Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday evening for a working visit, the Kremlin press office reported Wednesday morning.
According to the official statements made by the two men, Assad made the trip following an invitation from the Kremlin. Russia’s military assistance in Syria was the unsurprising reason for the meeting, with Assad thanking the Russian people for the help provided to his country.
Russia’s air strikes, reportedly aimed at destroying facilities controlled by the Islamic State terrorist organization in Syria, officially began on Sept. 30.
Russian air strikes halted the slow weakening of the Syrian army by rebels and Islamic State fighters, but it is not clear whether Assad’s government would be able to hold territory without Moscow’s continued support.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has firmly supplanted Ukraine in news headlines and Kremlin propaganda. That seems to even be reflected in the way President Vladimir Putin conducted himself during the recent “Normandy Four” meeting in Paris. The Russian president behaved differently in Paris than he did in Minsk in February. It is possible he has grown “bored” with Ukraine: nothing new is happening there. Syria is his new priority.
By joining the war in Syria, Moscow used the same psychological trick it played repeatedly in Ukraine over the last year: it raised the stakes, forcing its international partners to wonder what the Kremlin schemers are up to and what their next stunt would be. There are more “chips” on the table now — both Ukrainian and Syrian.
The first crisis remains far from resolution and the second threatens to escalate. What’s more, the second crisis involves far more players than the first, each of whom is pursuing their own interests.
However, Putin seems at ease with this type of situation: he has repeatedly proven himself a worthy tactician. He evinces cool confidence even as the ambitious and domineering Turkish President Recep Erdogan warns of worsening relations or as threats pour out from the capitals of Sunni monarchies led by Riyadh. What does that indicate — cold-blooded calculation or indifference born of despair over the fact that things could not get any worse anyway, so why not take a chance?
With Syria now at the fore, has the Kremlin surrendered Novorossia? That project did not pan out as planned back in the spring of 2014. Novorossia does not stretch from Odessa to Crimea, Ukraine did not break into pieces and, unexpectedly for many Russians, the “junta” in Kiev proved tenacious.
And almost overnight, the dramatic television news reports of Ukraine disappeared without Russian society even missing them. The Russian people are tired of the Bandera motif. And the ultra-patriots were wrong in their prediction that masses of Russians would express disappointment in the Kremlin if it abandoned Novorossia. They didn’t.
At the same time, many of Moscow’s goals in Ukraine, if not yet realized, remain achievable. In this sense, the Novorossia project partially succeeded. The price of that success is another question: it proved to be quite high. But now Moscow can use the Donbass as leverage against the authorities in Kiev for a long time to come. Europe has already mentally come to terms with Crimea’s departure from Ukraine. And of course, that whole episode will be seen as a victory for the Kremlin, even if decades pass before Russian Crimea receives legal recognition.
Although no Western capital would openly admit it, Ukraine’s accession to NATO has been postponed indefinitely. That can also be considered a partial success of the Novorossia project — that is, if NATO expansion is seen as a threat to Russia. And it confirms another principle of international politics taken from the field of psychology — namely, that the more outrageously a country behaves, the more influence it has. The West might not invite the world’s weirdest leaders — such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — to summits, but it is also careful to avoid upsetting them unnecessarily.
Similarly, the West will wait a good long time before it crosses Russia again with the question of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. That would only change if Russia’s economy were to deteriorate so badly that the country required outside assistance. But that day is far off. The Russian people have great inertia, and even greater patience.
Russians have said they are willing to pay the price for Crimea and the Donbass. Well, they have paid, and are paying a high price for the conflict in Ukraine. The Russian economy continues to worsen not only due to the low price of oil, but as a result of Russia’s growing international isolation and a paralysis of will on the part of leaders to do anything about it.
The Russian people are paying for the fact that leaders have almost wholly substituted their foreign agenda for attention to the domestic agenda. The Kremlin has suddenly become obsessed with its foreign policy agenda, even while telling citizens at home to “sit tight and wait for oil prices to rebound.”
