Russia sent warplanes into Syria for a second round of airstrikes Thursday. Moscow claimed it targeted five sites controlled by the group calling itself the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, including an ISIS ammunition depot and a command center. U.S. officials dispute the claim, saying the strikes were concentrated in areas controlled by rebel groups fighting the regime of Russian ally Bashar al-Assad.
The whole move had us wondering: Between cratering oil prices and economic sanctions, how can Russia afford to enter in such potentially long and costly conflict? We got on the phone with Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he heads their Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Coming away from Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin's awkward meeting at the UN earlier this week, were you surprised that Russia started airstrikes?
No, because we've seen the Russians over the past three weeks deploy aircraft and assert ground presence there, so people I think understood this was coming but ... if there are going to be broader operations, you've got to overcome two obstacles which to my mind seem really large. One is: What's the role of Assad? Because Washington and Moscow have very different views of that. And then second: Who are we going after to bomb? U.S. focus is on ISIS, the Islamic State. The Russians are targeting, they say, ISIS and extremist groups, but "extremist" groups by the Russian definition probably covers almost everybody in Syria they would want to hit.
What can Russia actually afford to do in Syria?
Over the last seven years, the Russians have really increased their defense spending. They have more money, they have the capability, their pilots are better trained, they're getting more flight hours so they can do things like this. The actual operation so far in Syria is relatively limited; you're only talking about 30 to 35 aircraft. So that's something that should be sustainable for the Russian military.
The big question about cost is: What happens if they get sucked in, and it goes to more extensive air operations and — although the Russians take pains to say "airstrikes only no ground operations" — what happens if they get pulled in on the ground?
What are the chances of that?
Right now I think they want to keep it limited — in part because 69 percent of the Russian population oppose troops in Syria. On the U.S. side, we've done this a number of times: go in with a limited intention, but you can get pulled in in a bigger way. So, what happens if the Assad regime, even with the help of Russian airstrikes, still looks perhaps ready to fall? Would the Russians then put in ground forces to prevent that from happening? The Russians are now somewhat exposed. I mean, I'm sure they're doing everything they can for force protection, but what happens if ISIS or another group gets in there and attacks a Russian base and there are 30 or 40 Russian casualties? How do the Russians respond to that?
I go back and I remember in the '80s when the barracks were bombed in Lebanon, President Reagan basically said "this is not worth it," and we basically pulled out. I'm not sure Putin's the kind of person who reaches those conclusions. His tendency might be more to double-down, and then they get themselves on a slippery slope. The cost could increase pretty dramatically.
If they needed to send in troops, would they just have to find the money?
My guess is that for a limited ground operation, they could probably find the money. It would not be easy, but they could find the money. Certainly their intention is not to get in that ground operation, and if I had to bet on it, I'd say they probably can avoid it. But surprises happen, and again I go back to our experience in Vietnam. Advisers and airstirkes right? Within five years, we had 400,000 troops on the ground.
We think about Vietnam, and that memory is starting to fade here. They think very much about Afghanistan. Initially they went in 1979 with not only air power but with ground forces, and lost anywhere between 10 and 30,000 killed in action there. I think there's a reaction for most Russians, which is: We don't want to get involved in another Afghanistan.
You said you see these airstrikes as "sustainable." What do you mean by that?
I don't think it's going to be a huge burden on the Russian defense budget to sustain the sort of operations they're conducting now. I think they can sustain that, because the defense budget still is fairly well-off. There's been reporting now saying that because of sanctions and the low price oil, they have cut back some social programs; funding for education, health and even some reduction for the Ministry of Interior. There's been some suggestion that they maybe stretching out some of their procurement programs for the defense ministry, but my guess is that this is a level they can maintain without too much trouble.
Do have any sort of perspective on what this effort is costing them right now?
No idea at all. I mean, the cost that they're paying would be things like the cost of fuel, the cost of bombs. The planes — they've already invested in that asset, they've already got the trained pilots. In fact, the Russian military could be thinking this is actually not a bad way to sort of cycle through pilots so the pilots get some real experience in combat.
Forces that are being deployed out of country are eligible for I think it comes to something like $40 to $60 a day over and above their regular salary, so there's a marginal labor cost. But again, it's probably something that they can manage fairly easily as long as they don't get into a operation that's much much larger than what they have now.
Anything else I should know?
I think the main economic challenge for the city of Moscow now is not the cost to sustain this but: Does the price of oil continue to stay low? And I've heard projections saying that the range will be $40 to $60 [a barrel] at least until the end of 2016. That's not good news in Moscow. Although they're saying sanctions aren't a problem, I do think the economic sanctions are having an impact. When you look at the Russian economy, which is still contracting, it's hard to desegregate how much of that is due to the low price of oil, how much of that is due to sanctions and how much of that is just because for several years they did nothing to reform the economy and the economy is just not performing in an efficient way.
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