ISIS Attacks Russian Base T4; the Kremlin’s Missing Musical Notes

CNN: Did ISIS attack Russian military equipment at key Syrian base?

This is asserted by STRATFOR, a reliable organization. The analysis is good. The open-source conclusion is that, Russian assertions to the contrary, the strike occurred.

The success of ISIS in damaging Base T4, at which advanced weapons were stationed, doubtless evokes the shudders of the Soviet-Afghan War. After ten years of Soviet presence approximating 100,000 soldiers, Soviet losses forced a withdrawal in February 1989.

In New Cold War, Not!, I wrote

All labels carry baggage. The Cold War label carries this: We are in conflict with a powerful, implacable enemy. But it’s not true. The canary is Syria, and the cat is going to have serious indigestion.

Since I wrote that, I have been wondering whether some of the readers of this blog would be interested in a more explicit warning as to how bad it could get. Has the Kremlin considered the consequences if one of the regional enemies they have recently made decided to supply the insurgents with MANPADs?  Three things drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan: the indigenous mujahideen, the CIA, and Stinger MANPADs.

Some of the irritation Russia has supplied to the West has been trivial, such as barrel roll intercepts of reconnaissance aircraft. Some of it has scared the West enough to spend good money, as with the five new NATO “tripwire” brigades. Some of it is just a pain in  the ass,  little pinpricks intended to erode, by infinitesimal degrees, American “hegemony.”

But with all that, the U.S. is too sane to give MANPADs to the Syrian opposition. Other regional powers, to whom the Russian presence is a more existential threat, could break the unspoken compact. ROKETSTAN, a Turkish company, manufactures Stingers under license. But even without the MANPAD complication, the Russians are now to have the experience of indigestion.

This is because the effectiveness of the opposition, whatever the composition, is not simply a matter of arms, or even politics. On a very basic level, it is the nature of an indigenous resistance to adapt, and therefore, become more efficient. One of these steps has formal recognition in the literature, the emergence of an insurgency, as happened after the American conquest of Iraq.  But as the Syrian insurgency has existed from the start, it is important to recognize other steps. Even as the military order of battle of an insurgency deteriorates, it can become more efficient through a process of evolution. As the Russians know well from their Chechen experience, the only cure for it is scorched-earth warfare with massive commitment of forces.

The Russians recently proposed, again, that Russia and the U.S. commit to joint airstrikes against ISIS. This was personally surprising. Henry Kissinger has explained that Vladimir Putin, at some point, was a client. Kissinger explains that Putin is not a friend, but that “they want to know how things work.” If some things were left unexplained,  Kissinger’s “White House Years” explains everything. It’s a big-hearted look at diplomacy that explains why this is not in the cards.

Thus far, Russian diplomacy resembles the musical pentonic scale, missing some notes to which the Western ear is accustomed. Adeptness with surgical saber thrusts is the base note. Ascending the scale,  It blusters, it threatens, and it occasionally makes nice. The “Year of Friendship” with North Korea was a nice gesture. The fifth note of the scale might be the Russian emphasis on the reliability of their friendship, as was granted to Hafez Assad in the Soviet era, apparently without restrictions on subsequent behavior.

American policy is not exempt from criticism. Failing to recognize that hope is inadequate justification for  foreign policy, it lacks a prospect for the Russians to grasp. And with their musical limitations, the Russians are apparently unable to synthesize it themselves.

The five notes of Russian foreign policy are not enough. The Kremlin must find those missing notes, stat.

EgyptAir Flight 804

There is a marked difference in the official responses to the loss of EgyptAir Flight 804, and the Sinai Metrojet disaster six months prior, discussed in this post.

A half year ago, on October 31, 2015, Russia’s  Metrojet Flight 9268 disintegrated above Sinai. Hull losses of this airplane have been extremely rare, and the weather was fine. The laxity of ground controls at Sharm-el Sheikh Airport had already been noted by some, with a “buy your way through security” policy. The  permeation of Egyptian society by radical elements is significant, though not overwhelming. So  rude statistical thinking advocated immediate adoption of a terrorism-based theory.