But then, nobody is exactly complaining, either. The joy of watching television broadcasts of glorious military victories mitigates the grief over the family’s shrinking budget. And that is nothing new for Russians. In this country, the state is always more important than the individual.
One of those rare “fifth column” critics of the regime might point out that many soldiers are bound to come home in coffins. But only their immediate families will grieve: that is how it has always been. For now, polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the Russian people approve of the military intervention in Syria. After all, how many allies can Russia just “hand over to the West” — no matter who those allies might be?
In this sense, Moscow has not abandoned its Novorossia project, but consolidated its victories there and launched its own reset, creating the New Syria project. The goal is the same: Russia is fighting for its national pride, as Russia alone understands it. And that emotion is personified in a single man who, no matter what he does, remains the undisputed and uncontested authority for the majority of the population.
Russians have had to adjust their consumer behavior to the ongoing economic crisis. Some 62 percent of them have switched to buying cheaper food and goods (against 58 percent in January), the Russian Public Opinion Study Center (VTsIOM) said.
The number of people who have been buying fewer goods and spending less on their entertainment or have stopped doing so at all more than six months ago has markedly grown (from 21 percent in January to 37 percent in September), VTsIOM said, presenting a poll of 1,600 individuals held in 130 populated localities in 46 regions on September 26-27.
Another 20 percent said they had been acting in that manner for the past six months, and 7 percent began to spend less on food, goods or entertainment or stopped making some purchases in the past month (23 percent in January).
The percentage of respondents who set no limits to their consumption of goods and services has been stable, 34 percent both in January and in September.
Thirty-eight percent of Russians make food reserves, and 36 percent grow more vegetables and fruit in their vegetable gardens and make their own jams and preserves. Thirty-five percent are looking for higher pay or extra jobs.
About a third (31 percent) are spending their savings on daily needs, 24 percent borrow money from banks, 26 percent borrow from their acquaintances and 23 percent accept gratis aid from their families. Only 9 percent are making hard currency savings and 5 percent are selling valuable property.
Almost one-third of Russians think their nation’s military is the most powerful in the world, according to a new poll published by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) on Thursday.
The survey comes two weeks after Russia began air strikes in Syria that have dominated television news coverage — most of which have presented the campaign as a resounding success.
It showed that Russians are more confident about their nation’s military power than in the final years of the Soviet Union, when the country was a recognized global superpower.
Thirty-two percent of respondents to the poll published Friday said Russia’s military was the strongest in the world, compared to only 5 percent in 1990. Another 49 percent said in Friday’s survey that the Russian armed forces were among the planet’s most powerful, compared to 21 percent in 1990.
In 1990, almost half of Russians said the Soviet armed forces either lagged behind the rest of the world or were flat-out weak.
In part, the change in attitudes reflects a massive modernization drive over in recent years. President Vladimir Putin has overseen a 20 trillion ruble ($326 billion) rearmament program, begun in 2011, that is aimed at reversing nearly two decades of decline in the armed forces.
The program is already yielding results. Russia’s air force and navy in Syria has successfully conducted modern combat operations, sometimes using advanced precision weapons. But analysts agree that in most areas the country’s military technology significantly lags the U.S., as well as Britain, Germany and France.
This year, Russian military spending is expected to hit a post-Soviet high of 3.1 trillion rubles ($50.5 billion), or around 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Asked if this was too much to spend on the military, just 35 percent of respondents to Friday’s poll said yes, while 52 percent said the government isn’t spending enough.
The survey was conducted from Oct. 10-11 and polled 1,800 people across Russia. The margin of error did not exceed 3.5 percent.
President Vladimir Putin called the position of U.S. officials who rejected a Russian proposal to send a delegation to Washington in order to discuss Syria non-constructive and weak, the TASS news agency reported Thursday.
“I think this position is non-constructive. Its weakness is based on a lack of agenda. Probably there’s simply nothing to talk about,” Putin said during a press conference in the Kazakh capital Astana on Thursday.
