January 11, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9132

Russian Journalist Zhelenin: Putin, Bested By Turkey In Military Clashes In Syria And Libya, Was Reluctant To Challenge Erdogan In Nagorno Karabakh

January 11, 2021
Russia, Turkey, South Caucasus | Special Dispatch No. 9132

Rosbalt's Alexander Zhelenin offers an explanation of Moscow's refusal to back Armenia militarily in the Karabakh war that is highly unflattering to Vladimir Putin. According to Zhelenin, this was not an act of grand strategy designed to detach Turkey from the West[1] or to preserve neutrality in order to insert Russian peacekeeping troops in the war's aftermath. The true reason for Russia's restraint was Russia's military weakness vis a vis Turkey as demonstrated in Syria and Libya. Putin feared Turkish military power and Recep Erdogan's unapologetic attitude towards using it.

Zhelenin's analysis follows below:[2]

Putin with Erdogan (Source:

"In recently concluded 2020, against a backdrop of a series of such major events as the pandemic, the global economic crisis, the 'resetting' of Putin's presidential terms, there were three armed conflicts. These conflicts however, thanks to the efforts of the domestic propaganda machine, went almost unnoticed for the average Russian man in the street (with the exception of Karabakh war, which was widely covered in Russian media). Meanwhile, these conflicts will undoubtedly influence Moscow's conduct in the international arena for the coming years.

"So, I'm talking primarily about the de facto Russian-Turkish war in February - early March 2020 in Idlib (Syria); about hostilities in Libya between the troops of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by rebellious Marshal Khalifa Haftar in May of 2020; and the Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September-November of 2020.

"Over the past year, Rosbalt media covered all these armed conflicts in detail, thus let's just note that Turkish and Russian armed forces, military advisers, instructors and proxy [military] formations of Moscow and Ankara opposed each other directly or indirectly in all these conflicts.

"Let's briefly recall the chronology of events.

"After a series of attacks by Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Turkish military formations in northern Syria, and after an air strike by Russian Aerospace Forces on a Turkish army convoy in the province of Idlib (during which three dozen Turkish soldiers were killed), at the end of February Turkish President Recep Erdogan declared an operation codenamed "Spring Shield" in the Syrian province of Idlib.

"According to the Turkish General Staff, from February 28 to March 5 [of 2020] during the massive the Turkish army offensive against the forces of the Russian-Syrian coalition (and allied Iranian formations in Idlib), Turkish artillery, aviation and drones destroyed at least three Syrian aircrafts (two Sukhoi Su-24 bombers and  an Aero L-39 Albatros jet trainer), eight helicopters, three drones, one hundred fifty five tanks, forty seven artillery guns, fifty two multiple launch rocket systems, eight air defense systems, twelve anti-tank guns, fifty one armored vehicles, sixty military vehicles, and ten ammunition depots."

"Additionally, a military airfield in Aleppo sustained damage. The casualties of the pro-Assad coalition were estimated at roughly 3.5 thousand troops.

Over the past 50 years or so, this has been one of the biggest applications of military equipment in the world. Moreover, the Turkish army demonstrated total superiority over "the enemy in this conflict.

"To top it all off, Erdogan didn't fear to personally fly into Moscow on March 5 and conduct negotiations with his Russian counterpart [Vladimir Putin] in order to resolve the situation in Syria, meanwhile his troops continued to flatten the positions of Russia's main ally in the Middle East - Bashar al-Assad.

"After the aforementioned events, two months later the next round of the Russian-Turkish confrontation happened.

"In May [of 2020], clashes in Libya between the troops of the Government of National Accord (PNS) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar resumed. The latter was supported by "PMC Wagner" [Russian contract soldiers], which is associated with the "Kremlin chef" Yevgeny Prigozhin.

"According to media reports, nine Russian-made "Pantsir" anti-aircraft artillery systems [anti-aircraft missile-gun system] were destroyed by the Turkish "Bayraktar TB2" combat drones (which had already made a splash in March during the battles for Idlib) as a result of operation "Volcano of Anger" carried out by the PNS army.

"And finally, [the third lost battle was] the last war for Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September-November of 2020. Formally, neither Ankara nor Moscow took part in it, but it is obvious that Russia, one way or another, was behind Armenian forces, which is a member of the CSTO, and Turkey was behind Azerbaijan (and did not hide this fact).

"What is more, the same Turkish "Bayraktars" again became the most notable means of war. As you know, this war ended with Yerevan's defeat (and hence with Moscow's defeat). As a result, the Armenians were forced to sign a humiliating surrender, lost part of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the entire 'security belt' around it.

