The Ukraine War Isn’t a Sprint

The U.S. military likes to win its wars in a sprint. When it launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the air assault began on March 19, and President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” on May 1. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 lasted a similar span, from January 17 to February 28. The military’s view is that the major problems came not from sprints but from marathons: a 20-year presence in Afghanistan that ended in disarray, and the pattern of being in and then out of Iraq that stretched on for more than a decade and gave rise to the Islamic State group.

By contrast, the Russian military seems full of marathoners. The Syrian war has lasted seven years, and it follows a decade-long Russian effort to subdue Chechnya. Russian military tactics are profoundly different than U.S. tactics, and the goals are different, too. Those who hope for a quick end to the war in Ukraine should be sobered by the Russians’ deliberate and destructive efforts in Syria.

While Russia was sympathetic to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad following the outbreak of civil war in 2011, it did not intervene in the war until 2015. The Russian intervention was arguably light—never more than 5,000 troops and two dozen fixed-wing aircraft—but it was decisive. Russia was devastating from the air, providing air cover for Syrian troops and destroying the positions of opposition fighters with deadly air strikes.

But part of the Russian tactics in Syria was also a brutal assault on civilian populations thought to be hostile to the Syrian government. Hospitals and residential areas were bombed. Electric plants were destroyed. Cities were besieged. Over months and years, Russia pursued a scorched earth strategy on behalf of its Syrian partners, killing and exhausting civilians who lived behind rebel lines. In contrast to U.S. practices of using precision-guided munitions after thorough intelligence assessments, Russia was content to use a larger number of more powerful bombs to ensure its goals were met. Russian troops in Syria seemed not only indifferent to collateral damage; they seemed to see advantages in pursuing the ruthless collective punishment of civilian populations as it undermined enemy morale and projected Russian resolve.

Throughout the brutality of the war, Russians acted as if they were using restraint. A Russian close to the government confided to me in late 2015 that Russia was holding back, and if it were to unleash its special forces troops from the barracks, they would make Syria into a bloody mess but end the war within a month.

Russia always seemed comfortable with a long war, though. It accrued advantages incrementally. As it fought alongside the Assad government, the government stabilized. Russia took credit for the defeat of jihadi groups in Syria. It won long-term rights to its air base and naval base in the country. And perhaps most important to Russia, it preserved an ally and undermined what it saw as U.S. efforts to expand its hegemony in the Middle East.

The Obama administration confidently assumed that Syria would turn into a Russian quagmire. It correctly assessed that creating stability and rebuilding the country were well beyond Russian capabilities. What it incorrectly assessed was that Russians would come to regret their intervention.

But Russia was never interested in some complex notion of victory that would leave Syria better off. Russia didn’t even seem interested in stability, and it certainly wasn’t preoccupied with reconstruction. Instead, Russia was interested in defeating its adversaries, which it largely did.

Freed from the pressures of two-year election cycles—or any meaningful elections—Russian decisionmakers are comfortable settling in for the long haul. Local media can be sufficiently controlled to eliminate pressure to end the fighting. Russian decisionmakers can afford to be patient.

The new Russian commander of the Ukraine effort, Alexander Dvornikov, led early Russian efforts in Syria, and also helped lead Russian efforts in Chechnya. He has a long record of sieges, attacks on civilian populations, and devastating bombing campaigns. But he also has a record of patiently waging war despite outcries of human rights abuses and war crimes, with a clear eye toward what he sees as victory.

Americans often can’t wrap their heads around Russia’s very different war aims. U.S. victories involve post-conflict reconstruction; demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of fighting forces; and economic revitalization. These victories usher in a new political order that brings together different parties to share power.

Russia sees things differently. For Russia, victory merely means the adversary has been vanquished. What happens next is of less concern.

The danger for the West is understanding just how long Russia is willing to fight for Ukraine. Western policymakers may think they are rounding the turn and going into the home stretch to end the war. Meanwhile, the Russian military may feel it is just warming up. If Syria is any guide, Russia may seek to wage this war for years. It isn’t clear if Western governments will have the tools or the resolve to force a different outcome.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program