Politics & Policy

Putin’s Grand Ambition

If you’re sending SA-11s rather than Stingers, your strategy is shameless.

What does the American decision to equip anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s suggest about the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with a surface-to-air missile by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine last week? Quite a bit, it turns out.

During the Cold War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, there was a big internal debate within the U.S. intelligence and policy community about the prudence of giving advanced FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to anti-Soviet forces. 

Obviously, the moment that Soviet helicopters and military aircraft started falling from the sky, and the Stinger was found to be the tool the mujahideen had used, there would be no way to deny U.S. involvement in the conflict. The U.S. government decided it was worth it, and in 1985 the Stingers were introduced in the country to great effect.

It’s very likely a similar behind-the-scenes policy debate happened among Russian leadership prior to the introduction of the Buk/SA-11 surface-to-air missile system to support the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The evidence is clear that the Buk systems were furnished (and now withdrawn) by Russia, with full knowledge of President Vladimir Putin. They, as we, had to consider the impact on their long-term strategy of providing these weapon systems, and their choice here is quite telling.

Our thinking in 1985 was to minimize the profile of our direct support for the mujahideen while still managing to counter Soviet aggression. Ultimately, the overall strategy worked and the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan.

But Putin’s decision to place Buk systems in Ukraine suggests that he has much less desire, if any at all, for a low profile.

Rather, Putin’s strategy in Ukraine (and Europe in general) is about as “in your face” as he could get without sending in uniformed Russian forces.

The SA-11/Buk, or “Gadfly” in NATO’s designation, is a very large, complex, tracked, multi-vehicle weapon system that requires a well-trained six-man crew. This is a “nation state” weapon system; terrorist groups and small nations could not develop, sustain, or maintain any such weapon. It has a 20-mile range, is highly effective, and can hit aircraft flying up to 72,000 feet in the air (MH 17 was flying at 33,000 feet).

If ever there was a “statement” about Russian intentions in Ukraine, the introduction of this system clearly made it.

The incidental downing of MH 17 is the international equivalent of a “drive-by shooting.” In other words, while the SA-11 system was provided to the Ukraine separatists to cause havoc and give the separatists an edge against the Ukraine military, the growing international backlash draws too much unwanted attention to Putin’s true nature. Putting this high-tech weapon system in the hands of undisciplined militia is the equivalent of giving a five-year-old a hand grenade.

But there is a method to Putin’s madness. This incident demonstrates the seriousness of Putin’s push to recover influence and/or control over Ukraine. 

And this is but the beginning: It is clear that Putin’s ultimate goal is to recover influence over all former Warsaw Pact nations who have joined the West (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). 

The Stinger we provided to the mujahedeen in 1985 was a simple (though effective), short-range “personal portable” surface-to-air missile that anyone, with ten minutes of training, could fire. There’s no such limited ambition to the provision of SA-11s.

The idea behind the introduction of a nation-state-level weapon system to Ukraine separatists is to telegraph Putin’s commitment to seek control over Ukraine, little by little, and, ultimately, to undermine and recover control of all the former Warsaw Pact nations.

Putin’s intentions, and disregard for subtlety, are clear. The only question is whether President Obama and European leaders will see the lesson here.

— Tony Shaffer is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, a CIA-trained senior intelligence officer and the New York Times--bestselling author of Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Operations on the Frontlines of Afghanistan — and the Path to Victory. He is a senior fellow with both the London Center for Policy Research and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.


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