Russia’s initial military and diplomatic strategy in its invasion of Ukraine had been tried and tested in other contexts—such as in Chechnya and later in Syria. While the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts are starkly different, their similarities offer lessons for Ukraine and its partners today. Understanding them can help to determine how outside countries can engage with the war in a way that saves precious time, preserves political capital, and safeguards lives.

Emma Beals
Emma Beals is an independent consultant whose work is focused on Syria. She is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, a senior adviser at the European Institute of Peace, and a former visiting fellow of the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Her Twitter handle is @ejbeals.

Russia’s strategy in Syria, after its military intervention in September 2015, was not new. In 1999–2000, Russia used siege tactics against Grozny, in the second Chechen war, to achieve its military and political goals. During negotiations, it promised safe passage to Chechen combatants, then mined and bombed the route out of their capital. Russian forces destroyed Grozny, including its humanitarian and civilian infrastructure. While Russia’s actions in Ukraine are seen as part of its so-called Syria playbook, in Syria the Russian approach was often referred to as the Grozny strategy.

From early on in the Syrian conflict, Russia had backed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow carried water for him diplomatically—first using its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution on Syria in 2011, then providing strategic advice and helping in decisionmaking throughout. When the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 killed an estimated 1,500 people, crossing then U.S. president Barack Obama’s stated “red line,” Russia agreed to a negotiated diplomatic solution to that crisis. The lack of a firm Western military response showed there was little will to intervene, even when international laws and norms were violated.

This inaction had repercussions in Ukraine. After the Maidan Uprising in February 2014, which saw a pro-Russian president ousted from power, Russia responded by annexing Crimea and eventually occupying eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces remain to this day. While Western countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia, the lack of more robust measures paved the way for Russia’s military involvement in Syria to preserve Assad rule and secure Russian interests in the Levant, including access to the Tartous Port. Since then, Moscow has used military, diplomatic, and disinformation tactics in Syria, many of them replicated during the first weeks of the ongoing Ukraine invasion. While the global response suggests that some lessons have been learned, there are more to derive.

Ukraine differs from Syria in several ways. Ukraine has a functioning government that still controls a majority of its national territory, where it is fighting an invading force with extensive support from allies. Ukraine also inhabits a different space in relation to Russia and is historically well versed in Russian strategy, making it reluctant to assume Russian good faith. This has put it at an advantage in negotiations relative to external actors who tried negotiating with Moscow in Syria. Building on the Ukrainian approach, alongside implementing the lessons from Syria, will be necessary if those who oppose Russian actions in Ukraine are to make headway in ending the war.

Russian Tactics During the Syrian Conflict

In Syria, Russia applied a mixture of approaches to achieve its objectives. This included sieges and the manipulation of humanitarian aid, military might and a disregard for international humanitarian law, diplomacy that was aimed at buying time to accomplish its aims, and the use of misinformation and disinformation.

Russia did not create Syria’s sieges; it inherited them. By the time Russia’s military forces entered the conflict, Syria’s north was controlled by a variety of nonstate armed groups. The country’s central and southern regions were under government control, with a patchwork of significant, opposition-controlled pockets throughout. These pockets had been subdued through local truce agreements and sieges of varying strength, but they remained in opposition control as Syrian government forces lacked the manpower to fight across so many front lines at once. The regime’s denial of aid to its opponents began early in the conflict, and many sieges relied on ratlines run through tunnels and checkpoints, which were sometimes tolerated as they allowed Syrian army recruits to earn bribes to supplement their wages and regime-linked war profiteers to finance themselves. In August 2016, Darayya became the first of the besieged, rebel-held Damascus suburbs to fall after Russian intervention. Government forces, with Russian military backing, cut off supply tunnels and began a brutal military bombardment that targeted the only hospital in the area, closing it down. Days later, the population was forcibly evacuated on the now-infamous green buses. This same technique was repeated time and again in the period that followed.

High-stakes negotiations took place to secure aid access, evacuations, or ceasefires of varying duration and scope. Where Russia and its allies sought a total military and political victory, there was no case where they settled for less. Only when they were compelled to abandon their maximalist aims was there a different outcome. A notable example is Idlib Governorate, where Turkey’s engagement prompted a shift in Russian strategic calculations that resulted in a truce agreement between the two countries that has imposed relative calm along the front lines for two years. However, there remains little hope that a nationwide ceasefire can be negotiated across Syria.

