Holding Collateral: Why Russia’s S-400 Bides Its Time in Syria

By Ollie Richardson

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”

Jean Baudrillard

When the S-400 SAM system was first deployed after the Su-24 shootdown by Ankara, it was perceived by most that very soon we would be seeing jets being swatted from the skies like flies around fruit. Some even foresaw “WW3” and other spectacles.

As was seen from the first footage and pictures from the deployment at Hmeymim, the radars that are needed for basic operation could not be seen. Thus, at this stage (1 month after shootdown) the outside spectator would be perfectly within their right to affirm that this system won’t be shooting down anything.

Later photos and footage emerged showing these radars suddenly being present. It should be taken into account that these systems don’t have rigid models, and, for example, the deployment specifications have room for manoeuvre. But, certainly, at first, there was no real visual confirmation in the media that in Latakia it was more than just a S-400 skeleton.

After some time impatience started to grow on social media because these “damned systems” weren’t shooting anything down. Some even called the Kremlin “p*ssies” and were almost demanding a shootdown of something just because… well… it’s entertaining. However, it was clear from the moment that the announcement was made about “defending the Syrian skies” that no shootdown was going to happen. In fact, it was clear from the beginning of Russia’s operation (September 2015) that no such offensive move would be signed with Moscow’s name.

Why? Firstly, remember that Lockheed Martin was developing offensive means already in the 1970’s, in preparation for the future blitz of the Middle East. Russia, at the same time, developed the S-300 – defensive means. I.e. a difference in strategy between Russia and USA was clearly distinguishable.

The US began the first stage of its MENA plan (for Israel, of course) by hitting Iraq in the 1990’s. At this time Russia’s foreign policy arm (army) was being smashed to pieces by Mr Yelstin & Co – what a coincidence! As a result, Russia was pushed back 20 years. Russia’s recovery had passed the critical level in 2011, but at this time it was still too early to hit the US in Libya. Russia waited for the Syrian theatre, because it was known where all of this was heading, and in whose favour it would ultimately pan out.

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In order to trap the US into a corner there was a need for a prerequisite – a bluff. Was the US ready to risk a lot of chips in a high stakes game? Did the US have enough leverage to directly hit Russia in Syria? World War 2 showed that Hitler DID have such leverage. After Russia liquidated ISIS by cutting its umbilical cord to Ankara & then established de-escalation zones (separating “moderates” from jihadists), the situation became a duplication of the Minsk Agreements. I.e., it was time for all sides to defer to other theatres of military operations.

After Aleppo was liberated the US launched many test balloons in different theatres. One such balloon was “peacekeepers in Donbass”. They also increased the intensity against Maduro via sanctions and gradually ramped up the rhetoric against North Korea. The main aim was to force Moscow to trip over in Syria.

So the US incited ISIS to kill Russian troops in Syria. And it was these deaths in 2017 that hoped to cause unrest inside Russia itself in order to make the Syria operation look like a failure or to discredit it in general. But clearly lessons weren’t learnt from WW2 (27 million deaths). The US also tried the al-Tanf trick in south Syria, and kept activating pockets in East Ghouta (Damascus) and Hama. The aim was to pressure Russia enough to ensnare it in a situation where we would find out for sure whether S-400 was a bluff or not.

In order to successfully close the Syrian theatre, to pull Turkey over to its side, and to cause an additional split in the Gulf, Russia absolutely had to prevent the US’ attempts to formulate the “S-400” test scenario. In order to create some breathing space, Russia made it clear to Israel that it won’t shoot down any IDF jets that launch token strikes at Hezbollah compounds. At the end of the day, Russia needed as fewer names as possible on the list entitled “targets that the S-400 should – in the eyes of the media – shoot down”.

Then the US resorted to flying its jets through “deconfliction zones” in the hope to embarrass Russia: “Look, we flew here and you didn’t react. We control the situation in Syria, Putin is a wimp”. This is exactly the same bait that was and still is being used in Donbass via the proxy UAF. And this is where Turkey factors in. The inclusion of Ankara in Syria was a) unavoidable, and b) a smart move in the medium term. Russia knew that eventually it could use Turkish airspace in order to open up the theatre and to prevent the US from literally ramming Russian jets and to provoke the expected S-400 “response” (not a shoot down but a commitment from Russia, which would change the expectations of Putin in Syria in the eyes of Russian society).

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Sadly for the US, it blinked first. The Peshmerga started to attack Iraqi forces, and Barzani began the referendum circus. The US was now tied down with this Kurdish mess. I.e. Russia managed to buy time by playing the Turkish card, knowing what was about to happen in Iraq. The US’ attention in Syria was then focused on the north east (SDF/ISIS) because suddenly the instability over the border near Kirkuk threatened their SDF Kurd proxies. Russia was then able to finally take Deir Ezzor and to leave this S-400 entrapment.

In the end, the S-400 gave Russia the ability to place down a marker in the simulacrum games – collateral. If the US wanted to find out if the SAM system was real or not, it needed to overstep the mark and put too much “skin in the game”. Thus, Washington was never in a position to put Russia in a corner, where the media space in Russia was expecting a missile launch. If Putin didn’t deliver the launch, then the fifth column is given the green light to prepare for Maidan. In other words – the expectation of Russians vis-a-vis Syria had to match the realities on the ground. Constant synchronisation was necessary. This is why the Ministry of Defense did it’s best everyday or so to inform the public about events on the ground. So that people understood that Moscow didn’t have it’s back against the wall. Also, it is important  that Almaz-Antey also doesn’t scupper its export opportunities, especially with Turkey on the brink of purchasing the S-400 system.

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Of course, the liberal 5th column media tried all the time to warp the perception of ordinary Russians – crying about PMCs and the “cost of the war”. But all of this would be in vain if the “S-400 should shoot X down” moment never arrived. And, sure enough, it didn’t. This is a lesson in Gestalt theory. The S-400 itself isn’t important – it is the context in which it is in that is important. Once the deterrent is used, it’s null and void. It doesn’t matter if the S-400 is “switched on” or not. The truth is that this system is a substitute for the UN (international law) and will only really be fully utilised in a situation where the stakes are much much higher. In Syria the stakes should be measured in the context of fourth generation warfare. And with this in mind, things were nowhere near “WW3”. Here the costs didn’t outweigh the benefits for both superpowers; the US and Russia could both achieve their objectives (but not necessarily aims) using just proxies/minimal losses. 

Always remember that the US/Israel was deterred by a SAA S-200 launch. This means that the US can be tamed in Syria using old 1967 technology. Its sidewinder missiles (on a F-18) couldn’t even down a SAA Su-22 from 1970. Obviously Operation Paperclip has expired.

For the record: this is the 92N6E Grave Stone Multimode Engagement Radar that was later spotted after the S-400 deployment. I.e. the Russian Ministry of Defense did enough to ensure that they couldn’t be accused of deploying an empty system by the media, but in turn never publicised the specifications of the deployment at Hmeymim. It was a “find out yourself” sort of thing, and it turned out that the US didn’t, and in reality couldn’t, dare to do exactly this.

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