Press TV recently interviewed Webster Tarpley in a report Press TV entitled Russia will confront any US-led attack on Syria. In that interview, Tarpley mentioned an article in the rather reputable Russian newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta which, according to Tarpley, mentioned the preparation of one Motor-Rifle Division, one Airborne Division and one Spetsnaz Brigade for this operation, I looked up the article and I found it (here). Tarpley made it sound like Russia was about to dispatch these divisions and brigades into Syria to either crush the insurgency, or prevent NATO from invading, or both. Tarpley said: “Putin is a deterrent” and “how he will respond to an attack in Syria, nobody knows how“. This is in fact not at all what the article said.
What the article does say is the following (main points):
a) Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the anti-terrorist element of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are working together on a new plan to deploy Russian forces outside Russia’s borders.
b) Syria is, according to anonymous sources, one of the countries in which Russian forces “could” be deployed in the future. However, such a deployment could only happen with the authorization of the UN Security Council.
c) Special training programs have been implemented in some Airborne, Spetsnaz, Ground Forces and Naval Infantry units including special training in the norms of international humanitarian law and language courses.
d) The two Chechen special battalions “West” and “East”, which performed with excellence in South Lebanon in 2006-2007 and in the war against Georgia in 2008 are now also receiving special training to be deployed outside Russia.
Now, does that look to you like preparations to join the civil war in Syria or to fight NATO? Of course not!
What is really taking place is that the Russian military has been given the mission to prepare a mix of various military forces for operations abroad, mainly for possible CSTO and SCO operations. What we are talking about here is operations in the “near abroad” and not at all long-distance interventions.
People often assume that the Russian Airborne Forces are something like the US 82nd or 101st divisions. They are not. Nor are they anything like the Marine Expeditionary Brigades. Unlike their US “counterparts”, the Russian AB Forces are fully mechanized, and come with their own armor and artillery, and that means that they are far, far, heavier. Their main purpose is not to invade some island like Grenada or or be a tripping-wire like the the 82nd did during Desert Shield. Russian Airborne forces are ideally suited to operate at a battalion-regimental level in the operational depth in the enemy’s rear, and they are designed to hold on to some strategic location until the main, ground, forces arrive. They were never designed to be sent far into the strategic depth and to operate independently for more than a short period of time. As for the Spetsnaz, they are even more specialized, mainly as an reconnaissance/intelligence/diversionary force.
The factual reality is that Russia does not have the power projection capability to send enough forces into Syria to threaten a NATO operation. In fact, such power projection has never been a goal of Russian force planning or strategic thinking. The Russian armed forces are, by their very nature, as is clearly demonstrated by their structure, defensive forces whose maximal offensive capability is limited to the near abroad. This is not a political statement of intention, this is simply what the structure of the Russian military clearly proves.
Now, it is true that Russia did send Airborne and Spetsnaz units to Bosnia and Kosovo, but only as a part of a much larger international operation and it is possible that this is exactly what is being prepared for here: a UNSC mandated operation of peace enforcement under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Now, let me make something clear here: I am not, repeat, not, saying that Russia is about to back-stab Syria, like it did with the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo or like it did with Libya. All I am saying is that Russia is preparing for any contingency which might include a military role in Syria under UNSC authority as part of a multi-national operation.
Does that make sense?
Yes, of course it does! The Russian political leadership will have to take the decision of whether such a Russian participation in a military operation in Syria makes sense or not, but the military does have to be prepared for such a contingency. The fact that they are looking into it does not at all mean that Putin is about to betray Syria or hand it over to NATO.
As I have said many times before, Russia will oppose a US/NATO aggression against Syria at the UNSC. It is not impossible that with a lot of rock solid guarantees from the US and NATO Russia might agree to some kind of Chapter VII operation in Syria if, and only if, that means that the mandate is extremely limited and precise. Russia will not acquiesce to such vague and dangerous formulations as “all measures needed to protect the civilian population”. Unlike Bosnia or Kosovo, I don’t even believe that Russia would agree to participate in US/NATO lead operation. But a truly multinational one with, say, a meaningful Chinese military participation, and national sectors of responsibility? Maybe, that I would not categorically exclude.
What about the two Chechen battalions? Allow me a short historical digressions here.
