Russia’s calculations ahead of US threats to strike Syria
• By Alex Grinberg • April 11, 2018
Interview with Alex Grinberg
By Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis
What are your thoughts on the current Syrian crises as the US threatens to strike?
First of all I am certain that Iran will do something. Behavior of Iran over recent days is very unusual, first time they published the list of slain officers and ceremonies of mourning. This is the first time they are doing this because thereby they acknowledge their presence at the Syrian base and now oblige themselves to react. Supposedly they have two options and both are bad for them. Either they act by means of a terrorist attack against Israelis or Jews such as they did in Bulgaria. Or they act militarily against Israel and that would be a casus belli for Israel to respond. I don’t understand what they will opt for but I am certain they will do something.
What about Russia’s reaction?
Russia’s declarations are completely in line with sabre-rattling, because the more you promise that “we will sink an American ship” or something of the kind, you oblige yourself to act. In principle as some liberal Russian journalists wrote , they will try to shoot down American cruise missiles, not planes, but missiles. There is another problem here and it is that they always boast about their new weapons. At least half of that is nonsense. The best way both to “save the face” and prevent a collision with the US would be that they shoot down Tomahawks and US won’t react to that, but if these boasts don’t work then in principle it will be embarrassing for the prestige of Russian weaponry, and potentially for sells of Russian weapons. They are trying to achieve a new status for Russia, hoping they will overcome a new Cuba 1962 style crisis.
You call this a ‘Kosovo trauma’?
So they hope they can overcome this challenge anyhow and the main lesson here is like the Kosovo trauma. For Putin the Kosovo crisis is the fundamental trauma and root of its deep distrust of the West and particularly America. In Putin’s eyes Russia was humiliated by US, because Russia could not defend its ally. Russian media have always represented ethnic cleansings in Yugoslavia as mere Western propaganda and a pretext to attack Yugoslavia. The same patterns persist nowadays with respect to Syria when the atrocities perpetrated by Assad are not mentioned and the official line doubts the occurrence of the recent chemical attack in Douma. So Putin is resolved to prevent another humiliation of Moscow’s vassal. This time it won’t happen, they are saying. But this is a game of chicken. Liberal journalists have been saying this dangerous game of chicken doesn’t have a plan B in Russian eyes, they have no route for de-escalation.
In the past Russia has found a diplomatic solution, such as in 2013?
This is in contrast to previous years when Assad used chemical weapons for the first time. Putin suggested a shrewd diplomatic solution and Russia will take the chemical weapons and everyone is happy. But now they have been pushed to the extreme. All this in any option that I am conveying now it also has a respective danger for Russia. After there is a consensus among Russian authors that after bellicose declarations they will be obliged to do something. Even though for Russians it would be wiser to hide in Khememim airbase and US will strike Assad and not Russians. But this would be a harsh blow to Moscow’s image because they would not be able to defend their ally.
What are Moscow’s options to defend Syria?
A good option for them would be to jam US weapons systems and deploy Russian EW (Electronic Waffare) means. There is the US warship Donald Cook which several years ago was in Black Sea near Ukraine and Russian planes blocked its systems. Technically they are able to do that. But I don’t believe they will be able to block all the systems or shoot down all the Tomahawks. One should bear in minde that when we talk about Russia in Syria, it is now relating to several dozens of warplanes, not an armada, it’s not like in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
What about the mentality of the Russian system and how it confronts this challenge?
My personal view is that there is a Russian mentality of “it will be ok and somehow we will manage it.” Basically, that we will cross this bridge somehow. I know from other sources that there is no plan now, and no real deliberation. Watching saw the Pearl Harbor movie one can see the epitome of American decision making: the deliberation of FDR and his admirals and generals. There is some discussion. Such a situation is impossible in Russia. Putin asked in 2014, “look we are going to annex Crimea if the West threatens us with sanctions, will we be able to overcome?” and everyone unanimously said “of course we will overcome” and no one said “that is too much of a risk.” So that relates to the current crises because no one will pound on the table and say it is too dangerous. No one will say “let’s think again about this.” Such decision making makes the system very dangerous for its own survival.
Israel is in the middle in a way. Israel was accused by Russia and Syria of a recent airstrike in the wake of the chemical weapons attack?
Israel here is actually a very minor issue. The Russians were upset by this reported airstrike earlier this week. Airstrikes were reported on the T4 airbase in Syria. T4 may have also been used before by Russians. But Russians stressed many times they are not together with Iranians on the base; there are several compounds. So Russians were not hit by the recent reported Israeli strike. That is my feeling. What enraged Russians is the declaration of the Israel Foreign Affairs Ministry is the condemnation of the chemical affairs attacks. It’s clear that such a declaration came after investigation and verifying within Israel’s intelligence community, so there is no doubt that the chemical attack took place. The Kremlin deems that to be a diplomatically hostile measure towards Russia. Moreover this is why Russia mentioned Gaza for the first time: because they were enraged by Israel’s reference to Syria. They had tried to bring world’s attention to Gaza after Syria.