Opinion: Putin’s political calculus in Syria harms Russian interests

Opinion: Putin’s political calculus in Syria harms Russian interests

In precluding cooperation with NATO in the pursuit of a number of narrow and limited benefits, Putin is missing the greater benefits of what Russia could achieve by working with, rather than antagonizing, NATO. 

Coming off Turkey’s downing of a Russian combat aircraft, many questions arise as to what is going on inside Mr. Putin’s head.  One must hope that Putin’s actions in Syria are not going to continue to be as myopic or cynical as the best possible explanations indicate they have been.

On the myopic side, you have Putin thinking that risking the ire of almost all the Sunni governments, Sunni people, and Sunni jihadists by helping Shiite/Alawite Assad massacre mainly Sunni rebels and civilians with the help of Shiite Hezbollah and Shiite Iran just for Russia’s having a naval base on Syria’s coast and a few new bases inside Syria.

There’s also a zero-sum-mentality of reflexively opposing America that provides few tangible benefits.  Over the longer term, Putin is playing a game to win over the more despotic regimes in the Middle East, letting them know that America may abandon you if you give up all pretense of democracy and slaughter your people, but Russia will not (see Putin’s and Assad’s relationship).

One of the prizes Russia is eyeing here is Egypt and Hosni Mubarak’s second–(perhaps harsher)coming, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Yet gains from a budding Russian-Egyptian alliance look to be minimal and problematic.

If Putin thinks that the real prize—Saudi Arabia—will be aligning itself with Russia anytime soon, his own actions in Syria ruined that possibility; even as the American-Saudi relationship cools, it still yields far more for Saudi Arabia than an alliance with Russian would.

In general, Russia hardly has a strong position in the Middle East; Putin’s desperation to help Assad, his one main ally in the region, even at the expense of empowering ISIS, is a reflection of this weakness (it would be difficult to call Russia and Iran strong allies, and in light of the recent nuclear deal, Iran even seems even to be looking more to the West for new economic opportunities, not Russia).

It is also known that Ukraine and Moldova are prizes Putin has been eyeing for quite some time in one form or another, although trying to guess how he will play the European and Middle Eastern theaters in terms of each other is mainly speculative at this point.

If there is some big move Putin is planning in Europe, a smart better would remember that Western sanctions (coupled especially with falling oil prices) have constrained Putin’s behavior there and that, at least in the near-term, this will continue to be the case. And as Putin cozies up to dictators like Assad and Sisi, he risks severely undermining any chance of real gains where he and Russians seek them most: Europe and sanctions relief; Democracy-loving Europe will not sit and has not sat idly by while Russia has provoked war and secessionist rebellion in democratic European Ukraine while fighting against rebels for an authoritarian mass-murderer.

Thus, the term myopic is particularly appropriate for Putin’s strategy because his pursuit of whatever gains he seeks pose risks that threaten to harm Russia’s interests more than those gains would advance them: Russia is particularly vulnerable to Sunni extremist terrorism, its moves in Syria are only exposing Russia to further attacks.

If Russia is so concerned with 10% of its arms sales and access to a few military bases in Syria, it is virtually certain that the West would work out a deal to ensure these interests are preserved by a new Syrian government if Russia would agree to push for Assad’s ouster, as this would be a reasonable price to pay to see a realistic possibility of an end to this incredibly destructive and lethal war.

Thus, it is manifestly in Russia’s interests to join the current anti-ISIS coalition and to focus on ISIS now (ISIS having recently killed many Russians), not the non-ISIS rebels who have been the targets of over 90% of Russian strikes (which help ISIS sometimes gain territory), regardless of Russia’s heroic disinformation campaigns claiming the contrary. Putin would do well to put the same effort into fighting ISIS as has trying to turn everything into a he said/she said contest between Western media and RT/Sputnik.

On the cynical side, there is the ability for confrontation with the West and Turkey in Syria to help Putin sell his narrative to Russians and the gullible conspiracy-theorists who are intense RT.com and Sputnik consumers; no doubt the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey and the related casualties will galvanize popular support among the Russian people who famously rally behind Putin whenever he is challenged from the outside; thus, provoking a crisis with Turkey and NATO certainly serves to increase Putin’s power at home.

And yet, he is so popular there already, one must either question this as a solid basis for his actions or question the level of paranoia inside the Russia ruler’s mind.  Therefore, it is harder to accept this explanation on its own, though it cannot be fully ruled out of the equation.  As to whether it is a combination of the cynical and myopic, that is a difficult to determine, but the idea that this is mainly Putin playing a domestic political game seems a tough sell.

If Putin is now willing to continue to risk the lives of Russian pilots to play political chicken with his rivals, it will not serve Russia’s interests. Ultimately, Putin is not the only actor here: Turkey and the U.S. have been flirting with a call for no-fly zones in parts of Syria, including the Turkish-Syrian border; if Russia pushes these NATO countries too far, this will only increase the odds of NATO no-fly zones that would severely limit Russia’s freedom of action in Syria and the region.

Thus, Putin’s actions at best produce meager benefits that dwarf what Russia could achieve as a team player.

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Brian Frydenborg

Brian E. Frydenborg is a freelancer based in Amman, Jordan, who earned his B.A. double-major in Politics and History at Washington and Lee University and holds an M.S. in Peace Operations awarded from the George Mason University School of Public Policy. His studies included abroad experiences in Japan, Liberia, and Israel/Palestine. He has had dozens of articles published across a variety of outlets, is one of the top bloggers for the Russian International Affairs Council, and has spent most of the last fifteen years studying, researching, and writing about (and occasionally practicing) politics, history, public policy, foreign policy, humanitarian aid, international development, and peace operations.