Anwar Darkazally: Lessons from the Middle East in how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might play out

Anwar Darkazally qualified as a solicitor with Allen & Overy In London before working in the Middle East and Africa mostly for the United Nations Department of Political Affairs for nearly 20 years until 2020. He now lives in Wandsworth and works for a Corporate Intelligence firm.

Vladimir Putin hopes to achieve a lot through the dispatch of Russian forces into the two Eastern provinces of Ukraine. When operating beyond Russia’s borders, there are always at least two goals – domestic and foreign.

A “win-win” in Putin’s lexicon is just that, when he wins – a personal gain, such as strengthening his domestic standing, and a gain for Russia, which also serves to glorify Putin twice but can be seen as longer-term.

Occasionally Putin pulls off a third element, by additionally undermining the influence of a Western power. We should see the crisis in Ukraine and our Government’s actions through this triple lens.

Soft power is hard-won. it takes hours of conversations, some public and many in private to persuade wavers, maintain the faithful, and convert the reluctant. Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Ben Wallace are out there, those talks, convening COBRA, creating a sanctions package and putting in the hours to stop the crisis from degenerating further.

Russia has been engaged in conflicts from Salisbury to Syria and their actions have driven everything from gas prices to electoral rhetoric.

We have some idea of ​​the strategies and tactics that Russia will use in this latest venture, as they have been tested abroad in the Middle East and elsewhere since the Arab Spring. The attempted transitions to democracy offered Russia some testing ground for defending Russia from democracy at home.

These activities in support of the autocrats were executed with the underlying principles that they must be low-cost, both financially and in terms of Russian consequence. Acting incrementally, wisely, and buying time through confusion were all tactics to achieve the goal of defending autocracy.

These elements of confusion and time are absolutely fundamental to the play Putinbook. The ‘dispatch’ of troops into the separatist held areas of Ukraine is a classic tactic. It’s not a full-on invasion; the Russians call the forces “peace-keepers”; and they are sent to an area where the Russians have been operating since 2014. These elements limit the freedom of response of those on the other side.

Even the Ukrainians didn’t have a clear course of action in response to the Russian forces’ arrival. The Russians magnified an existing dynamic into a new crisis, rather than initiated a new crisis from scratch.

During the Arab Spring, Russia worked hard to curb democratic transitions from autocracy. Russia operated to maximise its influence and glory and confound Putin’s decision Western efforts to promote democracy – which would have been hard enough without a sophisticated Russian spoiler.

In the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution that unseated Hosni Mubarak after his thirty-year reign, the Russian touch was deft. For the UK it was hard to support some of the popular uprisings. It was clear who needed replacing, but totally unclear who was going to replace them, creating a vacuum of uncertainty that Russia skilfully exploited.

In Egypt, as millions protested in downtown Cairo demanding “freedom and justice”, the West dithered over the fate of the Mubarak regime. A Russian offer of military support to the Egyptian generals waiting in the wings quickly concentrated the thinking, and Western support for the popular movement was slowly wound down.

Emboldened by forcing the West off the fence and into effective passivity as the generals gradually re-took control in Egypt, Russian intervention in Syria was far broader and blunter. Putin played on the distaste for Blair’s unmandated war in Iraq and Syria’s lack of importance on the rise of the regional stage to ramp up a strategy that ultimately led to the destruction of the country, the millions of Syrian refugees and the of ISIS, and perhaps even a resurgent authoritarianism in parts of Europe.

In Syria, the revolution tilted away from a popular uprising as the moderates of the Free Syrian Army were pulverised by Russian jets. On the ground, Russian special forces supported by Wagner Group mercenaries swept the ground to pave the way for the easy choice between a return to the old regime or a barbaric Islamic theocracy.

We saw the lies and denials, as Russian warplanes targeted hospitals and schools to displace the regime’s mainstream opponents and alter facts on the ground. We saw the online media campaign, distortions, distractions, and outright fabrications rolling-out of pretty English-speaking mouths to deny the truths of the mass human rights abuse taking place across the country.

We even saw Russian claims, as so recently done in Ukraine, that they had withdrawn their forces only to see them visibly back in action in Syria within weeks.

The so-‘peace-keepers’ that Russia has called in Ukraine are also familiar. In Syria, the mixed Russian forces on the ground are also led by the relatively newly established Military Police, and there referred to as “peace-keepers”.

There are credible reports from Russia-watchers that many of the MP units in Syria are actually from the Caucuses in Russia ie not ethnic Russians, and therefore arms-length in the emotive debate of dispute abroad. There also some reportedly from the “GRU – Spetsnaz”, the special forces of Military Intelligence – not the typical profile of a peacekeeper.

Some cynics suggest that the radicals from the Russian Federation were sent to Syria to fight the regime both to get rid of them from Russia and then to provide a justification for the Russian deployment.

Russia is unlikely to have allies on the ground in Ukraine, beyond their own “separatists”. But potential allies should beware.

In Syria, the airspace today is guarded by Russian air defense batteries. And across Syria, Israeli jets strike sophisticated Iranian and Hizbullah weapons systems whenever they choose. Despite the heavy lifting that Iran and their Hizbullah proxy have done in keeping the Syrian regime in place, the Russians are quite happy to switch off their air defense systems when the Israelis ask them to, as the Israelis destroy Iranian materiel and prestige and ensure a continued Russian influence over the strength of forces on the ground.

The Assad regime’s evident victory in Syria, frightening the West into passivity, even led to Russian intervention in Libya. Through a cheap stunt involving a press conference for Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan warlord, Russia got a toe into another significant geopolitical mess even closer to Europe and more important than Syria – through nothing more than a port call by a rotting aircraft carrier on its way back to Russia for a refit.

The Russians wedged in a bit further with the deployment of thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries to support the hopeless militias fighting for Haftar. They were unable to tilt the balance in favor of Haftar’s forces, but their achievement was to ensure that Russia kept a seat at the table in discussions on Libya.

Ukraine is obviously much closer to home in every sense – for Great Britain and for Putin. The stakes are higher, because of Putin’s domestic situation and Ukraine’s unique ties to Russia.

Putin has already made some small gains. We are not discussing the poisoning of Putin’s challenger Alexei Navalny or his trial. Nor are we discussing Putin’s billion-dollar Black Sea palace, immortalised by Navalny’s video which has been seen by a quarter of the Russian population. What matters most for Putin is re-election. We know his playbook.

The Prime Minister’s message was clear yesterday: we cannot be passive, we stand by Ukraine and take the fight to the heart of the Putin regime by targeting the oligarchs and doing all that we can to support democracy in Russia.

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