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Putin on a show?
Russian Rustbuckets Expose Putin’s Weak Hand In Syria

Last Friday, as Russia deployed its only aircraft carrier and eight warships on a Mediterranean voyage to Syria, it hoped to send a message that Russia was back on the world stage as a major military power. Yet as The New York Times notes, the visual presented was less than impressive:

Belching thick black smoke, the Soviet-era warship, previously known more as a threat to its crew than anything else, led a battle group of eight vessels, including an oceangoing tug that traditionally accompanies the carrier, which has a reputation for breaking down. The flotilla is expected to deploy off Syria in late October to bolster the military operations propping up President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s main Arab ally.

If the 15 warplanes on board the Admiral Kuznetsov join the bombardment of Syria, the carrier will have its first active combat role since it was launched more than three decades ago as part of a last gasp by the fading Soviet Union to challenge American naval power.

The flotilla caused some alarmist rhetoric in the West, with NATO officials calling it “the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War,” and Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon warning that Russia was trying to test NATO’s capabilities.

But if Moscow inspired dread in some corners of the West, it was unprepared for the ridicule unleashed on the Russian web as images of the lumbering, smoke-spouting Admiral Kuznetsov were released. Soon enough, Putin opponents took to social media to make Russia’s aging aircraft carrier the butt of snarky memes.

The bombardment of Syria is no laughing matter, but the disconnect between Western alarmism and Russian mockery illustrates a potent truth about today’s Russia. As we have argued before, Russia actually has a weak hand to play against the West. That certainly extends to its military capabilities: Russia’s aging, rusty fleets and air force are no match for American capabilities. Still, the fact remains that Russia has helped turned the tide in Syria with a relatively small commitment: 42 jets at the peak of Russia’s mission.

Russia’s ability to change the facts on the ground in Syria is a matter of political will and canny opportunism, not technical superiority. All the hype about Russia’s military strength obscures both its weakness and the West’s fecklessness in allowing Putin a free hand. Putin has played his cards well, correctly calculating that the West could not build consensus on standing up to him. Indeed, some in Europe seem willing to help: earlier today, reports suggested that Spain would allow Russia’s Syria-bound warships to refuel at Spanish ports. The request has since been withdrawn after NATO outcry, but the incident only illustrates the West’s lack of solidarity against Putin.

If the U.S. and NATO wanted to challenge Russia’s forces in Syria, they have every means to do so. But Putin has acted decisively while the West has faltered, and that has made all the difference.

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  • QET

    If memory serves, back in the good old days of the Cold War, at its annual October military parade the Soviets would fly the same four new airplanes by the reviewing stand again and again, giving the impression of having a whole new fleet of advanced aircraft. US intelligence analysts, knowing this little ruse, nevertheless reported back to Congress that the Soviets had 100 new advanced fighter-bombers or whatever, causing Congress to predictably shell out more defense spending to US contractors and their Pentagon overseers.

    The Russians were always good designers but the Soviets were not good at reliably manufacturing large quantities of sophisticated weapons platforms nor in maintaining the extensive support systems necessary for those platforms to be operational. It seems the post-Soviet Russians haven’t remedied this defect.

    And Putin is channeling Napoleon: “the moral is to the material as three is to one.”

  • Nevis07

    Russia may be lacking a modern military force, but let’s not start snickering at them. They are rebuilding their forces and developing some new weaponry such as hypersonic missiles. They also have an impressive if still aging complement of tanks sitting on Europe’s eastern flank. If 3 dozen fighter jets can turn around a civil war in Syria, we have to recognize what a Russian tank force would do. They also incorporate nuclear weaponry into their conventional warfare.

    Putin’s willingness to keep anteing up is only matched by Obama’s drawing of red lines only walk back from them. As soon as Obama gave up the strategic initiative in Syria, Putin knew he could win their. Putin understand the politics of war. That’s the difference.