Turkey's game changing Bayraktar drones (Source:

"Thus, Moscow suffered three defeats from Turkey in a year.

"Undoubtedly, the most devastating [for the Kremlin] was the defeat in Idlib, since in relation to Libya, Moscow's official position (formed over the past six years) can usually be summarized in the wording "we are not there". In reality, the private Russian military company ["PMC Wagner"], or in other words our 'foreign legion was operating there.

"The consequence of Moscow's March fiasco of in Syria was the Kremlin's refusal – not verbally but the real deal – to support its CSTO ally, Armenia in the Karabakh war. As a result, Yerevan suffered a defeat from the Azerbaijani army, backed by the powerful 700,000-strong army of the Turkish Republic well-equipped with modern weapon.

"In any case, these events have taught the Kremlin a serious lesson, which, seemingly, had previously gone from success to success (such sentiments, at least, have developed among the not too enlightened public since 2008).

From Military Winning Streak To Military Losing Streak

"Indeed, August 2008 was marked by the 'brilliant' victory of the huge Russia over small Georgia in the war over the last morsel of tiny South Ossetia (which was part of Georgia at that time). 2014 was the year of the Crimean annexation, and also the year that severed almost a third of the territory of the Ukrainian Donbass, where the unrecognized DPR [Donetsk People's Republic] and LPR [Lugansk People's Republic] were created. In 2015 the Russian Aerospace Forces and other military formations were deployed in Syria. Victory over the "Islamic State" was declared more than once.

"And then 2020 came. Three defeats of Russia in one year. To be fair, one should note that the first alarm bells of coming defeats for Moscow were visible earlier, but the Kremlin couldn't (or didn't want to) see them, attributing these unpleasant incidents to someone's intrigues and hoping that Russia would inevitably take revenge.

"I'm talking about the Russian Su-24 bomber, that was shot down by the Turkish F-16 jet fighter in November 2015 in the skies over the Turkish-Syrian border. Back then it shocked not only the patriots on Russian TV, but also the country's political and military leadership. (It shocked the Kremlin so much in fact, that it was not Turkey who was called to account, but the poorly armed pro-Turkish Turkmen units in Syria).

"The next sign for the Russian leadership happened in the same Syria. On February 7-8 of 2018 the battle in the Deir ez-Zor area, when the American army with aircraft, drone and artillery support, defeated a battalion consisting of 500 Russian militants from PMC Wagner, Syrian military personnel and about 30 tanks and other equipment.

"Back then, according to various estimates, the losses of Russian and pro-Russian forces, as well as legionnaires of the Russian 'foreign legion' (PMC Wagner) accounted for 200 to 300 men. However, the Kremlin also preferred not to notice this "allied" attack on "its own forces", apparently, believing that the deaths of mercenaries shouldn't count…

If You Can't Beat Erdogan, Ally With Him

"However, it seems, that after the current three defeats in a row, the Kremlin 'Dizzying with Success' [the author refers to Stalin's article in "Pravda" during the purges] of 2008-2015 has finally faced reality. Indirect evidence of this is the recent words of the Russian president addressed to the Turkish lead at a major press conference in December 2020.

"'I and President Erdogan have different views on certain issues (sometimes maybe diametrically opposed views). But this is a person who keeps his word, a real man. He does not wag his tail a [Russian expression, which in this case means that Erdogan is an honest person]. If he thinks [that certain actions] are beneficial for his country, he goes all the way. It's time to reconsider our tactics of behavior at the international arena.' - said Putin back then.

"Indeed, the time has come. Erdogan's Turkey last year 'rudely and visibly' created a 'new reality'. To be more precise, Ankara adjusted the 'new reality' that Putin's Russia, had, in turn, created back in 2014.

"As a result, the Kremlin, as we сan see, finally realized that a player has appeared on the international arena, who is ready to use military force no less decisively and unceremoniously than Moscow. And this player in the military and technological sense is ready not only for small provocations in the spirit "we are not there," but also for major conflict.

"However, it would be naive to expect that the military setbacks of 2020 will force Putin to abandon the use of force (or threats to do so) in the international arena. He will not become another person, but he might reconsider his tactics. It is possible that he may once again try to form an alliance with whom he could not defeat, and therefore began respecting.

"The Russia-Turkey alliance in the dreams of some of Kremlin figures may promise fantastic prospects - starting with the collapse of NATO and up to building a new strategic axis: Moscow-Ankara ... Another question is whether Erdogan needs this. [Turkish] 'Sultan' now that he is at the peak of his political and military might even without an alliance with the Kremlin."

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