Russian President Vladimir Putin often seems to take the old adage “in war, truth is the first casualty” less as a warning than as tactical guidance. The New York Times reports Tuesday that while Putin has denied that he will send Russian ground troops into Syria, one of his top military advisers conceded that “volunteer” ground forces may join the fight. U.S. military officials believe that about 600 Russian military personnel may already be in the country, not counting flight crews, and that tents for as many as 2,000 more have been spotted at the Russian airbase near Latakia.
The “volunteers” line is familiar from the war in Ukraine, when Russian commanders argued that the thousands of Russians, including active-duty soldiers, who traveled to fight with separatist rebels hadn’t been sent there but simply preferred spending their vacation in the trenches of Donetsk rather than on the beach. Similarly, Putin denied that Russian special forces played a role in the annexation of Crimea, attributing it to local self-defense forces who had simply purchased military uniforms, until casually changing his story a few months later. The government kept up the denials even as Russian soldiers were captured in Ukraine, claiming to be on assignment. As the public grew increasingly alarmed at the number of young men coming back from Ukraine in body bags, their deaths were declared a state secret. These denials were maddening to Western governments, who couldn’t get Russia to agree on the facts on the ground, much less what to do about them.
Now, Russia has brought the strategy known as “hybrid war” to Syria along with its accompanying denials and obfuscations. Russia seems likely to send large numbers of ground troops into combat in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad but isn’t going to call them that. Similarly, Russia has declared war on ISIS but appears to be going out of its way not to bomb them.
To be fair, there’s plenty of confusion and misdirection to go around in Syria. This is a conflict where the Syrian government often seems to be helping the people its supposedly fighting. U.S. officials are being investigated for cooking intelligence and the entire American strategy was predicated on the readiness of a trained rebel force that turned out to consist of four or five guys. Putin should feel right at home.