Renewed: 03.10.2015, 13:31

26 September 2015 12:24

Terras for The Times: Don’t fall for Putin’s smoke and mirrors

Russia is exploiting a war-weary West to bargain for a say in Syria’s future. We must reject its duplicitous advances.

Article appeared in The Times; September 26, 2015
By Lieutenant General Riho Terras, Commander of Estonian Defence Forces

On June 11, 1999, a column of 30 Russian armoured vehicles entered Serbia from Bosnia. They carried 250 elite Russian airborne troops. Their destination: Pristina airfield in Kosovo. The Nato air campaign against Serbia — the Kosovo War — had just ended but there were yet no allied “boots on the ground” to secure the Kosovan capital.


By the following morning, the small Russian detachment had secured the airfield and created new facts on the ground. Nato now had to make a choice. Force the Russians out of the airfield and risk a war? Or start negotiations? A row broke out between General Wesley Clark, the American supreme commander of Nato, and Britain’s Lt Gen Mike Jackson, in charge of Allied forces on the ground. Clark ordered Jackson to deny Russia control of the airfield. Jackson allegedly retorted that “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you”. And negotiations it was.


That audacious thrust into Pristina made Russia, a staunch supporter of Slobodan Milošević’s murderous Serbian regime, part of the Allied peacekeeping force that had defeated him. It strengthened Moscow’s hand in diplomatic negotiations over the future of Serbia and Milošević’s personal fate.


History, of course, doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And Russia’s recent military deployment to Syria rhymes with the move into Pristina in more ways than one.
Firstly there is the aim to shield and protect an allied regime, despite it having committed war crimes and atrocities on a massive scale.


Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has been losing ground to the rebels since the spring. Assad`s forces have been disintegrating, their fighting ability and morale eroding. At the end of August the rebels were just 15 miles from the strategic port of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Losing Latakia could easily have triggered Syria’s entire Mediterranean coastline - the Latakia and Tartus provinces – falling into rebel hands.


That would have been the death knell of the regime. It would have cut off the vital arms supplies being shipped in by Russia and Iran, not to mention losing control of the loyalist Alawite heartland.


Russian ground attack planes stationed at Bassel al-Assad airport near Latakia – twelve Su-25 Frogfoot and twelve Su-24 Fencer – are not there to keep Russian military bases safe. Their real purpose is to support ground operations by Assad`s forces. As well as planes and helicopters, Russia has a brigade-size force on the Syrian Mediterranean coast equipped with artillery, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, intelligence and reconnaissance assets. It’s also highly likely to include special forces. That is a remarkable fighting force capable of taking part in direct combat.

Secondly, Russia is gambling that its deployment in Syria paves the way for a rapprochement with the West. As low oil prices hit his export revenues, Vladimir Putin badly needs to end the western sanctions imposed on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. What better way than by promising to end the Syrian civil war and contain Islamic State - something western nations have spectacularly failed to achieve? In exchange for using his influence with Assad to find a lasting solution in Syria, Putin hopes the West would persuade Ukraine to accept Russian demands over its eastern region.


For a war-weary West worried by the rise of Isis, it’s a tempting proposition. But it amounts to nothing - mere smoke and mirrors. Negotiations with Russia will not end the misery in Syria nor contain the spread of Isis. According to a former UN special envoy to Syria, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov once admitted that Moscow has as little influence over Assad as the United States has over Israel. It also has no influence over the main rebel groups fighting Assad. And if Russia was sincere about fighting Isis, it would have joined the existing coalition trying to slay the beast ages ago. Instead there are reports that Moscow has provided safe passage for fighters from the Russian Northern Caucasus to join Isis in Syria and Iraq.


There is one thing Russia can do in Syria, however - and it should alarm us all. Just as it did in Kosovo in 1999, it can effectively control - or even veto - air operations by the anti-Isis coalition over Syria.


Moscow has already installed short-range SA-22 Greyhound air defence systems to protect its forces at Bassel al-Assad airfield near Latakia. But if it chose to deploy its long-range air defences along the Syrian coast – for example the SA-21 Growler, known as S-400 in Russia – it could create an air defence “umbrella’ covering an area from Israel in the south well beyond the Turkish airbase of Incirlik in the north. Incirlik is currently used by the US Air Force for operations over Syria and Iraq. Coastal defence batteries, if deployed in Latakia, could target every vessel within 130 km of the Syrian coast.


Creating hard, military facts on the ground is a tried and tested Russian tactic. If we are not careful, Russia will once again exploit our weakness to give itself a powerful bargaining chip in the military and diplomatic battle over the future of Syria.


Solidarity is what glues Europe together. I have seen a lot of cohesion and burden-sharing when the concerns of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have been addressed over the past year or so.


The migration crisis, to which the situation in Syria contributes, has the potential to divide Europeans, but with bold leadership from our politicians it can be avoided. The West needs to stand together on sanctions and not allow Russia to play games with us.

Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, 717 1900, mil[at]mil.ee, Juhkentali 58, EE15007, Tallinn, Estonia.

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