Streetwise Professor

March 15, 2016

A Prudent Gambler Cashes in His Chips

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:08 pm

Putin has disconcerted many with his abrupt and unexpected announcement that Russia would be removing its “main forces” from Syria. Just what this means is unknown, for he also made plain that it would maintain its main bases there, an air station in Latakia Province, and the shambolic Tartus naval facility. What residual capability will remain is unclear, and it must be noted that planes that fly out today can fly back at some future date, which distinguishes this from the US withdrawal from Iraq.

I consider it somewhat amusing that those who shrieked loudest about Putin getting into Syria are now shrieking loudest about his getting out. I guess they are upset that he will not be so stupid as to get bogged down in a pointless and bloody war that does not advance his strategic objectives.

As someone (surprisingly to some) who was not fussed about Putin getting into Syria, I’m equally indifferent as to his departure. Having no emotional or ideological investment, it is of interest mainly as an opportunity to evaluate his strategies, and his prudence in executing them.

The most obvious explanation is that the risk-reward trade-off no longer favors Russian involvement. On the reward side, Putin has achieved his main objective, and staved off Assad’s destruction. Putin may well prefer that Assad (and Iran) not win decisively: a stalemate may (cynically) advance Russian interests by continuing to make Assad dependent on Russia, and preventing Iran from getting too big for its britches.

The direct costs of this intervention, though not large when compared to American expenditures in the ISIS campaign (let alone what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan) are nonetheless material given Russia’s straitened economic circumstances. It is not just a choice between guns and butter. Russia has already announced a sizable cut in military procurement, so there is an element of a choice between expending weapons and buying new ones. Putin clearly believes that new weapons will give him leverage in the future, so he is husbanding his limited resources for that purpose, rather than spending a few millions daily to continue high tempo operations in Syria.

On the risk side, pushing the campaign to the point where Assad is on the verge of decisive victory would increase greatly the probability of an open confrontation with Turkey. This would pose large military risks (and costs) even viewed narrowly, and would also result in a highly unpredictable situation with Nato, the US, and the EU. The upsides in such a situation are hard to see, but the downsides are clear and large. Then there are the normal risks attendant to any military operation, including the risk of some strategically irrelevant but spectacular and embarrassing terrorist operation targeted at the Russians. Furthermore, continuing the campaign aggravates relations with the Saudis, which creates economic complications by infusing a geopolitical calculus into delicate negotiations over oil output (which is a first order economic issue to Putin).

Smart gamblers know when to cash in their chips and go home. Putin came to the table with limited objectives, and has achieved them. He can claim victory: why risk losing these gains, when few further gains are in prospect?

Just like his going in was a lot less complicated than people made it out to be, so is his departure: he is leaving because he achieved the limited objectives he set out in October. As for the war in Syria, it will likely continue to grind on and on, in part because Putin wants it that way. His is a cynical move, but since “victory” by either side would likely result in a retaliatory bloodbath (and a war among the “victors” if Assad is toppled), as horrific as the current situation is, it is not demonstrably worse than the alternatives on offer.

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10 Comments »

  1. Notable is Putin doesn’t worry about the gibberish on nation-building. Gets in, makes a marginal difference, gets out with his chips ahead. He understands war pretty well.

    Comment by The Pilot — March 15, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

  2. I agree with your analysis. When Putin went into Syria, people were talking that Assad might fall. Now they aren’t. Putin now has a seat at the table when he didn’t before. The cease fire he’s helped arrange neutralizes the Free Syrian Army and therefore the only group American could support that is fighting Assad. For all practical purposes, the US is now his partner in keeping Assad in power. He’s also been able to test his new weapon systems and see how well his military runs in a real war. Pretty good results. He has set his own red lines, and everyone knows he can put in his air force again if needed. He also leaves the hard task of eliminating ISIS at the US’s door.

    Declaring victory and getting out now is a good idea. The other option was to keep at it while Russia runs out of money which doesn’t sound too smart.

