Analysis / Russian Army Damaged by Syrian Experience

Russian army learns wrong lessons (Archive: Pixabay)

In recent years, Russia used the Syria battleground to prepare its troops for future wars. But turns out this was terrible preparation for the kind of war the Russian army is now fighting in Ukraine.

In Syria, the Russian Air Force became accustomed to operating in an almost sterile environment: No effective air defenses and no opposing air forces. Moreover, Syria is not very large. Russian pilots would mostly take off for short flights to bomb undefended targets.

But Ukraine is a very different war zone. It is more than three times larger than Syria, with some air defenses and a small Air Force. Russian pilots are not used to this. They are also not getting great intelligence apparently and exposing themselves to Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire.

On land, Russian ground operations in Syria were very limited, with proxies doing most of the fighting. Russia maintained a relatively small military presence, with nothing like the logistics involved in the Ukraine war.

Moscow’s rivals in Syria also lacked advanced technology, so Russian tech limitations did not matter much. But contending with a larger battlefront and some modern Western weapons is another story. Russian inferiority even on basics like communication gear was glaringly exposed in Ukraine.

Wrong lessons in Syria

Still, Russia fell in love with Syria as a testing ground for its next wars, says veteran analyst Ehud Yaari. Moscow tested over 300 weapons in Syria and sent 70,000 soldiers for stints in the Middle East. Russia also printed dozens of instruction books based on the Syria lessons, and hundreds of officers who served there went on to teach in Russian military academies, Yaari wrote.

Overall, Russia specialized in bombing Syrian cities but did not improve its wide-scale ground maneuvering skills. Now, the Syria war doctrine and playbook is largely irrelevant for the Ukrainian battlefield.

The Russians were also exposed to the corrupt Syrian army culture, Yaari added. Syrian officers are notorious for dirty dealings for personal gain, working with the likes of Hezbollah and ISIS. Russia faced corruption issues before, but this possibly got worse after Syria.

In the Middle East, Russia took a limited gamble with a small deployment of military force. It worked out and Moscow became over-confident. In Ukraine, Russia took a much larger gamble. So far, it looks like the Russians are getting it wrong, based on some bad lessons from Syria.