It's dawn on February 7th, 2018, in northern Syria. A man named Ruslan breathes steaming air into his hands and shakes his arms. He is huddled with a group of other men in the blown-out basement of what was once an apartment building, but is now a pockmarked shell littered with masonry. Bits of brown steel stick out from where walls once stood. A man coughs dust out of his lungs.
Ruslan lifts his assault rifle to his shoulder and quickly pulls back the bolt. Two metallic snaps echo in the still air.
The men set out and quickly cross the nearby river into green fields. They hear a buzz and go to ground. A drone circles overhead, then passes on. They rise silently and continue.
Soon the lead man raises his right fist and the men take a knee. Ruslan rests his rifle on his thigh. It is heavier this morning, he thinks. He looks up, and can just about make out the shape of some buildings in the distance.
The man in front raises his arms sideways, still holding his rifle in his right hand. Ruslan sighs as he crouches and shuffles forward. That man's weapon must be lighter than his.
Unmarked Russian soldiers, or possibly mercenaries, operating in Ukraine. (Photo: Anthropoliteia)
The men are now in a horizontal line, each spaced a few metres apart. The signal is given. Ruslan presses the safety with the side of his trigger finger, then reflexively checks that it is off. The assault had begun.
On February 7th, 2018, a group of Russian mercenaries launched an unsuccessful assault on a Kurdish base guarding valuable oil fields east of the Euphrates river, near the ruined town of Deir ez-Zour. American troops were embedded with the Kurds. The details are murky, but as many as three hundred Russians were killed or injured in the in the ensuing battle, mostly by American bombers and Apache helicopters. It was the first direct conflict between American and Russian citizens since the war in Vietnam.
Ruslan found himself at one tip of a growing number of Russian operations all over the globe. Russian bombers are regularly flying across Europe, Russian hackers are spreading fake news on Western social media, and Russian mercenaries are fighting in Syria and Ukraine. What's going on? What is Moscow's game plan?
First, we need to start with a quick overview of Russian strategy. Russia has historically depended on its vast, cold geography to defend itself against invasions. A large sphere of influence (the geographic area in which Moscow can exercise power) means security. A shrunken sphere of influence means insecurity.
Today, Russia is strategically vulnerable and weakened by economic and demographic decline. This has awakened Moscow's instinctive desire to defend itself by expanding Russian territory and its ability to exercise power abroad.
Yet achieving that goal is far from simple. Russia is surrounded by more powerful states and alliances, such as NATO and China. It is also what is known as a patron-client state - it is run by powerful men who owe their status and loyalty to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative with a ruthless grip on power. These two facts mean that Russia must avoid entering into a conventional war, and it must act by the unspoken rules of the patron-client system.
In short, Russia's game plan is to expand its sphere of influence, and at the same time, avoid a conventional war with a more powerful adversary and maintain internal stability.
Russian intelligence worked to support Donald Trump's presidential campaign. (Photo: Reuters: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via ABC)
So how is Russia expanding its sphere of influence?
First, Moscow wants to secure its influence over neighbouring countries in order to prevent them from joining NATO. It already shares borders with five NATO members - Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and a sea border with the United States. It is threatened by the possibility of any form of NATO expansion, but especially into Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, or Azerbaijan. The Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008 and eastern Ukraine in 2014 occurred not long after both countries moved towards NATO or EU membership.
The Kremlin is also working (with mixed success) to prevent Finland, Sweden, Moldova, and Balkan states from joining the alliance. In many cases these efforts have backfired, but Russia persists.
Second, Russia is expanding its ability to project power around the world by securing existing overseas military bases and searching for new ones. Currently, Moscow's ability to deploy soldiers far from Russian territory is extremely limited. It has one elderly aircraft carrier, and the only Russian military bases outside the former USSR are in Syria (Tartus and Latakia). Tartus is the only place that Russian ships can refuel without returning to their bases on the Black Sea through the narrow Bosporous straits.
Russia's bottleneck problem - without Syria, the Russian Navy needs to refuel on the wrong side of Istanbul. (https://www.gfsis.org/maps/russian-military-forces)
Securing the future of these bases is one reason why Putin decided to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Similarly, one goal of the seizure of Crimea in 2014 was to secure the naval port in Sevastopol, as well as the Dnepr radio station and the 'Pluton' planetary radar system.
