December 2, 2015

The Motives of Putin’s Syrian Campaign (part 2)

Oleksiy Volovych


Part 2

Moscow's Information Provocations

In his speech at the press conference following the G-20 summit in Antalya, V. Putin accused some countries of the “Twenty” of conclusion of oil deals with the ISIS. For example, speaking about the sources of funding of jihadists, Putin said that from the satellite photographs “it is clear how large is the scale of the illegal trade of oil and petroleum products”. According to the Russian President, columns of tankers, shown in those pictures, stretch for dozens of kilometers. At this, the Russian leader did not provide any evidence of the fuel being supplied exactly to the countries of the “Twenty”, he just said that the IS received funding from 40 countries.

November 24, commenting on the Syrian fighters' attack against the Russian Su-24 bomber, V. Putin accused Turkey of using oil from the fields, controlled by the ISIS. Russian media claimed that the second country on the scale of illegal resale of oil is Jordan, but it is not known if Putin discussed the issue with King Abdullah II during the meeting with him on November 24 in Sochi. Previously, Ankara and Washington accused the regime of B. Assad in purchases of crude oil from the “Islamic State”. But Moscow and Damascus did not react to these accusations.

Amazingly, Russian media have accused Ukraine of illegal buying oil from the IS. For example, in the article “Is Kyiv funding the ISIS?”, published on the website of the Russian online edition “Stoletie” (“Century”), a little-known writer B. Vishnevetskiy (there is no other article published under this name on the Internet), citing “very competent experts” from the site “Odesa-antimaydan”(a Russian domain JSC DBA RU - CENTER. Date of registration 2014-04-14. IP server This proxy is in France, Alsace, Strasbourg), states,“through the port of Odesa, which is under the full control of the American puppet Saakashvili, there come illegal supplies of oil produced by the ISIS”. Further, the article states that the ISIS' illegal oil, allegedly with Turkey's permission, is delivered to the port of Odesa by “small tankers”. But it says nothing about in which ports of which countries these Ukrainian “small tankers” are loaded. For some reason the Russian misinformers do not mention this. And how could they inform about something that does not exist in reality.

Through the media, which it controls, the Kremlin accuses Ukraine of supplying arms to terrorists of the ISIS through intermediaries. It has been reported about the detention (allegedly in the middle of November) in Kuwait of a Lebanese Osama Khayat, who allegedly was making deals for the purchase of weapons in Ukraine, in particular, of man-portable air defense systems (FN-6 MANPADS) of China make, and sending them through Turkey to the Syrian opposition fighters. It was also reported on the supply of terrorists through Saudi Arabia, with the participation of the Polish company “Level 11”, of twin 23-mm anti-aircraft systems ZU-23-2. Some weapons (rocket launchers and telecommunications equipment) were allegedly purchased for the Syrian opposition and terrorists through a company registered in Ukraine, which is owned by the also arrested in Kuwait Syrian Abdelkerim Salem.

November 20 2015, the concern “Ukroboronprom” officially stated that it had no relation to the supply of Ukrainian man-portable air defense systems, or other equipment to the “Islamic State”. At this, it informed that Ukraine had never bought MANPADS FN-6 from China. A similar statement was made by the Defense Ministry of Ukraine, which did not exclude a possibility that those weapons were sold by pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas, whom Russia supplies with more than enough various modern weapons.

Since the war in Chechnya, Russian media has been discussing the topic of cooperation between Ukrainian nationalists and Arab terrorists. They state that at the moment in the ranks of the Syrian armed opposition there are several hundred Ukrainian citizens, especially the Crimean Tatars, the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The fact that the Crimean Tatars are fighting in Syria on the side of the opposition, the Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People M. Dzhemilev admitted as early as September 2013. At the same time, he stressed that the Majlis does not support their leaving for Syria and pointed out that those who went to fight in Syria, are supporters of the non-traditional for the Crimean Tatars sect of Islam.

The above-mentioned B. Vishnevetzkiy's article states that recently the former Interior Minister of Ukraine V. Zakharchenko has allegedly made the following “sensational” statement: “As the other day it became known from the documents which I received through informal channels, the NSDC of Ukraine, headed by the chief organizer of the coup d'etat in Ukraine in 2014 O. Turchynov, October 13, 2015 decided to send to Syria, into the ranks of the armed opposition, Ukrainian volunteer battalions. The Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council O. Turchynov tells about this decision in his letter dated October 16, 2015, № 417/9-8-7 to the Interior Minister A. Avakov, Minister of Defense S. Poltorak and the Chief of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps “The Right Sector” A. Stempitskyi”. But here the question arises: why should  O. Turchynov inform A. Avakov and S. Poltorak about the NSDC's decisions if they are its members?

The author of this utterly false “document” should know that Ukrainian law prohibits citizens of Ukraine to take part in armed conflicts abroad. In particular, Article 447 of the Criminal Code provides for 5 to 10 years in prison for mercenarism. And then, what's the point to send volunteers to the Middle East, if we have the created by Russia our own “Near East” in the Donbas?

