America is tired of being America, so Russia is being Russia again.
While an exhausted and burned out United States wishes international migraines like the Syrian civil war would just go away, Russia is energized by the prospect of filling the vacuum and thus once again playing a major role on the world stage. Aggressively intervening on behalf of his ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, and projecting force well beyond even the frontier states in his “near abroad,” Vladimir Putin audaciously aims to change political outcomes in a region that has been out of his country’s sphere of influence for a generation.
The telegram to President Obama has arrived: “The Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis—by far the world’s most powerful terrorist nexus and the bane of American servicemen and policymakers for more than three decades—is now officially the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Details to follow.”
Syria became a Russian client state in 1966 when the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a coup d’état, overthrowing the relatively moderate Aflaqites and establishing a far more brutal regime influenced heavily by Marxism-Leninism.
The relationship atrophied, of course, after the Soviet Union collapsed. For a long time, Moscow could barely hold its own country together, and Syria found its international support from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist army in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
But Russia is back on its feet again, Assad needs some help, and four and a half years into the Syrian civil war, it’s obvious that the United States is largely uninterested in any serious attempt to resolve the conflict one way or another. Russia can do whatever it wants.
So in early September, Moscow began shipping military personnel and tons of matériel, including battle tanks and mobile artillery pieces, on huge Antonov-124 Condor flights into the Bassel al-Assad International Airport outside the Mediterranean city of Latakia.
According to at least one American defense official, as of September 14th—two weeks before the intervention officially began—Russia’s deployment was already the largest since the Soviet days. In late September, Moscow began launching airstrikes against the smorgasbord of Syrian rebels fighting the government in and around the cities of Homs and Hama, well outside territory held by ISIS, supposedly the target of the intervention. And by early October, Russia was launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and coordinating its attacks with Hezbollah.
Putin offered the prospect of a coalition against terror. But while the US and Russia agreed to a memorandum of understanding to avoid accidentally shooting each other out of the skies over Syria, Washington and Moscow otherwise aren’t cooperating.
“We’re not able at this time to associate ourselves more broadly with Russia’s approach in Syria because it is wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said. “It attempts to fight extremism while not also at the same time working to promote the political transition” away from Assad.
Putin doesn’t care about Assad personally. Assad visited Moscow in late October for a meeting that according to all reports was as frosty as the temperature outside. Putin only cares about the Baath regime, its institutions, and its armed forces. It makes no difference to him which personality sits at the top of that structure. If some military commander were to shove Assad aside and rule like General Sisi in Egypt, Russia wouldn’t even blink.
The US is right to oppose both ISIS and the Assad regime. Syria’s government has sponsored terrorism not only against every single one of its neighbors, but also against the United States in Iraq. But let’s be honest: There will be no nonviolent political transition in Syria. The regime is overwhelmingly dominated by members of the non-Muslim Alawite minority, who will never negotiate with jihadists who want to impale them as infidels, nor with the ragtag “democratic forces” (now largely driven by Kurdish fighters) theoretically backed by the US.
Whatever is left of the moderate Sunni Muslim community would probably go along with a smooth transition of some sort, as long as it’s genuine. It’s what they wanted at the very beginning before the nonviolent protest movement escalated to war. But the regime wouldn’t be negotiating with passive moderates who have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. If there were negotiations, they would have to be with the men who have guns, almost all of whom at this point are battle-hardened extremists.
A proper transition to an inclusive and even quasi-civilized government in Damascus would first require the destruction of both the regime and the extremists, and right now no one is making any attempt to bring that about.
Fighting an insurgency with airstrikes, artillery, and cruise missiles is for losers. The US has been pinpricking ISIS from the skies for more than a year now with little to show for it. The Israelis thought they could beat Hezbollah from the air in 2006 and failed even more spectacularly.
Want to fight an effective counterinsurgency? Call General David Petraeus. He pulled it off smashingly in Iraq, but it required billions upon billions of dollars, tens of thousands of ground troops, substantial support from the local population, and years of determined effort and battlefield casualties.
And his gains evaporated almost instantly after he and his fellow soldiers went home.
Vladimir Putin is not going to call David Petraeus. At least for now, he’s only interested in a low-risk, low-budget intervention. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Moscow Times newspaper, Russia’s Syrian campaign is costing $4 million a day. That’s just $1.5 billion a year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that the United States spent roughly $1.4 trillion in Iraq—a thousand times as much.
Will Russia be able to pacify an entire country while spending just a fraction of a percent as much as the US spent to pacify Iraq only temporarily? Probably not.