Russia's current presence in the Pacific is even more limited. Outside Siberia, the Russian Navy only has access to one refuelling point in Vietnam. Acquiring another military base in the Pacific may be the reason why Moscow has secretly smuggled weapons to Fiji and temporarily deployed strategic bombers to Indonesia. If either of these countries permanently leased a naval base or an airfield to Moscow, the Russian military would be better able to deploy force into some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Russia's game plan, however, is complicated by two things.
The first is that in conventional military terms, Russia is much weaker than the United States (excluding nuclear weapons). It would mostly likely lose a limited non-nuclear war fought outside its own territory against the US military. This is extremely unlikely to occur, but it does limit Russia's options.
The second is that Russia's patron-client system places certain demands on the country's leadership.
Leaders in a patron-client state must always appear strong to both the population they lead and to their immediate subordinates. Consider the Night Wolves ultranationalist motorcycle gang, also known as 'Putin's Angels', who fight in Ukraine under the command of a man who calls himself 'The Prosecutor'. Groups like the Wolves and other powerful Russians are loyal to Putin because he carefully cultivates an image of uncompromising strength. In foreign policy terms, this means that once Putin has committed to actions, such as invading Georgia or Ukraine, he cannot back down.
A member of the Night Wolves. (Photo: The Guardian)
Leaders in a patron-client system must also avoid actions that risk major losses to the economic interests of their core network. This may seem counterintuitive given that Putin's invasion of Ukraine has caused lasting and damaging economic sanctions targeting his loyal oligarchs; but those sanctions have only lasted because of unexpected European unity brought about by the downing of a Malaysian passenger aircraft in 2014. It is likely that Putin invaded Ukraine with the expectation that the West would lose interest, as it did after the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
This unspoken rule of the patron-client system is another reason why Moscow cannot risk a direct military confrontation with NATO - it is likely to undermine Russia's internal stability.
So what can Russia do?
Under the NATO treaty, all member states will be called to war in the event of an 'armed attack' against any individual member. But what exactly is an 'armed' attack? What happens if the attacker's identity is unclear? Will NATO come to the aid of non-member states?
Questions like these give Russia two obvious options - use force ambiguously, or don't use force at all.
In terms of ambiguous force, the Russian style of war-fighting is increasingly relying on cyber attacks, unmarked soldiers, criminal groups like the Night Wolves and professional mercenaries. This strategy was remarkably successful during the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Less than 10,000 Russians, barely enough to fill the bleachers at a small-town football game, seized an area of territory almost the size of Belgium without firing a shot.
The strategy also features in Russian operations in Syria, which rely heavily on a shady Kremlin-linked mercenary group called Wagner PMC.
This photo allegedly shows Wagner PMC operatives in Syria. (Photo: Twitter)
Even without using force, Russia can still undermine Western unity against its efforts. It does this by sponsoring and supporting political candidates who are sympathetic to Russia and by inflaming societal divisions through fake news, and by appealing to disaffected Western allies.
For example, Russian banks have loaned money to the French National Front, a US Senate report found that Russian money funded the British Leave campaign, and two cyber espionage groups run by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate and Federal Security Service have been implicated in cyber attacks in support of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Third, Russia can seek opportunities with disaffected Western allies like Turkey. Russia's efforts lead to Turkey's ejection from the American F-35 fighter jet program in mid-2019.
Fourth, Moscow can politically activate Russian-speaking minorities in other countries. For example, prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian state media spread fake news to foster unrest and rebellion among Russian speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Ruslan's fate is uncertain. He may have been killed by an American helicopter, or he may have been injured and evacuated to a hospital in Krasnogorsk, Russia, not far from the headquarters of his employer - Wagner PMC. If he was injured, then his outlook isn't good. The shrapnel from American weapons is often too small to show up on X-rays.
Or Ruslan may have survived, and he may still be fighting in Syria. The Kremlin is not deterred by failure. It will continue to try and expand its sphere of influence, and at the same time, avoid a conventional war. This game plan will remain in place for at least as long as Vladimir Putin sits at the apex of Russia's patron-client hierarchy, which he is likely to do for years to come.