In Ukraine Russia has displayed a callous attitude towards killing civilians. Russia doesn’t publicize these deaths, but they do make the news when Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine is abandoned because of an Ukrainian offensive. Russia was known for its barbaric “kill them all” attitude in wartime, even when the endangered civilians were Russians. The Ukrainian policy is to get civilians out of the way in a combat zone and not attack them deliberately, even if they are Russians. This is the case in some Russian-occupied Ukrainian areas where Russian civilians have been brought in to cement control over the area. Not surprisingly, many of those Russians have fled back to Russia once the fighting got close to them.
It turned out that Russia has become more enthusiastic about killing civilians because of changes in their combat doctrine several years before the Ukraine invasion. We know this because Russian military leaders openly discussed the matter before the invasion and explained why this was the way to go.
Russian military journals have always been a good source of how new Russian strategy and tactics are evolving. The actual “rules” (“doctrine”) are usually secret but to speed development, contending views and interpretations are discussed in Russian military journals. Such is the case with Russian operations in Syria and Ukraine, and before that in Chechnya. The pre-Ukraine invasion articles are notable because many were written by senior Russian generals, some of them considered likely candidates to take over top positions in the Russian armed forces. The articles also indicate that Russia considers the Syrian campaign just about done and doesn’t make much mention of similar operations in Ukraine, which are far from over even though between 2014 and 2021 the combat was very low compared to after 2021.
These journal articles talk about new doctrines to be applied widely so that indicates current (pre-invasion Ukraine) and future operations will rely heavily on this new doctrine. One feature of the new doctrine is the recognition that Russia is now and will in the future operating on a small military budget. The new doctrine stressed the need to use all available resources and ignore the conventional rules of war (“Geneva conventions”) because those transgressions will be sufficiently hidden by the Russian ability to influence global mass media with Internet-based disinformation. Actually, that did not work out so well in Ukraine and Russia has been suffering from economic sanctions since 2014 because of it. But in a place like Syria, where there are many players, it is possible to shift the blame for bad behavior to someone else sufficiently to make it less obvious that Russia is misbehaving as much as the worst of them.
Case in point was the use of airstrikes (often using unguided weapons) against enemy (or neutral) Syrian civilians. This had been a Syrian tactic even before the civil war began in 2011 and was also used by many rebel factions (especially those that were Islamic terrorists). Russia made it clear in the journal articles that Russian commanders were, as much as possible, in overall command once they arrived in force during late 2015. That meant when the Russians or Syrians bombed civilians it was no accident. Russian forward observers for airstrikes or artillery fire were mainly concerned with not hitting allied forces. This was especially true of Iranian forces, which, the Russians admitted, did not take orders from the Russians but would cooperate to avoid friendly fire incidents. The Russians simply handled the Iranians the same way they did other Islamic terror groups and treated them as potentially useful and not to be antagonized unless absolutely necessary. More cooperative militias and factions got better support from the Russians and this overall doctrine worked quite well.
The new doctrine stressed the use of rapid decision making and using video conferencing as much as possible to replace traditional face-to-face meetings to finalize plans and assignments. The Russians considered the tech available for video conferencing mature enough to rely on regularly. This was not the case during the Ukraine invasion where Russian combat commanders have a difficult time communicating. The new doctrine stresses the need to use all available resources, including civilian gear (like construction equipment) to get the job done. This improvisation was often learned from the Syrians and the enemy, who were often operating largely off stuff they had stolen.