Russia also engaged in other diplomatic negotiations, often using these processes to stall for time, with little desire to participate in good faith. Instead, negotiations were used tactically to distract from what was happening on the ground, deny allegations of Russian war crimes and other reprehensible actions, delay resolutions to the conflict, and deflect blame. Yet Russian participation in diplomatic forums was also perceived by some in the international community to project an image of reasonableness, suggesting good faith and an intent to reach a settlement. But while it enjoyed the valuable legitimacy this bestowed, Russia often failed to reach agreements or implement outcomes.

Even when Russian officials acquiesced to high-level ceasefire agreements through UN Security Council resolutions, such as the one reached during the 2018 military campaign against Eastern Ghouta, they said they would only implement it once the parties had concurred to the exact terms. They then unilaterally announced humanitarian corridors, with conditions that effectively made them unusable. In the background they sought to impose surrender militarily. Within weeks, this had been achieved, with the UN Security Council ceasefire never seeing the light of day.

A similar strategy was used to secure complete control over humanitarian assistance, both inside and outside the regime and Russia’s territories of control. From the outset of the conflict, the Assad regime refused to allow aid to reach its opponents. In 2014, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2165 mandating crossborder aid access to the rebel-held northwest and northeast. Russia has manipulated the resolution’s renewal process every twelve months to shut border crossings when it suited them, while threatening to close others unless Moscow and its allies obtained concessions.

The international community’s failure to adequately address consistent, apparent breaches of international humanitarian law and international law in Syria—in the form of attacks on hospitals, schools, and civilians, as well as forced displacements—led to a perception of impunity that emboldened Russia. While the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry has been documenting war crimes since the beginning of the conflict, alongside dozens of human rights groups, there has yet to be any high-level accountability. Years of well-documented, targeted attacks on hospitals finally led to the establishment of a UN Secretary General’s Board of Inquiry that investigated hospital attacks, which in 2020 returned minimalist recommendations focused only on the humanitarian notification system. New and more agile accountability mechanisms are in place to take advantage of every available opportunity to pursue justice, but these are primarily focused on individuals within the Assad regime and have not addressed Russian involvement. Nor has there been meaningful international censure for documented Russian violations.

To obviate their most egregious actions in Syria, Russia and the Assad regime also amplified and mastered misinformation and disinformation techniques starting early in the conflict. In an early example, Russia amplified the views of Mother Agnes, a Lebanese nun from the Monastery of Saint James the Mutilated in Syria, who questioned the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta. In response to the attacks, parliamentarians in the United Kingdom voted against retaliatory intervention, while an authorization to use force was never even brought to a vote in the U.S. Congress. Instead, the attack was referred to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, beginning a process in which Syria has yet to declare and dismantle all its chemical weapons capabilities. Subsequent incidents created further opportunities for misinformation and disinformation, which found an echo in Western fringe media outlets.

Russia’s disinformation campaign went into overdrive after its intervention in Syria. Local voices, such as those of Mother Agnes, were amplified by the pro-Kremlin news outlet RT (formerly Russia Today), as well as by botnets and seemingly fake news websites, to create an appearance of widespread consensus over the Syrian regime’s version of events. This helped to blunt international responses to the conflict. As distrust of official narratives grew in countries with interests in Syria, the range of possible interventions grew smaller. Eventually, the priorities of formerly anti-Assad states became containment and stabilization, helping Russia to begin facilitating normalization with the Assad regime, thereby consolidating both the regime’s and Russia’s gains and potentially alleviating the risks and costs Moscow inherited in Syria. 

Russia and the Assad regime broke their opponents militarily, including civilian populations; controlled a vast aid network; created doubts about the worst breaches of international law; then used this not only to avoid accountability but also to consolidate Assad’s power and Russia’s gains. The overall impact of such actions was a substantial degradation of international laws and norms in an increasingly complex international diplomatic landscape. It is within this broader context that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

Adapting the Lessons of Syria in Ukraine

In Ukraine, Russia has replicated many of the policies it adopted in Syria. This presents an opportunity to evaluate Russia tactics and prepare measures to counter them. Russia has imposed sieges in Ukraine for the same purpose as in Syria—to force surrender. This has involved denying access to aid and essential goods, bombarding humanitarian infrastructure and civilians, opening hazardous evacuation corridors for only limited numbers of evacuees, and provoking population displacements. In many cases, the aim has been to force capitulation, as in the brutal campaign against the city of Mariupol.

