Putin’s decision to bomb ISIS in Syria is a calculated risk designed to break Russia’s isolation from the West and prevent radical Islamic elements from further destabilizing the North Caucasus and Central Asia.
Russian Sukhoi Su-24 tactical bombers at an airfield near Latakia, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s subsequent military intervention in Syria mark the Kremlin’s new attempt to normalize relations with the West. For various international and domestic reasons, Putin wants to end the period of confrontation that began with the failure of the “reset” strategy and culminated with the devastating Ukrainian conflict.
Putin’s long-standing objective has been to establish Russia as a nation that acts in accordance with formal and informal norms of traditional great power politics and is recognized as a major state by the outside world.
The norms of traditional power politics include a general agreement on major threats to the international system, multilateral diplomacy to solve disputes, and respect for both sovereignty and major powers’ spheres of influence. Putin firmly believes that the West has violated these norms by breaking all existing rules and principles.
The problem is that he sincerely believes that the United States has introduced a radically different interpretation of major global threats, abandoned multilateral diplomacy, and violated principles of sovereignty and spheres of influence by intervening in Yugoslavia and Iraq and then launching a global policy of regime change.
Read Q&A with Columbia University's Robert Legvold: "Syria is now in the middle of a new, more dangerous Cold War"
In this climate, Putin could not cooperate with the West on Syrian President Bashir Assad’s departure even though he earlier signaled that keeping Assad in power was not his number one priority. His cooperation proposal had to be advanced from the position of an independent, equally important power, not one prepared to serve as a junior member of the U.S.-centered coalition.
In Putin’s mind, now is the time to repair the broken Russia-West relationship. The terrorist threat is again on the rise. However, U.S. attempts to make a difference by fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and trying to unseat Assad simultaneously produced no results.
The EU is undergoing a major crisis that has recently resulted in a major influx of refugees from Syria. The Ukraine conflict, though still in a bitter struggle, is on track to move away from military confrontation – largely due to the willingness of the European powers and the United States to prevent Kiev from using force in eastern Ukraine and assist Russia in looking for a compromise settlement.
Domestically, Russia is in a deep crisis of its economic and political model exacerbated by the decline of oil prices, Western sanctions, and China’s inability to replace the West a source of investment and technology.
There is a chance that Putin’s efforts may work. By inviting the West to join the Russia-initiated anti-ISIS coalition, Putin not only tries to break out of Western isolation, but also moves Russia to the very center of the world’s political attention.
Some European leaders have cautiously endorsed Russia’s intervention in Syria provided that Putin concentrates on fighting ISIS, not the opposition to Assad. The White House is willing to postpone resolution of Assad’s departure in the interests of defeating ISIS. And the Russian and American military are in the process of coordinating their efforts in Syria.
For a different take read: "Efforts in Syria against ISIS won’t bring US, Russia closer together"
Although Putin’s coalition in the Middle East remains largely Shia-based, a number of Arab and Middle Eastern leaders have indicated their tacit provisional support. At a minimum, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan will be benevolent observers by not creating any serious obstacles to Russia. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf States will remain critical of Putin’s intervention, but may be restrained by the benevolent attitude of the U.S. toward Russia’s actions and their own Shia minorities.
Despite these odds, Putin’s U-turn is risky and faces a number of potentially serious obstacles – both abroad and at home. In the West, Putin is widely despised and mistrusted - partly due to his perceived efforts to undermine the West globally and attempts to centralize power on an anti-Western platform at home.
Putin himself is of a very low opinion of Western leaders and their self-centered actions may yet again turn him against them in Eurasia, Europe, or the Middle East. In the Middle East, the anti-ISIS coalition runs a risk of remaining Shia-based which may mean following the agenda of keeping Assad in power, strengthening Iran, and undermining Israel.
In the latter case, the West will quickly withdraw its tentative support and Putin will become globally isolated. Importantly, China and other non-Western powers are yet to clearly indicate where they stand on the issue.
Other serious risks are domestic. Given Russia’s recent problems in the Northern Caucasus, the Kremlin has little choice of not fighting jihadist terrorism abroad. Staying on the offensive is designed as a way to prevent radicalization of Russia’s own Muslims and the destabilization of Central Asia.
However, active military involvement in a Muslim region may instead contribute to such radicalization and destabilization. Russia’s regional experts have long warned of a potential for such destabilization, should the Kremlin overplay its hand.
The latter may also undermine Putin’s support at home. Russians remain skeptical of the military intervention in Syria with only 14 percent supportive of it. Although Putin promised no “boots on the ground,” the trauma of the Soviet war in Afghanistan remains unhealed and will play against the involvement in the Middle East.
In the meantime, war has its own logic. Russians may experience casualties, or inadvertently hit civilian targets, or feel additional need to reinforce Assad’s army. These developments may push the intervention in a very unfortunate direction by turning it from a limited and effective operation into a prolonged war.
Putin has taken a risk before when, following the events of 9/11, he went against the anti-Western elites and skeptical public at home by extending his support for the United States’ “war on terror.” Today’s risk is arguably even greater given the high degree of radicalization in the Middle East, Russia’s crippled economy and the nation’s damaged international reputation.
The stakes and potential payoffs, however, are very considerable. If Russia and the West will learn to coordinate their actions in Syria, they may jointly strike a major blow to ISIS, and then emerge as important participants in defining the political future of the region.
At that point, a compromise solution on Syria’s future government may be found. The issue of Ukraine and Russia’s security in Europe and Eurasia may be revisited with a greater sensitivity to Russia’s values and interests.
As an avid student of history, Putin knows that Russia has been always more effective in meeting its core objectives when these are not obstructed by the West.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.