Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy several dozen military aircraft and helicopters to Syria and set up a military base to maintain them was motivated by a set of interconnected aims and reasons. They can be separated into internal and external motivations for the sake of analysis, but the two are inextricably linked.
Internally, whether deliberately or not, the Syria operation is diverting attention from the Russian economic crisis. Russia’s economy will shrink both this year and likely in 2016, with no steady growth potential in sight.
There are no easy policy measures that would quickly remedy Russia’s economic ills. Both government officials and economic experts argue that Russia needs structural reforms to re-launch growth. The effect of such reforms would be painful, at least in the short term, and could damage Putin’s grip on Russia’s political life.
Therefore, a “splendid little war” in such a scenario provides the Russian government with just the right leeway to wade through these difficulties during the election period. The State Duma will be re-elected in 2016, followed by the presidential election in 2018.
On the international front, the Syria operation is diverting attention too, but in this case not from the economy – rather from Ukraine. Clearly, its falling economy and the Ukraine crisis are Moscow’s main vulnerabilities at the moment, while international attention is exactly Kiev’s main asset in its conflict with Russia. As the media is preoccupied with Russia’s ambiguous plans in the Middle East, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is being defused and the status quo becomes “the new normal.” When the attention will be drawn back to Ukraine, the current situation of the country’s East controlled by the insurgents and Crimea entirely controlled by Russia will be the basis for negotiations in which Moscow will have a stronger hand.
As Russia’s first military campaign outside its former Soviet borders, the Syria operation also asserts Russia’s new role in the international system. The country no longer positions itself as a regional power that is desperately trying to preserve its immediate sphere of influence. The new Russia is an ambitious country that is trying to act as a new power center in what is essentially still a unipolar world.
In order to prove its new position, Russia has put some of its most advanced weapons on display. In a spectacular demonstration of force, new cruise missiles have flown some 1,500 kilometers over Iran and Iraq to hit targets in Syria. The air strikes themselves were conducted by the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighters that were never tested in combat before. The military base near Latakia was set up in a matter of weeks with soldiers living in air-conditioned dorms. The Russian army has almost suddenly emerged modern and transformed from the decay of the 1990s.
This renewed military prowess has enabled Assad’s forces to launch a counter-offensive against its enemies. Russia has demonstrated that there can be no post-war Syria without Assad – Moscow’s main international asset outside the CIS. In a more general sense, Russia has demonstrated that it can back its rhetoric and geopolitical aspirations militarily.
Before Latakia, Moscow had its only naval facility in the Mediterranean in the city of Tartus on Syria’s coast. By no means a full naval base, this facility allows Russian ships to shorten their trip back to their Black Sea bases via the Turkish straits. Keeping Russia present in the Middle East has thus been and remains important, but despite all the recent efforts it is not the primary reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria.
A black belt in judo, Putin saw an opportunity in the US’s continuous misfortunes in Syria (and Iraq) and turned American weaknesses into his own strength. The US was evidently puzzled about what to do with the Syria quagmire with no apparent good options. By making a decisive move, Putin has filled the void and will now share responsibility for Syria’s future. The risk is that such a strategy will bring benefits in the short term, but will become an unbearable burden in the long term.
Meanwhile, Russia’s true security interests are located elsewhere, in Central Asia where, for example, the Taliban is haunting Tajikistan. Russia’s border with Central Asian states is porous. Moscow could potentially ignore the crisis in Syria, but it will not be able to ignore a crisis in Tajikistan or any other state in this region. Just as Russia was conducting its first strikes in Syria, a Taliban formation seized the city of Kunduz in Afghanistan, which is only 100 kilometers away from the Tajik border.
Putin’s ambition in Syria is to make the West treat him as an equal again: he insists that Russia can have a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space that must serve as a buffer vis-a-vis NATO. The leader in the Kremlin essentially sees that the West is doing the same – trying to expand its sphere of influence – and insists that Russia should reciprocate
By doing this, he has already earned many fans (or at least reluctant admirers) around the world, but he risks being consumed with his foreign policy ventures when it is his country’s economy which needs to be fixed. For the first time since Putin came into power, Russians’ real incomes have fallen. This represents a shift from the earlier implicit deal between Russia’s quiet majority and the government. While legitimacy used to be exchanged for increasing incomes, today it is exchanged for the sense of the country’s greatness which people see as a source of personal dignity. It is not clear that this will be enough to guarantee extended support for the current establishment.
Putin has recently said that he spends 80% of his time on the questions of Russia’s economy and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Russian state media is doing the opposite: only a fraction of their time is devoted to the country’s real problems. In the absence of a wide discussion on Russia’s future development, it will be very difficult for the country to overcome the challenges it faces today.
To make matters worse, while Moscow’s intervention in Syria took months to prepare, it will be much more difficult to exit than it was to enter into the conflict. It is unclear what the actual Russian objectives are: a full defeat of the Islamic State is unattainable, as it is impossible to defeat an ideology militarily. There is also no way back to the pre-Assad Syria and the longer Russia stays there the more the propaganda effect of the operation will fade.
Meanwhile, millions of Russian Muslims are watching what is happening with awe. Most of them are Sunni, just like Assad’s enemies that Putin’s weapons are helping him defeat. These Russian citizens might be quiet now, but they may react in the longer term and become a source of instability in the country.