Tag Archives: Russia

Why Russia Cannot Win

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet engaged and destroyed a Russian Su-24 Sukhoi that Ankara accused of violating its airspace. Moscow protested, claiming the aircraft remained over Syrian territory where the Russian military has been supporting the Assad regime with direct combat power since 2014. Though the drama of that incident led to a tense discussion, the relationship between the two countries returned quickly to reasonably good terms until recently. Last week, a Russian airstrike in support of Syrian Army forces in Idlib province killed 33 Turkish soldiers that probably made up a Turkish special operations command post there. Though Russia denied their air force was operating in the area, in the same breath they accused the Turks of breaking the 2018 ceasefire, which was designed to create a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region. As the world pleaded for de-escalation, Turkey vowed a vengeful response. 

Ankara has since backed up its threat. On March 1st, Turkish jets began systematically attacking the Syrian Army and its proxies in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Turkish airpower is relentlessly and very effectively targeting the armor, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment of the Syrian Army, which seems completely unprepared to deal with a threat from the air. The destruction has been so complete that it is raising questions about the efficacy of the Russian equipment fielded by the Syrian Army. Still, many say Turkey should act more firmly enough against Russia itself. They argue Turkey could put its substantial military power onto a full wartime footing much easier than Russia. Though this is true, Ankara’s long experience in the region cautions that the key to winning a clash there is by playing the long game and not jumping to conclusions. 

Indirect Support

Turkey has learned extensively from these battles and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. Turkey isn’t the only one with expertise in complicated disputes close to home. Russia also has similar ongoing conflicts and is applying those lessons in Syria. But there are differences. Syria is far from the Russian frontier, and its value to Russian power and prestige is not as apparent to the Russian public as other battlefields in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine). For Russia’s Syrian campaign to be successful, Moscow needs to keep casualties to an absolute minimum. Russian public opinion will not support yet another war of attrition like the Soviet-Afghan war without a clear Russian interest. 

To keep casualties to a minimum, Russia isolates its soldiers on bases protected by their allies and limits its use of force to Special Operations or fighter aviation, both of which are hard for the Turkey-affiliated Free Syrian Army to combat. As a second layer of defense, Russia provides its proxies, specifically the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with advanced surface-to-air systems, anti-artillery radars, artillery, and different types of armored vehicles. These measures ensure that the “meatshield” keeping Russian forces safe from Free Syrian Army attacks remains in place. These tactics worked well thus far. Since Russia entered the region, rebel-controlled territory has shrunk continuously, and areas where the Free Syrian Army did manage to gain ground were quickly reconquered. 

However, Turkey has learned extensively from its decades-long battle with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. A quick study of Turkish targeting shows Turkey is attacking the technical advantage Russia gave to the SAA, enabling the Free Syrian Army to advance and putting Russian forces in potential danger. By peeling back the layers of protection provided by SAA equipment instead of attacking the Russian soldiers that equipment protects, Turkey avoids turning the Russian public against Ankara and makes it very hard for Putin to justify a decision to escalate. At the same time, it transforms the entire conflict into a slow, persistent competition rather than an unbearably costly direct between two powerful contenders.

Playing the Long Game

The Turkish strategy demonstrates a nuanced reading of the history of the region in which no invading force has ever won such a competition. If Russia, Assad, and the SAA fail to quickly implement a serious countermeasure to Turkish airpower, the technically inferior rebels will begin advancing on all fronts, and the Russian body count will rise. This will have the effect of eroding Russian public opinion in support of Assad and force Putin to push for accommodation, not unlike the one that ended the Chechen war.

Though it will take some time before this strategy bears fruit, short-term gains by the Free Syrian Army are already visible along the northern, western, and southwestern fronts. Aleppo is once again in danger, an unbelievable consideration just a couple of weeks ago. Putin and Erdogan both know Russia is at a disadvantage in Turkey’s back yard and will most likely discuss a deal when they meet in Moscow on Thursday, March 5th. Until then, or until Russia can field an effective anti-air capability to the SAA in Idlib, Syrian, and possibly Russian, soldiers will continue to die in a war Russia just cannot win.


