Once again, the West has been caught flat-footed by an aggressive Russian move. According to U.S. and European preconceptions about what constitutes Russia’s interests, Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria makes no sense. U.S. President Obama last Friday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of blundering into a quagmire. As Peter Sanger put it in the New York Times: “Frustrated by their own inability to resolve the crisis over more than four years, the President and his team express a quiet confidence that Moscow almost certainly will be no more successful.” A longer campaign, this strain of thinking goes, cannot be sustained by Russia economically, and may ultimately cost Putin domestic support.
At the same time many Western leaders and commentators are still hesitant to condemn Russian actions in Syria because they assume that Russia ultimately wants to bring some kind of stability to the region by saving what is left of the Syrian state and bringing an end to the war. By intervening militarily, Putin just wants to put himself into a strong position, they say, in order to be able to become a power-broker in a post-Assad Syria.
But as in Ukraine, in Syria Putin is following a different logic. His calculation of Russian interests differs from the assumptions of Western leaders and commentators. Seen from the viewpoint of Putin’s larger foreign policy agenda—the one we have witnessed unfolding in the last years—the military intervention in Syria is a completely rational next step.
In Putin’s eyes, Russia is engaged in an asymmetrical conflict with the West. The West is infinitely stronger, but Russia can win if it plays smarter. Putin’s first priority in coming to power in 2001 was to rebuild the state as an effective instrument of control—the so-called “power-vertical”. The second phase we have watched unfold over the past few years: attempts at strengthening control over the post-Soviet space (minus Baltic countries), often by using corruption as a tool, and not shying away from using military force.
His short-term goal is to prevent the region from moving towards liberal democracy—something that would undermine the patronage system on which his rule relies. The longer-term goal is to turn it into a more coherent regional bloc, ready to act under Moscow’s command; this is what the Eurasian Union is all about. What Putin sees emerging is a multipolar world made of a few players: the U.S. and China, certainly—and perhaps Europe if it manages to cohere. His overall goal is to make sure that Russia becomes one of these poles too.
Being such a pole means being more than just a regional power. If Russia wants to play in the global league, it must also be able to act in the wider world, not just in its neighborhood. Losing Syria, a decades-long ally and the last Russian foothold in the Middle East, would therefore be a significant defeat. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia has steadfastly supported during the conflict, in the last months came under serious pressure from the non-Isis rebels in the north, Putin had to act—or accept to be lose the ability to reconstruct a sphere of deeper influence in the Middle East.
The military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime presents quite a number of opportunities for Putin.
First, it has allowed him to demonstrate once again how indecisive and feckless the United States has become. Putin long ago realized that the U.S. has a weak hand in Syria, mainly because it has never chosen a side in the conflict. While the Obama Administration has condemned the Assad regime’s mass killing of civilians and its uncompromising attitude, it has never given substantial support to the rebels. The U.S. priority in the last few years has been to fight ISIS, not Assad. It didn’t want Assad to win but it was also increasingly unsure whether it wanted to see him defeated.
Second, it helped Putin to get out of the international isolation into which him his aggression against Ukraine had brought him. Despite much public huffing to the contrary, Obama who was forced to meet with Putin ahead of their respective speeches to the UN General Assembly in order to try to hammer out an understanding over Syria. All of a sudden, the Russian president didn’t look like such an international pariah anymore.
Third, the Syria move has given Putin a lever for weakening the EU’s political cohesion and determination. Putin fears a united transatlantic front—a rejuvenated West—capable and willing to push back against Russian expansionism. To undermine transatlantic unity and to keep the EU weak are major goals of his broader strategy. As TAI Editor Adam Garfinkle has argued in these pages, sending additional refugee flows into Europe, and especially into Germany, which has opened its doors, is a good means to that end.
And it appears to be working. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been among the most outspoken European critics of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and has orchestrated the push back, is now setting her hopes on Russia brokering peace in Syria. While there has been no explicit horse-trading Syria and Ukraine thus far, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking in Germany yesterday, said that “[w]e must make efforts towards a practical relationship with Russia. It is not sexy but that must be the case, we can’t go on like this. […] Russia must be treated decently. We can’t let our relationship with Russia be dictated by Washington.”
Fourth, keeping Assad in power advances Putin’s project of pushing back against liberal democracy and to re-legitimize autocracy, or “managed democracy”. Putin has positioned Russia at the forefront of the fight against liberal democracy, similar to how Russia in the 19th century led a “Holy Alliance” of Eastern powers dedicated to uphold the legitimacy of monarchies against the new model of democratic legitimacy coming from the liberal powers, France and Britain. This time it is about the legitimacy of autocracy and dictatorship.
There is a major self-interest involved: if Putin manages to weaken the global norm which sees only governments coming out of competitive elections as fully legitimate, he increases the chances of himself will stay in power. But re-legitimizing autocracy also helps his allies and clients in Russia’s neighborhood. And it does a service to autocratic rulers in the Middle East for whom the Arab Spring has been an existential threat.
If Putin’s Syria gambit succeeds, it could strengthen the bonds between Russia and its autocratic clients and allies. And democrats and reformers in Russia’s neighborhood may feel that they are increasingly on their own—encouraged by the West but ultimately left at the mercy of ruthless actors who are ready to kill everybody who resists them, with Moscow’s encouragement and tangible support.
For Putin, the stakes are high, and it is a risky move. But unlike in Ukraine, in Syria he is part of a broader coalition which includes, besides Assad’s troops, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah. And unlike for the U.S., for Russia military intervention doesn’t mean that it needs to leave a functioning democratic state behind. Keeping the Assad regime in power in a rump Syria would already be a success.
And if Russia manages, with its allies, to finish the non-ISIS opposition in Syria, we may see the emergence of a broad, informal coalition in which the U.S. and European powers fight ISIS together with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. For Putin, this would be an almost perfect scenario.