Western analysis of the war in Ukraine has tended to prematurely—perhaps wishfully—declare victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia. Policymakers have been more circumspect, but triumphalist public statements in Washington and Europe suggest that many have missed the most glaring lessons from Russia’s intervention in Syria: Vladimir Putin operates on an extended time frame, and views war crimes as a strategic cornerstone rather than an obstacle.
Serious publications have framed their coverage of the war around an assumption that Ukraine is doing better than Russia, and that it’s already possible to predict the outcome, in analysis pieces such as “Can Ukraine’s Military Keep Winning?” and “Ukraine Is Already Winning.” Putin, however, understands how long his military campaign in Ukraine might last. While Western analysts celebrate Ukraine’s plucky resistance and NATO allies slap on sanctions without exit ramps and scale up their defenses, the Kremlin is operating on a longer time horizon. Putin is drawing on Russia’s experiences in previous military campaigns, but especially in Syria, as a prototype for a long-term campaign to assert military control over hostile territory and to shape a propaganda narrative that, no matter how dishonest, achieves staying power. This approach was on full display this week on Russia’s Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. Putin used the occasion to crank up propaganda falsely painting Ukrainians as Nazis—an obvious lie that nonetheless has traction among Putin’s target audience in Russia.
Russia’s war in Ukraine so far features a bevy of military tactics familiar from Putin’s earlier wars, most notably in Syria, where Russia tested hybrid warfare tactics under international scrutiny and in close proximity to great power rivals, including the United States.
Naturally, there is no exact parallel: Syria was a civil war, rather than a war between states, and the Kremlin had different objectives for its intervention in Syria than it does in Ukraine. Assisting Bashar al-Assad in Syria had a political advantage for Russia, because it represented an extension of Russia’s soft power in the Middle East, designed to undermine U.S. alliances, shift pro-Western narratives, and cement Russia as a regional power. The Russian intervention in Syria also had economic aims, since it allowed Russia to expand its cargo docks and naval installation at the port of Tartus, its only base on the Mediterranean.
The Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine are far more concrete, with a direct realpolitik goal of asserting Russian domination over an independent state and creating a buffer between Russia and NATO. The risk calculus associated with the military operations in Syria and Ukraine is also different: in Syria, the Kremlin was not pursuing military objectives that put its own sovereign borders at risk, and the use of air power insulated Russian troops from the large losses that they have experienced in Ukraine, with many thousands already dead.
Despite these important contextual differences, a close look at a few of the most important, and appalling, tactics employed by Russia in Syria offers useful insight for those assessing Russia’s approach in the Ukraine, and figuring out how to counter it.
Russia demonstrated a methodical approach to warfare in Syria known colloquially as “surrender or starve,” which featured a three-step process of bombing, besieging, and then occupying territory that had fallen out of the control of the Assad regime. In the first phase, Russia would deploy air power to prime the ground for Syrian troops: Russian planes reportedly conducted a hundred flights a day during active military campaigns. Heavy aerial bombardment indiscriminately targeted residential buildings, schools, places of worship, shelters, markets, bakeries, and hospitals, displacing Syrian civilians and breaking their morale. As a spokesperson for the humanitarian organization the White Helmets told Al Jazeera this spring, “everything that provides life and sustainability for civilians was a target for Russian attacks.” By the end of the multi-year campaign, Russian airstrikes had rendered Syria’s largest city centers unlivable, and almost entirely destroyed the eastern half of Aleppo. Such indiscriminate attacks paved the way for Assad to regain control over the main population centers of western Syria by late 2018.
The Kremlin has followed the same playbook in Ukraine. Warplanes announced the Russian invasion by bombing more than a dozen cities and towns across Ukraine on February 24, including major population centers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and the port city of Mariupol. Russian ground troops followed shortly thereafter, crossing into Ukraine from Belarus and Crimea.
Phases two and three of the Russian playbook, “besiege and occupy,” seem to have already begun.
Phases two and three of the Russian playbook, “besiege and occupy,” seem to have already begun. Mariupol is already eight weeks into a brutal siege, where civilians are suffering through limited electricity, food, water, and medical supplies, and local journalists report that airstrikes have destroyed more than 90 percent of the city. As in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Homs, analysts predict that it’s only a matter of time before Ukrainian troops capitulate under the pressure.
In other parts of the country, Russian military commanders have already transitioned into phase three, consolidating troops and moving to occupy Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. By refocusing his ground troops, Putin may be hoping to leverage the strength of pro-Russian separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk before moving troops west. This “divide and conquer” technique was also tested in Syria, as Assad first consolidated control in the Alawite-dominant areas of Damascus, and then later moved on to contested areas, where he engaged in ethnic cleansing and population transfers, using green buses and “humanitarian corridors” to remove rebel factions and their supporters. With this template for sequential urban sieges in mind, Ukrainians can expect Russian forces to double down on besiegement tactics in eastern Ukraine. If the strategy succeeds, Russia will be able to use eastern Ukraine as a staging ground for more territorial gains down the line.
