On November 19th, the Royal Air Force scrambled a pair of Eurofighter Typhoons from their base at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to intercept two Russian Air Force supersonic Tu-160 bombers flying close to UK airspace. Earlier that day, the Russian bombers had taken off from their base at Olengorsk on the Kola peninsula on a bombing mission in Syria. Rather than fly south, following a considerably shorter route over the Caspian Sea and over Iran and Iraq (whose governments support Russia’s air campaign in Syria), the instead bombers flew 8,000 miles past Norway, the United Kingdom, and Gibraltar before transiting over the Mediterranean and launching their cruise missiles at Idlib.
Two days earlier, after notifying US planners at Coalition headquarters in Qatar, the Russian Air Force dispatched no fewer than 25 Bear, Backfire, and Blackjack bombers from a base in Ossetia, southern Russia on a massive air raid against ISIS and other targets in Syria. This was Russia’s largest multi-aircraft strategic bombing raid since Afghanistan; although the Russian Air Force had employed strategic bombers during its brief war with Georgia in 2008, it was not on this scale. This raid, like the 8,000 mile raid two days later, was meant to make a statement. The kinetic target for these Russian bombers may have been inside Syria, but the psychological targets were NATO and the US.
Not long thereafter, Russia’s propaganda outlet, Russia Today, triumphantly reported that a shiny, new National Control Defense Center in Moscow was now operational. Russian citizens, who get most of their news from state-controlled television, have been provided a steady diet of gun camera footage and play-by-play reporting about the daily successes of Russian aircrew operating over Syria – with a Rossiya 24 weather forecaster declaring that weather conditions in Syria were “ideal” for aerial bombardment.
Ever since the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, Vladimir Putin has successfully used actual, exaggerated, or fabricated threats to Russian security to sustain (or, when required, increase) popular support for his rule. In early 2014, Putin gave the green light for his military to dust off contingency plans for wresting control of Crimea back from Ukraine, initially denying that his “Little Green Men” were, in fact, Russian special forces, but then later acknowledging the obvious. While Putin’s popularity increased as a result of this operation, the subsequent attempt to seize the Donbas region of Ukraine was an unmitigated failure: The hoped-for popular uprising of Russian-speaking citizens across southern Ukraine failed to occur. The military prowess of Putin’s proxies in Donetsk and Lugansk province was found wanting, despite the unpreparedness of Ukraine’s armed forces and Putin’s provision of arms, supplies, and Russian citizen leadership. Indeed, in August of 2014 Putin found it necessary to covertly dispatch thousands of elite troops to prevent Kyiv’s forces from completing routing the rebels. A year later, Putin found himself in an unenviable position: He wasn’t going to “win” in Donbas, but yet he could not afford to lose (aka, withdraw). What to do…what to do?
Syria provided the answer. By deploying air forces to Syria, Putin could divert the attention of his domestic and foreign audiences and score some quick wins. Following the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt and last week’s terror attacks in France, Putin’s Syria gambit seemed to have paid off: Now, instead of being seen as just another unwelcome party to the Syrian civil war, one that was striking anti-Assad forces rather than ISIS targets, Putin could possibly reinvent himself as a potential partner for the West in the struggle against ISIS. French President Hollande appears to be willing to accept Putin as such a partner.
But don’t let the “new” Putin fool you: Remember, a prime motivator driving his decision to deploy air assets in Syria was the desire to distract attention from Ukraine, both at home and abroad. It is not coincidental that, after some weeks of relative quiet, Putin’s proxies in Donbas have significantly stepped up their sniping and artillery attacks. How the West responds to that uptick in activity will likely determine what plays out there in the coming weeks.
In any discussions with Russia over a potential partnership against ISIS in Syria, Western countries must ensure that Ukraine remains part of that conversation.