Russia seems to be using Syria as a testing ground and way to advertise some of its most-advanced weaponry, experts say.
For the last couple of years, Moscow has almost gone out if its way to broadcast their engagements and equipment being used in Syria, while simultaneously denying any involvement in the Ukrainian war.
“Russia is using Syria as a way to showcase its weaponry for export sales,” Omar Lamrani, an analyst with Stratfor, told Business Insider, specifically mentioning their SU-34 fighter jet and cruise missiles.
Russian-state owned media reported Wednesday that the Kremlin has been testing its new ‘soldier of the future’ combat gear in Syria.
“The Ratnik combat is a system of advanced protective and communication equipment, weapons and ammunition,” TASS said. “It comprises around 40 protective and life support elements and allows a soldier to get continuously updated information about situation in the combat area. In addition, the Ratnik includes a self-contained heater, a backpack, an individual water filter, a gas mask and a medical kit.”
Russia is even developing a Ratnik-3, an advanced version “with an integral exoskeleton and a helmet visor-mounted target designation system.”
Meanwhile, Algeria ordered 12 Russian SU-34 jets in January 2016, and many other countries have expressed interest, including Indonesia, India, Malaysia as well as Nigeria, Uganda and Ethiopia and others.
Russia’s SU-35s, which have been frequently used in Syria, have also been selling well. China purchased 24 of them in November 2015, Indonesia purchased 10 in April 2016, and the United Arab Emirates also bought 10 in March. Many other designs, including the SU-30M, have been flying off the shelves since Moscow got involved in Syria.
But there has been a human cost to Russia’s arms advertisements. Their airstrikes killed between 2,704 and 9,364 Syrian civilians between October 2015 and August 2016. And the raids have not stopped. The Idilb province in Syria has been badly hit in recent months, including multiple hospitals, which Amnesty International accused Russia and Syria of striking intentionally.
It should be noted that US airstrikes have also killed Syrian civilians. In late October 2016, an Amnesty International report said that coalition bombs had killed 300 civilians. And a more recent report detailed how coalition strikes killed more Syrians than Russia and ISIS combined in March, due to the recently established no-fly zones.
Moscow has also tried to showcase its cruise missiles, launching them at times when it wasn’t even necessary. In late 2015, they hit Raqqa with cruise missiles from a stealth Rostov-on-Don submarine.
“The missiles launched from the submarine were more of a political weapon aimed at Washington, rather than a military one aimed at ISIS,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy in 2015. “There is no tactical reason for Russia to fire a cruise missile. They are using these to show the world that they can.”
Russia not only “wants to showcase itself as a major power,” Lamrani told Business Insider, but they also want to use “Syria as a strategic way to negotiate with the US.”
In other words, Moscow was trying to show the west that they were fighting ISIS together, in the hopes that the US and EU would loosen sanctions imposed on them after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Interestingly, Moscow publicly denies any role in the war in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin has deployed troops and even funds and manages the rebels fighting Kyiv.
The Kremlin’s public relations strategy in Ukraine differs in part from that in Syria because “Russia sees Ukraine as this brotherly nation, and the war in Ukraine doesn’t play well in Russia – a sort of brother on brother action,” Matthew Czekaj, a program associate for the Europe and Eurasia program at the Jamestown Foundation, told Business Insider.
In fact, Moscow has been “carrying out a roulement, or rolling deployment, of troops from across the whole of its Armed Forces to the Ukrainian border,” according to a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report. Not only does this provide a more efficient and cost effective way of training its forces, giving them first hand combat experience, but it also possibly better hides from Russians back home why they’re gone, Lamrani said.
Furthermore, Russia is more covert in Ukraine because they fear “that the war in Ukraine could spark a retaliation by NATO,” Czekaj said.
So ultimately, what Moscow publicly acknowledges in Syria and doesn’t acknowledge in Ukraine is a consequence of their different goals in each country. They not only want to negotiate with the west and advertise their arms in Syria, but they also want to be seen as a power player in the Middle East. They want to be a power player in the Baltics too, especially Ukraine.
But they only want the right people to know about it.