Putin said Tuesday that Russian authorities had suggested a meeting with Washington to discuss solving the Syrian crisis “at the highest military and political level,” Russian media reported. A delegation headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was, according to Putin, ready to go.
On Wednesday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. had declined the offer.
The White House isn’t interested in talks “as long as Russia is not willing to make a constructive contribution to our counter-ISIL effort,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, using another name for the Islamic State terrorist organization.
Commenting on the refusal, Putin said he didn’t understand how the U.S. can criticize Russia’s actions in Syria when they themselves refuse to engage in a dialogue, the report said.
He added that Russia “was leaving the doors open” to anyone who would like to discuss the situation in Syria.
Russia has been carrying out air strikes in Syria since Sept. 30. According to Russian officials, the strikes are aimed at the Islamic State and other terrorists, but U.S. officials claim Russia is targeting the Syrian opposition in order to support its longtime ally President Bashar Assad.
Russian and U.S. military experts did, however, discuss via video conference Wednesday a possible agreement outlining measures to make the air space over Syria safe for both Russian and U.S. aircraft.
The Dutch Safety Board concluded Tuesday that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
The missile struck near the cockpit, instantly killing the two pilots and another crewmember while breaking off the front of the plane, the board said in its final report of the incident that killed all 298 on board. Some passengers may have remained conscious for up to a minute and a half before the Boeing 777 crashed into the ground, but they probably were not fully aware of what was happening amid the oxygen-starved chaos, the report said.
Safety board chairman Tjibbe Joustra announced findings from the report — which does not say who was responsible for firing the missile — and showed a reconstruction of the front of the airliner.
Dutch investigators released this animation illustrating what happened in the final moments of doomed flight MH17 based on the Safety Board’s investigation findings, which were published on October 13, 2015. VPC
The investigators said the missile exploded less than a yard from the cockpit, and the aircraft came down over eastern Ukraine, where a conflict was raging between Russian-backed separatists and government forces.
Ukraine should have closed its airspace to civil aviation, Joustra said. “None of the parties involved recognized the risk from the armed conflict on the ground,” he said.
Western officials have long said the plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Russia has denied involvement in the July 17, 2014, tragedy.
Ukraine says the missile was launched in Snizhne, an area controlled by separatists. The Dutch report identified an area of 320 square kilometers where the missile had been launched but did not state an exact site.
On Tuesday, the Russian state-controlled manufacturer of Buk missiles said its own investigation contradicts the Dutch report’s conclusions.
The firm, Almaz-Antey, said it conducted two experiments — including one that detonated a Buk missile near the nose of an airplane similar to a Boeing 777 — that dispute the report’s findings. The experimental aircraft’s remains showed a much different damage pattern than seen on the remnants of MH17, the firm said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
Speaking at a news conference before the Dutch report was released, the firm’s head Yan Novikov said: “We have proven with our experiments that the theory about the missile flying from Snizhne is false.” He said evidence shows that if the plane was hit by a Buk, it was fired from the village of Zaroshenske, which Russia says was under Ukrainian government control at the time.
At the White House in Washington, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price called the report an important milestone to hold those responsible accountable for shooting down the plane.
“The report also serves to remind us of this terrible tragedy and the impact it continues to have on those left behind,” Price said.
Robert Latiff, a retired Air Force major general who is now a professor at the University of Notre Dame, said if separatists launched the missile, they probably lacked training in the weapons system, which includes radar and communications technology to track a plane’s transponder identification code. Russian troops would have been too professional and disciplined to make that kind of error, Latiff said.
“The people who ‘pulled the trigger,’ so to speak should have, as a matter of training, ensured that the target was not a commercial aircraft by checking for this code first,” Latiff said. “I suspect this was not the case, and some nervous, anxious or trigger-happy soldier was at fault.”
The Dutch Safety Board investigated the incident because 193 of those on board were from the Netherlands. The plane’s voice and data recorders were recovered within days of the crash.