Overall, Russia’s embrace of phase warfare signals that Putin is willing to tolerate short-term losses in service of long-term territorial gains. His Syrian experience tells him that the loss of Russian troops, civilian deaths, and international condemnation may cause some short-term delays, but won’t derail his strategy.
Putin has shown the same disregard for civilian life in Ukraine that he has in Syria.
According to the UN, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine—although the real toll is likely considerably higher. Airstrikes and explosive weapons “with a wide impact area” have been the main cause of death.
Similarly, since 2015, Russian attacks in Syria have killed at least 4,172 Syrian civilians—and as many as 23,400—according to Airwars, an independent conflict monitoring organization.
The majority of these casualties can be attributed to Russia’s heavy reliance on airstrikes and unguided munitions, including internationally banned cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles. Russia has reportedly already deployed both forms of munitions in Ukraine—cluster bombs have been used “at least two dozen times,” according to the UN.
These unlawful attacks should be no surprise. Throughout the war in Syria, Russia demonstrated a complete disregard for international humanitarian law and widely accepted UN treaties, including the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which the Kremlin is a signatory, and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which Russia has yet to sign. If Russian ground forces continue to suffer the staggering losses reported in the first weeks of the war, they will likely revert to tactical airstrikes—with maximum civilian costs—and a positional warfare approach.
Ukraine’s health care workers should also take note. Although the Fourth Geneva Convention provides sweeping protections for noncombatants in wartime, including specific provisions for hospitals and health care workers, Russian forces deliberately targeted medical facilities in Syria. Of the 583 attacks on Syrian medical workers documented by the human rights monitoring group Physicians for Human Rights, over 250 occurred after Russia’s 2015 intervention. The pattern was so robust that Amnesty International called it a “strategy of war.”
Despite this evidence, Russia has not accepted responsibility for a single civilian death in Syria; the international community has also failed to penalize Russia for its conduct in Syria. Putin likely expects similar impunity in Ukraine. Ukraine’s allies would do well to hold Russia legally accountable for deploying internationally banned cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles.
The March 3 peace talks in Kyiv got off to a macabre start, with three Ukrainian negotiators and a Russian oligarch reporting “red eyes, painful tearing, and peeling skin”—symptoms consistent with a chemical weapons attack. If the Kremlin is to blame, this incident only adds to the record of bad-faith diplomacy that Russia earned in Syria.
Three types of diplomatic behavior from Russia’s record in Syria are particularly relevant for Ukraine: disrespect for international deals in general; violation of ceasefires; and the use of Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council to threaten humanitarian aid.
First, and most notably, Russia proved an unreliable partner in the “red line” negotiations in 2013 that followed Assad’s use of sarin gas in the Eastern Ghouta. The resulting Joint Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons was a rare diplomatic success, as the United States and Russia agreed that the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile needed to be removed and destroyed. But Syria was back to using chlorine gas barrel bombs in the spring of 2014. Russian authorities refused to acknowledge the damning results of an international fact-finding mission, or sign on to any UN-level resolutions that would hold the Assad regime to account. Later, Moscow made the unbelievable accusation that the United States and the UK were staging chlorine attacks in Douma in 2018. Russia’s unreliability—one might say perfidy—caused the diplomatic efforts for chemical weapons accountability to fall apart.
The chemical weapons negotiations were just one example of Russia’s disregard for agreements. Even those that Russian diplomats had endorsed—like a 2016 ceasefire in Aleppo, or the 2017 ceasefire stretching over the Syrian governorates of Dera’a and Quneitra—eventually collapsed after repeated airstrikes by Russian pilots.
Second, Russian military commanders have not historically honored “de-escalation zones” or “designated humanitarian corridors.” Russian shelling of evacuation routes became commonplace in Syria. Already, Ukrainian city leaders have repeatedly halted planned evacuations from Mariupol because of Russian shelling. (And predictably, Putin has blamed Ukraine, accusing Kyiv of sabotage.)
Third, Russia has routinely used its veto on the UN Security Council to shut down cross-border aid operations to rebel-held Syria. The UN estimates that some 13 million Syrians were fully reliant on humanitarian assistance by 2021, mostly in northwestern Syria. Yet Russia has repeatedly pressured the UN Security Council to close three out of the four channels used to deliver cross-border aid, leaving some four million people in crisis. Although the Bab al-Hawa crossing remains open, the Russian delegation has framed this decision as a “compromise,” and has continued to tout the party line that “keeping the cross-border mechanism will also mean… supporting terrorists,” as Vassily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, said in February 2021. This messaging mirrors the anti-terror rhetoric that Russia has used to explain its invasion of Ukraine, and underscores that Moscow prioritizes state motives above all humanitarian concerns.
If Russia’s behavior in Syria is any indication, there is little hope that Russian diplomats will be reliable partners in any international negotiations that threaten Russia’s territorial gains or maximalist interests in Ukraine.
Russia’s state apparatus is infamous for its destabilizing disinformation campaigns. This tactic has evolved over the past ten years, using malign social media campaigns, proxy media outlets, and cyber operations—among other tactics—to influence global narratives, from the 2014 annexation of Crimea, to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and now the war in Ukraine.