But no matter. Putin has three goals in Syria, and none of them involve permanent pacification.
First and most immediately he wants to prop up Russia’s sole ally in the Arab world.
The second goal is announcing that he wants America’s job as the world’s superpower now that we’re sick of it.
Putin wants America’s job because, why not? Russia is not Belgium, and it is not Canada. It was one of only two superpowers until the Soviet Union imploded under the weight of its own belligerent imbecility, and it has been wallowing in a post-imperial funk—“malaise” in Jimmy Carter’s lexicon—ever since.
It could theoretically regain some of its lost power as the West’s partner, but being one of many is not how Russia rolls. Whenever Washington makes a friendly overture to Moscow, Russians interpret it the way Luke Skywalker heard Darth Vader say, between bouts of heavy mechanical breathing, “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”
Because he’s instinctively paranoid, as well as filled with ressentiment for what happened to his country after 1989, Putin does not trust the West, not even remotely. He is sure that NATO is coming to get him.
It sounds nuts from our point of view, and it is, but look at it Putin’s way. When he was still a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s Directorate S, Europe was more or less evenly divided between NATO in the west and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in the east. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO gobbled up just about everything in the old Communist bloc except Serbia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Imagine how it would look from the West’s point of view if the Warsaw Pact rolled westward in the 1990s and swallowed up everything except Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Would we believe Russia if it said it wasn’t coming to get us?
Nope. And we’d be right not to.
Putin is projecting his own ideas and values onto us. He’s asking himself what he’d do in our place, and doing it.
His third reason for intervening in Syria is because it’s good for him personally. During the Communist era, many Russians took pride in the fact that their nation was powerful even though it was poor. Putin can’t raise Russian living standards to Western levels, but he can revive some of the motherland’s former glory, and he can do it without the slave labor camps. The man is no Joseph Stalin. Secretary of State John Kerry was right to compare Putin to a 19th-century czar born two centuries late. His ratings are far better than those of any Romanov: Shortly before Halloween, less than a month into his Syrian bombing campaign, Putin’s approval ratings in Russia exceeded 90 percent.
What is the US take after Russia’s intervention? Shortly after it began, President Obama told 60 Minutes that it was a “sign of weakness.” He bristled when interviewer Steve Kroft insisted Putin was challenging American leadership. “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in,” he said, “in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”
But like it or not, Putin is taking the lead in Syria. He’s the chief power broker. Everything has to go through him.
Sure, he might fail. (He’s plunging headfirst into the Middle East, after all.) And he may well run Russia’s economy into the ground before he’s finished, but since he’s doing the whole thing on the cheap, on a lousy $4 million a day, he probably won’t.
A weak nation couldn’t even consider doing what he’s doing. Only strong nations can project hard power beyond their own borders. Belgium can’t do it. Canada and Mexico can’t do it. None of the Arab states can do it.
Aside from running guns and money to various proxy militias, the Arab states can’t do anything about Syria, even the ones right there on Syria’s borders. Lebanon and Iraq can’t even handle the militias in their own countries let alone in somebody else’s, which is why they’ve spent the last four and a half years wringing their hands on the sidelines of the Syrian catastrophe and asking for American help.
But America isn’t interested, so Russia is “helping” instead. And the Obama administration is responding by carping at itself.
“We’re just so reactive,” one current official complained to Politico anonymously. “There’s just this tendency to wait.” Another one said of the Pentagon: “They’re on their back feet. It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”
Feeling a little defensive, US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney told a stunned audience of Syrian-Americans that the “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him.”
“He should be on Saturday Night Live,” Republican Senator John McCain told the Daily Beast in response. “I strongly recommend it. I guess if Russia takes all of Syria and Iraq, then that shows they’re really weak. It’s ridiculous. . . just delusional.”
The administration has had trouble with Russia right from the start, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much lampooned “reset” with Moscow, which seemed to treat Putin’s intransigence as a hangover from the Bush administration.
The “reset” obviously failed. Badly. Putin is who he is. George W. Bush didn’t make him that way. The Soviet Union and the KGB made him that way. Any viable “reset” would have to come from the Russian side. The idea that Putin would play well with others if we simply acted nice and smiley was as delusional as calling Assad a reformer.
The problem begins at the top. In January of 2014, Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he didn’t need a grand new strategy, adding that where Russia was concerned he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now.”