Well, we have got accustomed to the fact that one of the components of Russia's “hybrid war” against Ukraine is the Kremlin's information and psychological operations, but it seems that the fantasy of their developers is getting exhausted because these operations are becoming more primitive and fewer Ukrainians and Russians get into their torn nets...


Trying to Divert the Russians Citizens' Attention from Economic Problems

Putin's main goal is to rate up his popularity, in the situation where tens of millions of Russians suffer from growing socio-economic problems, strengthened by international sanctions and isolation. In case of a success of the Russian Federation's military operations and diplomatic maneuvers in Syria, the Kremlin hopes, if not for the full lifting of international sanctions, then at least for their softening. But the sanctions and falling oil prices in the world market have caused Russia's significant losses. According to the consulting firm McKinsey in Moscow, Russia today is experiencing a more severe financial and economic crisis than in 1998 and 2008.

According to the report of the RF Ministry of Finance on the budget for the first ​​half of the current year, the economic downturn in Russia in the second quarter of 2015 was 4.6 %, revenues from gas and oil sales for the first time since 2010 fell by a total of 727 billion rubles. The main reason is the fall of oil prices in the world market — from 107.3 US dollars to 57 US dollars per barrel. In total, the Federal budget revenues declined by 2.5 % of GDP, which in terms of money is about 650 billion rubles.

According to the forecasts of the Center of Development of the Higher School of Economics of the Russian Federation, if the oil price in the next 3 years remains at 50 US dollars per barrel, the Reserve Fund of the Russian Federation will run out already in the first half of 2017. However, this can happen much sooner because according to different forecasts, oil prices could even decrease to 20 US dollars per barrel. For Russia, it would be a disaster.

According to many experts and observers, the US and EU's sanctions against Russia are quite “soft”, but even so, these measures have already caused substantial damage to Russia's economy. According to experts, because of the international sanctions, Russia has lost 98 billion Euros: 23 billion in 2014 and 75 billion in 2015, as of September 1. Due to the international sanctions, the capitalization of the Russian stock market has fallen from 766 billion to 498 billion US dollars and the ruble has fallen by half.

However, the socio-economic situation in Russia had become critical long before the decline in oil prices and the imposition of sanctions. It just managed to make ends meet due to the super-profits from the sale of the huge Russian natural resources, especially energy carriers. Year of 2013 was quite favorable for the Russian economy, but even then, it was in a state of prolonged stagnation. As an illustration, we will mention some of the data from the report of the Chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee Vladimir Komoyedov “What Threatens Russia”, which he made February 14, 2013 at the scientific-practical Conference “Russia's Military Security: the Twenty-First Century”. Here is how V. Komoyedov characterizes the socio-economic situation in Russia as of 2013:

“The today's Russian Federation, unfortunately, is a raw material appendage of someone else's economy. We have huge dying out territories… Russia is going through a spiritual, moral, ethic crisis. This is a real danger to the future of the country, its statehood, position in the world and its role in world civilization.

Today the state has no national idea, bringing the society together. Twenty years of tumultuous changes have not freed Russia from its humiliating dependence on raw materials. Our current economy largely ignores people's needs. The domestic business neither invents nor creates; it just sells raw materials or imported goods.” Unfortunately, the situation in Russia differs very little from that in Ukraine.

V. Komoyedov continues his report: “Only 25 million of the 140 million (in fact — 128 million — O.V)) of Russia's population are employed in the industrial sector, the remaining 100 million only consume the production. There are 67 customers per one person working in production. In recent years, 40 thousand Russian villages have been depopulated. According to official statistics, in 2011, there were 4 million homeless people and 40 million alcoholics — one third of the population (!!!). At present, Russia has more than 1 million prisoners — more than in 1937. The average life expectancy is — 64.8 years. Even in Cuba, it is 79 years. There are 600 divorces per 1000 marriages. In recent years, the number of officials has increased by 70 %. Scientific studies have decreased by 40 %, while the number of researchers, — by 50 %”.

These data give a clear answer to the question — what and who threaten Russia? Russia is threatened by the anti-people kleptocratic regime, but not by NATO or the USA, and certainly not by “Ukrainian Banderites”, with whom Moscow authorities are frightening Russians. Rather than restore order at home, the Kremlin is pouring huge amounts of money into the bloated military budget (according to SIPRI in 2015 — 84.5 billion US dollars), into the Crimea, “Luhandonia” and now also into the military operations in Syria, which cost the Russian treasury 4 million US dollars per day.

Distracting the Russian population's attention from the sad state of the economy through saber-rattling and various foreign adventures cannot last forever. Sooner or later V. Putin will have to answer for the results of his economic policy over the past 15 years. How, for example, will he explain why Russia — such a huge country — a continent with rich natural resources, is ranked seventh in the world in terms of GDP (3.5 trillion US dollars), lagging behind China (18.0 trillion US dollars.), USA (17.3 trillion US dollars), India (7.4 trillion US dollars.), Japan (4.7 trillion US dollars.) and Germany (3.7 trillion US dollars)?


