Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued a strategy of drawing Russia into protracted conflicts that drain its military, economic, and political resources. This strategy aims to weaken Russia as a rival power to the US. Two key theaters where this has played out have been Ukraine and Syria. In both conflicts, Russia has become bogged down fighting Western-backed insurgencies and proxy forces. This has come at a high cost for Russia in money, manpower, equipment, and international reputation.
The roots of this American strategy date back to the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US saw an opportunity to press its advantage over a weakened Russia by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe and drawing former Soviet states out of Russia’s orbit. Russia strongly opposed NATO expansion, seeing it as a threat to its security interests. But the US pushed ahead, enlarging NATO in 1999 and 2004.1 Bringing NATO up to Russia’s borders was perceived by American strategists as a way to constrain and pressure Russia.
Ukraine became a central focus of US-Russia geopolitical rivalry during this period. Ukraine was historically part of the Russian sphere of influence but also had growing ties with the West. The pro-Western Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was strongly backed by the US.2 Russia in turn gave its support to Viktor Yanukovych, who became president of Ukraine in 2010 and aligned the country closer with Russia. This tug-of-war over Ukraine set the stage for the outbreak of war there in 2014.
In Syria as well, the roots of US-Russia rivalry can be traced back to the 1990s. Syria was a Soviet client state during the Cold War. After the Soviet collapse, the US saw an opportunity to pull Syria out of the Russian camp and into the Western one. This resulted in tensions and rivalry between the US and Russia over influence in Syria.3
When mass protests against the Assad regime broke out in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring, the US saw a chance to advance its interests in Syria. In August 2011, President Obama declared that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”4 The US provided political support, weapons, and training to the Syrian rebels aiming to overthrow Assad.5 Russia, on the other hand, backed the Assad government and provided it with military support.
This set the stage for proxy wars between the US and Russia in both Ukraine and Syria during the 2010s. The protracted, draining conflicts that emerged served American strategic goals of weakening rival Russia, but they came at a great human cost for the people of those countries.
The Euromaidan protests that erupted in Ukraine in late 2013 led to the ouster of Russian-backed President Yanukovych in February 2014. Soon after, Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. The US and its NATO allies strongly condemned Russia’s actions and gave their support to Ukraine’s new pro-Western government.
What followed was a grinding war in the Donbas between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. Despite multiple ceasefires negotiated in the Minsk agreements, fighting has continued up to the present. The conflict has drained Ukraine’s resources and severely damaged its economy. By 2018, the UN estimated the death toll from the war at 13,000 people.6
For Russia, the costs have also been high. The direct expense of military operations in Ukraine has cost Russia an estimated $5-10 billion per year.7 The war and ensuing international sanctions have choked Russia’s economic growth, costing Russia an estimated $50 billion per year between 2014 and 2017.8
The Donbas war has also exacted a human toll on Russia, with Russian soldiers continuing to die in combat there even as the Kremlin denies their presence. By 2020, an estimated 2,500 Russian soldiers had been killed fighting in Ukraine.9 Funerals held in Russia for soldiers killed in mysterious “training accidents” point to a wider presence and casualties.
In strategic terms, the Donbas war has bogged down Russian forces and acted as a constant source of strain on Russia. For the US, keeping the conflict simmering drains Russian resources and keeps its military distracted, preventing Russia from flexing its might elsewhere. The US has provided $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014 to sustain its fight against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas.10 American strategists see value in keeping Russia locked into this lengthy, wearing conflict.
After the outbreak of anti-regime protests in Syria in 2011, the US, Saudi Arabia, and other allies began providing support to rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army that were fighting to overthrow Assad. Russia backed the Syrian regime with military support and helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. This set up a proxy battle between American-backed rebels and Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
The Syrian conflict descended into a complex, multi-sided civil war that severely damaged the country. But for Russia, its military intervention in 2015 carried high costs in money, equipment, and Russian lives. The direct financial costs for Russia of conducting operations in Syria from 2015-2017 were estimated at $2.5-3.5 billion, at a time when low oil prices were battering Russia’s economy.11
The Syrian conflict also took a human toll on Russia’s military. By 2017, the Russian government confirmed that 44 Russian soldiers had been killed in Syria. But independent analysts believed the real death toll was two or three times higher.12 Russian private contractors were also taking casualties in Syria, with scores or even hundreds potentially killed in US airstrikes on pro-regime forces in 2018.13
In strategic terms, Russia’s involvement in Syria’s civil war has gained it a Middle East foothold and save its ally from defeat. But it has come at a high price and puts Russia at risk of being bogged down long-term just like the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan in the 1980s. For the US, Russia’s quagmire in Syria serves to distract it from other regions, like Eastern Europe, that America views as more strategically vital.14 It also drains men, money, and resources from Russia’s military machine.