    • f1b0nacc1

      We might quibble a bit about your first paragraph, but your second one is spot on. Putin understands the weakness of his hand, but he plays it magnificently, while Obama….well, he is Obama and there is little more to be said. The description of WWI armies, “Lions led by jackasses” strikes me as particularly appropriate here.

      • Nevis07

        A Russian threat to Eastern Europe I admit is remote, but we should be vigilant, nonetheless. I read a piece the other day about a Russian journalist – one of the few independent ones still in the country, who interviewed a bunch of Kremlin insiders for a book he’s writing. The thing that stuck out to me was that in his interviews it was concluded that Putin truly believes that the US and NATO are plotting against him to take down Russia. That’s a special kind of paranoia. Either the Kremlin is playing mind games to keep the West of kilter or Putin really is paranoid.

        Anyway, here’s an interesting piece from a year ago you might find interesting. I can’t remember if I’ve shared this before, but if Putin tries anything in the Baltic, it will likely start on Gotland:

        http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-tensions-put-swedish-baltic-island-on-alert/27038119.html

        • f1b0nacc1

          I have seen some discussion of Gotland in the past, and it strikes me as entirely credible, as it offers a real strategic benefit for Russia, while letting them avoid a direct confrontation with NATO, as opposed to ‘the West’. It is close enough to Russian air support to make it practical, and Sweden would have an ugly problem retaking the island if the Russians did manage to seize it.
          With all of that said, I am unclear as to why we should be vigilant. If the EUnicks don’t want to defend themselves, why are we seeing this as a vital interest?: Europe’s best days are far behind it, and while I wouldn’t object to some bilateral treaties that we negotiated which benefit us as well as our partners, I am unclear (but willing to be convinced otherwise) just what American intersts are being served by bailing out these lotus-eaters.

      • Jim__L

        Oh, but those jackasses are in full support of using the US military as a social experimentation petri dish.

        That was their major qualification, in this administration.

        • f1b0nacc1

          How right you are. Even worse, their putative successor wants to continue the social engineering and use the debilitated military even more aggressively!

          • Jim__L

            Well, using a debilitated military aggressively is what Putin seems to be up to, here.

            Of course, comparing Syria to Libya, it looks like a contest of weaknesses… Putin’s military is more materially weak, Clinton’s strategy (and the will of her base) is severely lacking.

            As for Trump — well, Trump doesn’t really want to play, but if he did I suspect he would play to win. I think that in that, he sounds very traditionally American — back from the days when we actually won wars.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I am not here to defend Trump (a repellent man who will be a terrible president), but in this (and I think your judgement of him is correct) he is right. One reason that Putin is able to play a weak hand so effectively is that he has the measure of our political class. Obama is a narcissistic twit obsessed with his belief in his own brilliance, while HRC simply isn’t terribly bright. Trump isn’t terribly bright, but he is capable of understanding the mechanics of failure and success….you don’t get into a war unless you intend to win it, for instance… This makes him a far, far more serious threat, and hence someone that Putin and his ilk would have to be much more careful around. Ironically, this leaves us much safer in the long run…

          • Jim__L

            I agree with most of what you say here, but would ask you to consider somewhat different conclusions.

            I wouldn’t ask anyone to defend the most repellent (Bill-Clinton-like) aspects of Trump’s personality.

            I agree that we would be safer with a Trump presidency, especially as there is the chance that the rest of the country will wake up and realize that the Constitution has checks and balances for a reason. Under a Hillary regime, you would have a busybody-type tyrant with the support of the machinery of a major political party. THAT scares me more than having someone who is awful to women in the White House — which is impossible to avoid at this point.

            So to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s comment on FDR — Trump is a third-class intellect with a third-class temperament, yet with a sense of how to win abroad and a built-in healthy opposition; but Hillary is a third-class intellect with the sort of temperament from which totalitarian dictators are made.

            The only thing standing between us and the steep slippery slope we’re on is (God help us all) Donald J Trump.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I agree with what you say….so how do we differ?

