Figuring out what Russia is up to

I’m not going to pretend to know what goes on in Vladimir Putin’s head, and frankly anybody who does is trying to sell you something.

Maybe he just replays this image over and over again
Maybe he just replays this image over and over again

But doesn’t it seem, after a week or so of this stuff, that part of his motivation in wading into Syria is just to show off a little and maybe push some US/NATO buttons (not a great metaphor in this situation, I admit)? His planes are making a disturbing habit of testing the airspace of NATO member Turkey. Now there are reports that US and Russian aircraft are having dangerously close encounters in the skies over Syria, though absent any hard evidence, and leaving the Pentagon’s interpretation aside, there’s no real reason why you’d blame that incident on the Russian pilot any more than the American one (or why you’d blame either, really). There’s also word today that Russia is firing cruise missiles at Syrian targets from warships on the Caspian Sea. And, still, very few of Russia’s strikes appear to be targeting ISIS.

Justin Bronk, an analyst from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute argues that the cruise missile strikes are obviously Putin showing off some of his advanced hardware to the US and Europeans:

Cruise missiles are, however, excellent demonstration weapons to show that Russia can deliver significant firepower over very long ranges. Herein lies the point of today’s strikes: Russia is not only demonstrating long-range firepower delivery capabilities, but also that it can successfully deploy a high-end warfighting capability which has become synonymous with US-led shock and awe campaigns.

It is, therefore, part of a wider Russian effort to reassert itself as a significant peer-competitor with the West in military terms on the international geopolitical stage. Cruise missiles capable of striking in Syria from the Caspian Sea could also potentially strike most targets in the Middle East, including many of the bases used by the US-led coalition to conduct operations over Iraq and Syria.

Likewise, he says, with Russia’s deployment of air superority fighters (not very helpful in striking ground targets) and air defense systems (though those may be very useful to Assad at some point) to Syria. He may have a point; the US stopped using cruise missiles after its earliest Syrian strikes, because they’re only useful for hitting fixed targets and ISIS simply doesn’t offer many fixed targets to hit. On the other hand, Russia’s target package in Syria is clearly not the same as America’s (as we’ve clearly seen), so cruise missiles may make more sense for them. But maybe showing off is a part of the calculus here, and maybe that also explains why they’re buzzing Turkish airspace and (again, arguably) getting too close for comfort with American aircraft. It wouldn’t be entirely out of the question for Putin to do these things just to make it clear that Russia is a legitimate force to be reckoned with.

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