Russian Defense Minister Says His Military Has Tested 162 Weapons In Syria

Feb 23, 2017
Originally published on February 23, 2017 4:57 pm

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his way to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day. The Feb. 23 national holiday was once known as Soviet Army and Navy Day, and Shoigu, dressed in the uniform of a general, came to boast about the Russian military's latest achievements.

"We tested 162 types of contemporary and modernized weapons in Syria, which showed a high level of effectiveness," Shoigu said. Only 10 weapons systems performed below expectations, he added.

The Kremlin has never made a secret that its intervention on behalf of the Syrian government has been an excellent opportunity to show off its new military prowess.

Shortly after Russia entered the conflict in September 2015, the country's navy fired cruise missiles at Syrian targets 900 miles away – an event that coincided with President Vladimir Putin's 63rd birthday. The air force sent long-range Bear and Backfire bombers on round-trip missions from bases in Russia. And the country's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, traveled all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Syrian coast to launch airstrikes.

Of course, testing weapons was not the primary reason for Russia's war in Syria.

"There were two main goals: to force the West to talk with Russia and break the isolation from the Ukrainian crisis, and secondly, to support Syrian President Bashar Assad," said Aleksandr Golts, a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington. Trying out new arms was just a bonus.

As cynical as it may sound, Golts said, combat is the best way for any military to test the condition of its weaponry.

There were also domestic political reasons for the Syrian operation.

Many Russians felt humiliated after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and lost its superpower status. Russia stood on the sidelines as the United States led military interventions in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. For Putin, one of his most important priorities has been modernizing the military to show that Russia is a player on the world stage again.

Russia's performance in the Syrian war has sent a signal that the country is capable of putting together an expeditionary force far from Russia's borders, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a defense analyst with the CNA think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

"By American standards, it was a small operation. But it was more than the experts thought they were capable of," Gorenburg said.

For example, by launching the cruise missiles, Russia showed that it could reach potential targets deep within Europe.

Yet as much as Russia is celebrating the recent air campaign, human rights groups say it has come at a terrible cost for civilians on the ground.

"Every statement we've sent to the Russians about a strike and questioning the legitimacy of the strike has been met with denials. But that doesn't change what the obligations are," said Lama Fakih, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.

Where the laws of war were violated, she said, Russia is obligated to conduct investigations and pay compensation to survivors.

"The U.S.-led coalition does publish information on a monthly basis about strikes they've investigated. We aren't seeing the same level of transparency from the Russian defense ministry," Fakih said.

The Russian government categorically rejects reports by Human Rights Watch and other groups as part of what it calls an "information war" against Moscow.

"My sense is that they didn't care that much – certainly not compared to how much Western countries' militaries care about collateral damage and civilian casualties," Gorenburg said.

He said that Russian military thinking hasn't changed since the Kremlin crushed a rebellion by Chechen separatists 17 years ago – just as Putin was rising to power.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Russia, it's Defender of the Fatherland Day. This day was known in Soviet times as Red Army Day. So yesterday on the eve of the holiday, Russia's defense minister visited the Parliament to boast about the Russian military, including its performance in Syria. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Sergei Shoigu, one of Russia's longest-serving ministers, showed up in Parliament wearing a general's uniform. Russia has never made a secret that its intervention on behalf of the Syrian government was also an excellent opportunity to show off its new military prowess.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEI SHOIGU: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "We tested 162 types of weapons in Syria," he said, "which showed a high level of effectiveness." Shoigu added that only 10 weapon systems performed below expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE LAUNCH)

KIM: Shortly after Russia went into Syria in September 2015, the navy fired cruise missiles at targets there, an event that coincided with President Vladimir Putin's 63rd birthday. The Air Force sent long-range Bear and Backfire bombers on missions over Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET ENGINE)

KIM: And Russia's only aircraft carrier traveled all the way from the Arctic Ocean to attack targets in Syria, as glorified in a defense ministry video.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIM: Of course testing weapons was not the primary reason for Russia's war in Syria. Aleksandr Golts, a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington, says the Kremlin wanted to force the U.S. to talk to Russia after its intervention in Ukraine. Moscow also wanted to keep its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in power. Trying out new weapons, Golts says, was just a bonus.

ALEKSANDR GOLTS: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: "It sounds cynical," he says, "but the fact remains that combat is the best way to test the condition of your weaponry."

There were also domestic political reasons. Many Russians felt humiliated after the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia stood on the sidelines as the U.S. led interventions in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. For President Putin, modernizing the military has been one of his most important priorities to show that Russia is once again a player on the world stage. Dmitry Gorenburg, a defense analyst at the CNA think tank, says that in that sense, Russia has accomplished its mission.

DMITRY GORENBURG: By American standards, it was a small operation, but it was more than the experts really thought they were capable of.

KIM: The weapons Putin put on show in Syria demonstrated that he could stage a military operation far beyond Russia's borders. For example, Gorenburg says, the cruise missile showed that Russia could potentially reach targets deep within Europe. But human rights groups say the Russian air campaign has come at a terrible cost for civilians on the ground...

(CROSSTALK)

KIM: ...As seen in this video from opposition activists in Syria showing the bodies of young children being extracted from a bombed apartment building.

LAMA FAKIH: Every statement we’ve sent to the Russians about a strike and questioning the legitimacy of the strike has been met with denials. But that doesn’t change what the obligations are.

KIM: That's Lama Fakih, deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. She says Russia is obligated to conduct investigations and pay compensation where the laws of war were violated. The Russian Defense Ministry rejects reports by Human Rights Watch and other groups as part of a, quote, "information war against Moscow."

GORENBURG: My sense is that they didn’t care that much - certainly not compared to how much Western countries’ militaries care about collateral damage and civilian casualties and so forth.

KIM: Gorenburg says Russia's military thinking hasn't changed since the Kremlin crushed a rebellion by Chechen separatists 17 years ago just as Vladimir Putin was rising to power. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIEUX SONG, "RUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.