How to Lose a Proxy War with Russia

How to Lose a Proxy War with Russia

The only winning move is not to play.

The tenuous cease-fire deal in Syria offers an opportunity for reflection on not just the Syrian war, but also the conflict in Ukraine, where the war burned bright this time last year and still simmers. Aspects of the conflict in Syria offer a window on how a proxy war might have played out in Ukraine. The circumstances are decidedly different, but the mechanics of fighting a proxy war with Russia on one side and the West on the other remain the same. Russia's intervention in Syria is a useful vantage point from which we can look back on the bitter policy debates that were held in 2014 and 2015 on how best to help Ukraine militarily. The Syrian war provides important insights, and in some cases analytical verdicts, on the then hotly contested question of sending lethal weapons to Kyiv.

In February 2015, I wrote a lengthy piece for the National Interest entitled "How to Start a Proxy War with Russia," siding against calls at the time to send lethal weapons to Ukraine. My argument was that there were smarter and more substantive ways to help Ukraine. That piece was not penned out of blind conviction; there were solid arguments on both sides of the issue, made by good people. At the time, Ukraine was heading into a military defeat, which turned out to be the Battle of Debaltseve. Sending arms felt like the right thing to do, and Ukrainian leaders were asking for them. Those strongly in favor argued that there were few to no downsides. To them, the side urging caution was overly concerned with managing escalation. The argument was that if the United States was willing to get tough with Russia, and raise the costs by imposing more casualties on the battlefield, then Moscow would reconsider its aggression.

It's unclear what the envisioned end goal was, be it a cease-fire on Western terms, or Russian policy capitulation in the conflict. In either case, it is fortunate that these theories were not tested in Ukraine, because the war in Syria has shown that such notions are dubious at best. In Syria, the United States is losing, or arguably has lost, an protracted proxy war with Russia and its allies. Despite years of efforts to facilitate arms, money and training for the Syrian opposition against Assad, together with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Moscow still looks best positioned to determine the political future of Syria and the Assad regime. So why did we think a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine would be a good idea?


Syrian lessons for the Donbas

It would be unthinkable to suggest that Syria is of higher political or strategic importance to Moscow than Ukraine, or that it is easier for Russia to conduct expeditionary operations in the Middle East rather than sustaining a conventional war on its borders. Yet Russia has chosen to bear the economic, political and military costs of both. The intervention in Syria was hardly a success from the start, or an easy campaign. An initial push south of Aleppo in October 2015 by Syrian and Iranian forces did not make expected gains. Russia intensified its air campaign, regrouped the Syrian forces and settled in for a longer fight across the entire line of contact. The Russian-led coalition has been picking away at the Syrian opposition piece by piece, and as a consequence, the momentum on the ground has shifted in Russia's favor. The current cease-fire is the product of those labors, and Moscow can end it at any moment to continue making military gains.

Fighting in Syria and Ukraine shows us that Moscow knows how to train, equip and advise proxies to die for its political ends. Russia has taken seriously the task of training the Syrian Army and equipping it with more capable equipment. Much of that war effort leverages what's left of the regime’s forces, together with Iran's army and Hezbollah, to do the fighting on the ground. Moscow had done the same with separatist forces in the Donbas, running a sizeable train-and-equip mission designed to turn them into a miniaturized version of the Russian army, organized into brigades and battalions, and fielding armor and artillery.

A glance at the OSCE monitoring mission reports from Ukraine these days will typically reveal a separatist armor battalion (thirty-plus tanks) undergoing training in Luhansk, along with regular reports witnessing large numbers of armor massed in the breakaway republics. The separatist forces' tank, infantry fighting vehicle and artillery stocks could be quite comparable Ukraine's military today, without even counting Russian forces in the country. Turns out there is enough money and equipment for Russia to support two proxy forces, and to participate directly into two conflicts tipping the balance. Assumptions about Moscow's political will and physical ability to sustain combat operations were incorrect in early 2015. There are no doubt limits, but they're much further out than we would like.


The Mighty Javelin

Regular Russian troops may have played the deciding role in Ukraine, but many of the casualties over the course of the war were absorbed by “expendable” fighters and volunteers. Back then, and even now, some argue that it would all be different were we to give Ukrainians Javelin anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) to knock out Russian tanks. That policy recommendation was puzzling at the time, given that the war in Ukraine was always dominated by artillery, defined by World War I position warfare and indirect fire. I criticized sending this exorbitantly expensive weapon system, which was often described as though it were the sword Excalibur pulled from the stone. A war has yet to be decided by Javelin missiles.

Those policy prescriptions referred to weapon systems and assumptions, in place of a political or military strategy, which struck me as a recipe for failure. The Syrian battlefield is littered with expended American TOW-2 or TOW-2A anti-tank missiles. One blogger has patiently counted over 1250 ATGMs fired by the Syrian opposition, around eight hundred of them being American TOWs. These have made good work of old Syrian T-55, T-62 and early T-72 tanks, but they have wrought more carnage than victory. The Syrian opposition is losing; it needs the current cease-fire, while Russia and the Syrian regime do not. Dumping missiles into the warzone certainly escalated the conflict, but when U.S. policymakers were faced with the inevitable question of what to do next, they quickly discovered the limits of how far America was willing to go in support of the opposition.

Looking back on 2014, when the first Minsk agreement was signed, it was already becoming evident that Russia had no intention to conduct a broader invasion of Ukraine. Moscow had the option, and decided otherwise—its battle was always about controlling Ukraine, not owning it. By 2015, Ukrainian military officials also saw it as an unlikely contingency, and still do. The theory behind sending weapons to Kyiv was disconnected from a logical foundation in military reality or strategy, but fraught with risks for the country and its nascent political direction. It is not simply a fight that Ukraine was unlikely to win at the time, given the state of its military; Syria tells us that this is a type of war in which Russia has a distinct comparative advantage, both in the balance of interests and the lack of constraints. It’s like the old quip about wrestling with a pig: "You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." The asymmetry of interests, capabilities and constraints made it likely that a proxy war in Ukraine would not favor the West, and certainly not the country playing host the contest—just look at Syria.


Ignore Escalation at One Another's Peril

Let's turn to the question of escalation. By putting on a show with missile strikes in Syria, using ships, strategic bombers and even submarines, Moscow reminded observers that Russia has a variety of conventional strike options at its disposal. Maybe if Russia truly wanted to keep its involvement in Ukraine deniable, it would have to eschew much of its air power, and some of its high-end capabilities. That is of course assuming Moscow could not readily shape domestic public opinion, which unfortunately is something the Kremlin seems quite adept at doing. Arguably Russian leaders could have framed the war in Ukraine in a myriad ways to expand their force options and justify the intervention, which they were able to do successfully in preparation for operations in Syria.

However, the more salient lesson of Syria is that the Russian military is a very large toolbox, offering a panoply of options for escalation. Moscow is not short of ammunition, or shy to throw more expensive equipment into the fight, and there are enough offensive fires there to not require the use of aviation. Instead of leveling the battlefield from the air, they would have pulverized it from the ground, or perhaps the separatists would suddenly develop an air force of their own (they did operationalize a few Soviet aircraft trainers in Luhansk). Russia's options were plentiful, so what was the United States going to do if the FGM-148 Javelin failed to become a strategic game changer? If experience is anything to go by, the U.S. policy community would probably hold a lengthy discussion at home and consult with European allies on what to send next, by which time Ukraine would have lost.