          • Jim__L

            I’m not convinced Trump would be a terrible president, especially if there was a healthy scrum to keep him in check.

          • f1b0nacc1

            We haven’t see much pushback against Obama….oh, some rhetoric, a bit of struggle here and there, but ultimately they always cave. HRC would like be the recipient of the same sort of ‘resistance’…
            Perhaps you are right about Trump (I hope so!), but we shall have to see…

    • Wilcox

      The real prize isn’t the carrier. It was a strategic deception by the Russians actually it was quite brilliant. The Russians have just smuggled the largest and the most powerful battlecruiser in the world into the mediteranian right under the west nose. It never was about the Russian aircraft carrier. The Russians can now take out any potential threat to its forces and its allies including any western carrier by adding the Kirov class battle cruiser to its mediteranian fleet. Russia has several airbases in the middle east. There’s no need for russia to have a carrier in the mediteranian,anyone that monitors the present situation in the middle east knows what I’m talking about.

      • Tom

        The Kirov-class is very unlikely to be able to take out an American carrier.

      • f1b0nacc1

        The Kirov is certainly a powerful vessel (one of the better Russian efforts, if not the best), but it is ultimately a fairly limited threat on its own. A Kirov-centered SAG would not last long against an American carrier group unless that SAG had a whole lot more support than still exists in the Russian military, not to mention the Eastern Med.

        I don’t disagree that moving the Kirov to the Med is a solid strategic choice for the Russians, but ultimately it is more for show than combat.

        • Wilcox

          American carrier battle groups base a lot of their combat scenarios around the possible encounter with a Kirov class battle cruiser. The Kirov class is recognised by western powers as a carrier killer. Its also an airial defence umbrella. It will have its uses in the coming battles. But I know the american military respect the SAG more than they respect their own lazy president

          • f1b0nacc1

            Respecting anything (including a tapeworm) more than the current president is really not much of a mark of distinction. Yes, the Kirov was regarded as the primary surface threat int he Russian navy, but that is roughly akin to being the best ballerina in Galveston.

            The Kirov was well-designed, reasonably well-armed, and (with substantial support from land-based air and a complex sensor network that no longer exists in any meaningful sense) potentially dangerous if taken too lightly. Now it is more of a difficult target….hunted rather than the hunter. Its vaunted area air defense is two generations out of date, its sensors easily spoofed, and its close-in defenses overcome with even the most basic PGMs commonly in use. Given a dense enough escort force, it is difficult to overcome, but no more than that.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Actually, the story about the aircraft flying back and forth dates to the very early years of the Cold War, when Stalin had only a few TU-4 bombers (a direct copy of the B-29, several of which had landed in Russia during WWII) to show off. For the most part, this fooled nobody (there is really very little evidence that either the bomber gap or the later missile gap was taken seriously by anyone other than politicians on the stump, and of course their credulous voters), but it did make for wonderful theatre. More interestingly, those fearsome troops that you would see marching in the parades were special divisions whose sole purpose was to be displayed….they had no military capability whatsoever.
    As for the Russians being good designers, that is highly questionable. Most of their major weapons had very serious flaws (the Kuznetsov is a superb example of that, the steam power plan being exhibit A), such flaws only made worse by the shoddy workmanship and production standards of Russian industry.

    • QET

      Well I’m thinking of the AK-47, T-34, Yak-9, MiG-15. They were never a naval power.

