Putin’s objectives in Syria have as much or more to do with Russian concerns about developments in the former Soviet Union as with the situation in and around Syria. But the overall thrust of his Syrian campaign can have an impact well beyond that.
First and foremost, Putin is trying to project power abroad in an effort to compensate for the fading effectiveness of the model of growth and governance that have been associated with his now fifteen years at and near the pinnacle of power in Russia. The seizure of the Crimea was the first step in his geostrategic campaign to stabilize his régime. The support for the “rebels” in Eastern Ukraine was the second. Russia’s muscular deployment to Syria is the third. Its war with Georgia in 2008, which saw NATO taking no action to defend a would-be NATO member, was the dress rehearsal for what would latter transpire.
The show of force in Syria is also a way of distracting attention from the fact that the military option in Ukraine has gone about as far as it can go under existing circumstances. But it would be wrong to assume that Ukraine is out of danger. True, things have been quiet on Ukraine’s Eastern front now since early September. And yes, the meeting of the Normandy Four on 2 October in Paris ended in an apparent confirmation of the arrangements outlined in Minsk II.
Yet Russia has continued to build-up its military presence in areas adjacent to Eastern Ukraine, and there is no effective mechanism ensuring that Ukraine will be able to control its borders and verify who participates in the planned 2016 Donbass elections. Then too, the concessions made to the Donbass rebels, and the manner of their making, are unpopular among much of the Ukrainian population.
Against this backdrop, the political struggle against the country’s politicians that have taken a strong line against Russia now seems to be moving into upper gear. At a minimum, Moscow wants to hold Ukraine hostage through its hold on its Eastern territories and prevent any significant integration with the West. At a maximum, it wishes to reassert a Soviet-esque kind of suzerainty.
Of course, Russia’s Syrian gambit also has a local and regional focus. Moscow is trying to portray itself as a defender of Christian minorities – groups often allied to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad – threatened by ISIS. But more importantly, Russia has a long-standing military relationship with Syria. This encompasses a history of weapon sales and military bases, concentrated in Assad’s Alawite homeland, going back over forty years. The Russian build-up in Syria is meant to protect these interests.
At the same time, Putin has effectively countered any Western plans designed to create the no-fly zone and free haven in Syria that it should have established in the initial phase of the conflict in 2011. Instead, what seems to be emerging is a Russia-sponsored no-fly zone over those parts of Syria critically important to Assad’s political survival. The Syrian dictator currently controls less than a quarter of the country. His army has been significantly depleted. But with Russia’s help, Assad now seems set to secure his rule over Syria’s Alawi core.
This does not necessarily mean that Assad can figure that he is home free. Putin wants to ensure his role as kingmaker in Syria’s political processes, whatever the eventual outcome of the events unfolding in this beleaguered country. Assad can be dropped like a hot potato if circumstances so dictate – but Putin wants to be the guy who drops the hot potato.
The Russian president is also using the Syrian campaign to forge a new pro-Russian alliance in the greater Middle East. Together with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Russia has set up a joint intelligence-gathering centre in Bagdad, apparently to facilitate targeting ISIS assets in Syria. Just how effective this venture will be remains to be seen. It is worth noting, however, that Moscow has recently fired long-range cruise missiles (SLCMs) over Iranian airspace from ships stationed in the Caspian Sea at rebel targets in Syria. These targets could have been more easily reached from Russian naval assets in the Mediterranean. Military planners in much of NATO Europe will now be wondering whether their countries may also be vulnerable to SLCMs. This maneuver is also a marketing ploy, designed to attract buyers to Russia’s military hardware, a sector which has seen sales increase by almost 40 percent since 2005.
With his Syrian gambit, Putin is also kicking sand in America’s face. This is not difficult. The Russian President has acted decisively in Syria while the US has dithered. Putin has adopted an interventionist strategy where Obama has been focused on ending America’s overseas adventures.
At the same time, the Russian president is trying to pry the Europeans away from the US. To this end, he is sending European Union (EU) countries two messages. One is that he can still the violence in Syria that has sent so many refuges their way – if only they respond to his call for an anti-terrorist alliance, similar to the anti-Fascist one that prevailed in World War II. The other is that he can wreak additional havoc in Syria and neighbouring countries, and make an already challenging situation on and within the EU’s borders even more unmanageable, if they do not accept his embrace.
For the time being, in the absence of a credible American response, a number of EU politicians have flashed their eyebrows in Putin’s direction. Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, has called for the West to cooperate with Russia in Syria and to envisage ending the sanctions régime in place against it. And all the while the German Chancellor’s numbers have been falling in the wake of her welcoming stance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees moving her country’s way.
Putin’s overriding objective is to put Russia back on the map as a global power. As laid out in its Maritime Doctrine 2015, Moscow intends to flex its muscles not only in former Soviet space but also in the Mediterranean and the Arctic. The Syrian campaign is designed to serve this goal. With its bases in Syria secured, Russia would be able to effectively project power throughout the Mediterranean and over the energy networks that run around and through it.
We can see similarly inspired Arctic initiatives, such as its plans to restore deactivated old Soviet-era Arctic air bases and construct both new bases and air defence radar stations. And we should not lose sight of the fact that China, which Russia has been cultivating as a strategic ally, will be considering whether Russia’s machinations to its west and south do not enhance Chinese opportunities for successful power projection in the South and East China Seas.
With Russia’s manoeuvres in Syria, Putin has shown himself prepared to take significant risks. But he assumes, for example, that the Turks, whose airspace has recently been breached by Russian planes on more than on one occasion, will not fire back. He assumes that in response NATO will do relatively little, other than call another emergency meeting and make a few more minor military deployments. He assumes that until the next US President takes office in January 2017, he enjoys a relatively free reign to jab here and thrust there, all the while hollowing out what is left of Western solidarity and collective defence readiness.
For the time being, there is little reason to assume that the Russian President is incorrect in his assumptions. Putin is playing a very weak hand majestically.
David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. (Image courtesy of Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images.)