The cockpit voice recorder offered no clues that the crew was aware they were about to be shot down. Two bursts of sound were captured in the final 20 milliseconds of the recording, with each lasting only four one-hundreds of a second. “Crew communication gave no indication that there was anything abnormal with the flight,” the Dutch report said.
Ukraine received information in June 2014 that “illegal armed units within the area” possessed portable surface-to-air missiles, according to the report. Ukraine’s military aircraft were being shot at and shot down.
On June 5, Ukraine ordered civil aircraft to fly at least 26,000 feet above the conflict territory. By July 14, three days before the Flight 17 incident, Ukraine raised the order for planes to fly at least 32,000 feet high. The order came the same day a Ukranian Antonov An-26 military transport aircraft was shot down.
But European air traffic control found that the restrictions did little to reduce flights over the region, a popular route for flights between Europe and Asia. After the airspace was closed where Flight 17 was shot down, the number of flights over all of Ukraine fell from about 1,300 daily to 700, according to the report.
Wreckage helped investigators piece together what happened. But investigators found it difficult to reach the crash site and gather evidence because fighting continued in the area.
The governments of Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia, which each lost travelers in the incident, have asked for an international tribunal to prosecute whoever shot down the plane. Russia vetoed the proposal at the United Nations Security Council, but Ukraine’s foreign minister said in July that another attempt would be made after the Dutch report was published.
The incident was the second disaster in one year for Malaysia within a few months. Flight 370 went missing March 8, 2014, on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and the search continues off the coast of Australia for the plane, after a wing part washed up on an island near Africa.
The Ukraine incident sparked a worldwide effort to get governments to share more information about conflict zones where planes should avoid flying. The issue is complicated because intelligence agencies that could warn where it is dangerous to fly don’t want others to figure out how they got their information.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations that sets policies, set up a web page to check which countries have been declared no-fly zones.
The decisions about where to fly are hotly debated. For example, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a warning Friday that warships were launching long-range missiles from the Caspian Sea at Syria, leading to flight risks above the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq. But the agency didn’t urge airlines to avoid the region.
HOW A BUK SA-11 WORKS
Soviet Union’s Buk is a medium-range surface-to-air missile system is capable of shooting down fighter jets traveling up to 70,000 feet. An example of one configuration of the system:
1. Brigade-level radars provide early warning to SNOW DRIFT radar, which identifies a target’s height, bearing and range.
Experts are saying that Russia’s military is more advanced than everyone thought, and that Syria has allowed it to showcase its progress to the world.
Russia has used a new aircraft that has never before appeared in war, and is launching new cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that can travel more than 900 miles further than their American equivalent.
“This is an amazingly capable new weapon,” Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, told The New York Times.
Russian battle tactics and strategy have advanced, too.
“What continues to impress me is their ability to move a lot of stuff real far, real fast,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the US Army forces in Europe, said, per The Times.
This shows that Russian President Vladimir Putin has successfully modernized a military many thought was behind its Western counterparts.
After an exhaustive, 15-month investigation, the Dutch Safety Board affirmed on Tuesday what has long been generally known or suspected — that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile.
Even Russia, which has spent much of those 15 months generating all kinds of implausible theories that put the blame for the crash and its 298 victims on Ukraine, and doing its best to thwart investigations, has had to acknowledge that this is what happened. But it now argues that the fatal missile was an older model that the Russian armed forces no longer use, and that it was fired from territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.
The five-nation team led by the Dutch Safety Board did not assign responsibility. That will be the job of Dutch prosecutors. But the board’s minutely detailed report is consistent with theories advanced by the United States and Ukraine as well as evidence collected by the independent investigative website Bellingcat.com, which hold that the fatal missile was fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
In one key detail, the Dutch report undermined Russia’s competing claim. The Russian corporation that manufactures Buk missiles, Almaz-Antey, held its own news conference on Tuesday at which it said it had detonated a warhead of the sort used to arm the Buk missile identified by the Dutch alongside a decommissioned Russian jetliner to demonstrate that this explosion would pepper the plane with bowtie-shape shrapnel, which it said was not found at the crash site. But in fact, the Dutch board said it had discovered fragments of that exact shape, including some in the bodies of the cockpit crew.
