Is a Showdown Between Russia and the U.S. Unavoidable?

With a proxy war in Syria and cyber spying at home, two old foes inch closer to conflict.

Norwegian Navy

Syria has become a straight up proxy power struggle between the US and Russia. A miserably designed and hastily implemented ceasefire, even a budding “cooperation” plan between the US and Russia aimed to focus the fighting on common foes like ISIS and al-Nusra had no chance of succeeding. And on the heels of its nearly immediate and foreseeable failure, US-Russian relations are in worse shape than they were in before the deal was struck. Now, after Russian and Syrian forces have turned back to Aleppo in an attempt to crush the rebel resistance there once and for all, and as the White House mulls a response to Russian cyber attacks targeting the heart of American democracy, it seems like some sort of confrontation or standoff between old Cold War foes is inevitable.

Russia had long lusted after US intelligence that could depict all the players on the Syrian battlefield map at any given time. They even attacked a base frequented by American special forces in Syria, in an attempt to force the US into providing it. But when last month’s rickety ceasefire and intelligence sharing arrangement was put in place, requiring a greater commitment of American assets than Russian ones, it was almost certain the cooperative effort would fail fast and hard.

It all comes down to priorities. Russia’s fundamental concept of operations in Syria doesn’t fit alongside the American-led coalition’s concept of operations. Major differences in the the quality of the targeting process, everything from who is considered a target and who is not, and how those targets are struck are simply insurmountable obstacles to overcome. For instance, Russia considers anyone opposing the Assad regime as a terrorist and employs unguided “dumb” munitions almost exclusively, even in urban areas–regardless of the potential for collateral damage. The US-led coalition sees the chance taking an innocent life as a major barrier to attacking most targets, and the coalition is operating under the tightest aerial rules of engagement ever devised.

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An Su-25 loaded with dumb bombs sits across the ramp from Russian Su-24 Fencers at Hemeimeem air base in Syria.

The idea that the US would condone dumb-bomb strikes in urban areas and against targets it sees as non-enemy, if not friendly, was absurd. Furthermore, the fact that the US could potentially be called upon to help facilitate these strikes by sharing intelligence was unacceptable. Beyond just deconflicting flight schedules and possibly creating safe zones for the allied groups fighting for either side so safely operate in, the notion of US and Russian cooperation while persecuting targets in Syria was a farce. In essence, a diplomat’s bright idea and military commander’s worst nightmare.  

Before the intelligence sharing effort gained traction, the ceasefire that precluded it fell apart. Accusations of both sides not adhering to the deal came just hours after it began. Then, two separate air strikes set the ceasefire and the idea of military cooperation ablaze. US-Russian relations were quick to follow.

The first of these incidents came on September 16th, with a series of US-led coalition air strikes on the embattled eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour. The US planned an attack on ISIS positions near an air base on the outskirts of the besieged city, but Syrian troops had taken control of the base not long before the aircraft arrived overhead. The Russian military says it tried to contact the US twice on the hotline setup for such emergencies. The first call was answered by a person in the Combined Air Operations Center that couldn’t understand the Russian official, so they hung up. By the time the designated contact was found, much of the carnage had already occurred. It’s estimated that 62 Syrian soldiers were killed in the attack and hundreds more were wounded.

Following this errant strike, Russia began lashing out against the US, stating publically that the the US and its coalition directly supports ISIS. Within a couple days of the attack, as accusations in the UN Security Council flew, the rickety ceasefire came crashing down when Russian and Syrian aircraft, as well as Assad’s ground forces, restarted their attack on Aleppo in a more aggressive manner than ever before.

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Secretary of State John Kerry in a heated exchange following the bombing of Syrian troops by US-led coalition aircraft.

Around the same time, as US diplomats frantically tried to save the doomed ceasefire agreement, Russian Su-25s attacked a 30 vehicle humanitarian aid convoy near Aleppo, killing 20. The US had clearly informed Russia of the convoy’s planned route, but that did not keep the attack from commencing. After that, there was little chance the ceasefire could be salvaged, and fanciful ideas of US-Russian military cooperation in Syria have been washed away.