Elsewhere, as in Kyiv, capitulation was the original ambition, but Russian officials reversed themselves because their forces were overstretched and ill-prepared, rather than because of successful negotiations. However, Russia still used withdrawals to attempt to bolster its diplomatic position internationally. While it has pulled out of Kyiv and other areas and reorganized troops for its own purposes, it has been quick to portray this as implementation of understandings reached during negotiations with Ukraine in Ankara. Then, almost like clockwork, Russian leaders declared the talks stalemated and went on to pursue their ambitions in eastern Ukraine. They have attempted to exploit their diplomatic activity to generate approval with states that had been against, or agnostic about, their invasion.

Moreover, Russia initially sought to consolidate control over humanitarian access through a UN Security Council resolution that tied all aid into UN-led coordination. Yet given the enormous humanitarian needs caused by the invasion and the control dynamics in Ukraine, it is more fruitful for the Ukrainian government to lead on providing access to the UN and other humanitarian organizations. Russian officials have announced evacuation corridors unilaterally and imposed unacceptable terms, such as the need for evacuees to be processed through filtration camps in Russia. At other times, they have allowed limited passage for civilians but have blocked the entry of basic goods. Wherever possible, they have used their position to control or deny aid and assistance to advance their military and political aims.

Russia has also bombed dozens of hospitals and healthcare centers in the first weeks of the conflict, mirroring the tactics used in Syria. The Kremlin is still trying to spread disinformation about these attacks, even if the more open information environment in Ukraine works against this. Moscow equivocated about the reasons for bombing a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians were sheltering in Mariupol, attempting to deflect and diffuse blame for the crimes. Images of the mass murder of civilians emerged from Bucha after Russian troops withdrew, but Russia spun its own version of events as condemnation mounted. This again allowed it to claw back some support, or avoid disapproval, from states that had sidestepped taking strong positions on the invasion. Russian disinformation efforts have focused heavily on non-Western states such as India and China. This is likely to have an even greater impact as the conflict grinds on and the blanket media coverage wanes, helping Moscow to retain or regain relevance and sympathy among countries other than those supporting Ukraine. Similarly, an aggressive Russian-backed information campaign about U.S.-backed biolabs in Ukraine failed to gain widespread traction in Western media. Still, Russia has managed to create uncertainty for certain outlets and political actors.

Perhaps the most significant lesson from Syria that can be used to counter the Russian approach is that to change the trajectory of the conflict, it is essential to change Russia’s calculations. In Syria, most Western states feared that meaningful military support or engagement would lead only to escalation. However, in Idlib Governorate, when Turkey used military means to repel Syrian regime overreach during its last offensive in February 2020, rather than precipitating World War III, it prompted one of the most successful localized truces of the entire conflict.

This was replicated in Ukraine, where military resistance has been surprisingly effective against Russia’s armed forces. Rather than the rapid Russian takeover of the country that had been predicted, Moscow has withdrawn troops from many areas of the country, at least for the time being. Western countries are providing extensive military support to Ukrainian forces. Continuing this for as long as is necessary will be one of the most notable differences between Ukraine and Syria. This is proving to be a significant factor in Russia’s recalibration of its ambitions in the conflict and will be pivotal to creating conditions in which a negotiated peace can emerge.

Economic sanctions have also been applied to Russia in a more severe manner than in Syria. Measures such as removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system appear to be designed to alter Russia’s assessment of its options, rather than simply to punish or warn those directly involved in the war effort. Tactical sanctioning, such as the Ukrainian-requested pause on U.S. targeting of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has been involved in peace talks in Turkey, is also important. Instrumentalizing sanctions where possible to elicit specific policy response can, alongside diplomacy, help to change Russian behavior and make a negotiated, sustainable solution to the conflict more likely.

