Staunton, February 20 – So much energy has been devoted to the issue of just how many Russian mercenaries were killed in Syria on February 7-8 by American forces, Vladimir Pastukhov says, that the far more important question of who is to blame for this loss of Russian lives has not received the attention it deserves.
But if one considers all the circumstances including tbe remarkably subdued response of Russian officials and media to this event, the St. Antony’s College historian says, it is clear that the Russian command, military and ultimately political, is completely to blame for these Russian losses (republic.ru/posts/89608
Moreover, he continues, that is going to be increasingly obvious to ever more Russians who then will be compelled to draw conclusions about their military and their government.
“The first thing which strikes the eye is the unprecedented tolerance of the Russian foreign ministry and means of mass propaganda,” Pastukhov says. After the deaths, “it is surprising” given how these have responded to such things in the past that “no one threatened to reduce America to radioactive ruble.”
The explanation lies right on the surface, he continues. It involves not the attack of US forces on Russian mercenaries but rather in the fact that this attack occurred only after the US military had communicated to the Russian one that it was planning to attack. The Russian side did not warn the Americans off as it could have and the US “wiped the column from the earth.”
The Russian failure to tell the Americans that the forces were Russian prompts the question: “who gave the order which in fact permitted the opening of fire ‘on one’s own’?” Obviously, the decision not to warn the Americans off and thus prevent the loss of Russian lives was “not simply a military but a political-military decision.”
It was “from all points of view an act of betrayal.”
There are really only two explanations for the behavior of the Russian military command, Pastukhov says. It could either be the product of “a pathological lack of knowledge” of what would happen if it said nothing or alternatively be “a conscious and intentional [interest in] mass murder.”
The former is “theoretically possible” but highly unlikely in this case. “Therefore, the more probable version” explaining why the Russian command didn’t try to stop the Americans as that the action reflected a full awareness by its officers that it was “condemning Russian citizens to inevitable death.”
There are various reasons why the Russian side might have acted in this way. It may not have wanted to provide confirmation of what it has long denied, that the Russians are still fighting in Syria, or it may have wanted the Americans to do the dirty work of killing the Vagner forces and thus removing them from the scene.
The Russian side may have been only too glad to see the Vagner forces, many of whom had been fighting in the Donbass, killed because they are a problem for Russian policy there and potentially in Russia as well, and the more of them who are killed off in Syria, “the calmer will be the life of the regime in Russia.”
At the same time, Pastukhov continues, “the behavior of ‘the victor’ looks no less strange than that of the losing side. The Americans didn’t make loud declarations or protest. “Why? Because everything that American wanted to say, it said, not in words but in actions.” And its message was clear: “a hybrid war is a fine thing if you are fighting with Ukraine.”
Russia’s hybrid approach worked well in Ukraine in 2014, and it works when “your people kill but you remain [officially] uninvolved.” “But this doesn’t work well against those who are capable of defending themselves. Everything looks not so pleasant when your people are killed in massive numbers.”
The Kremlin still hasn’t fully integrated “this principle difference” in its thinking; and it is going to have to because “the catastrophe on the Euphrates is only the start of a very serious set of events which will have far-reaching consequences,” events that are already pushing the whole notion of hybrid war “into a dead end.”
The US isn’t frightened by a crowd of poorly armed men and “will kill them by the hundreds if needed and do this without fear of a response.” And that means the “only thing which remains for the Kremlin to do in this situation is to smile and betray people it has sent to their deaths.”
“Suddenly, it turns out that hybrid war is not so smart if this is a war with a real opponent,” Pastukhov argues.
“We are witnesses of the birth of the Syrian syndrome,” he continues. That is shown by the shift in “the tonality of the commentaries in the press” and the attempt to shift public attention to the question of the number of victims rather than the issue of why there were any in the first place.
But that latter effort isn’t going to work, and once people start asking “who is guilty” of this adventure in the first place and “who is guilty” of sending Russians to their deaths when that could have prevented, the situation changes in fundamental ways.
“In the near future,” Pastukhov suggests, “the direction of public opinion will begin to shift every further and the incident on the left bank of the Euphrates will begin to be considered not simply as a human tragedy and not only as a political betrayal but as a national humiliation” especially if no investigation occurs and no one is held accountable.
“Deir-ez-Zor potentially can become the Port Arthur of the 21st century,” the loss to Japan that ultimately played a key role in triggering the 1905 revolution that shook the Russian imperial state to its foundations. This is no “black swan” as some imagine; it is “an ugly duckling.” And its features are going to come out because too many have come back from Syria.
Like the veterans or relatives of the victims of the Vietnam, Afghan or Chechen wars, these people are going to seek “an investigation of the incident precisely as a crime which requires justice and the punishment of the guilty and, if they do not receive the one or the other, will draw the necessary conclusions, including political ones.”