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What Russia has learned from Ukraine and Syria

The Russian military as a challenge continues to be not a static, but a rapidly developing phenomenon. Combined with increased Russian confidence following the success of military intervention in Syria, this presents serious implications for NATO and the West. Russia’s military is not simply re-equipping and rearming, but also internalising and applying lessons learned from its interventions abroad. These lessons have been learned at all levels – tactical, operational and, most significantly, strategic.

July 1, 2016 - Keir Giles - Articles and Commentary

russia syria


The West has the benefit of observing the new equipment and tactics, techniques and procedures employed by Russia in Ukraine through feedback from the United States and other training teams working with the Ukrainian army in the west of the country. This feedback has been unambiguous and disturbing. The conclusion is that western militaries must urgently optimise skills and capabilities not needed in decades, plus others which are substantially new.

In addition to a renewed emphasis on what were once basic skills for operating in contested domains, a generation of NATO officers must now address a range of entirely unfamiliar challenges. These include coping with being under sustained artillery bombardment, being targeted by UAVs, and being subjected to a number of forms of intense electronic attack. Russia has learned – and now western militaries must learn too – how to deal with entirely new problems, such as addressing the self-inflicted vulnerabilities of a generation of young soldiers who are accustomed to carrying with them connected personal electronics, thereby making themselves a lucrative target for intelligence exploitation and psychological operations in hostile information security environments.

Operations in Syria have provided Russia with further opportunities for ground training, but also scope for testing of tactics and equipment in the air. Syrian airspace has seen much more direct interaction between Russian and western air defence systems and aircraft than the probing flights towards NATO airspace that receive greater media attention. Elsewhere, Russia’s intensive practice for war in the subsea domain is also now sufficiently urgent that it has moved from being deeply classified to the subject of open media debate.

Overall, the conclusions from close observation of Russian military preparations are unsettling. In multiple domains, western militaries must leave behind the automatic presumption of tactical and technological supremacy or even superiority.


Russia’s early campaigning in Ukraine was an exercise in trial and error. Russia determined what works on the fly, abandoning one operational model after another until arriving at a concept of operations which was stable and met objectives. Along the way, Russia gained valuable experience of maintaining large formations in the field after rapid deployments and sustaining them over extended periods with little obvious degradation in performance.

Once again, Syria too gave additional practice in deploying forces, this time at a distance from Russian borders. The intervention there has given the lie to a long-standing axiom that “the Russian army intervenes in places that it can drive to”, an assumption that had guided assessments of Russian options for a considerable period.

Furthermore, the announcement in March 2016 by Vladimir Putin of a Russian “withdrawal” from Syria provided additional proof of concept. It demonstrated that the lack of institutional memory among western mass media is such that it is possible to establish a permanent presence in a foreign country and call it a withdrawal; and those media will repeat the term unquestioningly.

Just two years after the annexation of Crimea, it had already been widely forgotten that statements by Putin are not a reliable indicator of where Russian forces are and where they are not. For Russia, the obvious conclusion is that the heightened awareness in the West of information operations surrounding Russian military activity that followed the annexation of Crimea was a temporary phenomenon and similar disinformation campaigns can be successfully undertaken in the future.


This is related to the lessons learned by Russia at the strategic level: in particular what Russia has learned, and had reconfirmed, about the art of the possible in manipulating and manoeuvring the West.

Most alarmingly, Syria confirmed once again that military intervention to resolve Russia’s strategic challenges not only works, but is the swiftest and most effective method – and it gets international approval. The result can only be to encourage Russia to further military adventurism, confident that the risks of significant international reaction are low.

Importantly, success in Syria has bolstered Russia’s aspiration toward a return to its former recognition as a world power and as a global influencer on a par with the US. Many Russian actions over the last 20 years can be seen as efforts to rebuild the national status as a great power that was lost in 1991. In this context, Putin’s view needs to be remembered that in effect, Russia’s entire (supposedly thousand-year) national history is as a world-class power with the exception of the traumatic last two decades. Thus, the question of status and self-perception needs always to be kept in mind when considering Russian foreign policy, especially towards the US and its closest allies.

The belief that no regional security issue can be addressed without the involvement of Russia underlines the significance of Russian insistence on being treated as an equal, and is a further factor in Moscow’s calculations regarding military assertiveness overseas. In short, there is no reason at present for Russia to think direct military intervention will not continue to be the right answer.