But even though ISIL claimed responsibility almost immediately, Egyptian and Russian pronouncements exhibited negative bias toward the hypothesis of terrorism. For both Egypt and Russia, a solution of the question in that form would have negative economic, political, and social consequences. Egypt’s Prime Minister seems more accepting of the idea for Flight 804, though still with traces of political reluctance. Quoting Reuters,

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said it was too early to rule out any explanation for the crash, including an attack like the one blamed for bringing down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last year.

The physical evidence in the current case is scanty. U.S. satellite imagery shows no evidence of explosion. This means only absence of

  • An infrared signature indicative of  fire.
  • Separation of a major structural component, such as an entire wing.

It does not rule out damage of the control systems by a small bomb. Cockpit invasion or pilot suicide are also possible, suggested by the swerving motions preceding complete loss of control.

Comparison of official reactions to the two disasters is noteworthy. Rude statistical thinking is a powerful tool in the evaluation of the extraordinary, but it is frequently  obstructed by custom or bias. Sometimes the obstruction is legal caution, which is proper. Sometimes it is political, which is not.

This is  an instance of a general human flaw, the belief-preference for the demonstrated threat over the highly plausible yet hypothetical one.



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Mikhail Lesin Takeaway

The  popularity of the two part post, Mikhail Lesin, a Kremlin Hit, has been a pleasant surprise. I would have been even happier had such enthusiasm been directed towards the five part series, Address to Davos, with  weightier concerns than whether a dubious personage got knocked on the head with an ingenious gadget in D.C.   Mikhail Lesin founded RT, for which reason my tears might be of the crocodile variety.

If you’re looking for the gadget, it is not likely to be found. Although high-tech wizbang cannot be ruled out, it might be rather simple, assembled out of common objects, and completely unrecognizable until assembled. It may consist of operator technique as much as device.

The historical root of Soviet assassination as a state tool was the Comintern, which established it as a prerogative of Soviet foreign policy, unconstrained by national boundaries. The Soviet officer in charge, Pavel Sudoplatov,  of whose autobiography Special Tasks (co authored with his son Anatoli)  I am honored to have an autographed copy, was by all accounts someone you might have wished to have as a friend, who describes himself as badly mislead into thinking that his patriotic acts were also morally correct. Sudoplatov was badly tainted by his use of the products of a lab known variously as “Laboratory 12…,13, 1”, (the numbers kept changing), the Poison laboratory of the Soviet secret services, whose products were tested for efficacy on human subjects.

All this has been long abolished. But what was formerly institutional policy lingers like a bad habit. The peculiar situation by which the Russian elite park their wealth abroad has created a vast pool of sophisticates who could reach for the quasi-official and perhaps all the way to the official when a knife in the ribs is desired. Of all the unknowns that define the “Elite”,or  the “Inner Circle”, the nature and extent of this relationship is one of the most pressing. The possible involvement of Russian political leadership, the actual “nomenklatura“, is another.

Assassination is a bad habit. As with other acts of violence, it inspires imitation. Sudoplatov was convicted of crimes, none of which exceeded his actions under direct orders, and served fifteen years in prison. The Soviets themselves were so afraid of him, early release was not contemplated. By Sudoplatov’s account, his latter interrogator was astonished when told that every assassination had been meticulously documented, and was part of the record. It is likely that even members of the Russian government are scared this could get out of hand. You cannot build a civilized nation on extrajudicial slayings. The ghosts move the hands of the living to perpetuate the horror.

Soviet adeptness with domestic propaganda lead to their belief that the image constructed by Western minds of Russia can be managed. With post Soviet Russia these manipulations have had  modest success, sometimes causing Western reaction in the desired direction, and sometimes in the reverse. If the “Inner Circle” thinks assassination has a tolerable cost, it is a consequence of the successes.

Russian overconfidence in the management of Western perceptions entails the risk of dangerous  miscalculation. It is the best justification of the resources  consumed by investigations of possible assassinations. Since Russia remains a partly open society, their understanding that we understand them may be profoundly beneficial to how they understand themselves.