Russia never shows aggression or escalates, but when challenged it responds, often asymmetrically. A non-aggressive way to respond to attacks and aggression from the U.S. and its NATO allies is to introduce new weapon systems to the Syrian battlefield.
Turkey shooting down the Russian Su-24 brought in the S-400 missiles. Encounters with Americans brought in the Su-35 and the S-300V4. If Russia had simply deployed this military hardware and the resulting Anti-Access/Area Denial capability in Syria without first being provoked, the West would have seen it as escalation and a sign of yet more “Russian aggression”.
Last week the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the first two production specification Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighters had entered service. Yesterday two Su-57s were seen flying to Syria and landing on the Russian air base in Khmeimim. The timing may be a coincidence, but this follows the attack by the U.S. Air Force on Syrian forces in Deir ez-Zor that may have killed 100 Russian “contractors” and wounded twice the number.
As of February 2018 the Sukhoi Su-57 is the king of the skies. The previous ruler, the American F-22 Raptor is a superb design. It is stealthy and agile and able to outgun and outrun almost any 4th generation fighter. Its design is in many ways a model for the Su-57. Its production was however stopped after only 187 units and further development ended. The F-22 relies on 20-year old technology and electronics. The Su-57 is closer to the state-of-the-art.
The newest American fighter, the F-35 is generally considered to be a failed design. It is trying to be too many things at once and fails in most of them. Its fighting capabilities may be on par with the Brewster Buffalo. In a dogfight it would lose to any 4th generation fighter. Without its stealth it will become a sitting duck.
The U.S. is still superior in numbers, training, and combat experience, but it can no longer rely on technological superiority. In experience, Russia is catching up fast.
When Russia first entered Syria it did so in a manner and posture least threatening to the old masters of the Middle East. Syria has many air bases with Soviet-style hardened shelters for airplanes. Instead the Russian fighters were deployed to a civilian airport, the Bassel Al-Assad International Airport in Latakia. The planes were set in neat rows at the side of the runways, making them easy targets, even for terrorist mortars and drone attacks. With each Western provocation and attack Russia has improved its defenses, bringing in weapon systems specifically suited for combating or deterring the type of attacks seen.
Russian vulnerability may actually be cosmetic; modern Russian air defense systems like the Pantsir-S1 may be better able to defend the force against cruise missile attacks and rocket artillery than the concrete shelters at the Shayrat airbase.
The three-way proxy war between Russia, Turkey and the United States has escalated to a new level. Russia and Syria failed to get Turkey and the U.S. to fight each other over American plans of splitting up Syria and creating an independent Kurdistan. Instead, Syrian troops were forced to enter the Kurdish pocket in Afrin, putting Syria in direct conflict with Turkey. The Russian air force will have to protect Afrin from Turkish airstrikes. The Su-57 could pose a serious threat to Turkish F-16s.
An even greater threat of conflict in Syria exist between Russia and the United States. Two weeks ago on February 7th the U.S. Air Force attacked “pro-government” forces killing, by U.S. accounts, a hundred. It is still unclear what happened. Who attacked whom? Who fired the first shot? Some say that Putin ordered his “mercenary army” to attack the U.S. and Kurds. The ISIS Hunters say that they were attacked by a group of ISIS jihadists after the Hunters had cut off the jihadists movement. Others believe that an agreement had been reached between Syrians and the SDF, Russian civilian contractors would move in to secure the CONOCO gas field so that civilian workers could enter and production restart. Some believe that the whole event was a trap set up the U.S.: they knew of the deal but vetoed it by firing on the convoy for four hours.
Despite what General Mattis says, Syrian troops have controlled the Deir ez-Zor suburbs on the eastern bank of the Euphrates from well before American special forces entered to grab the CONOCO and Omar gas and oil fields. The now destroyed pontoon bridge to cross the Euphrates was specially imported from Russia. The first Syrian unit to enter the eastern bank were the ISIS Hunters. Twenty of their members were killed in the American attack. Russian and Syrian sources confirm that at least 60 Syrians and maybe 35 Russians were killed.
It is questionable if a company called PMC Wagner or Wagner Group even exists. There are many organizations in Russia recruiting volunteers for both Donbass and Syria. If a private company is involved in transferring money, it is more likely to be registered in Hong Kong that Russia, as private military companies are illegal under Russian law. “Wagnerite” may simply mean a Russian or Russian speaking volunteer who is fighting in Syria with out being a part of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. No one has ever provided proof of the existence of a large Russian mercenary unit in Syria. No photographs or video exist. It is more likely that the Russians in Deir ez-Zor were part of the secretive “ISIS Hunters” unit.
Both Russia and the United States have tried to downplay the events in Deir ez-Zor, keeping the details secret. Bloomberg now says that Trump considers protecting himself against allegations of Russia collusion by citing the deaths of “scores of Russian mercenaries” as evidence of his tough stance toward the Kremlin. If it was revealed that the U.S. intentionally targeted Russians, then Russia would be under pressure to retaliate. In this context the introduction of the Su-57 may mean that Russia is ready to challenge the U.S. Air Force in the skies over the Euphrates.