These ethnically Chechen battalions, mainly formed of ex-insurgents from the Iamadaev clan, are now formally part of the 42 Guards Motor-Rifle Division based in Chechnia. The battalions have a rather good military record and a, shall we say, “checkered” record in terms of being law-abiding citizens. Initially, their role was central to the Russian concept that Chechens should be in charge of Chechnia, but rapidly another, more interesting, concept began to be floated: the creation of purely Muslim forces to deal with any conflicts involving Muslim parties.
This is very controversial in Russia. The Russian military has always been profoundly multi-national, from the very early Russian history to the Soviet era, and to create “ethnic units” is something rather atypical for Russian military thinking. The one famous exception is Cossack forces, but these are not so much ethnically distinct as politically, culturally and organizationally distinct (though not different in the sense of “alien”). But historically, this was the exception which proved the rule.
The wars in Chechnia saw the parallel creation of Chechen units and Cossack units (initially they fought each other, of course). The Cossack units still exist, but really do not, I believe, play an important role in Russian force planning or strategic thinking. These Chechen battalions represent something possibly much more complex.
While the Russian military does not comment too much on this topic, it is quite evident that “Muslim” units in the Russian military could be far more acceptable in some environments than primarily Russian and Orthodox Christian units. Furthermore, by being able to find a “common language” with the locals, “Muslim” units could also be an excellent source of human intelligence.
Anyway, whatever may be the case, these Chechen battalions have not been disbanded after the end of the Chechen wars and, furthermore, the military command has praised them for their excellent military performance. If they can be convinced to become truly law-abiding, disciplined, and well-integrated, sub-units of larger Russian military formations they could form the basis for a “Muslim” force which could be most useful in certain circumstances. Oh, and did I mention that these Chechens truly hate the Wahabis, having seen them in their own land? The know these al-Qaeda types personally and well, many having been conned by them in the past, and they would love nothing more than to eliminate as many of these crazed murders as they can. Russian very much share such feelings.
I am not sure that this Chechen-battalion experiment will be a success in the long term. It is possible that it will, I just honestly don’t know. As any radical departure from the normal practice, it is full of dangers and opportunities. Come to think about it, maybe I should also mention something else: there is a little-known quasi-precedent to these Chechen battalions during the Soviet era.
Just before the invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets formed a special “Muslim battalion” though it was not, of course, officially designated that way. It was initially called the “154th separate special purpose detachment” and it was staffed only by Uzbeks, Turkmens and Tadjiks. Since a Spetsnaz detachment is roughly the equivalent of a battalion in the regular ground forces, the unit was soon nicknamed the “Muslim Battalion”. This first detachment actually participated in the initial Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, dressed in Afghan uniforms, and in possession of Afghan identity papers. Later, four more such detachments were formed, including the the 173rd and 177th. As far as I know, all of these units were disbanded after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan.
I referred to these “battalions” only as quasi-precedents because while they were called “Muslim” they were not truly Muslim at all. The idea behind these special ethnic detachments was to mislead and trick the Afghans and not to openly engage a truly Muslim unit as part of an official and larger Russian military operation. The idea being floated around today is very different: to truly entrust delicate operations in Muslim territory to Muslim units and try to let theses units operate with as much autonomy as practically possible.
In conclusion I want to say the following: folks like Tarpley are doing everybody a big disservice when they entertain a pipe-dream of Russia militarily protecting Syria from a US/NATO military aggression. That is simply something Russia cannot do, and therefore, will not do and, I believe, should not do.
As far as I recall, all the post WWII US/NATO operations were preceded by all sorts of delusional grandstanding and predictions about how the “invaders would be crushed” or about how Russia will intervene. The Serbs committed that mistake (twice!) the Libyans did it too, the Iraqis most definitely tricked themselves into believing their own propaganda, and now there is a group of pro-Syrian activists who hope to see Russia protecting them from Uncle Shmuel.
Guys – it ain’t gonna happen!
Russia is not the world policeman (and neither is China). There is only one country arrogant and reckless enough to believe that it must be militarily involved in every single conflict on the planet. The rest of them much prefer a mid to long term strategy of a careful use of soft power. This is the main reason why the big US/Israeli empire is on the decline and the BRICS countries on the rise.