Mike Skillt is a former combat veteran and analyst now advising tomorrow’s leaders. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelSkillt.

Mind the Gap: Geo-Strategy of Natural Gas

Reducing dependence on imported natural gas will be a key strategic effort for European security over the next 50 years. Steadily declining production from dwindling fields in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands means Europe will need to import ever larger volumes of gas. This gap will widen over the coming years particularly in the European Union. This is because most industrialized countries are experiencing a growing gas supply gap caused by coal and nuclear plant retirements in parallel with increasing demand for natural gas from India, China, and Africa.

As the world makes a transition from fossil-based to zero-carbon energy, it is moving towards a balance of solar and wind power plus natural gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that by 2025, solar, wind, and hydroelectric generation will account for as much as coal and gas. In order to keep warming under the 2°C threshold agreed at the 2009 Copenhagen climate meeting however, greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 will need to be 40% to 70% lower than they were in 2010. These changes, along with accelerated renewable energy growth, transport electrification, energy-saving and efficiency, and carbon neutral infrastructure would make it possible to achieve 90% of required emission reductions but the remaining 10% will continue to emit carbon. Although most industry commentators expect coal use to eventually decrease rapidly, natural gas will play a substantial role in the global energy mix for some time.

Global Reserves and European Imports

An overwhelming 83% of the world’s natural gas reserves are located in just 10 countries. Four of those countries – Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkmenistan – contain 58% of global reserves. The Russian economy in particular depends heavily on oil and gas, which provides ~40% of federal revenues and a tremendous incentive to use gas exports as a politically coercive foreign policy tool. Europe now imports about 43% of its natural gas through a Soviet era pipeline network crossing Belarus and Ukraine. The Blue Stream pipeline, installed under the Black Sea in 2003, allowed some diversification in Russian export capacity into Europe but by mid-2019 approximately 90% of European imports of Russian gas flowed via a combination of the Baltic Nord Stream 1 pipeline, completed at the end of 2012, and the Soviet era network that sometimes operated above its designed maximum flow capacity.

Collectively, these Russian operated/influenced pipelines and newly built LNG projects offer Moscow tremendous influence. In 2009, Russia used its Gazprom-owned pipelines to apply economic and political pressure on Europe and Ukraine. Although Europe weathered the crisis, Russia struck again in January 2015. This time, Norway compensated for the Nord Stream 1 export cut resulting in a USD $5.5 billion loss in Gazprom revenue and fines of $400 million. Europe was able to make a political point but Norwegian bailouts will not be feasible over the long term.

Main Russian Natural Gas Pipelines to Europe.
Main Russian Gas Pipelines to Europe. Nord Stream 1 & 2; Belarus Yamal_Europe, Trans-Ukraine Brotherhood/Soyuz (Urengoy-Ughzod), Blue Stream, Turk Stream, South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP); Trans-Turkey TANAP-TAP; Baku-Brindisi via Georgia-Turkey-Greece. Source: https://blogs.platts.com/2019/04/04/nord-stream-2-danish-permit/

Politics, not geography, guides the future of Europe’s energy supply. According to Gazprom’s “optimization program”, most of the pipelines and associated infrastructure crossing Ukraine will be decommissioned. Gazprom shut down three compressor stations in 2018, with plans to eventually close 4,160 Km of pipeline and 62 additional compressors, leaving the Ukrainian network with little more than 10% of its original capacity. At the same time, the construction of Nord Stream 2 will permanently double Russia’s transmission capability outside Ukraine making Kiev highly vulnerable to Russian coercion. It is not difficult to see that Russia is bypassing Ukraine in favor of direct access to European and particularly German markets. In addition, pipelines across the Black Sea and those further south, including some under construction or planned, are likely to solidify Russian standing in Turkey and the Middle East.

Minding the Natural Gas Supply Gap

Russia’s strategy starves Ukraine and Slovakia of much needed transit fees and some degree of political independence. The strategy could also leave Europe more directly dependent on Russia to fill the European gas gap. With EU/Norwegian domestic production estimated to fall to 150 billion cubic meters (Bcm) annually by 2030 and consumption rates estimated at up to 510 Bcm annually – a 2010 figure – about 80% (360 Bcm annually) of EU imports could be Russian controlled or influenced by 2025.

