The past month has seen increasing tensions between Washington and Moscow over the Syria-Assad-DAESH nexus of seemingly perpetual conflict. This tension has not been mitigated by the sometimes-substantive but always-political interventions in the region.
While both the U.S. and Russia increase strategic bombing campaigns and deploy ‘special advisors,’ neither have revealed anything beyond their strategic commitments. Until October 7th, 2015, that is, when Russia launched 26 Kalibr SS-N-30A cruise missiles from its recently upgraded and largely secret Caspian fleet.
This display of power and capacity is not a windfall moment that tilts the scales dramatically in Russia’s advantage. I say this only to offer caution as new or emerging military technology and capabilities often go hand in hand with exaggeration. It is, however, a significant moment for Great Power Politics in the region. The Caspian launch was no mere theatre act and will have implications far beyond military tactics.
The first point to deconstruct is the now obvious gap between Russia’s actual capabilities and the American understanding or appreciation of those capabilities. Most of Russia’s naval assets in the Caspian are vessels under 1,000 tons. These have been often described as ‘patrol craft’ or ‘local craft’ in U.S. military circles. Without meaning any disrespect to the U.S. armed services – this is Navy-speak for this is only the Russian coast guard and therefore not a serious capability. This assertion has now been handily debunked, as Russia’s Caspian fleet has quickly proven to be capable of advanced naval operations that extend over 1,500km beyond the Caspian Sea.
Russia did not use its forward-deployed aircraft to conduct this round of bombing. The targets of the Caspian strike (which were reported to be in the areas around Aleppo), could have been more cost-effectively struck with Russian aerial assets already deployed and active in the conflict. Why then was the more difficult road taken? In a word – style. This strike was meant to send a message – not to DEASH, not to Syrian opposition forces, but to the United States. Bryan Clark, who is a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, commented that “the Navy should feel embarrassed that they let this happen.” We should be reminded that war has many inputs, some of which are unquantifiable. While this maneuver was cavalier and technically unnecessary, morale on Russia’s southern front is at an all-time high as this display revealed not only a sense of parity in military might on the world stage, but in some ways a competitive advantage.
The geographic and organizational challenges which Russia overcame are also significant. It is not just technology and military will that sends a missile 1,500km across three countries – but military coordination and regional strategic cooperation are also required. The 26 missiles were not launched in a vacuum, but amidst ongoing conflict, aerial bombardment, and Russian/Syrian ground combat operations. The Caspian naval strike, therefore, is not just a testament to Russia’s naval modernization project, but to the nation’s ability to conduct complicated combined-arms operations and to organize these efforts in an international theatre. The past month, if taken as a snapshot in time, should not be held up singularly as evidence of a Russian military that matches U.S. capabilities – let alone as an event signifying a return to Cold War conditions. Nevertheless, the relative change in power dynamics and military capacity between Russia and the US, particularly in the conflict in Syria, is significant. It is this point, that of a relative change in local power, where U.S. political rhetoric can be more fully understood. While Washington increases pressure on Moscow over whom the aerial and naval strikes are targeting (e.g. the fact-fencing over whether Russia is targeting DAESH or simply Assad’s direct enemies), I find it difficult to believe that the U.S. is singularly concerned over the general ethics of Russia’s engagement. It is here where I agree with Bryan Clark, that the US military is embarrassed that they allowed, and were unprepared, for Russia’s quick rise to local superiority in the Syrian arena.
In the past two weeks alone the U.S. Senate and House Armed Services Committees have held several hearings related to the intent, readiness, and capacity of the U.S. military – all with a heavy focus on naval positioning and operations. The primary take-away from these hearings, given both Russian and Chinese modernization and regional operationalizing, is that America is statistically ahead but contextually behind. A related take-away is that the U.S. has a surplus of words and a deficit of actions. One highlight came from Defense Secretary Carter when he said, speaking on U.S. naval strategy, that we will go anywhere international law permits. While it may strike many observers as bemusedly ironic that the U.S. is both hinging and invoking international law as the basis of its strategic parameters, this statement points to an emerging theme – when it comes to the geostrategic hot spots, the U.S. chooses words while rivals choose actions.
Foreign policy is supposed to drive military innovation and evolution. However, sometimes that gets inverted and military innovation drives foreign policy (e.g. we do because we can). The past two decades, due to U.S. military hegemony, American foreign policy had no real competitor. Consequently, the U.S. shaped its military predicated upon pax Americana, which created a foreign policy that encompassed everything. To put another way, today America can’t geostrategically see the world’s trees for its own forest.
Meanwhile, U.S. competitors have crafted a more limited and tailored foreign policy, one that both advances its military capabilities in a more focused fashion and one that is flexible enough to adapt to military innovation. Russia’s Caspian flotilla is an example of this – regionally designed and strategically relevant. I expect that this will not be the last innovation-led foreign policy design the U.S. bears witness to in the coming years. The U.S., both politically and militarily, will have to grapple with the fact that victory is neither granted nor guaranteed based on hegemony and that statistically ahead but contextually behind needs to be a moniker it quickly sheds, both in Washington and on the battlefield.