Although the Kremlin's objectives in Ukraine are different, Syria has made the Russian armed forces more experienced and combat-ready.
On the first day of a full-scale military assault on Ukraine, the Russian Defence Ministry claimed that its forces were trying to disable the military infrastructure of the neighbouring country with “high-precision strikes”.
The ministry hastened to assure that the air defence assets of Ukraine had been suppressed and the military infrastructure of the air bases had been neutralised. The agency, which reports to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, said that it was not striking populated areas and that civilians were not threatened.
The military's statements evoked a feeling of deja vu. Exactly the same way, during the active phase of combat operations in Syria, Russian officials had claimed "harmlessness" of their operations for civilians, despite the fact that the Russian Air Force openly worked on residential neighbourhoods in the then opposition-controlled areas, and the victims of their strikes were instantly documented. But parallels between the Kremlin's current adventure on Ukrainian territory and its Syrian campaign began to be drawn long before the current stage of military escalation.
The intervention in Syria was an important stage in the training of Russia's modern army, which previously had limited experience of operations on such a scale. The Middle East campaign required the use of the proven Su-24 bombers and the then-new Su-34s. In addition, the scale of Russian activity in the Syrian arena made it possible to test the Kalibr cruise missiles, the accuracy of which was constantly corrected during strikes in northern Syria. In fact, the army command did not try to hide the fact that Syria had turned into a live testing ground for Russia.
In 2021, Shoigu noted that about 300 kinds of weapons were tested on opponents of the Syrian regime, not just on Daesh terrorists. Testing the equipment in the mode of real combat operations, according to him, made it possible to raise the quality of many units to a completely new level.
For his part, Russian General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov drew attention to the fact that in the Syrian arena, "to improve efficiency, special attention is paid to the development of long-range precision weapons of air, sea, and ground basing”.
To say that the Kremlin began its expansion in Ukraine as prepared as possible is to say nothing.
That is why, in a January op-ed for the Woodrow Wilson International Center, former US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, observed that politicians and strategists in the West "should be wary of Russia applying its proven and successful Syrian rules" in the theatre that Moscow itself assessed as threatening to its geopolitical aspirations. This is especially true for the Ukrainian dossier, the former diplomat stressed.
According to him, in Syria, Russia's approach “included political flexibility and skillful diplomacy, but it was based on extreme brutality”. Jeffrey said the tactic of indiscriminate bombing of rebel areas was an element of deliberate policy.
"Assad's forces had difficulty dealing with a large, well-motivated Syrian Sunni Arab insurgency," he wrote. "Russia's campaign of airstrikes quickly helped to have the upper hand, not only terrorising those who supported the resistance, but also destroying their shelters and livelihoods, from food to medical care.”
Moreover, in Syria, Moscow actively sought to demoralise its opponents and deprive them of international support. "Any Ukrainian rebel movement can expect the same fierce and politically clever response from Russia," the former diplomat said.
Nevertheless, he said, there has been a positive development in the Syrian conflict, even though it was attended by some risk. "Faced there with the armed forces of powerful states, such as Israel, Türkiye, and the United States, and wanting to protect their security, Russia, after initial challenges, compromised, in the long run," Jeffrey pointed out.
However, the Russian side never received any punishment for its actions in Syria.
Experts, however, are in no hurry to draw parallels between the Kremlin's adventures in Syria and Ukraine, referring to the deployment of regular military personnel on the ground.
"In Syria, there was a limited intervention that relied on the air force," Dimitar Bechev, a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Regional Studies (OSGA) and visiting expert at the Carnegie Europe Bureau, noted in a conversation with TRT Russian. “Ukraine is a total invasion for regime change. Different scales and consequences".
Defence expert Shashank Joshi told TRT Russian that Moscow’s goals in Ukraine are much more ambitious than in Syria.
"In Ukraine, Russia's goal is to destroy the regime in Kiev and establish a pro-Russian government. In Syria, Russia intervened to protect the existing regime, using mostly airpower," the analyst noted. Now Ukraine seems to be facing "a large-scale land war", the expert added.
However, he said, there were many "useful military lessons" that the Russian armed forces were able to learn from the Syrian campaign, "including precision strikes, the integration of air and ground forces and the use of electronic warfare."
"Syria, along with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, has made the Russian armed forces more experienced and combat-ready," Joshi concluded.