Things have continued devolve in Syria, especially in the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. Russian and Syrian forces have encircled a large portion of the city, a place where an estimated 250,000 innocent people still reside. Airstrikes and artillery barrages have left a city that was already largely broken completely in ruins. No target has been left off Russian or Syrian target lists, including hospitals. Both Assad’s regime and Russia deny striking them on purpose, but over the last year, one after another, they have been hit. Then, just weeks ago, Russia’s ambassador to the UK admitted that hospitals are legitimate targets as rebels are using them along with civilians.

 

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A bombed-out semi full of humanitarian aid outside of Aleppo. 

Russia’s uptick in bombing operations has resulted in a dissolution of Russian-American diplomatic ties, and a clear end to any dialogue over the Syrian issue, with the State Department saying that all formal ties between the two countries regarding Syria have officially been cut.

On October 3rd, State Department spokesman James Kirby described the decision:

"This is not a decision that was taken lightly. Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments and was also either unwilling or unable to ensure Syrian regime adherence to the arrangements to which Moscow agreed. Rather, Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course, inconsistent with the Cessation of Hostilities, as demonstrated by their intensified attacks against civilian areas, targeting of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need, including through the September 19 attack on a humanitarian aid convoy."

Russia has been pouring more fighting capabilities into the region, and it seems fairly clear a larger military operation is imminent. Russia has also announced that it will permanently control the airbase south of Latakia, where the majority of its aerial fighting force in Syria is based, and that it will permanently hold and expand its highly strategic, but previously leased naval base in Tartus. Ownership of these bases are prizes won from the Assad regime in return for stepping into the Syrian civil war on its behalf – a move that largely reversed the regime’s dire fortunes at the time.

A permanent air base and port on the Mediterranean – one able to accept any ship or aircraft in Russia’s inventory – represents a massive strategic shift for the region. It also fits in perfectly with Putin’s designs to revive the Russian Navy and to wield influence, backed by military power, far from home.

Now Russia’s only aircraft carrier, equipped with new and upgraded fighters in addition to helicopters, along with a Kirov class battlecruiser and other escorts, is on its way to the eastern mediterranean. Once on station, the armada will augment Russia’s land-based aircraft in the bombardment of Aleppo. The flotilla – the largest and most powerful since the end of the Cold War – will also send a message to NATO, and to other players in the region, that Russia’s ability to project devastating naval power abroad is now a reality.

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The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's only aircraft carrier, is chugging its way toward Syria along with the largest Russian battle group assembled since the end of the Cold War. 

As this piece is published, Russia’s flotilla in the North Sea and headed south. In just days it will be on scene off Syria’s coast, and Russia’s carrier battle group arrival there will likely coincide with the end of the unilateral ceasefire called by Russia and the Assad regime in Aleppo earlier this week. Russia says the ceasefire was put in place on “humanitarian grounds,” and has extended it through Friday – though it seems that another four days will likely be added. Corridors have been opened through which civilians can leave the city, and leaflets have been dropped stating that anyone who is not a rebel fighter should evacuate.

This pause in fighting is likely the prelude to a massive offensive that will lay waste to Aleppo once and for all. Russia isn’t playing its cards close to its chest when it comes to its post-ceasefire plans. Franz Klintsevich, a senior member of Russia’s parliamentary defense committee has stated to Russian media that “after the humanitarian pause, the clearing operation begins.”

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The war-torn streets of Aleppo. 

Cleansing Aleppo of all rebel fighters would be a massive win for the Assad regime as the northwestern Syrian city has long been the stronghold of anti-Assad rebel forces. Yet doing so will come at a horrific cost of human life as many innocent Syrians are likely to stay in the city. Just because roads are supposedly open for them to leave, that does not mean they have any place to go, nor do many families have the ability to travel on foot as so many have been wounded over a half decade of fighting in the city.

The international community has taken notice of just how barbaric the last few weeks of Russian and Syrian government military operations have been in Aleppo. Secretary of State John Kerry has advocated investigating the Russian and Assad regime’s actions in Syria as war crimes, stating:

“Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, and medical facilities, and children and women… These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes, and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions, this is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians.”

