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Russia waged a cheap war in Syria. Here’s what those tactics might look like in Ukraine.

Destroying hospitals and critical infrastructure is part of the playbook.

A car burns at the side of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
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Russian troops are increasingly bogged down in Ukraine — and global sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard. As the economic costs of invading Ukraine rise, will the Kremlin look at cost-saving warfare strategies it used in Syria? The bombing of Ukrainian hospitals suggest Russia may be doing this already.

Our research on Russia’s campaign in Syria offers insights into what those strategies might entail. In Syria, Russian troops shifted the course of a civil war by destroying critical infrastructure from the air, deploying widespread siege tactics, and using paramilitary and local fighters to advance the country’s goals. If Russia’s intervention in Ukraine drags on, our findings suggest that Russian strategies along these lines will raise the costs for civilians significantly.

Russia waged a cheap war in Syria

Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria was shaped by two things: ambitious goals and a limited budget. The Kremlin developed something of a playbook for this kind of intervention. First, Russia attacks with superior artillery and air capabilities. Russian forces assault populated areas and conduct precision strikes on critical civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, water and energy infrastructure, rendering entire areas unlivable and disrupting rival governance systems.

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The Syrian regime regularly conducted strikes on hospitals in the early years of the conflict, but Russia’s intervention accelerated this tactic. Data from the Syrian Archive, an independent project that documents human rights violations, reveal that the Russian Air Force was responsible for almost three-quarters of strikes by pro-regime forces on medical facilities in Syria after 2015.

Second, Russia attempts to choke off areas of opposition. In Syria, sieges trapped entire urban populations in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and elsewhere, and denied their access to food, medicine and other critical supplies. The combination of sieges and aerial bombardment led to forced surrender, reducing the need for a lengthy ground invasion that would lead to significant casualties on both sides. Relying on local ground troops and mercenaries in Syria also ensured low casualty counts for Russian troops.

Third, Russia uses disinformation to legitimize targeting that might constitute violations of international humanitarian law. The clearest example of this in Syria was Russia’s campaign against the Syria Civil Defense — globally known as the White Helmets — an organization of 3,000 search and rescue volunteers. A Russian government-backed disinformation campaign claiming that the White Helmets were terrorists or part of a CIA conspiracy took off on social and alternative media. This allowed Russia to paint its targets as legitimate, muddying the waters of clear war crimes.

Russia demoralized the resistance

Russia’s military tactics in Syria forced major shifts in civilian survival strategies. Prior to 2015, the Syrian government relied on relatively slow-moving helicopters that dropped primitive barrel bombs on rebel-held areas. But civilians began to adapt, going underground and developing extensive spotter networks to follow flight plans as an early warning system.

However, Russia’s intervention in 2015 took the destructive nature of this warfare to unprecedented levels by intensifying the “collective punishment” on civilians. Russia took charge of the skies, freeing up Syrian ground troops to tighten sieges around civilian-populated areas. By 2017, nearly 5 million people were living in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. With Russian Sukhoi jets targeting the areas under siege, civilians could no longer listen for the unmistakable sound of a helicopter coming and take cover.

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Russia and the Syrian regime also deployed advanced weapons to break civilian morale in opposition-held areas. Russia’s use of thermobaric weapons and the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons pushed civilians out of their makeshift bunkers — these explosives are more deadly in enclosed spaces, and chemicals like sarin and chlorine sink into basements.

Syrians subjected to these tactics adapted and developed early warning systems and self-protection strategies. But their ability to withstand both the physical and psychological onslaught suffered. As the years passed, disinformation campaigns and the influx of extremist elements also clouded their cause.

Russia has used some low-cost tactics in Ukraine

Russia’s approach to Syria was designed from the outset to be sustainable, costing an estimated $2 billion per year. But the current estimated deployment of nearly 200,000 troops in and around Ukraine is not. Some estimates put the cost of the Russian invasion at $7 billion in the first week alone.

Defense analysts report major stumbles in the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine — raising the likelihood of a protracted war. Fierce resistance and stalled progress may have prompted Russia to intensify its attacks via long-range weapons, U.S. officials note.

Will Russia rely on its Syria playbook to plan the next stages of the assault on Ukraine? Some developments suggest the Kremlin is already heading in that direction. Russian forces, for instance, are targeting critical civilian infrastructure, hitting residential buildings, kindergartens, communication towers and hospitals.

On March 4, Russian troops took control of a power plant that produces a fifth of Ukraine’s energy needs. And reports have emerged that the Russian military is deploying the TOS-1 Buratino launcher, capable of lobbing thermobaric weapons at close range. If Russia uses thermobaric bombs to attack those seeking shelter in Ukraine’s metro systems, high casualties are likely.

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Russia is also attempting to besiege major cities. Russian troops surrounded Mariupol, denying safe exit routes to civilians trying to escape the shelling. And a 40-mile Russian military convoy still sits outside Kyiv, where food reportedly is running low. U.S. officials also report that Russians are trying to recruit Syrians to fight in Ukraine.

Although Western governments have attempted to rebut Russian disinformation campaigns preemptively, the U.S. government has warned that Russia’s disinformation efforts could be a pretext to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

With Russia’s end game in Ukraine growing increasingly complicated, a strategy that relies on these low-cost tactics to pressure Ukrainians and the international community to compromise would significantly raise the cost to civilians in Ukraine. Russia’s track record in Syria suggests that the Kremlin may be comfortable with frozen conflicts that prolong civilian suffering while waiting for the international community to make concessions. The question for Ukraine is whether the growing weight of global sanctions and other international measures to punish Russia’s aggressive behavior can change that calculus.

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Natasha Hall (@NatashaHallDC) is a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She worked with the White Helmets and has 15 years of experience in conflict-affected areas, with a focus on civilian protection.

Will Todman (@WillTodman) is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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