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Research Questions

  1. What were the key factors that led to the Russian decision to intervene in Syria in 2015?
  2. What were the drivers of the recent smaller-scale Russian interventions in conflicts such as Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria itself before 2015?
  3. Where and under what conditions could Russia intervene in other civil conflicts outside of post-Soviet Eurasia?
  4. What drives Russian leaders' decisionmaking on intervention?

Russia's 2015 military intervention in Syria's civil war took many by surprise and raised questions about the potential for similar actions in other conflicts outside of post-Soviet Eurasia. The authors of this report assess where and under what conditions Moscow could intervene again by analyzing the factors that drive Russian decisionmaking on intervention. In addition to the 2015 intervention in Syria, they examine four smaller-scale interventions in conflicts outside of Russia's immediate neighborhood: Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria itself before 2015.

The analysis demonstrates that Moscow's decision to intervene in Syria in 2015 resulted from an extraordinary confluence of political drivers and military conditions. This set of circumstances is very unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. Indeed, the drivers for an intervention on a scale comparable to the 2015 action in Syria are absent in any of the other three countries examined in the report. However, the other cases that were considered in this report suggest that the conditions for intervention short of direct, overt use of the military, but greater than mere diplomacy, are more commonplace: The conflict in question presents a high level of threat to Russian security (as in Afghanistan), promises a high level of geopolitical benefit for Moscow (as in Libya), or demonstrates moderate levels of both (as in Syria pre-2015). That threshold could plausibly be met in a variety of country settings, which suggests that there are likely to be more of these smaller-scale interventions in the future.

Key Findings

  • The decision to intervene in Syria in 2015 resulted from an extraordinary confluence of political drivers and military-enabling factors.
  • Three political factors emerge as primary drivers of the decision: the perception that an adverse military outcome—the collapse of the Assad regime—was imminent and that it could be prevented by intervening; the belief that this outcome would have had grave security implications; and the view that alternative means (e.g., diplomacy) had proven futile.
  • Several enabling military factors specific to Syria constituted necessary preconditions for the intervention: air access to the theater, permission to use ports and airbases, and the presence of allies on the ground.
  • Intervention short of the direct, overt use of the military seen in Syria in 2015, but greater than mere diplomacy, requires that the conflict in question present a high level of threat (as in Afghanistan), promise significant geopolitical benefits (as in Libya), or demonstrate moderate levels of both (as in Syria pre-2015).
  • Russia is unlikely to intervene on a scale comparable to the 2015 action in Syria in any of the other three countries examined in the report—Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. The drivers for such an action are currently absent.
  • However, should the drivers that were present in Syria emerge, Russia is likely to increase its involvement.
  • The threshold for interventions of a smaller scale could plausibly be met in a variety of country settings, which suggests that there are likely to be more of these in the future.

Recommendations

  • U.S. civilian and military decisionmakers should assume that Russia will not refrain from getting involved in any conflict that affects its interests.
  • The U.S. military should expect Russian forces, even if only covertly or in low numbers, to be present in nearly any conflict zone in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Planners should always be cognizant of Russian interests in each country in the region and expect competition both for basing and for influence in those states where Moscow has made diplomatic and political-military inroads.

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The research reported here was commissioned by USAFE-AFAFRICA A5/8/9 and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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