Russia’s deputy defense minister claimed Thursday that Moscow has tested over 600 new weapons and other military equipment in Syria since intervening in the conflict in 2015. "The chance to test in real combat can’t be overestimated," Yuri Borisov asserted, adding that "customers have started queuing up for the arms that have proven themselves in [battle].”
The comments came on the same day that the head of the powerful defense committee in Russia’s Duma, the lower house of parliament, contended that 200 of the items were next-generation systems.
"It’s not an accident that today they are coming to us from many directions to purchase our weapons, including countries that are not our allies,” Vladimir Shamanov declared. "Today, our military industry made our army look in a way we can be proud of."
According to Mathieu Boulegue, a Research Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, "many analysts in Moscow view the Syria campaign as a 'Revolution in Military Affairs,' which is an American term that derives from the US experience mostly during the First Gulf War. Russia sees Syria as a theater for learning how to use [cutting-edge] technology and command and control techniques in modern warfare.
"They are also getting similar experience in Ukraine," he elaborated to The Media Line, "and it is impossible to separate between the two campaigns as the lessons gained in both arenas are fed into the same beast."
The Russian hardware being tested reportedly includes advanced aircraft, cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions in addition to armory, battlefield drones and electronic warfare systems, among many others.
One prominent example is the introduction into Syria of the Sukhoi Su-34 and Su-35 fighter jets, twelve of the former reportedly having soon thereafter been sold to Algeria. Other countries such as Indonesia, India and Nigeria have likewise expressed interest in the plane since it became battle-tested, allowing for tangible evaluation of its performance.
Similarly, purchase agreements for the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system have been forged with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Overall, Middle East and North African countries from Egypt to Qatar to Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia are lining up to purchase Russian-made equipment; this, as Moscow has renewed its regional influence through the projection of its military after years of US domination.
In March of last year Russia's top defense official, Sergei Shoigu, told parliament that ninety percent of the weapons tested up to that point had met the Kremlin's expectations. Months later, Dmitry Shugayev, head of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, revealed that foreign orders for Russian weapons amount to almost $50 billion. Notably, he claimed that Moscow is poised to acquire about thirty percent of the global military aircraft market, surpassing the US' share.
"Russia has come up with the 'Combat-proven Label,' which is used by officials and businesses to enhance military sales," Boulegue explained to The Media Line. "It is very hard to quantify how much this will speed up the commercial prospects but it does go hand-in-hand with a very aggressive policy from the state-owned Rosoboronexport. [Other private companies are also] really reaching out to foreign buyers and so far they have had some good returns.
"This also applies to Latin America and Africa," he concluded, "because a lot of the contracts that have been signed recently could have originated up to five years ago. There is a focus on countries that could buy some of the older models of Russian systems in bulk—those that can be [incorporated] into the militaries of less wealthy nations."
Nevertheless, the timing and nature of the statements by high-ranking Russian officials suggests that they may also be intended for domestic consumption, amid a growing realization that Moscow may not easily be able to extricate itself from the Syrian quagmire.
"This sounds like propaganda as six hundred weapons is very high," Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia and an expert on its Middle East foreign policy, explained to The Media Line.
In this respect, it is noteworthy that Moscow last week deployed to Syria two fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters, Russia's answer to the US’ F-22 Raptor and F-35. That the jets are non-operational, however, supports the notion that their transfer abroad is at least partially a "show" mimicking strength.
"They are stuck over there and that is why they need excuses," Magen expounded. "The Russians need to finish this war and they have not been able to arrive at an agreement to end it. Instead," he continued, "Moscow declared victory [prematurely] and Putin visited Syria. But since then there have been battles and the Russians have suffered casualties. This leads to domestic pressure."
Indeed Moscow's beating of the military drums come on the heels of a major clash between Russian "contractors" and US forces on February 7, in which up to 300 mercenaries—employed by the shadowy Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) whose owner is a Putin associate—were killed or injured by American airstrikes and artillery fire during a failed attack on a Kurdish-controlled base in the Deir ez-Zor region.
While Russia publicly denied any involvement in the incident, it is well-known that Moscow has agreed to the deployment to Syria of as many as 2,500 for-hire fighters in order to avoid casualties among its official troops. As such, the Kremlin at the very least has a public relations problem back home, especially given its less-than-satisfactory explanation of the event which was described by US Defense Secretary James Mattis as "perplexing."
Redirecting the focus to supposed successes in Syria—by hyping its military achievements, real or imagined—might therefore constitute a concerted effort to downplay the loss of its citizens while appealing to a largely nationalistic Russian populace. This, in turn, ties into the second possible explanation for the seemingly coordinated comments; namely, that they come just weeks ahead of the Russian presidential election and it may be that Putin is fending off legitimate criticism of Russia's entanglement in Syria by rallying the support of his patriotic, if not militaristic, voter base.
The revelations that Russia is effectively using Syria as a testing ground for military hardware also raises moral questions, especially as they come on the background of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Eastern Ghouta.
More than 500 locals have been killed and some 2,500 others wounded over the past week, as Syrian forces allied with Moscow pounded the rebel-held area from the air and ground in the one of the fiercest offensives in the seven-years-long war. An estimated 400,000 civilians remain trapped in area, with rights groups warning of a major humanitarian catastrophe unless aid is allowed to reach the enclave.
Moscow's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad has once again brought into stark focus its paramount role in prolonging the war, to the detriment of an already devastated civilian population. That Russian leaders are concurrently trumpeting Moscow's advancement of its military-industrial complex by using Syria as a "guinea pig" sheds light on their underlying intentions and priorities.