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The Syrian War and Russia's Diplomatic Play

Transcript of meeting between Putin and Defence Minister Shoigu shows how Russia is holding on to the diplomatic initiative to support its military campaign


This post first appeared on Russia Insider


The Russian Presidential website has released a transcript of a report given on Wednesday by Defence Minister Shoigu to Putin.

As with all such transcripts, the Presidential administrational (run by Sergei Ivanov, whose profile we provided here) will have carefully vetted its contents to ensure no secret or politically embarrassing information is disclosed.  

Some of the comments in the transcript will have been agreed by Ivanov and Shoigu in advance. They are what the Kremlin wants the world (especially foreign governments) to know.

It is a certainty that Shoigu is reporting to Putin on the military operation far more regularly and in far greater detail than this transcript suggests.

The transcript does nonetheless provide us with much information.

Firstly, the transcript gives an insight into the sort of targets the Russians have been attacking.

The primary target is the infrastructure the Islamic State and the other jihadi groups have created to support their military campaign against the Syrian government. In Shoigu’s words “command posts, ammunition depots, military hardware, and training camps for their fighters.”

It is the Islamic State and the jihadi rebels’ resources to conduct the war, rather than their fighters, who are the primary target.  

The Russians are not out to kill lots of jihadis. They are focused on destroying the Islamic State’s and the jihadis’ ability to wage war, so that the Russians and their allies can win it.

This is in keeping with the aim of the operation: to support an offensive by the Syrian army. The Syrians say it has now begun. Doubtless now that it has begun, the Russians will also provide close air support. The transcript says that Putin has already been informed of plans involving the conduct of the Syrian offensive - showing that it is being carefully coordinated with the Russians.

The main emphasis of the discussion between Putin and Shoigu was however the political and diplomatic effort underway to support the military campaign.

Westerners may be surprised to find Putin discussing political and diplomatic questions with his Defence Minister - as opposed to say his Foreign Minister or his intelligence chiefs.

However this is consistent with the way the Russians conduct war.  

They see war as an all-encompassing activity in which every instrument available to the state - diplomatic, military or economic - is used to achieve victory.  Reducing war to its purely military aspects - as Western leaders too often do - is not the Russian way.

This means that when the Russians decide to wage war, they prepare carefully, and work hard to support their military with intense diplomatic activity.  

The Russian intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 - carried out on impulse by a physically and intellectually exhausted leadership - is the exception that proves the rule (for a proper discussion of the decision to wage that war - showing why it bears no resemblance to the Syrian campaign - see what is by far the best study of the USSR’s Afghan war in English: Afghantsy by the former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite).

What comes over clearly from Putin’s discussion with Shoigu is the range of diplomatic contacts the Russians are engaging in.

They are talking to everybody, not just their allies but also to those who might be considered their adversaries: the US, the Turks, the Israelis and the Saudis and they are doing so moreover all the time.  Dr. Gilbert Doctorow has described Moscow as a “hive of activity”, and he is right.

Doing so enables the Russians to know what is in their potential adversaries’ minds and - ideally - to keep them divided and off-balance, preventing an anti-Russian coalition such as the one they faced in Afghanistan in the 1980s from being formed.

Thus instead of the Russians engaging publicly in a row with the Turks over airspace violations - which might cause Turkish opposition to the Russian campaign to harden - the Turks are placated with an apology, and an offer - which they have accepted - of a direct link to the Russian command to reduce the risk of more violations.

Hollande’s fantasy of an anti-Islamic State alliance between the Syrian army and the rebel Free Syrian Army is treated seriously, though Putin cannot resist a dig (“True, we do not know yet where this army is and who heads it”).  

The Russians know perfectly well that Hollande’s proposal is a fantasy. However, by going through the motions of considering it - and making the fact public - they save Hollande’s face, and make themselves look reasonable.

US complaints that the Russians are not striking the Islamic State but are striking “moderate” rebels are countered with the request - made with all the appearance of a straight face - that the US tell them where the “real terrorists” are - though here again Putin cannot resist a dig (“It is fair enough if they say they know the situation better because they have been conducting operations in this territory (on an unlawful basis, as I have said) for more than a year now”).

Again the Russians know perfectly well the US will not share intelligence with them. They have said their discussions with the US are at a purely “technical” level. However by making the request they keep the US on the back foot, and again make themselves look reasonable.

The Russian tactics are working. Despite the anger in Western capitals, there is no sign of an anti-Russian coalition coming together.