This fact is not something Russians are likely to learn; Russian television has presented only the Kremlin’s disinformation of what is going on in Ukraine and, for that matter, Syria. Propaganda works: A public opinion poll taken in July by the Levada Center found that 44 percent of Russians believe the plane was downed by the Ukrainian military, 17 percent thought it was by the United States, and only 3 percent believed it was the work of separatists.
Creating an alternative reality has been a big reason for President Vladimir Putin’s boundless popularity among Russians. He sees no reason to come clean for the shooting down of the Boeing 777. At the same time, Ukrainian authorities should also give some credible responses to the Dutch board’s criticism that Ukraine failed to close the air space over eastern Ukraine even though Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down by Russian-backed rebels in the weeks before the downing of Flight 17.
Against Russia’s shameless deception, the Dutch, who lost the largest number of people in the tragedy, must be commended for the thoroughness and integrity of their investigation. The criminal investigation should be as clear and independent, no matter how hard the Kremlin tries to derail or mislead it.
Eighteen months ago, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, confusion prevailed in the West. Today, as Russia sends troops, armor, and aircraft to Syria, we are once again perplexed. On Monday President Vladimir Putin provided the explanation: Russia’s intervention is aimed to defeat ISIS and reduce the flow of refugees to Europe. A review of the last major Russian intervention, in Ukraine, might help us to evaluate this claim.
The superficial links between the two conflicts are obvious. For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, a ceasefire is holding. This has allowed Moscow to send special forces from Ukraine to Syria. The naval base in Crimea is now used to project Russian power southwards.
The deeper connection is Russian doctrine. Authoritarian leaders are legitimate, while popular resistance is not. President Putin’s claim to oppose Islamic terrorism is true enough. But he also opposes, with equal fervor and greater determination, secular democrats in his own country and in Europe. Russia invaded Ukraine not to halt a “military coup,” as President Putin rather oddly claimed on Monday, but to hinder a democratic movement by military action. In Syria, Russia has helped and presumably will continue to help Assad repress all resistance, not just the Islamicist variety.
From Moscow’s perspective, there is not much difference between university students protesting in Kyiv for closer ties with the European Union and Islamicist terrorists gaining ground in Syria. In both cases, Russian leaders can, quite understandably, see a coming domestic problem. If people can gather peacefully in Kyiv, why not in Moscow? If Islamic terrorism can work in Syria, why not in southern Russia?
But the more important factor is domestic public opinion. Russia is a television culture, and Russian television news is devoted almost entirely to the world beyond Russia. In the last few days, Russian television has completely changed the subject: from Ukraine to Syria. What must not be mentioned is that Russia has not achieved its goals in Ukraine. The Ukrainian war shows that Russia can fail even when the European Union pays only a very small amount of attention to the conflict. What Russian leaders seem to want in Syria is a war without EU sanctions, which they can win for the viewers at home.
Russian leaders seem to fear the European example more than they fear Islamic terrorism. The post-communist and post-Soviet countries that have joined the European Union are not only freer but richer than Russia. President Putin presented this in his speech Monday as heedless expansionism, setting aside the basic fact that the EU enlarged at the initiative of the new member states. Russia invaded Ukraine to prevent one more post-Soviet country from succeeding in ways that Russia has not.
The war in Ukraine was thus never about Ukraine alone. It was always about the destruction of the European project as such. If the European Union fails, then there is no danger that Russians will see Europe as an alternative. If Europe fragments into nation-states, Russia becomes a much stronger player. Thus Russia seeks to destroy the European Union by supporting radicals and populists who oppose European integration and seek a return to the nation-state. Although President Putin spoke of a revived “anti-Nazi coalition,” his friends in Europe include fascists.