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A Russian Ministry of Defense briefing showing an encircled Aleppo. 

This sentiment is not Kerry’s alone, the EU has followed suit, now calls for increased sanctions against Russia, not just the Assad regime, are gaining favor. Theresa May, François Hollande and Angela Merkel have all stated that they are prepared to make a united stand against Russia’s actions in Syria. As in the US, this could include a new round of sanctions against Russia, a war crimes investigation, or even both.

So what is the US to do? Will Washington sit back and watch Russia and Assad wipe Aleppo clean, or will we intervene in some way, outside of the now nearly non-existent diplomatic channels between the two countries?

There has been lots of talk in Washington, and on the Presidential campaign trail for that matter, about the possibility of establishing no fly zones and safe havens for civilians in Syria. Yet the chances that the US and its coalition partners would execute such a strategy is highly unlikely as doing so will force a military showdown between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

In the past I have addressed how dangerous such a move would be, writing:

“Aside from possibly a small no fly zone in Northeast Syria, where our own special forces are operating and an area Russia has little interest in as nothing there threatens the survival of the Assad Regime, setting up a large no fly zone over Syria would be akin to challenging Russia to a fight. As for safe zones for the Syrian Free Army, I doubt Russia would agree to that, quite the opposite actually. Basically a no fly zone over greater Syria, or any part of western Syria for that matter, is inviting a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, which is a very dangerous thing. I doubt few would agree Syria is worth a potential conflict with a country armed with thousands of nuclear weapons... Assad is barrel bombing his people. Russia supports Assad. Declaring a no fly zone to stymie such attacks means Russia’s combat aircraft in Syria would be grounded. The result of which is at best a military standoff with Russia, and at worst a military exchange that could and probably would, escalate very quickly. This is reckless and unrealistic policy. The old days when everything could be solved with a no fly zone are over.”

And here:

“A no-fly zone over Syria was an option to stop Assad from barrel bombing his own people and fighting back rebel forces with air power before the Russians showed up militarily. Declaring a no-fly zone over Syria now would be akin to the blockade of Cuba in 1962. This tactic could start a war that might escalate to terrifying levels very quickly and would mean that Russia would largely have to capitulate their interests in Syria in order obey it. As far as we know, Russia’s primary goal in Syria is to prop up the Assad regime, so trying to get them to fly coordinates strikes against ISIS alone alongside a flimsy coalition would be of no interest to Moscow.

Also, why would Russia ever follow a no-fly zone in the first place? They don’t even respect Turkey’s borders as it is. Even if the U.S. just took the eastern side of Syria and let Russia continue its campaign against anti-Assad forces in the western part of the country, what would this accomplish? Putin would claim the U.S. and its coalition were protecting ISIS by limiting Russia’s access to their territory in the eastern part of Syria and they would just up their attacks on anti-Assad rebels in the western, more developed part of Syria.

In the end, a no-fly zone makes zero sense and would do nothing but invite a direct conflict with Russia. The proposition that getting rid of the Assad regime—which no matter how horrible and brutal it may be does have common interests with the U.S.-led coalition—is worth another World War would be laughable, if it were not so terrifying.

It is also another reminder of how many politicians, President Obama included, do not understand the limits and even the consequences of the use of air power.”

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A Russian Su-24 with mission markings down its side seen before another mission over Syria.

Putin has an uncanny knack for keeping the ball in the other guy’s court. In other words, he keeps his opponents in a reactionary state at all times. He will continue taking as much as he can and pushing his geopolitical boundaries as he knows that making him stop would mean the possibility of a devastating conflict and his massive nuclear stockpile gives him the ‘muscle’ to keep meddlers at bay.

So far, Putin’s game theory has been spot-on, though there may be a point fast approaching where the US will have no choice but to put its foot own and draw a line in the sand. At which time the ball would be thrust into Putin’s court, which is unfamiliar territory since Russia’s invasion of Crimea nearly three years ago.

