Russia strengthened its position in Syria and Libya this week, challenging U.S. interests in the Mediterranean.
In Syria, Russia is poised to sign a 49-year agreement giving the Kremlin free control over the coastal airbase at Himeymin. That’s in addition to the naval facility at Tartus and the newly acquired base in Qeser Dib, a village near the Turkish border.
In Libya, U.S. Africa Command (AfriCom) announced that Russia deployed 14 MiG 29’s and SU-24 fighters, as well as IL-76 cargo jets, to the al-Jufrah air base in central Libya. The planes were sent in support of Wagner Group troops—a Russian backed private mercenary company supporting Libyan opposition leader Khalifa Haftar. The group has been losing ground to UN-backed GNA forces recently.
The moves could have lasting effects on the balance of power in the region. A permanent position in Libya would allow Moscow more control in the Mediterranean Sea as well as control over Libya’s oil fields. The EU and U.S. military view the moves as direct threats to Europe. But more than that, Russia’s permanent positions in Syria and, potentially, Libya cost the former Soviet Union very little financially, physically, and politically. The campaigns in Libya and Syria are an ongoing experiment of the future of war—proxy battles with non-state actors, drones, disinformation campaigns, and PR battles. These asymmetric tactics reduce the traditional barriers of starting a war—casualties, domestic opposition, political consequences, and financial costs—allowing nations to gain the spoils of war for less.
“With state-supported paramilitary forces on the ground, the Kremlin maintains the ability to deny direct involvement, yet still ha[ve] strategic assets in place. That plays into its larger hybrid warfare strategy, which serves to undermine rules and responsibilities in the conflicts it engages with,” wrote Lewis Sanders and Kersten Knipp for Deutsche Welle (DW).
“The deployment of thousands of Syrian and Sudanese mercenaries to Libya reflects a growing and troubling trend in modern proxy warfare. State actors are increasingly exploiting stateless or at-risk populations to recruit fighters, whom they deploy abroad to project power,” Nathan Vest of the RAND Corporation said to DefenseOne, adding that “As a substitute for soldiers, we could see a trend developing that looks a lot like the model playing out in Libya: emerging technology coupled with proxy forces and social media campaigns.”
The unrest in Syria and Libya created opportunities for Russia to advance her interests. While alarming, it’s nothing new. For example, “the Balkans… presented Moscow with a unique opportunity to expand its influence by exploiting the unfinished business of reconstruction after the ruinous wars of the 1990s,” found a report by the Carnegie Endowment. The fact that it is getting easier—lower barriers to entry, less expensive, and less risky—to use military intervention makes it more distressing.
Not only is war is getting easier to wage, as wealthy nations can afford to distance themselves from the battlefield through mercenaries and drones, but it is also getting more profitable. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated 2019 global military spending at US$1.9 trillion dollars – the highest level since 1988. Moreover, national economies are dependent on their defense industries for growth. Russia spent almost 4% of its GDP on its military in 2019. According to Riddle, “Russia’s arms industry comprises over 1,300 companies, employing around two million people. These people and their families form one of the key pillars of support for the Kremlin.”
It’s not just the barriers to entering a war that went down, but the factors that prevent war have also degraded. RAND Corporation identified 12 key drivers for war. Due to the global economic effect of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, climate change, and the withdrawal of the U.S. from the international world order, seven of these stressors are worsening. RAND determined that five of the seven factors are the most influential factors of “increased interstate conflict expectations”:
- Capacity of state institutions
- Declining prevalence of consolidated democracies
- Declining rates of economic growth
- Declining capabilities of international organizations
- U.S. preeminence
It may be impossible to dissuade states from using the less costly asymmetric strategies during a war. However, it is possible to reverse the trends influencing the above five drivers.
First, the U.S. should rejoin the international community (UN, NATO, WHO). The Trump administration has “openly questioned the value of the UN, and has made skepticism of multinational organizations a central component of his foreign policy,” according to USA Today. Moreover, the U.S.’ ‘America First’ directive has not proved better.
Next, the United States should return to the free-trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it previously abandoned. President Trump’s own National Intelligence Council predicts a major shift in power over the next 10 years that will require more international cooperation. “There will not be any hegemonic power. Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world,” the Director of National Intelligence wrote in the Global Trends Report.
Finally, as Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Libya was the third time in ten years that the United States toppled a nation’s leadership without anticipating the consequences. The first two—the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan—lead to the longest and most expensive wars in U.S. history, only behind WWII. Yet, they failed to accomplish their political goals: Osama bin-Laden was in Pakistan, and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, nor did he have WMDs. Making war cheaper doesn’t make it the best solution.