making strong gains in the Middle East and North Africa at the expense of the West as the United States fumbles its way through a series of inconsistent, weak and often apparently contradictory policy positions on the post-2011 Arab world. The unwillingness of the U.S. to put in place a viable and forceful security doctrine in the region has become a major issue of concern to the pro-Western Arab regimes. Moscow is making inroads into Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. For example: in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Rosoboronexport (the Russian State Export Company) is operating from Manama, giving instruction to the Bahrain Defense Force on how to use Russian special operations gear and riot control equipment. In Saudi Arabia, Russia’s Lukoil is now active again in the Eastern Province. Interestingly, it seems that the tension between the Kingdom and the Kremlin over Moscow’s support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has now largely evaporated. These past months, several high-level Saudi delegations have been visiting Moscow to discuss military and economic cooperation. Defense and energy related Russian delegations have also been flocking to the hotels of Riyadh. Part of the future relationship between the two states will be based on the ongoing developments surrounding Iran (Russia supports Tehran), and the OPEC-Russian thaw on oil price settings. Saudi Arabia is very worried about a possible Russia-Syria-Iraq-Iran axis. The announced establishment of a Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi information analysis center in Baghdad has caused considerable anxiety in Riyadh’s security circles.
Most importantly though, Russia’s new doctrine essentially lays down a challenge to Arab states – should they continue to work with a destabilizing U.S. and its allies, or choose to align with conservative Eurasian civilization? Overall, Russia seems to hope that its global color revolutions doctrine will sit well with Middle East and North African states who blame the U.S. and the Atlantic civilizations for the breakdown in regional order, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt. At the same time the new Russian doctrine, ironically, shows its true utility when it comes to the question of Iran and the West. Many Arab leaders feel that their previously unquestioned reliance on Western backing is now threatened not only by the West’s enthusiasm for the toppling of long term Arab governments during the Arab Spring, but also by the West’s acceptance of Iran’s rehabilitation and re-entry to the international community in return for what many see as limited concessions on its nuclear program. Russia has somehow managed to maintain strong and supportive relations with Iran while building relations with the Sunni Arab states, despite the confusion that this should engender and despite the negative reaction to U.S. outreach to Iran in the Arab world.
The absence of a clear U.S. and Western European strategy has allowed a power vacuum to emerge into which Russia, and its new interpretation of geopolitics, are stepping. The Kremlin’s decision to become a major military participant in Syria is consistent with Russia’s global strategic posture and the steady increase in its involvement in Syria since 2013. The growing military involvement of Moscow, largely in the air, but increasingly on the ground as well, is currently also mirrored by the growing involvement of Iranian forces (officially classed as military advisors). The recent meetings and discussions between Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and even the Palestinian authority and Israel, shows all the signs of a diplomatic offensive. Moreover, Putin’s speech at the 70th U.N. General Assembly made it clear that he intends Russia to lead a new military and economic strategy for the whole of North Africa and the Middle East.
Russia’s military presence in Syria
Moscow has sent a wide array of equipment and personnel by ship to the Syrian port of Tartus. Information has emerged that Russia had also pre-deployed prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield, as well as a portable air traffic control station. These preparations have made it possible for Russia to step into the Syrian conflict rapidly and in force. The new base is already being used by Russian Air Force units to launch their airstrikes against Assad’s enemies.
Weeks ago, a GCC official indicated that Moscow was loading ships with equipment bound for Syria. The supplies included items required to deploy 2,000 - 3,000 Russian personnel, including advisors, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division, and pilots. The latter were expected to operate aircraft, including over a dozen MiG-31s.
Moscow has been sending supplies to Syria for the past four years, mostly by airlift. In 2012, Russia’s then-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia had “military and technical advisers” in Syria. Jordanian sources we spoke to tell us that regular flights to Damascus from Russia have delivered “black items.”
Since the beginning of the conflict, Moscow has provided extensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to the Syrian government via Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU. That the GRU is on the ground and working with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is undeniable.
The Kremlin sees Syria as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and is keen on maintaining its place on the world stage and in the Middle East. In addition, the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely tied to the Kremlin, sees involvement in Syria as necessary to protect Middle Eastern Christianity from the Islamic State (IS) and other extremists.