Alongside creating conditions that prompt a Russian recalibration, diplomacy in Ukraine must be more aggressive and sophisticated than the approach taken in Syria. Only through coordinated diplomatic efforts across a range of levels—from the UN Security Council to ground-level partners—can Ukraine and its backers hope to continue to isolate Russia, negotiate local access and ceasefires, reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict, and reverse the course that began in Syria and again uphold international law and norms.

The high-level strand of this diplomatic strategy started strong. Western efforts early in the invasion focused on peeling diplomatic support away from Russia, isolating it internationally. While highly successful to begin with, this has become less pronounced as time goes by. A sign of this was the UN General Assembly vote on April 7 to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, in which ninety-three countries voted in favor, twenty-four voted against, and fifty-eight abstained. This showed a marked change when compared to the 141 countries that voted in favor of a General Assembly resolution in March demanding an unconditional Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, with five states voting against and thirty-five abstentions. While Moscow’s setbacks have continued, with Russia losing elections to four UN committees in April, the erosion of backing in the vote about the Human Rights Council suggests the isolation strategy will require a shot in the arm to be maintained in the long term.

Doing so will require some lessons from Syria. A vast number of human rights and war crimes investigations efforts are ongoing in Ukraine. However, the case of Syria has shown that accountability is a long-term project that is likely to be unsatisfying. Therefore, there can be more pressing uses for the information gathered in these processes, namely battling Russian disinformation and bolstering diplomatic efforts. Rapidly documenting crimes unimpeachably and disseminating the information widely to gain vital diplomatic leverage would help prevent Russian disinformation from gaining traction, neutralizing Moscow’s efforts to deny its actions and deflect blame.

Negotiations on Ukraine have, to date, led nowhere. While Russia will probably not engage meaningfully with Ukrainian leaders until it can conclude a desirable agreement, pursuing a negotiated settlement to the conflict and exploiting all openings is crucial. Aggressive diplomacy must also occur at a more local level, addressing humanitarian access, evacuations, corridors, and breaches of international humanitarian law through humanitarian notification systems. At all levels of negotiations, Ukraine and its backers should highlight when Russia is acting in bad faith, thereby preventing it from achieving diplomatic aims, particularly the maintenance of its political and economic alliances. This is challenging and was poorly handled in Syria, leading to outcomes that benefited Russian and Syrian regime interests.

States supporting Ukraine should underpin high-level diplomacy with a strong and integrated ground game. This begins by ensuring potentially nefarious language does not slip through in UN Security Council resolutions and that the UN’s humanitarian access negotiations in Moscow do not undermine Ukraine’s own dialogues, with supportive states offering either technical support to these efforts where needed or political and diplomatic backup when escalation is required. Providing material and strategic support to the country through an integrated approach that links diplomatic and political, military, humanitarian, accountability, and stabilization support, rather than allowing each to operate in silos, can help here too. In Syria, there was precious little military support and strategic guidance provided to the opposition, but in Ukraine, such support could help not only to meet military objectives but also to maintain humanitarian supply lines and access to allow for the protection of civilians by preparing for, or preventing, potentially devastating sieges in Kyiv and other cities. In doing so, civilian protection may be possible, with documentation and accountability efforts available when this fails, rather than as a primary tool, as was seen in Syria.

Preparing humanitarian workers and infrastructure for inevitable Russian targeting, while ensuring that humanitarian operations can anticipate needs and respond to them, will be critical in saving civilian lives before, during, and after sieges. Here, Syrian actors have many lessons to offer, from practical training on dealing with double tap strikes to advice on the need for integrated stabilization hubs that incorporate flexible funding streams with humanitarian activities so that goods can be prepositioned ahead of possible sieges. Moreover, ensuring both that humanitarian notification systems in Ukraine adopt all recommendations and lessons from the UN Security Council’s Board of Inquiry into hospital attacks in Syria and that states find ways to address breaches of international humanitarian law through diplomatic censure or other forums may help retain faith in humanitarian systems and retain the centrality of humanitarian law in the long term.

While some of Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are the same as in Syria, the reaction to these has, in places, been markedly different. Expanding on this approach to integrate the hard-won lessons in Syria, rather than learning each of them all over again, will be critical to blunting the worst of the Ukrainian conflict’s impacts and saving the lives of civilians, who, much like millions of Syrians, never asked for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.