Moscow Scrambling to Fill Ranks of Its Forces in Syria and Elsewhere

December 15, 2016
A Russian soldier stands guard as Syrians receive aid in the village of Ghunaymiyah. Photo by Pavel Golovkin/AP

Debates in the West about Putin Now Recall Those in Europe about Hitler in Mid-1930s, Ikhlov Says

Staunton, VA, December 15, 2016 – There has been a dramatic increase in the influence of pro-Putin forces in the West in recent months, Yevgeny Ikhlov says; but at the same time, there has also emerged in Western societies a real horror about what the Kremlin leader is doing in Syria in general and in the abattoir of Aleppo in particular.

Today, these two developments in Western opinion are not only in open competition with one another but also recall the reaction in many European countries to Adolph Hitler between 1933 when he became chancellor and 1936 when some of his more horrific goals no longer could be denied, the Moscow analyst argues.

During that three year period, sympathy for the German fuehrer grew and “fascist-like pro-German movements appeared in almost all countries” of the continent,” he points out. “But then reports about ever more repressions and … and new waves of anti-Semitism blocked this ‘Hiterlizing pattern.’”

The question now is which of these two trends will win out and whether the recognition of what Putin intends will spread in the West before pro-Putin consensus emerges and a sufficient number of “Putinophiles” achieve high offices to “form the critical mass needed for a tectonic shift of Western policy” or whether an anti-Putin consensus does and blocks its rise. 

The course of events in the 1930s suggests that this is a more open question than many of his backers, who ignore the impact that Aleppo on Western public opinion, recognize. And it is also a more open one than many of his opponents, who ignore the inevitable attractiveness of a strong man who can get his way by force is affecting it as well, now admit. 

But it is the key question before all members of the international community because blocking Putin is likely to become ever more difficult and costly just as blocking Hitler was after the great powers failed to take action against that earlier dictator at the beginning of his rise. And that reflection should tilt the balance away from Putin and Putinism and toward sanity.

West is Again in the Midst of a ‘Phony War,’ Portnikov Says

Staunton, VA, December 15, 2016 – The period between the division of Poland between Nazi and Soviet forces in September 1939 and Germany’s attack on the Low Countries and then France in May 1940 is known as “the phony war,” a period when most of the countries of Europe went about their business as usual even though other countries were being attacked.

Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov argues that the world has once again entered a “phony war” period, one in which countries like Iraq and Ukraine are being attacked by dictators but in which most of Europe is at peace and assumes that it can express its concern about such things without having to take any additional action. 

Looking back at 1939-1940, it is difficult to imagine that the countries living at a time of phony war could consider themselves safe from the conflagration that soon spread to them.  But it is perhaps easier to understand, the commentator suggests, given the futile gestures and lack of real action now in such countries in the face of naked aggression and crimes against humanity. 

Turning off the lights of the Eiffel Tower to show sympathy for the residents of Aleppo being destroyed by the force of Assad and Putin is symbolic of this situation, Portnikov suggests. It shows that people care enough to take symbolic actions but not to do anything that might prevent the evils from spreading.

In this situation, the tower is dark but people can be certain that their champagne will be properly chilled, a reflection of cynicism that is hardly confined to or even most clearly manifest in France. Not only is it time to identify the sources of this cynicism but it is time to fight it before another and broader kind of fight becomes unavoidable. 

The fact that some dictators can act with impunity, Portnikov argues, “is the chief result of the Western policy of complacency in recent years.” Indeed, one can properly say that it is “the essential feature of the foreign policy achievements of the Barack Obama administration.” After all, if the US isn’t willing to act, why should the French or anyone else? 

That achievement has allowed for the appearance of three “totally new rules” governing the international system. First of all, if a country has nuclear arms, then its regime can destroy any number of people because we do not want a third world war.” Second, the only tool is economic sanctions which won’t last too long lest they hurt those imposing them. 

And third, the civilized world is quite ready to teach others the rules it says it believes in but it will “allow itself to elegantly back away from these values if they involve the lives of others or immediate interests.” In the future, Portnikov suggests, encyclopedias will refer to these new principles as “’the Obama rules.’”  

Under such circumstances, no one should be surprised that ever fewer people “trust professional politicians and ever more trust instead storytellers who simply tell them what they want to hear.” After all, they can see that their supposed leaders are only concerned about the modalities of reaching agreements with those committing the worst crimes. 

At present, Portnikov continues, “the Western world is overfilled with gentlemen-Chamberlains to the point that even the cautious Angela Merkel, who is trying simply to maintain good sense looks epically heroic and the last hope. And that is correct, because our last hope as always in times of collective slaughter really becomes the hope for good sense.”

Moscow Scrambling to Fill Ranks of Its Forces in Syria and Elsewhere

Staunton, VA, December 15, 2016 –  Russia’s indefensible actions against the civilian population of Aleppo, actions that rise to the level of crimes against humanity, are attracting so much attention that many have ignored another development that may ultimately have an even greater impact on Vladimir Putin’s behavior. 

And that is this: The Kremlin is having trouble filling the ranks of its forces on the ground in Syria and has been forced to take a number of steps that both reflect its desperation and may lay the groundwork for future aggression if they are successful or make it far more difficult if they are not. 

For a country with a military as large and powerful as Putin routinely assures his own people and the world, the dispatch of a few thousand ground troops to another country whose government welcomes them should not be problem. But three new developments show that it has become one. 

First, there have been reports about Moscow sending 500 Chechen soldiers from units controlled up to now by Ramzan Kadyrov personally to Syria to help the Assad dictatorship, reports that have attracted particular attention because at least 12 of their number have refused to go.  

Few Russian senior officers trust the Chechens; and consequently, it is almost certain that they had these people imposed on them by the Kremlin both because of a desire of the central political leadership to ensure that any deaths on the ground could be more easily hidden and because there was no one else readily available. 

That some of the Chechen soldiers are resisting, of course, will only reinforce the attitudes of the Russian office corps and of many Russians more generally about the reliability of the Chechens and mean that officers are likely to dig in in opposition to the use of the Chechens and to get support from Russians for doing so. 

Second, there are reports about “secret Russian mercenaries” under commanders who earlier fought in Ukraine, a group that may be prepared to do the kind of things Putin and Assad prefer but that do nothing to promote unit cohesion in the military or boost its standing with the Russian population. 

And third, on December 15, the Duma passed a measure that will allow the Russian military to hire people for short-term contracts to fight abroad. In the past, such people had to serve two or more years; now, they will only have to commit to six to 12 months. 

The military is likely to seek to employ former soldiers who have recent training of the kind needed, something that could save Moscow money and also allow for a rapid build up or alternatively drawn down in forces but again something that reflects not only budgetary stringencies but also broader personnel ones as well. 

These three developments come on top of a longstanding trend: the number of 18-year-olds in the Russian Federation, the prime draft age, is declining and the share of ethnic Russians within them is declining as well. That makes it hard to fill all the slots in the Russian army with the people commanders would most like to have. 

And that difficulty is compounded by the need the Russian economy has in at least some sectors for additional workers and by the still negative attitudes many Russians have to military service because of widespread reports of dedovshchina and other harsh aspects in the life of uniformed personnel.