Moscow’s Transition Plan for Syria
Russia’s deployments are part of its plan for transition in Syria. For the past few years, Moscow has been the center of diplomatic activity to settle the conflict. For instance, Russia successfully negotiated the removal of chemical weapons from Syria via the 2013 Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, in order to forestall U.S. and coalition airstrikes on the Assad government and its military assets. Overall, Arab governments see Moscow as more proactive than the West when it comes to the Syrian question.
Putin’s plan in Syria is clear. By deploying Russian assets to Syria, the Kremlin plans to be the force driving upcoming events in Damascus. Over a month ago in Vladivostok, Putin said Russia was looking at various options for Syria. He said Damascus should be part of a new international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism, which should take place in tandem with a political process in which Assad should play a role.
“The Syrian president... agrees with that, including holding early elections, parliamentary elections, and establishing contact with the so-called healthy opposition, bringing them into governing,” said Putin. This is a neat illustration of the Russian view that it can guide the process in Syria, a view which Putin underlined last week by summoning Assad to Moscow. At the same time, the facts on the ground suggest the somewhat specious quality of these statements, as the first military action taken by Russia (and its allies) in Syria were largely focused on the ‘pro-western’ rebel groups, not IS. It seems that Putin’s first phase is largely focused on consolidation of the Assad led groups, before next expanding its territorial control and getting its hands on strategic areas, such as the oil producing regions currently in the hands of IS.
Russia is preparing for a transition in Syria. The equipment and personnel being deployed are not only to protect Alawites and Assad’s family in its heartland of Latakia, but also to develop a humanitarian aid campaign.
In addition, the Kremlin sees that it needs to conduct state building to reverse the destructive nature of recent U.S. intervention in the Middle East. In the coming months, we expect increased cooperation between Syrian government aligned forces (including Hizballah) and the Iranian-Iraqi Shi’ite militias on the other side of the Syrian border. A traditional pincer movement to attack and destroy the moderate opposition and IS and its jihadist allies is the goal of this coordination. The key question is how the West, and specifically the United States, will react to Putin’s plan.
China, Russia and Syria
Russia’s military activities, coupled with the Kremlin’s diplomatic efforts on the Syria crisis, are bringing Chinese views and actions into sharp relief. Moscow and Beijing are linked together through a number of channels, including the BRICS association, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other institutions that foster a mix of political-economic collaboration.
On Syria, China is maintaining, for now, its usual policy of patience. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.N. Security Council: the world cannot afford to stand by, but must also must not “arbitrarily interfere” in the Syrian crisis. That type of thinking was emphasized when Wang met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in New York. In that discussion, Wang said China believed the world should respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Those comments sound very much like they came from the Kremlin. But Wang also emphasized the humanitarian challenge with some vigor, in comments which seemed to be a message to Moscow on airstrikes and other activity.
Throughout the Syria crisis, Beijing has backed Moscow, but there is more to Chinese policy than blind support of Russia; China is gradually flexing its foreign policy muscles. China, for instance, also seeks an expanded presence in the Mediterranean and other sea lanes. A means to achieve this has been China’s involvement in the EUNAVFOR counter-piracy mission. In addition, a 700-strong Chinese battalion is in Sudan under an UNMISS mandate, demonstrating China’s cautious but steady steps into arenas that it thinks are important for its geopolitical strategy. Down the road, we believe that Russia will seek Chinese help on the Syrian transition to a post-Assad political order.
Rumors from the blogosphere are fueling the story of China’s partnership with Russia on military operations in Syria, especially in the maritime domain. In particular, the recently reported presence of Chinese naval ships in the Mediterranean has caused speculation that Beijing may be sending military personnel to Syria to reinforce the Assad regime.
Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said conspiracy theory reporting might have led to confusion over the intentions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s 152nd fleet. It is headed by the Jinan guided-missile destroyer, along with the Yiyang frigate and the Qiandaohu supply ship, and has been conducting naval activities in the Mediterranean with Russia and Egypt.
Zhang said, after completing a four-month escort mission, the fleet began a five-month global tour from 23 August that began from the Gulf of Aden, and included a passage through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. The fleet has visited Sudan, Egypt, Denmark and Finland, and passed through the Mediterranean in late August or early September.
