Millennial Intelligencer: Why Syria Won’t Be Putin’s Vietnam

It is clear that the Russian military is willing to engage in a more aggressive way in Syria- a region that has long been considered important for the former superpower.

The Russians have fielded about 30 fixed wing aircraft, primarily SU-25 Frogfoots, and SU-24 Fencers, as well as 20 Mi-24s. This is further complimented by cruise missile strikes, and a detachment of Marines to defend Russian facilities. In short, that’s a lot of fire power that the Russians seem more than willing to commit to a protracted conflict in the Middle East.

The Russian Army, like it’s forbearer the Red Army, is often both grossly overestimated and underestimated. One either conceives dastardly “little green men”, or a lumbering brute itching to lob it’s surplus T-62s at Estonia. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Taking into account the likelihood of Russians being killed in Syria, be it an Mi-24 knocked out by MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System), or the recent tragic deaths of three Russians in an artillery attack, some have suggested that the Kremlin has fumbled into a scenario akin to the American experience in the Vietnam War.

While it is not out of the realm of possibility that Moscow may be forced to further invest into Syria to prop up the floundering Assad Regime in response to the continued civil war and threat from ISIS, Moscow must also be aware of its own very real limitations.

The Russian Army, like it’s forbearer the Red Army, is often both grossly overestimated and underestimated. One either conceives dastardly “little green men”, or a lumbering brute itching to lob it’s surplus T-62s at Estonia. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Whilst Soviet/Russian equipment has held a number of qualitative advantages over NATO equipment (including purportedly “invincible” American assets) during the Cold War and to this day, the Russians have consistently been inferior in both training and Command & Control (C&C). The former is due to the Russians utilizing a conscript system. This means that the Russian government drafts young men for a year at a time to serve, and then they are sent on their way.

This includes the three months of training for soldiers, and contributes to questionable quality. Recognizing this for some time, the Kremlin has been attempting to phase out the conscript model, in favor of the “contract” or professional model, in which soldiering is a job.

While contract soldiers are better both logistically and in terms of quality than conscripts, only 200,000 solders out of 774,500 (and 1,000,000 requested, unmet due to draft dodgers) are contract soldiers. This also includes 220,000 officers, leaving 354,500 conscripts. When cutting those professional forces between Ukraine and Syria, Moscow does not have a large margin of error.

Syria acts as Russia’s only port in the Mediterranean Sea, and is thus a vital asset to power projection. However, the Russians must further enhance their contract soldier system to stay competitive for long term operations. Thus, it seems unlikely that Moscow intends to prop up the Assad government as fervently as the United States did South Vietnam.

Russia’s intervention into Syria comes not from a position of strength, but one of weakness, due to diplomatic isolation and a overly long campaign in Ukraine. It seems more likely that Mr. Putin is trying to gain support for rapprochement, in exchange for a show of force against ISIS. If that is the objective, it’s working.

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Cover Photo Credit: Mikhail Kamarov/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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About the Author
"John Massey has a B.A. in political science and history from the University of Alabama. His primary interest is in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but he also finds time to study French and political theory. "

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