These numbers are not favourable for Europe, which intends to meet some of the predicted increase in demand with Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) imports mostly from Qatar, Algeria and Nigeria but even this will not protect them from Russian influence. Russia has plans to capture 15%-20% of the global LNG market that would make it extremely challenging for costlier American LNG to counter Russia’s Siberian exports. Part of these plans depend on expanding the three train Arctic Yamal LNG to four LNG trains that can transport 29 Bcm annually. The $27 billion project is owned by Novatek (50.1%), China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) (20%), Total (20%), and China’s Silk Road Fund (9.9%), financed primarily by Chinese banks. The first shipment to UK via Yamal LNG was 170,000 cubic meters (equivalent to 0.1 Bcm) delivered by the LNG vessel Christophe de Margerie Arc 7 in December 2017.

Even importing gas from beyond Russia’s sphere of influence will be difficult. Importing the equivalent of Nord Stream 2 pipeline would require about 8 to 12 LNG vessel trips per week and competition is fierce. Though Qatar lifted a 2005 moratorium on further LNG development in April 2017, major announcements this year indicate the North Field Expansion (NFE) project will expand production from 105 to 170 Bcm annually by 2024. These developments included new jack-up drilling rigs, four new LNG trains, and a shipbuilding campaign to deliver 60 new LNG carriers and suggest most of the expanded production is destined for Southeast Asia. Future strategic supplies from developing offshore fields in the eastern Mediterranean may supply Europe, but Turkmenistani gas is likely to go east to markets in Pakistan, India, and China.

Russian and Middle Eastern Natural Gas Supply to EuropeGeo-Strategic Imperative

With LNG seemingly unable to meet Europe’s gas gap, nine infrastructure projects Russia is currently developing can be viewed as an investment in Moscow’s influence in the EU. It is quite possible these nine projects could eventually provide something close to ~290 Bcm annually in export capacity for supply into Europe, with roughly 50 Bcm annually from the IGAT-9 and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Pipelines delivered to the SCP-TANAP-TAP Southern Gas Corridor (see map). Based upon past instances, Russia could “weaponize” this near monopoly over natural gas and use it to apply political pressure but this time with greater effect.

There is therefore a geo-strategic imperative to substantially reduce European natural gas consumption. Improving the balance between gas, solar, and wind energy will have important geopolitical benefits including reduced fossil fuel use and improved human health and security. Acceleration of the development rate of renewable energy technology is essential. Adopting a faster rate of transportation electrification, and government support to reduce gas consumption can mitigate the effects of Russian pressure but it will not solve the problem completely. Governments must also accelerate developments in nuclear fusion, carbon capture and storage technology, and possibly clean zero emission shale gas extraction. Diversification of energy sources and the reduction of consumption is a win-win for Europe and the only way to fully mind the gap and escape the pressure of natural gas dependency.


ChriCG 002s Golightly is an Independent Consulting Engineer specializing in offshore renewable energy, based in Brussels. Prior to 2010 he worked in the Oil & Gas industry.

Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood

The last few years in Latin American politics ushered in a wave of political upheavals from Chile to Honduras to Venezuela, and most recently Bolivia. Though the causes that sparked the manifestations differed across the hemisphere, Venezuelan involvement appears to be a common thread in the northern reaches of the continent. In a region that struggles to establish liberal democracies with fully-functioning economies, the socialist government in Caracas has an existential need to avoid isolation. It pursues this objective by destabilizing neighbors it views as ideological rivals and undermining the political opposition in socialist-leaning capitals. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia have both complained directly and repeatedly to the Maduro Administration about its meddling in political protests but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Despite crippling inflation and a contested political atmosphere, Caracas continues to see Latin America as a bad neighborhood to be managed.

