When a Russian spokesperson took to a podium in Moscow on Wednesday and warned of a “biological weapons programme” in Ukraine, fighters on another battlefield – Syria – understood what she meant.
The anti-Assad opposition groups that still held northern Syria had heard it all before. From 2015, when Russia took a prominent stake in the conflict, and throughout the gruesome years that followed, claims that they, instead of the Assad regime, had used chemical weapons were a ready-made slur that put them on notice of an imminent assault. The allegations were made by Moscow, whenever ground forces it was supporting wanted to clear a town or city. Brutal, indiscriminate bombardment followed. So did impunity.
Even in its infancy, the Russian war in Ukraine has many parallels with the conflict in Syria: barely restrained savagery, the mass flight of terrified civilians, and wanton destruction. Now the use of foreboding pretexts can be added to a growing list, which was born amid the ruins of Grozny, Crimea and Donbas and fine-tuned on the civilian population of Syria’s beleaguered north.
The Pentagon and Ukraine’s leadership both disdainfully denied the Russian claim, which had been accompanied by a call for answers, and there seemed little likelihood of it cutting through an international discourse that has run heavily against the Kremlin and its disinformation programmes.
It was a very different story in Syria, where each claim of chemical weapons use by rebels was received with credulity in parts of the UK and Europe and there was little interest in exposing Moscow’s lies. Winning the war of misinformation was a Russian success in Syria, in a theatre that wasn’t short of wins for a military with no one apart from outgunned rebels and jihadists willing to stand in its way.
“Ukraine today is part of a much longer continuum than Syria,” a former senior Nato officer told the Guardian. “It goes back further than Chechnya – politically, in terms of foreign policy, in terms of Russia’s internal dynamics and in terms of the tactics of the Russian war machine. The only surprise over the past fortnight is quite how useless the Russian armed forces have been – thankfully. They have been utterly dire in every respect, which is very good news all round.
“We are all victims of our experience, and Putin’s experience is of being able to get away with almost anything he wants in every dimension of warfare. The blatant fostering of frozen conflicts in high-profile nations such as Georgia and Ukraine, the widespread and hardly concealed undermining of governance through hybrid warfare, the use of the most brutal tactics, crushing of whole towns and cities along with their populations.
“His experience is that you can grind out a win using heavy explosives in the full glare of western media attention. And with an extremely effective control of his own [patriotic] population, he has little to fear at home.”
Compared with the quagmire it has found in Ukraine and the blistering international reaction to its invasion, Syria was a relatively low-cost intervention for Moscow. Its pilots ran bombing runs without serious fear of being shot from the skies, its heavy weaponry had the run of towns and cities and its disinformation machine won at a canter.
“The scope of the Ukraine war is different,” said Charles Lister, the director of the Syria and counter-terrorism programme at the Middle East Institute. “But some of the tactics were definitely learned and deployed in Syria.
“The broad assumption of impunity unquestionably drove this forward and put Putin in a psychological position where he believed something like this was feasible. He learned to pay no regard to international red lines. The sustained and overwhelming use of heavy bombardment aimed at undermining public confidence and as a tool of intimidation now being seen in Mariupol was honed in Syria, where Russia barely used precision-guided munitions.
“The vast majority have been dumb bombs. To use these, they need to fly at a lower level. And that’s why we are seeing Russian planes shot down, by Stingers and other ground-to-air missiles that were not supplied to the rebels in Syria.”
Another parallel has emerged in recent days – an often cynical use of human corridors as tools of coercion. “It is the shock and awe effect on the population, and one that leads to a greater number of war crimes.
“We saw this in Aleppo and now we are seeing it in places like Mariupol. It is clearly a tactic of intimidation and subjugation. … In both cases, it’s shell to hell, surround and besiege, then shell to hell again and offer concessions.”