The Russian army is operating in Ukraine just as it is in Syria, security expert Hannah Notte said.
The approach is similar and this may help to anticipate the next steps in Ukraine.
Deutsche Welle: You have identified significant similarities between Russia’s military campaign in Syria and what it is doing now in Ukraine. What are the parallels?
Hannah Notte: There are five parallels. The first of them is that Russia is waging a stage war, ie. conducts military operations in separate phases. The second is the tactics for a siege of cities and bombing of besieged territories, the third – is the creation of the so-called. humanitarian corridors, which must be perceived with a certain distrust. The next parallel is the use of foreign fighters: Russia accuses Ukraine of attracting foreigners, which it intends to do. From there, the other parallels are disinformation and the use of civilians as human shields.
However, despite the parallels, we must keep in mind the fundamental differences between military objectives and the scale of military operations in Syria and Ukraine. I think the stakes for Russia are very different.
DW: What exactly is a stage war?
Hannah Notte: In Syria, we have seen the Russian military, which has sided with the Assad regime, stopped fighting in various regions at various stages of the war to focus on others. For example, in early 2017, they created the so-called de-escalation zones in the western part of Syria, which freed up resources and allowed the Assad government to occupy territories to the east. As well as regroup and restore your resources. Then in 2018, the Syrian army, backed by Russia, returned and took over these de-escalation zones. The exception is Idlib, which remains outside the control of the Syrian government to this day.
In Ukraine, Russia has announced that the first phase of a special military operation is over and will now focus on the “liberation” of Donbas. Indeed, the withdrawal of Russian troops from the outskirts of Kyiv and northern Ukraine followed.
I draw attention to this parallel not so much because I predict the same consistency and phasing – I call for not being overly optimistic just because the Russians say they will now focus on Donbas. We cannot necessarily assume that the fighting in the rest of the country is over.
DW: Attempts to build humanitarian corridors for citizens to leave the besieged areas, especially in Mariupol, have failed many times. What is Russia’s strategy in this regard?
Hannah Notte: Unfortunately, the Syrian precedent shows that these corridors must be approached very cautiously for several reasons. A good example of this is the siege of Aleppo in 2016, which lasted more than six months. Russia has opened humanitarian corridors, but the locals did not trust them much – as there was no international monitoring, they chose not to leave the city.
From then on, however, the Russian army treated the people who remained as targets – if they did not leave, although they could, they were terrorists. The danger is that similar schemes can be seen in Ukraine.
DW: As for the use of foreigners in this military conflict – how is the recruitment of Syrians by the Russian army going?
Hannah Notte: The picture is ambiguous. I had recently concluded that the recruitment of volunteers was stalling, although Russia announced that there were 16,000 of them, mostly from Syria. But the movement of Syrians to Ukraine was almost unnoticed, as noted by Pentagon officials. Then it was said that the leadership of the so-called DNR and LNR would defend their lands independently – in other words, it turned out that the idea of foreigners was rejected.
But in recent days, it has been reported that hundreds of Syrians have reached Russian territory – presumably to undergo basic military training. They could soon reach Ukraine, which means that the recruitment of volunteers is likely to gain momentum. I assume that Russia is short of manpower and needs Syrian mercenaries, but at the same time, I doubt that this will help Russia change the course of the military campaign, as the number of recruits will not be enough.
DW: There are fears that the Russian military may resort to chemical weapons. Under what circumstances do you think this could happen?
Hannah Notte: Let me start with the fact that the threshold for the use of chemical weapons in military conflicts was lowered a lot during the war in Syria – because even after Syria announced that it had destroyed its stockpiles of chemical weapons, we witnessed their repeated use.
But would Russia use such a weapon in Ukraine? This is not just about whether Russia fears the consequences and whether it will be held accountable – events such as the Bucha massacre show that Russia is not particularly concerned that the international community may accuse it of committing atrocities.
The question is also whether the use of chemical weapons will be useful from their point of view and whether it will be effective in military conflict. In the past, the Assad government used chemical weapons in close connection with the usual fighting, ie. it was tactically and operationally linked to the objectives of the hostilities and served to collectively punish the population in areas controlled by the opposition, together with sieges and the use of violence.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, we must first ask ourselves whether a war of attrition is already under way: many experts would answer in the affirmative. This type of war increases the level of violence against the civilian population – and it can be concluded that the use of chemical weapons makes sense. But even if Russia does not use chemical weapons in Ukraine, it is advantageous for the Kremlin to constantly claim that Ukraine was preparing for such an attack.
First of all, it suggests to its population that the threat of weapons of mass destruction comes from Ukraine, not Russia. In addition, this is being picked up by fans of conspiracy theories in the West, who are beginning to sow doubt. This is a convenient tool for Russia, and it is not expensive.
Hannah Notte works at the Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Vienna, a specialist in security and arms control with a focus on Russia and the Middle East.
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