    Comment by Chris — March 15, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

  3. Spring is coming to Ukraine. Given limited resources, Vlad wants to commit them to
    a new offensive closer to home.

    Comment by eric — March 15, 2016 @ 9:32 pm

  4. “as horrific as the current situation is, it is not demonstrably worse than the alternatives on offer”

    I think this is one of those ‘Just because you’re right, doesn’t mean I have to like it’ situations…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 16, 2016 @ 10:47 am

  5. I was under the impression that Putler did not commit any ground troops in Syria – he left that to Assad, and simply had the Rashan air force bomb indiscriminately.

    I suggest that his only objective was securing Russian military/naval bases in Syria – there’s been some construction/improvement.

    Some people have suggested some kind of control over pipelines as well.

    Comment by elmer — March 16, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

  6. But he was suppose to stop ISIS and save the Christians. Franklin Graham, apparently still thinks so, he is to visit Moscow to further Christian solidarity.

    Comment by traveler — March 16, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

  7. “The direct costs of this intervention, though not large when compared to American expenditures in the ISIS campaign (let alone what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan) are nonetheless material given Russia’s straitened economic circumstances. It is not just a choice between guns and butter. Russia has already announced a sizable cut in military procurement, so there is an element of a choice between expending weapons and buying new ones. Putin clearly believes that new weapons will give him leverage in the future, so he is husbanding his limited resources for that purpose, rather than spending a few millions daily to continue high tempo operations in Syria”

    My thoughts exactly.

    Comment by JeffreyL — March 17, 2016 @ 8:49 am

  8. http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21694996-putin-appears-turn-hard-power-diplomacy-russians-show-their-hand

    A number of things can, however, be construed from Mr Putin’s démarche. The first is that Russia is not pulling out its forces completely. It will retain its naval presence in Tartus; at least a dozen fast jets will continue to fly from its air base near Latakia; about 1,000 military advisers and special forces will stay; and the recently-installed S-400 air defence system covering the north-west of the country will also be kept in place. Should the fragile “cessation of hostilities” that Russia and America brokered last month fall apart, it can re-escalate very quickly. But for now, Russia can cut the $3m a day cost of its military operation, while preserving much of the leverage it has bought.

    The second is that Mr Putin’s claim that his forces had “fulfilled their main mission in Syria” was revealing. Gone was any attempt to cling to the fiction that the intervention had been primarily aimed at hitting Islamic State (IS) rather than to preserve the imperilled regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. The 9,000 or so sorties that have been flown by Russian planes since October shifted the military balance in favour of the regime. Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoygu, boasted that his forces had helped the government regain control over more than 400 “populated areas” and 4,000 square miles (10,000 sq km) of territory.

    But while the survival of the regime was the objective, it is now clear that Mr Putin was never inclined to give Mr Assad the kind of military blank cheque needed for him to take back all or even most of the country. Mr Assad’s bullish talk of recent weeks and his unwillingness to engage seriously with the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process appear to have gone down badly in the Kremlin. Whether that means, as some suggest, that Mr Putin is ready to abandon Mr Assad so long as he has a say in who succeeds him, is less certain. But Mr Assad has been reminded not to try being the tail that wags the dog.

    That leads to a third conclusion. John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian opposite number, are known to have discussed the possibility of a federal structure for Syria as the only way to bring peace. The outlines of a partition that would be acceptable to Russia are already visible.

    Comment by elmer — March 17, 2016 @ 9:10 am

  9. You’d need to be a scholar of the 30 years war to keep up with this shit. Erdogan has lost a pawn (a bishop?) in his dealings with EU. And a rook vs Russia. Meanwhile, two different wars are happening in the same territory, since only the west is fighting IS, and the locals are settling local scores. The Kurds seem to have the most realistic objectives but no one wants to acknowledge them. No doubt the UN will condemn us for not sorting out this mess.

    Comment by James Harries — March 18, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

  10. Some chips have entered Palmyra

    Comment by Dots — March 26, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

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