So Ukrainian experience gives reason for skepticism about Putin’s claim that Russia is intervening in Syria to help Europe with its refugee problem. The politics might well be exactly the opposite. Having found a powerful ally in its quest to end European integration, the European far right has followed Moscow’s lead on the Ukrainian conflict. But the natural subject of Putin’s allies in Europe is immigration. By supporting the Assad regime, Russia helps to produce the refugees that drive European politics rightward.
Syrian refugees who arrive in Europe must be treated humanely and according to law. At the same time, European leaders might consider the possibility that Russian policy in Syria is aimed toward the transformation of the country into a refugee factory. In Ukraine, Russian intervention generated two million refugees among precisely the people Moscow claimed it was protecting. In Syria, it has been the Assad regime, which Russia has now supported, that has been responsible for the vast majority of the refugees.
Whether opposing European Union or Islamicist terrorism, the domestic sources of Russian policy are the same. The problems that Russia faces are inside Russia, and insoluble from beyond Russia. There is no principle of political succession in Russia today, and so Kremlin is telling its people stories about the infallibility and immortality of a leader. In a televisual culture, domestic news is all but absent, and Russia’s presence on the world stage becomes the only story. But the power to change the subject from Ukraine to Syria, as President Putin was trying to do in New York, is not the power to make the story go on forever.
But did President Putin even manage to change the subject? He made some good points about American policy in Iraq. But when he sought the words to define just what he opposed, he gave an eerily accurate description of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. He denounced “zones of anarchy,” which is what Russia created in the Donbas. He decried “belief in one’s exceptionality,” thought it was precisely the idea that Russia as big brother can decide whether Ukraine exists was given as the reason for war. He spoke of the “tragic consequences” of exporting one’s own social model and the dangers of creating “protectorates.” That is indeed the lesson of the Ukrainians killed and displaced by policies known as the “Russian spring” and “New Russia.”
President Putin spoke of the “universality” of international law regarding “sovereignty.” And here he was quite right. If Russia were serious about law and sovereignty, President Putin might have announced at the UN that Russia is withdrawing its support from its separatist clients in Ukraine and withdrawing its troops and armor from sovereign Ukrainian territory. If he had said these things, then the world would have had very good reason to listen.
At the end of September, in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe located a Russian-made rocket launch system that had never been exported to the Ukrainian military.
The system, a 220mm TOS-1 Buratino thermobaric multiple rocket launch system, is one of the most blatant pieces of evidence to surface so far showing Russia’s involvement in the almost two-year-long war. And now the UK wants Russia to answer for its presence in the war-torn east.
“The Buratino is produced in Russia and has never been exported to Ukraine,” the UK’s Delegation to the OSCE said in a tweeted statement Wednesday. “We are requesting the delegation of the Russian Federation to explain the presence of the TOS-1 Buratino in this training area.”
Russia has repeatedly denied claims of sending troops or equipment into Ukraine.
The OSCE, which provides almost daily updates on the situation in the country, identified the Buratino on Sep. 25 parked in a training area near the Ukrainian city of Luhansk. A few days later it was gone.
The Buratino is a mobile piece of rocket artillery mounted on a tank chassis that can blanket large target areas with fuel-loaded rockets. The rockets saturate the area before igniting, giving the impression that the Buratino is a type of “flamethrower.”
While other multiple-rocket launch systems, such as the BM-21 Grad and BM-30 Smerch, have been used in Ukraine, the TOS-1 is recognized as a significantly more devastating weapon.
In the past, Russia has sold the system to Iraq and at least one has recently been spotted in Syria, helping with the current Russian-backed offensive in the west of the country.
[Ukrainian soldier killed by rebel fire in eastern Ukraine]
More than 7,000 people have died since the conflict in Ukraine began in 2014. Wednesday marked the first death caused by hostile fire in a month when a Ukrainian soldier was killed by small arms fire. Aside from the occasional cease-fire violation, a shaky truce has held between the Ukrainian military and Russian-back separatists since early September.