Russia tested and proved its sophisticated approach to propaganda in Syria, where it served two purposes: One, it sought to legitimize regime targets, emphasizing narratives that linked the humanitarian White Helmets (and their medical facilities and civilian allies) to terrorist activities. And two, it sought to undermine Western objectives in the war. In order to achieve these two goals, Russian operatives disseminated messaging via social media platforms, as well as state-controlled media outlets like Vestia, Russia Today (RT), and Sputnik; they also tapped Russian-allied bloggers with big audiences. The high density of video footage captured by citizen photographers provided Russian operatives with easily manipulated visual evidence to underpin their misinformation campaigns. This footage, combined with the Kremlin’s ability to exploit cynical narratives about Western involvement in the war, allowed Russian operatives to plant dangerous counternarratives about local humanitarian actors—including the White Helmets—by portraying them as having links to extremist groups.
Russia’s Syrian disinformation campaign may not have turned the Western public into Assad’s ally, but it created enough uncertainty to destabilize Western efforts to end the war.
By the end of the war, Russia had recruited a huge coalition of like-minded propagandists to evangelize its cause, including influential Twitter personalities such as Vanessa Beeley and Max Blumenthal, the editor of an alt-left blog called The Grayzone. These international conspiracy peddlers helped push Assad and Putin’s party line to a broader public.
Similar allies to Russian propaganda have already cropped up in Ukraine. One example is Lee Camp, the former TV host of RT America, who parrots Russian conspiracy theories about U.S. involvement in the war, while claiming legitimacy because he once worked as an analyst for NATO. Another is Benjamin Norton, an affiliate of Blumenthal’s and author of the online news outlet Multipolarista. Norton has stoked conspiracies that the United States instigated the 2014 coup in Ukraine and installed current leadership, going so far as to blame the U.S. administration for provoking Russia’s 2022 invasion.
Russian propaganda is particularly sophisticated at deflecting attention from its egregious violations of international laws by calling attention to the sins of other international powers. Faced with accusations, Putin points out—accurately—that the United States, supposedly the guarantor of the international liberal order, broke laws and norms when it invaded Iraq in 2003, and never held any of its leaders accountable. Moscow has invoked Washington’s gross violation of the international order to justify Russia’s many subsequent, bad-faith interventions—not just in Syria, but also in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine.
The United States does need to confront the wrongs it committed in Iraq, but its bad deeds do not justify Putin’s crimes. Nevertheless, this argument—and more generally, this type of argument—powerfully undergirds Russia’s disinformation machine.
Russia’s Syrian disinformation campaign may not have turned the Western public into Assad’s ally, but it helped create enough uncertainty, ambiguity, and simmering conspiracy theories to destabilize Western efforts to end the war or achieve policy objectives. The world should take note, and prepare: even though there is a great deal of global sympathy for Ukraine at the moment, Russia is still capable of pulling the same trick in its latest war.
The Long Fight
The most alarming harbinger of things to come in Ukraine is Russia’s international intervention in Syria, where it experimented with the concerted long-term orchestration of air war, sieges, and propaganda. Through a dogged deployment of cynical diplomacy, war crimes, and systematic targeting of civilians, Russia was able to achieve its policy goals in Syria, and help the Assad regime make an improbable comeback. Crucially, Putin and the Assad regime were willing to tolerate multiple tactical setbacks, the loss of territory, and international outrage, gambling that a steadily resourced long-term campaign could successfully conquer hostile territory—often by emptying it of civilians who opposed the Assad regime. In Syria, Putin confirmed his hypothesis that there would be no consequence for systematic, well-documented war crimes.
Ukrainian leaders and their Western supporters have correctly faced the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a transformational emergency, and also a long-term strategic struggle. The day-to-day tactical developments of the war are important, especially for the many civilians whose lives they destroy or end. But no serious analysis should dwell too long on the short term. Russian decision-making does not operate on the same short-term calendar that drives Western political cycles. Nor does Russia face political accountability pressures from domestic constituencies. Families of Russian soldiers, like the oligarchs who implement Putin’s economic policy, are not positioned to challenge the Kremlin’s strategy or narrative. In Syria, opponents of Assad failed to counter the strategy that Russia so brazenly and effectively implemented.
In Ukraine, the West can learn from its failure in Syria. The grim tactics used in both campaigns are features, not bugs, of Russia’s strategy. The good news is that Western governments, including the administration of Joe Biden, now apprehend the full spectrum of the Russian approach. Effective deterrence begins with military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. And although Russia is not a signatory to the Rome Statute (which established the International Criminal Court), the trial of Syrian commanders in Koblenz may offer another legal precedent to hold Russian perpetrators to account.
Regardless of the short-term tactics, long-term success against Putin and his war means investing resources to counter Russian military tactics, war crimes, impunity, and disinformation.
People shout slogans as they gather outside the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, on October 9, 2015, to protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin and his country’s involvement in Syria. Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images