The Cable

Carter: Russia Wrapping Itself in ‘Shroud of Isolation’

Defense Secretary comes out swinging during a NATO meeting in Brussels.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, 
sits before addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, sits before addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivered an unusually forceful condemnation of Russian military action in Syria and Ukraine, saying Thursday that Moscow “has continued to wrap itself in a shroud of isolation,” by ignoring international norms in annexing Crimea, fueling the fight in eastern Ukraine, and throwing its weight behind embattled Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is “tethering itself to a sinking ship of a losing strategy,” by backing Assad militarily, Carter said after a morning of meetings with NATO allies in Brussels.

Reports from Syria indicate that Russian jets and attack helicopters began providing close air support for a major Syrian ground offensive against rebels around the city of Idlib, a region not known to have any Islamic State fighters. The push is another sign that Moscow is more interested in smashing opposition to Assad’s regime than it is in fighting the Islamic State.

The offensive, which kicked off on Thursday, has “shatter[ed] the facade that they’re there to fight ISIL,” Carter said, suing an alternate term for the Islamic State. “This will have consequences for Russia itself,” the defense chief added, predicting that Russia will “begin to suffer casualties” in the coming days.

In a sharp escalation of Russian involvement on Wednesday, three Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired 26 Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, striking targets more than 900 miles away across western Syria. But the chest-thumping in Moscow over the long-range strike capability was short-lived. Approximately four of those missiles fell short and landed in Iran, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Foreign Policy on Thursday.

But the attempt itself is what raised so many eyebrows in Washington, as the flight path of the missiles took them across both Iranian and Iraqi airspace, further underscoring the closer coordination between Moscow and Baghdad in recent weeks, which includes an intelligence sharing center in Baghdad occupied by Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military officials and analysts.

Word of the failures come just a day after Putin boasted in a televised meeting with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, “the fact that we have launched precision-guided weapons from the Caspian at a range of around 1,500 kilometers and hit all the targets indicates the good status of the defense industry and the good skills of the personnel.”

Russian planes based in Syria have also crossed into Turkish airspace on several occasions in recent days and trailed U.S. Predator drones flying over Syria, drawing loud condemnations from the Turkish government and its NATO allies.

The robust Russian support for Assad and its prodding of NATO airspace in Turkey “is a fundamental strategic mistake, and this will inflame and prolong the Syrian civil war,” Carter stated.

American and Russian military and civilian officials participated in a video conference last week to begin ironing out critical airspace issues in Syria, but the two sides reached an impasse as Washington wanted to focus strictly on deconfliction issues, while Moscow was looking to explore more battlefield coordination. But Carter appeared to slam the door shut on future talks with Moscow on Thursday. “We have not and will not agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue this misguided strategy,” he said.

Carter placed the responsibility for improved relations between Russia and NATO squarely with Moscow, saying “the isolation of Russia is a phenomena that I think Russia is going to have to reckon with. What you see here in NATO are scores of nations who decided that their security is better pursued in concert than independently.”

 

Photo Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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