The same ‘damned if you don’t but possibly way more damned if you do’ situation is manifesting itself in a wildly different way when it comes to Russia’s hacking and cyber espionage on US political institutions, voter rolls and even the cyber probing of American voting machines. In an unprecedented move, President Obama has come right out and accused Russia of being responsible for these pointed cyber attacks and for trying to influence the US Presidential election.

James Clapper, and the head of the Department of Homeland Security, made a statement saying that the hacks “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process” and that “based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

Not only do these attacks attempt to tip the scales in a Presidential election, but in a greater sense they are an attack at the very core of American democracy. Instilling distrust in the political process comes right out of ex-KGB agent Putin’s hybrid warfare playbook, and over time it could have a real impact on how Americans view their political system. That one of the candidates, the same one that Moscow seems to back implicitly, also spews claims of massive election rigging – even though there is no evidence of it – does not help the situation.

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Putin has proven himself to be one step ahead of the US and its allies since the invasion of Crimea. 

Undermining America’s political process, supposedly the envy of the world, through hacked party emails, weaponizing Wikileaks as a delivery system, even highlighting the electronic vulnerabilities of the voting system as a whole does not cause major change overnight. Instead, it’s an insidious tactic – one that slowly erodes the electorate's confidence over time. It is also telling as to how much Putin and the Kremlin despise the US, and to what degree they’ll go to cause damage to America’s image as the safekeeper of democracy, both at home and abroad.

The White House has made it clear that they will respond to these increasingly common hacks at the time of its choosing. By multiple accounts, the Obama Administration is considering its options. And really, they have to do something. Putin and his Kremlin cronies will just increase these types of attacks if there is no consequence for doing so.

It all circles back to the possibility of a confrontation with Russia. If the White House were to decide to make a similar attack; one that exposes Russian corruption at the highest level of government, or if the NSA, CIA’s and Pentagon’s cyber warriors were to turn the lights off in Moscow for 24 hours – or even if the White House decides to do something more low-profile, like blind Russia’s radars along the country’s border with Europe, Russia could lash out with escalated attacks of its own.

While this electronic battlefield seems less impactful than a physical one, should things escalate quickly, that may not be the case. Attacks on America’s power grid, financial sector, transportation systems and other critical infrastructure could cost many lives and disrupt massive amounts of commerce.

Maybe most disturbing is that an exchange of fire with cyber weaponry would set a new and bleak precedent. One where cyber attacks could become a daily norm – a quiet war without the immediately bloody cost of traditional warfare, but a highly damaging one nonetheless.

The Obama Administration could also leave America’s cyber weapons under lock and key, and push for another round of economic sanctions on Russia. If the US were successful in such an endeavor, those sanctions would undoubtedly hurt Russia’s already battered economy – though doing so may also play right into Putin’s hand.

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The relationship between Putin and Obama is chilly at best. 

With Russia’s dwindling economy, Putin needs an enemy to rally nationalist sentiment around. The Russian people’s pitchforks are accustomed to pointing in one direction during times of strife, and getting them pointed toward an external enemy is far more appealing for Mr. Putin than the alternative. Blaming Russia’s ongoing fiscal nightmare on the US and its western allies provides Putin with an ideal vehicle in which to displace responsibility. Also, with a looming enemy abroad, one that is well known by those who were born before the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin’s heavy investment in weaponry and his costly excursions abroad can be justified.

In the end, there is absolutely no doubt that the US has elaborate contingency plans for waging cyber warfare on its potential enemies, yet actually doing so, especially against a peer-state like Russia, could let the metaphorical cyber genie out of the bottle once and for all.

So what’s the US to do? So far Washington has played a reactionary role in Putin’s plans for rebuilding the Russian Bear; but now the times of diplomacy and a “wait and see” attitude seem to have passed. If the US doesn’t stand up to Russia now, when it comes to the situation in Syria or Moscow’s cyber-level hybrid warfare on America’s democratic system, then our politicians will be kicking the can farther down the road, and the stakes will only increase over time.

It’s astonishing to think that, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, President Obama’s last major military order as Commander In Chief may very well be his most perilous. If and when that order is given, thrusting the ball into Putin’s court for the first time in years, we will be truly entering uncharted territory.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com