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Research Report


Maksymilian Czuperski
John Herbst
Eliot Higgins
Frederic Hof
Ben Nimmo
Copyright Date: Apr. 1, 2016
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 32
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-2)
    Damon Wilson

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has jumped from one foreign policy adventure to the next. In 2014, he ordered the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. Throughout that year, and on into 2015, he oversaw a clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, backing Russian proxies there with weapons, fighters, and entire army units. As that war ground down into stalemate, Putin turned his eyes to Syria, and after a rapid diplomatic campaign and an equally rapid military buildup, he launched air strikes in the war-torn country.

    The main Russian campaign in Syria ran for almost six months, from September 30, 2015 to March 14,...

  2. (pp. 5-5)

    Before considering how Russia prepared for its air campaign, it is worth considering the events that led up to it.

    Syria has long been a key Russian ally and client in the Middle East. The relationship dates back to Soviet times, when the regime of President Hafez al-Assad allowed the Soviet Union to open a naval supply depot in the city of Tartus. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crumbling of its military, the Tartus base came to be seen as one of the Russian Federation’s key strategic assets: Its only facility in the Eastern Mediterranean and...

  3. (pp. 6-9)

    Three things signalled a shift in Russia’s international posture in the course of August 2015. First, amateur ship-spotters in Istanbul began to notice Russian naval vessels transiting from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, with “pre-fabricated barracks, water tanks, and military trucks; … [Even] the logos used by Russian troops deployed in Ukraine.”² These supplies made their way to the Russian Naval Forces sustainment center in the port city of Tartus.³ Analysis of social-media posts indicated that one of the units involved was the elite 810th Marines Division, which was based in Sevastopol, and had played a role in the...

  4. (pp. 10-18)

    Just as the Kremlin pursued its propaganda campaign on Syria, following a “4D” strategy, the Russian military actions deployed pages from the same playbook to distract, deceive, and destroy.

    On September 30, 2015, Russia began its air campaign in Syria after receiving a formal request from the Syrian government.16 Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergey Ivanov stated: “The operation’s military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against the IS.”17 As strikes began, Major General Igor Konashenkov, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman, told the media: “In accordance with a decision by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin,...

  5. (pp. 19-20)

    Putin’s announcement on March 14, 2016 that he was ordering the bulk of his forces home startled the world. The announcement was made during a televised meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, then posted on the Kremlin website:66

    “With participation by Russian troops and Russian military grouping, the Syrian troops and Syrian patriotic forces, we were able to radically change the situation in fighting international terrorism and take initiative in nearly all areas to create the conditions for the start of a peace process (…) I feel that the objective set before the Defense Ministry and...

  6. (pp. 21-23)

    The Kremlin’s policy in Syria appears to have served three purposes: Distract attention from its actions in Ukraine and its military buildup in Syria; deceive the international community about the nature of its targets; and destroy the forces that presented the greatest threat to the Kremlin’s client, Assad, especially those forces most closely linked to the United States.

    The central message of Russia’s information campaign—or disinformation campaign—in the run-up to the air strikes was that the whole world should join together to fight ISIS. The message was delivered with what, for Putin, was the most inspiring historical parallel...