The Russian way of war: from Syria to Ukraine

The Russian way of war: from Syria to Ukraine
Putin’s war tactics are not ‘medieval’. Over the last two decades, from Chechnya to Syria, Russia has perfected its war machine, refining tactics ranging from locating and striking humanitarian targets to double-tap bombings, writes James Snell.
6 min read
25 Mar, 2022
The twenty-first century nature of the Russian war machine has been on display in Syria for over seven years. [GETTY]

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has packed a great deal of destruction into mere weeks. Thousands of innocents have been killed. Civilian apartments and shopping centres have been destroyed by missile strikes. Hospitals and schools purposely bombed. Population centres like Mariupol have been subjected to siege tactics and heavy bombardment, with false humanitarian corridors established only to be repudiated by a hail of fire.

Casual observers have often struggled in searching for an analogy. Some have suggested comparison to the destruction of the so-called ‘martyr cities’ in the Second World War; and the battle for Mariupol is described as a latter-day siege of Leningrad or Stalingrad. Others, more in relation to the barbarism on display than to the tactics involved, have retreated into anachronism. They say that Vladimir Putin’s war is not of this age, that its characteristics are not modern but ‘medieval’.

This turn of phrase is born of delusion. It’s a delusion which supposes that the kind of brutality seen in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not of our era and must therefore be imported from the distant past. Not only is this incorrect; it approaches the denial of reality.

''The Russian way of war is brutal and it is capable of great destruction. It can destroy cities and seemingly rule over the ruins with local collaborators. But as in Syria, whose civil war is still ongoing after eleven years, the failures of the Russian way of war are visible in Ukraine.''

Over the past twenty years, in Chechnya, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine, the Russian war machine has deployed and developed these tactics. They ought to be well known by now. They are nothing if not twenty-first century.

The nature of the Russian war machine has been on full display for more than seven years in Syria. It could be seen first-hand in the sprawling array of conflicts in Africa in which Russian forces have been involved. Its details may have remained unknown to many in Europe and North America who did not follow those conflicts. But now it is unfolding before their eyes.

It is no longer possible to remain in ignorance.

The Russian way of war has a heavy reliance on airpower. It is built around attacks on humanitarian targets like hospitals, bakeries and markets, as well as artillery and ballistic missiles – all of which increasingly characterise the Ukrainian war. 

A number of the Russian pilots whose planes and helicopters have been shot down by Ukrainian forces are claimed to have previously fought in Syria

There they perfected the tactics of double-tap bombings – attacks on soft targets, which were then followed by secondary strikes on the rescuers who arrived attempting to bring aid. They learnt to hit hospitals and schools, and developed an awareness that the locations of these humanitarian targets could be found out from the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations – all in order to make them easier to strike.

As well as a war on humanitarian targets, the Russian invasion of Ukraine could soon develop into a war of sieges. The Russian way of war has a plan for those too. Russian siege tactics do not appear to differ from Syria to Mariupol.

In Syria, these sieges were gruelling affairs, with inhabitants cut off from food and medicine, with their bakeries and power sources bombed, all in the effort to make civilian life impossible, and to break the resistance of any combatants who lived among the people. These involved faked humanitarian corridors, and declarations that anyone left in the city was a terrorist to be exterminated – something that is already in prospect in Ukraine.

The Syrian war has been characterised by the near-continuous use of chemical weapons by Russia’s client, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. These weapons have been used by Russia’s allies, and supported by its state and media. Chemical weapons are used to break civilian resistance and to end interminable urban battles.

Observers like Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former soldier who specialised in countering chemical and biological weapons, and who worked for medical charities in Syria, note that in Ukraine, the use of chemical weapons to break sieges appears on the horizon.

In Syria and across Africa, notably in Libya and Mali, Russia’s way of war included mercenary forces like the state-affiliated Wagner Group. These forces had a tactical purpose, as saboteurs and infiltrators, and their use was mainly as agents of destruction. But they were also characterised by shocking brutality and savagery which even in vicious civil conflicts stood out from the ordinary horrors of war.

Although Wagner was mainly deployed to foreign conflicts as a semi-deniable force allied, but not officially connected, to the Russian state, the Russian way of war in Ukraine still includes the group. Wagner forces are alleged to be operating in Ukraine where, according to western officials, they are tasked with murdering the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

In Ukraine as well as in Syria, parts of the country have fallen under Russian control. In those places too, the Russian way of war follows visible patterns. It will shortly begin using local collaborators.

In Syria it was either the resurrected bureaucracy of the Assad regime or local 'reconciled' rebel forces. Reformed from the ashes of a destroyed and surrendered region, they were built up and supported by Russian commanders as a way of papering over the deficiencies in the manpower and popularity of the occupying forces.

Not only did these collaborationist forces face strong local opposition (as we have begun to see in occupied Kherson, with attacks on perceived collaborators), they also failed in Syria, as they likely will in Ukraine, to reconcile the local forces with their new occupiers.

The Russian way of war is brutal and it is capable of great destruction. It can destroy cities and seemingly rule over the ruins with local collaborators. But as in Syria, whose civil war is still ongoing after eleven years, the failures of the Russian way of war are visible in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the Russian military has already revealed major flaws. The Russian way of war, for all its violent demonstration over the past two decades, may still be found lacking. It can certainly destroy; but in Ukraine, as in Syria and across Africa, it will prove incapable of building atop the ruins.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.