Impact on Russia
The cumulative impact on Russia of involvement in these prolonged conflicts in Ukraine and Syria has been significant. A 2019 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that the financial costs for Russia of operations in Syria and Ukraine since 2015 has been around $15-20 billion.15 For perspective, Russia’s total annual military budget in 2018 was $61 billion.16
In both conflicts, Russia has expended significant military hardware like planes, tanks, trucks, and missiles – matériel that will need to be replaced. It has lost large numbers of soldiers in combat. Training and supporting separatist proxies in Ukraine and allies like the Syrian army has been costly. Both conflicts show signs of being open-ended commitments that will continue to leech resources.
The Russian public has shown signs of war fatigue and dissatisfaction with Russia’s deep military involvement and casualties abroad. In polls, veterans of the Ukraine conflict in particular report feeling neglected by the state.17 Russia’s faltering economy since 2014 has further reduced the appetite domestically for increased defense spending.
In strategic and geopolitical terms, Russia’s targeting by the West with sanctions, isolation, and an expanding NATO alliance indicates that the US is benefiting and Russia is losing from its embroilment in these prolonged conflicts. They are part of America’s post-Cold War strategy to lean on rivals like Russia, China, and Iran through economic and military attrition. For weaker powers like Russia, the danger is being steadily worn down by the US and its allies in multi-domain conflicts that grind on interminably.
The outlook ahead is for continued simmering confrontation between Russia and the West in zones of competition. American strategists see benefit in a weakened, distracted Russia stuck in military quagmires that cannot challenge the US. For Russia, its goal ahead is to prevent further erosions of power and climb out of the deepening holes into which it has fallen in Ukraine and Syria.
In conclusion, the American strategy of embroiling rival Russia in costly quagmires in Ukraine and Syria has come at a high price in lives and resources for the people of those countries. But it has achieved US goals of weakening and distracting Russia from broader geopolitical contests. For Russia, extricating itself from these conflicts while retaining influence will be a major strategic challenge going forward. The human toll reminds us that such geopolitical struggles often come at the expense of ordinary people.
- Sarotte, M.E. (2010). Perpetuating U.S. Preeminence: The 1990 Deals to “Bribe the Soviets Out’ and Move NATO In.” International Security, 35(1), 110-137.
- Wilson, A. (2005). Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Yale University Press.
- Suchkov, M. (2018). Russia in the Middle East: Jack of all trades, master of none? The Atlantic Council.
- Obama, B. (2011, August 18). Statement by President Obama on the Situation in Syria. The White House.
- Blanchard, C.M., Humud, C.E., & Nikitin, M.B.D. (2015). Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response. Congressional Research Service.
- United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2018). Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report No. 16.
- Sukhankin, S. (2020). Continuation War in Ukraine’s Donbas: Conflict by Proxy. The Jamestown Foundation.
- Connolly, R. (2016). The Economic Impact of Russia’s Military Intervention in Ukraine. Center for Strategic and International Studies.
- Kramer, A.E. (2020, August 21). Russia’s military says a soldier died in Syria, its first battlefield death acknowledged there. The New York Times.
- Department of Defense. (2022). Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.
- McLeary, P. (2017). Russia’s Syrian Intervention Has Been Costly for Moscow. Foreign Policy.
- Tsvetkova, M. (2017, August 2). Exclusive: Russian losses in Syria jump in 2017, Reuters estimates show. Reuters.
- Borger, J. (2018, February 13). Scores of Russian mercenaries reportedly killed by US airstrikes in Syria. The Guardian.
- Sokolsky, R. & Rumer, E.B. (2019). Getting Russia Right. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- Kofman, M. (2019). Raiding and International Brigandry: Russia’s Strategy for Great Power Competition. War on the Rocks.
- International Institute for Strategic Studies. (2019). The Military Balance 2019. Routledge.
- Levada Centre. (2016). The Return of the Veteran.