Regional Problems

The complaints emanating from Colombia and Ecuador are a natural response to apparent Venezuelan meddling in their politics. During popular protests in Ecuador last month against suspension of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor, exiled former President Rafael Correa, of working with Venezuela to destabilize the Ecuadoran government. Specifically, Moreno accused Correa of “igniting” the protests using Venezuelan and Cuban agitators paid to fuel the protests. Indeed, many of those arrested were in fact, Venezuelan and Cuban, suggesting a more international conspiracy than a fuel-price hike would normally trigger. More ominously, the arrest of 17 Cuban and Venezuelan “spies” caught shadowing and photographing President Moreno’s convoy suggests those countries have a very high-risk tolerance for intervening in the affairs of their neighbors.

Colombia also has its concerns about Maduro’s political meddling. In an explosive speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Colombian president Iván Duque denounced Maduro for support to drug trafficking and transnational terrorism. In addition to having similar complaints about Venezuelan nationals sparking violence at protests, Duque was referring to the more sinister threat posed by thinly-veiled Venezuelan government support to ELN and dissident factions of FARC. According to documents leaked from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebín), and the Operational Strategic Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (CEOFANB), there is a well-known and growing relationship between Venezuela’s armed forces and these groups. Among other things, the documents revealed the Venezuelan military supports the activities of Colombian guerillas it calls “red groups.” Trained by the military, these red groups can be directly integrated with ELN and FARC and can provide intelligence support to Venezuelan military planning for war with Colombia. One document addressed to the Sebín Director of Counterintelligence shows an ELN presence in nearly every state in Venezuela, a force the Colombian military believes to number 2000 guerillas.

Global Linkages Venezuela

Venezuelan meddling in the affairs of its neighbors is almost certainly not a new phenomenon. Maduro’s relationships with other irredentist regimes like Cuba, exacerbate the threat he presents to the region. His relationships with global powers Russia and China are a problem for the United States and therefore tied to issues of global imporance. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship to Venezuela in early 2018 and Washington’s reaction to it illustrate this point. As troubling as a PLA(N) presence in the Caribbean may seem to the Pentagon however, Russia has far more robust economic and military interests in the stability of the Maduro regime.

Russian oil companies are a critical factor in preventing the slow collapse of productivity by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Long the economic lifeline of the Maduro regime – and the Chavez regime before that – PDVSA’s decline, and Russia’s relationship with it, gives Moscow tremendous leverage over Maduro and his foreign policy. A Venezuela-friendly neighborhood is certainly good for Russia’s military sales program which had been at a low ebb after the April 2016 election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in Peru and later Ivan Duque in Colombia. In PPK’s case, he set the conditions for corruption investigations associated with previous administrations’ purchase of Mikoyan fighter aircraft, Mil helicopters, and associated support packages. For his part, Duque demonstrated an early willingness to review the peace agreement with FARC, a move that threatened to reduce its influence and that of its Russian sponsor.

Hidden Hand

Apart from Venezuela, Moscow remains a primary supplier of hardware and expertise to Nicaragua and Cuba among others and uses those countries as enablers and staging areas for the conduct of active measures like those affecting Ecuador. According to a white paper released in May 2019,[1] “Russia seeks to undermine the consolidation of the region as a group of pro-U.S. states, and in the process, distract the U.S. and weaken its strategic position in the Western hemisphere.” Russia does this by propping up friendly regimes and manipulating the politics of others as part of its larger strategy.

As U.S. Senator Rick Scott said during an interview for Brazilian newspaper: Folha de S. Paulo, “Russia and China are in all Latin American countries, but not to help. They want to control.” In many ways, this is a replay of conditions seen during the Cold War when the Soviets used proxies to drive wedges between rival governments and indigenous or marginalized political groups. Many of those groups are still notoriously underserved by their governments and represent a tremendous potential for resistance. Venezuela, which exerts influence on all the countries around it, has both the political will to develop this potential and a well-developed capacity to do so. The ability to see Moscow’s hand behind Venezuela’s machinations however is not so clear. For its own reasons, the Maduro regime seems content acting as a Russian enabler in the region if not an outright proxy for Moscow’s interests. How long those roles remain unchanged in the face of Venezuela’s continuing decline is certainly something its neighbors will watch.


[1] Though this white paper, titled: “Russian Strategic Intentions”, is not an official publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, it is signed by the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and includes chapters written by numerous U.S. Military and Intelligence Community officers writing in their official capacity.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.