Syria Will Not Be Employed as Trump Card for Bargaining

If you ask a rhetorical question — which front is more important for Putin — Ukrainian or Syrian? ­­­— then, in my opinion, it's, of course, Ukrainian. As the Russian political scientist A. Piontkovskiy says, “while Putin is in power, until the last day, to the last breath of his political life, he will continue trying to strangle Ukraine by all means available”. And here's why. Loss of control over Ukraine, granting Ukraine the opportunity to become a civilized European state is a mortal threat to V. Putin's kleptocratic regime, while his losing influence on Damascus would not be such a threat. Therefore, Putin's Ukrainian and Syrian adventures are closely linked, but at this, the Syrian adventure plays a supporting role as an opportunity to bargain for the West's concessions on the issue of Ukraine's sovereignty.

V. Putin is ready to make concessions on the Syrian issue, in exchange for the West's concessions on the Ukrainian issue. What concessions on Syria is Putin ready to make? Given that the basic contradiction in the peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis is the fate and the role of President B. Assad, I think that Putin will give the latter away to the West without a moment's hesitation, if the West closes, or at least covers up its eyes to V. Putin's actions in Ukraine and lifts sanctions or makes them nominal and formal. Sooner or later V. Putin will be forced to hand Assad over, because he will not have enough forces and resources to keep him in power for a few more years. Besides, it looks like the West will hardly agree to B. Assad's being let to the upcoming presidential elections in the newly planned in Vienna peace process, especially since he's already been the President of Syria for 15 years. Foreseeing the inevitability of this outcome, Moscow has long been in contact with the “moderate Syrian opposition” in the hope that it will be able to find a replacement for B. Assad and to maintain its presence and influence in Syria.

Based on the above-said, there is no reason to believe that V. Putin will stick in Syria and leave Ukraine alone. Unfortunately, this will happen. A brief truce in the Donbas in September and October only served to improve Putin's image of a “peacemaker” before his speech at the UN General Assembly. At the moment when Europe and the world's main problem is terrorism, and the world's attention to the Ukrainian-Russian confrontation has weakened, the Kremlin may launch a new round of aggression on the part of the DPR and the LPR and thus break even not beneficial and humiliating for Kyiv Minsk Agreements in order to freeze the conflict and in the best case to maintain the status quo.

Even though V. Putin so far has not managed to create “Novorossia”, he now has a base for exhausting Ukraine with the possibility of expanding this base when convenient, for example, if with the help of the fifth column he manages to weaken the central government in Kyiv. Besides, as long as there are Russian occupation troops in the occupied territories of the Crimea and Donbas, Ukraine's joining the EU or NATO will be out of the question.

In these circumstances, objectively Russia is not interested in a peaceful settlement in Syria if there is no guarantee of B. Assad's (or the like pro-Russian politician's) remaining in power. On the other hand, given that the West will seek to bring to power pro-Western Syrian political forces, the civil war in the troubled Syria may continue indefinitely, for example, like in Iraq, where it has been going on for 12 years, or in Israel, where the confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis has lasted for 70 years.

Having launched military operations in Syria, the Kremlin strategists hope that the image of a strong Russia, which plays an important role in the resolution of international conflicts, will be well perceived by the majority of the population. Most likely, it will be so.

But if V. Putin does not stop in time and does not withdraw his military contingent from Syria, Moscow's long term military intervention in Syria, could suck Russia into the quagmire of the war for many years and lead to very dramatic and tragic consequences, like it was during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

V. Putin also hopes that the participation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the fight against the ISIS would be “valued” by the West, and as a “reward” he will get leeway on the issue of the situation in the Donbas. However, these V. Putin's will not come true. November 19, the Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States for National Security, Ben Rhodes clearly stated that coordination between the US and Russia in the fight against the ISIS does not affect Washington's position regarding the situation in Ukraine. “We do not see any connection between the Ukrainian issue and the situation in Syria. Sanctions were imposed on Russia not because of Syria, but because of Ukraine and the fact that Russia is violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Speaking November 17 at the APEC summit in the Philippine's capital, Obama said that Russia “must stop supporting the Syrian dictator B. Assad and switch to struggle against the ISIS”. According to B. Obama, “the Russian air strikes in Syria only helped terrorists of the ISIS”.


So, V. Putin's hopes for cooperation with the US in the common struggle against the IS in exchange for coming out of the isolation and lifting of sanctions, or at least easing the sanctions, have failed. Apart from B. Obama, German Chancellor A. Merkel, British Prime Minister D. Cameron, Prime Minister of Canada J. Trudeau and Prime Minister of Italy M. Renzi also reminded V. Putin about his commitments regarding a peaceful settlement of the situation in the East of Ukraine, at the G-20 summit in Turkey.

On the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Western leaders in Turkey agreed to extend sanctions against Russia for another six months, until July 2016. The formal decision on the extension of the EU's sanctions against Russia will be taken at the EU summit on December 18. Nobody will be trade Ukraine with Putin. Leaders of Western countries have clearly demonstrated that in the issue of sanctions, they will not agree to revise their policy towards the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in the Donbas under the influence of the situation in Syria.