The Chinese, moreover, do have a vessel in the Syrian port of Latakia. According to a security official of the GCC, the vessel is “just sitting” there, possibly in case Chinese diplomats or other officials in Damascus need help or evacuation out of Assad’s areas of control. Or perhaps the vessel is observing Russian actions.
The Chinese are genuinely worried about IS. Beijing’s policy has remained to avoid becoming a target. Its policy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq all follow that line. Now, with Russian actions in Syria, and China’s seeming increased interest in Syria, China may well see itself on the cusp of getting involved against IS in new ways in the near future.
The Uighurs are the key Chinese concern. In July 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called out Chinese oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. “Your brothers all over the world are waiting your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” he said.
In September, IS taunted China in its online magazine Dabiq, featuring “the sale” of Fan Jinghui, a freelance consultant from Beijing. Reports of IS recruiters in Hong Kong approaching Indonesians and using Malaysia as a hub for gathering potential fighters only encourages China to take the threat with great seriousness.
The plight of the Uighurs is not new, but what is new is disenchanted Uighurs who take up the IS. IS supporters amongst the Uighurs number perhaps over 1,000, each a ticking time bomb from Beijing’s point of view.
Beijing’s fears were crystallized by the 17 August bombing in Bangkok, Thailand, when Uighur terrorists killed almost two-dozen people at the Hindu Erawan Shrine next to the Grand Hyatt. Although not an IS attack, the Uighur bombing is, we believe, a harbinger of things to come.
China is playing its game slowly and methodologically, as it normally does in the foreign policy realm. But, importantly for us, Beijing is approaching Russian action in Syria from a perspective of being a partner, urging cooperation and a clear and effective strategy.
The Kremlin understands Chinese foreign policy approaches very well, and Moscow and Beijing will generally cooperation and reach mutually acceptable approaches on Syria and IS: “You agree, I agree; you disagree, I disagree; you abstain, I abstain.” If deemed necessary, China may perhaps see its first real use of military force projection outside its immediate environs, and if so, it will be forced to face the challenge of responding to asymmetrical warfare.
Conclusion: A new international geopolitical paradigm
Clearly, the rapid developments in Russia’s military involvement in Syria will need to be assessed further, without jumping to premature conclusions. However, there are some practical realities emerging that we should focus: Russia is beginning to conceptualize its place in the world and historic role in terms of grand strategy - for the first time since the collapse of Communism. Russia feels that there are virtually no restrictions on its use of its military might to protect its perceived interests. Russia sees the Middle East and North Africa as part of its sphere of influence. Russia and China are increasingly coordinating on Syria and see shared interests.
The growing coordination between Syria-Iraq-Iran and Russia should also not be ignored. A Russian-led axis will have a deep impact on Western interests in the Middle East and North Africa; a Russian defense official recently spoke to one of our analysts and described Russia as a ‘coiled spring that is about to uncoil’. Putin’s assertiveness stands in contrast to the perceived lack of strategy in Washington and Brussels, which has shaken Arab regimes’ confidence in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Iranian deal with the P5+1 has stirred strong emotions in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Cairo. The Russian portrayal of the Arab Spring’s chaos as caused by American and Western intent to destabilize states because of an idealized belief in democracy as a panacea for society’s ills, could gain favor in an Arab world frustrated by a perceived lack of American leadership.
Our focus through the early part of 2016 should be on the ongoing discussions between Moscow and strategically important Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Russia’s thaw with OPEC (a.k.a. Saudi Arabia, which currently dominates the multi-lateral body) could also become a main point of distress for the West. Russia’s entry into Syria marks the beginning of the emergence of a new kind of international order. Syria, the victim of the Arab Spring for the past four and a half years, has now become a prize, the key point of leverage for Russia’s new geopolitical game.
For the Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the U.A.E., the future looks frightening. Two large potential dangers are looming on the horizon: IS and Iran, while the U.S. appears to have no policy other than peace with Iran.
Putin’s strategists have America in check on the chessboard called the Arab world. And the Arab countries, which have been so often used as pawns, could soon become the castles and knights that are key to control of the board. Russian chess playing capabilities are well known, America needs to rediscover its prowess in this arena.