The paramilitary nature of operations in Syria made it easy to accept the widespread use of Russian military contractors in combat roles. NATO forces had been using a lot more armed military contractors since 2001 but mainly for security around bases. Russia often used their military contractors as combat troops to reinforce the capabilities of Syrian forces. This includes Syrian army infantry or irregulars the Syrians made great use of for local security and, occasionally, offensive operations. The Russian military contractors were nearly all former Russian military and, while not considered “Russian soldiers”, they were considered more reliable and trustworthy and were paid much more than Russian troops. The military contractors also got around the Russian laws prohibiting the use of conscripts in a combat zone. This was recognition that the Russian public would tolerate heavy losses among Russian contractors and allied forces, but not among members of the Russian military and especially conscripts. Russia had a limited number of non-conscript Russian troops willing or able to go to Syria. Highly paid contractors were another matter. Russian military journals used to make a big deal about the usefulness of an all-volunteer force but since the sanctions and lower oil prices showed up after 2014 (and the defense budget was cut 30 percent in 2016) the prospects of an all-volunteer force are quite dim. The new Russian doctrine emphasizes keeping casualties for Russian troops as low as possible.
The new doctrine takes for granted that Russia has to fight a poor man’s war because there is no alternative. Many of these new doctrinal principles are those employed by successful irregular forces in the past. The Russians stress the rapid integration of any available resources into the Russian led war effort. The Russian journal articles make it clear that Russia only went into Syria with the understanding that Russians would be in charge, even if that meant annoying the Iranians at times. The Iranians cooperated as long as the Russians did not embarrass them or publicize the fact that the Russians were providing technical resources (air power, electronic warfare capabilities) that Iran lacked. That approach worked less well with the Turks, who occupied portions of northwest Syria and were generally left alone by the Russians. The Iranians were different in that they provided a large (at times more than 60,000) mercenary force that comprised the largest reliable force of ground troops available to the Syrians.
The new Russian doctrine pointed out the importance of adapting and doing so quickly. An example of this could be seen in how the Russians handled occasional problems with the Syrian tactic of negotiating with civilians in a rebel-held area (especially one that was surrounded) and offering safe passage for Islamic terrorists and civilians who wanted to remain with them, to another rebel-held area. One shortcoming of this tactic was that the Syrian and Iranian forces could not always be trusted to observe the “safe” part of safe passage. The Russians solved this by inserting their own troops to ensure compliance, even if it meant the Russians had to arrest or even fire on their allies to compel compliance. Russia even brought in military police units composed of Russian soldiers and police from Moslem parts of Russia who volunteered for this “peacekeeping” duty. The presence of armed Russian Moslem troops discouraged Islamic terrorists and similar minded Iranian mercenaries from misbehaving while carrying out these safe passage operations.
Russia has come to call this use of superior command and control and discipline “management superiority” and that is an accurate term. The Russian commanders were allowed to do whatever worked to get the job done. If this resulted in some bad publicity because of dead civilians or other battlefield indiscretions, the Russian government would criticize in private and praise in public. This often included quickly and quietly transferring home officers who were not up to the job. This made it possible for Russian commanders to be more flexible and innovative than Russian officers have been allowed to be since World War II. As a result, this new doctrine is very popular with most Russian officers and troops. During the Ukraine invasion this aspect of the new doctrine was not much in evidence. Commanders were hesitant to act without orders from above.
In Syria, “management superiority” included the authority to quickly assess the quality of local forces and put them to work doing what they were best at. Russia quickly identified the most competent and effective Syrian officers and supported them with additional resources and whatever else they needed. The Syrian government went along because the Russians were helping to create Syrian heroes the Syrian government could take credit for. It also became common knowledge among all factions (enemy and friendly) in Syria that the Russians were willing to make deals quickly and decisively. This proved to be a valuable military asset.
In many respects, this new doctrine isn’t much different than what was adopted, on a much larger scale, after the Nazis invaded Russia in mid-1941. The Russian leaders (especially dictator Josef Stalin) were shocked, not only that the Germans had broken their promises but that the military reforms and changes Stalin had made in the 1930s had crippled the Russian military. That allowed the Germans to advance quickly and kill or capture millions of Russian troops in the process. Stalin adopted a new doctrine remarkably similar to the current one. Reality will do that to you if you pay attention. This flexibility did not survive the end of World War II, when the Russian military promptly became less flexible.