      • f1b0nacc1

        The AK-47 wasn’t well-designed, but it was well-marketed. The weapon was valuable when used in third-world brushfire wars (where the users would be largely untrained guerilla forces), which wasn’t what the Russians themselves intended to do with it. They did, however recognize its value for those conflicts later on, and exploited it well. This wasn’t a design triumph, but rather a triumph of strategic thinking. I had the very great good fortune to meet Kalashnikov a very long time ago, and he was a gracious gentleman who was most proud of his invention. Yet even he acknowledged that his original design philosophy didn’t quite work out the way he wanted it to.
        The T-34 was an outstanding tank, but by 1944 its time had passed. Given the numbers that the Russians were able to produce, virtually anything would have been sufficient however. Your point on this is well taken though, its design was clearly superior.
        The Yak-9 was adequate at best, and lacked any real advantages that point to superior design. Its biggest weakness was extremely poor situational awareness, which made it vulnerable when surprised. It was sturdy (unusual for a Russian aircraft), and easy to maintain, but I don’t see much in the way of design here that was more than ‘competent’. The MiG-15, was clearly sub-par, its early successes (largely the result of facing off against previous generation WWII leftovers and very early model jets like the P-80, and possessing a engine design provided by the British) evaporated once its adversaries began to equip with more modern (cotemperous) weapon systems like the F-86.
        Now, if you want to talk about great Russian design, what about the Katyusha, or for that matter most of their WWII-era artillery? Something of a niche, I concede, but hard to argue that there was much better during the war. While the design was hugely flawed, the BMP-series of infantry fighting vehicles were certainly innovative and far-seeing, if unworkable in practice. Finally the Kirov battlecruiser from the late Soviet era was another flawed masterpiece.
        I don’t mean to suggest that the Russians are incapable of designing a good weapon, but more typically they produce ‘good enough’ in vast quantities to make up for their limitations. Sadly, their other limitations (quality control most notably) sabotage even their best efforts.

        • QET

          I bow to your superior knowledge of armaments, although “good design” does not mean no shortcomings. The Japanese Zero was clearly a good design and succeeded wildly but it was deliberately unarmored leaving it with no defenses other than the skill of its pilot.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Thank you for your kind words….this was a former profession of mine (very long story…grin…) and a lifelong hobby of sorts.
            You are spot on regarding the Zero…an elegant and lovely aircraft, but once the Wildcat was replaced by more capable follow-ons, it was doomed. If you have any interest in the aircraft and its role in WWII, I strongly suggest the book “Samurai”, which Saburo Sakai (in conjunction with Martin Cadin and Fred Saito) tells the story of his most fascinating life. Along with Tamichi Hara’s “Japanese Destroyer Captain”, it is essential reading for any real understanding of the Japanese military in WWII.

        • Jim__L

          Wasn’t the aphorism, “Quantity has a quality all its own” one of Stalin’s?

          • f1b0nacc1

            Indeed it was. Of course that only works when you are willing to have a lot of your ‘quantity’ die in the process…

      • f1b0nacc1

        Soviet forces always looked much better on paper (they still do….take a look at the weapons load-out on the Kuznetsov, for instance…most impressive) but when you take a closer look at those features that were difficult to model (or simply unknown at the time) and they are far less formidable. My favorite example was the deadly “Kitchen” and “Kingfish” ASMs (you will remember them from your game…the Backfires, Badgers and Bears would carry those to use against American carriers) which we discovered in later years were essentially useless due to their horrifically bad guidance systems. Large payloads, fast, and possessed of terrific range, but they were only going to strike their targets by the most fortuitous of accidents.
        Are you familiar with the story of how inferior technology allowed the Russians to be the first in space?

        • QET

          My own knowledge is clearly neither as broad nor as deep as yours, but it has been my sense all along that the post-Soviet Russia military establishment is more bark than bite save for the nukes which Putin is rather cavalierly (or so it seems to me) waving in our faces.

          And the results from my old game should make you all glad that I am not today in command of a naval task force.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Actually the nukes aren’t all that fearsome either, though I suppose in an absolute sense, they are fearsome enough (grin)….
            I hope you won’t mind me asking, what game was it?

          • QET

            Harpoon!

          • f1b0nacc1

            Now that was a superior piece of work. Larry Bond really changed the face of computer simulations with that.

          • QET

            So I heard. Through it I discovered that my abilities as a commander are on a par with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s General in the Mobile Strike commercials. I could cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war just fine.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I do that all the time, but since I own corgis, the result isn’t quite what was intended….