It is likely that at the time of writing this text, planners in Moscow perceive a limited window of opportunity to take advantage of Russia’s relative strengths. There is a risk that the next US administration will be better prepared to face down Russia in defending its interests and those of its allies, whether or not they are willing to invest properly defending themselves. In addition, the correlation of forces in purely military terms is currently favourable for Russia, but the trends are not. Prophecies of doom and collapse and overstretch of the Russian armed forces are, as usual, exaggerated; but sanctions, especially on the export of technologies, do have an effect on Russia’s ambition for high-technology rearmament and affordability is a growing issue.

Meanwhile, the strength of Russia’s potential adversaries in Europe is growing. The US European Command (EUCOM) is doing what it can within political constraints and the quadrupling of the budget for the European Reassurance Initiative will allow a number of practical steps to be taken. EUCOM’s new military intelligence chief is exceptionally well-qualified to face the Russia challenge. In addition, the frontline states and major allies are finally starting to spool up defence spending. The increases in expenditure are nothing like what is required to mount a serious challenge to Russia, but sufficient that military adventurism will become more, not less, complex and unpredictable for Moscow to undertake.

Perhaps as a consequence of this perception, Russian activities geared to preparation for conflict have become markedly more intense. Aggressive probing of the West’s vulnerabilities continues. Intelligence gathering has been stepped up both in the frontline states and elsewhere.

Incidents in the Baltic Sea have been contrived to create the impression that the US is being provocative by operating in international waters and airspace within reach of Russia. One of the most dramatic and public examples was the dangerous buzzing of the USS Donald Cook by Russian bombers in April 2016. The Russian demands that followed, if taken to their logical conclusion, would create a de facto exclusion zone and squeeze the United States out of the Baltic Sea – exacerbating an already deeply unfavourable situation for defending or reinforcing the Baltic states. This might seem an unrealistic ambition by Russia, but if it is placed in the context of three years of Russia scoring point after diplomatic point over the West, endorsed by a compliant US Secretary of State and by a continental Europe groping for excuses to lift sanctions, the Russian approach of attempting the maximum achievable seems entirely reasonable.

There may also be a desire to provoke an incident ahead of the Warsaw summit, in an attempt to intimidate allies into dialling back their defensive preparations for fear of provoking Russia into escalation. But this is an entirely misplaced fear and an example of a successful Russian information campaign: the crucial but under-reported detail is that Russia has already massively out-escalated NATO, which is only belatedly starting to play catch-up on a scale which is minuscule by comparison.

Repeated promises by Russia to deploy Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad are an indicative example. Recent theorising by Russian military leaders stresses demonstrations of advanced military capability and publicity for offensive weapon systems as a means of preventive deterrence. The provision of Iskander systems to units in Kaliningrad, like other air defence and surface missile systems prior, is proceeding according to a long-established schedule. Nevertheless, each time it is mentioned it provokes the same excited reaction in western media, serving Russia’s purpose admirably.

As has been well-demonstrated elsewhere, Russian intent remains unchanged, and there was no fundamental shift in policy or world view in 2014 – but the new, and developing, means that Russia has to implement them present a growing danger. With a persistent zero-sum attitude, Russia seeks to regain power by weakening the power and influence of competitors, and both the US and its allies should be aware of the urgency with which Russia may seek opportunities to do so. After the experience of intervening in Crimea and Syria, Putin may not necessarily have developed a taste for conflict; but is entirely likely that he has developed a taste for success.


On the basis of the lessons learned from Ukraine and Syria, Russia can be expected to continue acting in its current manner for as long as this brings unchallenged success: in other words, unless and until NATO and the West respond in a way that is seen as meaningful by Putin. This ought not to mean a purely military response. Other options for countering Russia should be available. But the European solidarity that would be necessary for unity with North America on other measures, for example economic ones, remains questionable. In the meantime, it is axiomatic, and proven repeatedly over history, that Russia respects strength and despises compromise and accommodation. This strength must necessarily include military power, present and ready for use, to provide a visible counter to Russia’s own new capabilities.

Keir Giles is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He is also a director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a group of subject matter experts in Eurasian security.  


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