Meanwhile, the really important discussions, those the Russians are having with the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Syrians and - above all - the Chinese, are being kept secret.  

Putin and Shoigu tell us nothing about them - which proves that they are the ones that really matter.


The following transcript was published by Russia’s Presidential website:

The Russian Aerospace Forces are currently carrying out missions to support Syrian government troops in combatting terrorists and are launching airstrikes against the Islamic State’s positions in Syria.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, acting on your decision, since the 30th, we have been carrying out missions to strike ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups present on Syrian territory. Since September 30, we have conducted strikes against 112 targets. We are increasing our strikes’ intensiveness. Our various intelligence and reconnaissance forces have been working intensively over these last two days and have identified a large number of ISIS targets: command posts, ammunition depots, military hardware, and training camps for their fighters. Vessels from our Caspian Fleet joined our aviation in attacking these targets this morning.

Four warships launched 26 Kalibr cruise missiles against 11 targets. 

Our target monitoring data shows that all targets were destroyed and civilian facilities were not damaged in the strikes. These strikes’ results demonstrate the high effectiveness of our missiles launched from a big distance of nearly 1,500 kilometres.

This morning, 23 attack aircraft also continued their strikes against insurgent positions. Since September 30, we have destroyed 19 command posts, 12 ammunition depots, 71 pieces of military hardware, and six explosives production workshops producing explosives for car bombs and so on. We are continuing our operations according to plan.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Shoigu, we know how complicated antiterrorist operations of this kind are. It is still too early to assess the results, but what has been accomplished so far is certainly very positive. The Defence Ministry’s work overall, and the work of the experts at General Staff and our officers and service personnel in the field deserve a high assessment. Special thanks should go to the pilots at work in Syria, of course, and as this experience with using high-precision weapons shows, to the Caspian Fleet seamen.

The fact that these strikes were carried out using high-precision weapons launched from the Caspian Sea’s waters, around 1,500 kilometres away, and all of the planned targets were destroyed is evidence of our defence industry’s good preparation and the service personnel’s good professional skills.

At the same time, we realise that conflicts of this kind must end in a political settlement. I discussed this matter just this morning with the Russian Foreign Minister. During my recent visit to Paris, the President of France, Mr Hollande, voiced an interesting idea that he thought is worth a try, namely, to have President Assad’s government troops join forces with the Free Syrian Army. True, we do not know yet where this army is and who heads it, but if we take the view that these people are part of the healthy opposition, if it were possible to have them join in the fight against terrorist organisations such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and others, this would help pave the way to a future political settlement in Syria.

The Foreign Ministry will continue these efforts, given that we are in contact with practically all of the opposition forces, but I ask you too to support the Foreign Ministry’s efforts through your partnership channels. That is my first point.

Second, we must continue working with our foreign partners, because without their participation, without the participation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Iran, Iraq and other neighbouring countries, this work has little chance of being organised as it should.

In this respect, I have a question: What is the situation with work between our defence experts and their US and Turkish partners to coordinate things or at least keep each other informed?

Sergei Shoigu: We have organised contact with our Turkish partners. We now have direct communication between the Turkish army’s central command post and our National Defence Control Centre to organise our operations along the Turkish border so as to avoid incidents involving violation of airspace.

We held a videoconference with our American colleagues and began examining matters regarding ways to ensure our joint work and security in this territory. We have examined the document the Pentagon sent us, and today will discuss the fact that we are ready to approve this document and start work accordingly.

Next, we invited all of the military attaches yesterday and proposed to them, our colleagues, all who are involved in this work in one way or another, to provide us information on targets, if they have such information of course, so that we can work more effectively against ISIS’ camps and units.

We are waiting for our colleagues’ answers today and we hope they will inform us of the targets they may have. Of course, we should take further steps to organise this work and continue it in systemic fashion because no matter how we look at the situation, without each other’s support it will not be possible to complete this task. Past experience shows this to be the case. Our colleagues have been working on these tasks over the last year, but sadly, we have yet to see visible results.

Vladimir Putin: It is fair enough if they say they know the situation better because they have been conducting operations in this territory (on an unlawful basis, as I have said) for more than a year now, but if they are there and know the situation better, let them share with us information on the targets they have identified over this time, and we will work them through.

As for our next steps, as we agreed, it will be synchronised with the Syrian army’s operations on the ground. Our Aerospace Forces will provide effective support for the Syrian army’s offensive.

Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, this work has been planned. We briefed you on the first plans and stages and will keep you updated on the missions’ results.

Vladimir Putin: Good.


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