  • Fat_Man

    Five random cards looks like a royal flush to Obama

    • f1b0nacc1

      Well, as long as HE drew the cards, yes….

      • Jim__L

        Because, obviously, he’s a better dealer than any dealer he’s ever had at Vegas.

  • Kev

    It easy to ridicule Russian aircraft carrier, but consider for a moment that England has exactly 0. Russian navy, though no match for the US navy, is still one of the strongest navies out there and shouldn’t be dismissed.

    Starting a war with Russia is an action that has limited upside, and you can easily lose everything if things go wrong. Several European empires ended when they tried to take on the Russian bear. American warmongers would do well to remember this when they speak of “confronting Russia” and “political will”.

  • Andrew Allison

    As (thanks to Wikileaks) the Clinton campaign knows full-well: the average age of a journalist is 27, they know nothing, and they pass on whatever they’re fed!

  • Frank Natoli

    Two hundred years ago, Clausewitz defined war as the use of force to compel one’s adversary to fulfill one’s will.
    Russia may not have Nimitz class nuclear fleet carriers, but it does have the will.
    America has Nimitz class nuclear fleet carriers, but it does not have the will.
    Russia doesn’t have the carriers not because of lack of natural resources or even lack of technological skill but because of a political system that strangles productivity.
    America doesn’t have the will because the majority of its people are obsessed with domestic social and welfare state issues.
    Both fail.

  • Humanist_at_all_times

    Ah yes, I remember it well those sunset years of the US empire.
    Such a short blip in history really, compared to others.
    But goodness me the hubris! Didn’t they think themselves the exceptional nation.
    Unchallenged military supremacy so they thought…too bad it bankrupted the country.
    Then they just got kicked around by every two bit country as revenge for the horrors they had inflicted over all those years.

    How many granit missiles are the two cruisers carrying again? How destructive are they? Oh yes and adding the naval s300 variants from those ships to the land based missile batteries, does that mean the Russians have effective a ‘no fly zone’ should they wish?

    • Jim__L

      And how brief a blip those Humanists have been — the de-Christianization of Europe isn’t even quite complete, and its Islamicization has already begun in earnest! It’s almost like Humanism (at least, the secular variety) isn’t any good for a civilization.

      You might also want to re-check your budget numbers — Eurosocialism is bankrupting this country, not defense spending.

      America is only as exceptional as its population wants it to be. We have been the shining city on the hill — a voice in the wilderness. We’ve been d**n good at it too, when we allow ourselves to be, and aren’t distracted from our labors by ivory-tower-dwellers like Obama who don’t bother to study history well enough to know what side history is on… and are actually rooting for all those two-bit countries in the world, because it’s just so distasteful to be supporting the US and all those “horrors”.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The Granits (here in the West we prefer calling them P700) are huge, but they are from a different era and rather limited in their own way. In massive salvoes (and a dozen isn’t massive) they would be deadly to a single ship, but carriers are behind layers of defenses, and can spot them coming quite a distance away. Since they depend upon the ability to ‘pop-up’ a leader to organize the attack (the real secret sauce for these things is their ability to network) they are hideously vulnerable to ECM, and the few times they have been tested (by the Russians) in an electronics-heavy environment they haven’t performed well. There is a reason that the Russians have switched their focus to the BrahMos and gone over to speed as their latest solution.

      As for their navalized S300, hardly a portable no-fly zone as the radars are (once again) ancient, and quite vulnerable to even basic countermeasures. It isn’t as if we haven’t had decades to deal with the problem, and even the Russians acknowledge this as demonstrated by their increased emphasis on point defenses (much more difficult to jam, and more suitable against slower missiles of the type typically used in the West) which might be sufficient to make attacks on the Kirov more time-consuming than otherwise.

      If this is the best you have got, I doubt that the West is going to fall anytime soon.

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