But with Putin in the Kremlin, Kennan is exactly who the United States needs. As a US diplomat (later ambassador) in Moscow during the Truman administration, Kennan first advocated the policy of “containment,” writing that the Soviet Union should be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have been wrong in 2012 when he said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. Given the fact that ISIS didn’t exist at the time, Iran would have fit the bill better. Never mind, though. In hindsight it’s clear that Obama was a little too dismissive when he said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
Yes, the Cold War is over, and yes, Putin is spectacularly unlikely to ever attack the American homeland or any of America’s allies in NATO or elsewhere. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that Russia is brazenly expanding its role in the world, and that it’s doing so at America’s expense.
Why is Putin doing this? Partly because he feels like it and because he can, but also because he, and Russians generally, feel like they need to.
Let’s go back to George Kennan, who said famously that “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.”
There’s a reason for that, and it’s deeply embedded in Russia’s history and geography.
Look at a map. Russia is an enormous, sprawling monstrosity of a nation even without its former Soviet satellites. It spans 11 time zones—nearly halfway around the planet—and overwhelms almost all of Eurasia.
In the early 16th century, Russia was just a vertical sliver in Europe next to Finland and Poland. It hadn’t even reached the Black Sea yet. Before its centuries-long expansion into Siberia and to the Pacific coast, with no mountains or water as natural boundaries, the Russians were extremely vulnerable to invasion from every direction. They had no warm-water port and lived precariously on the cold steppe and in the snowy taiga. They’d only recently recovered from the near-apocalyptic Mongol invasion in the 13th century, which reduced their previous civilization, Kievan Rus, to ashes.
After Russians threw off the Asian yoke, they knew they had to expand their territory as far as possible from the population core in Eastern Europe if they were to survive. So Russia expanded, all the way to the other side of the world—not just 11 time zones, but 12. (Let’s not forget that even Alaska once belonged to Moscow.)
But Russia was still vulnerable on its European flank and nearly fell to Napoleonic France in 1812 and, after that, to Nazi Germany in 1941. So Russia then expanded westward as much as possible and reached all the way to the center of Europe, in East Germany, at the end of World War II. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still maintained as many vassal states as it could along its border—Belarus, reluctant Ukraine, Armenia, and most of the Central Asian “Stans”—to serve as protective buffers.
Rather than even considering membership in the European Union—Russia would view it as a sort of surrender—Putin is forging his Eurasian Economic Union instead. It so far consists of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.
The European Union is somewhat decentralized. Germany and France have a lot of influence in decisionmaking, but no single nation dictates to everyone else. The Eurasian Economic Union, though, has Moscow in the cockpit with everyone else as junior partners or, as Kennan would have put it, vassals.
Look at a map again. Iran is a powerful state in the middle of the same Eurasia where Putin is building his union. An alliance of some sort with Iran isn’t strictly required, but it’s certainly helpful. At the very least, Putin wants good relations with the Iranians. And he wants America and American-friendly regimes away from his underbelly for the same reason he wants them off his western flank in Europe, where he fears the West and its economic and military alliances might encroach.
There’s no better way to win favor in Tehran than by co-sponsoring Iran’s own Middle Eastern proxies, Assad and Hezbollah. And there’s no better way to keep the West from breathing up his pant legs in the Middle East than by making himself the new power broker in a region long influenced by the United States, which he clearly sees as his biggest geopolitical foe.
“Russia wants to get rid of ISIS,” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said on the campaign trail. “We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let ’em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?”
Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the general truth that Russian expansionism has been almost entirely deleterious for everybody but Russians. Vladimir Putin isn’t interested in getting rid of ISIS. At least not initially.
“Victory in the form originally conceived—of the reconquest of the entirety of the country by the Assads—is clearly no longer achievable,” writes Middle East scholar and analyst Jonathan Spyer. Which is why Russia began its attacks on insurgents nearer the capital while leaving ISIS largely alone in the east. It makes little difference to Russia if ISIS maintains its deranged “state” out in the desert as long as it leaves Russia and the Assad regime alone in western Syria.
Assad doesn’t particularly care either, as long as he, his regime, and his fellow Alawites control Syria’s Mediterranean region around Latakia—the core of the Alawite homeland—and the Damascus-Homs-Hama-Aleppo urban corridor in the near interior.
“The arrival of Russian personnel and equipment to Latakia Province,” Spyer wrote, “is intended to bolster the regime enclave in the western coastal area. There are no indications, however, of a Russian strategy to take part in a ground campaign to claw back the large swathe of northern Syria lost to the rebels and [ISIS].”
All this can change quickly, of course, and the possibility that ISIS blew up a Russian airliner in the Sinai desert over Egypt may eventually change Putin’s calculations, but Russia may be content with a frozen conflict over the long term. Iran and Hezbollah would be okay with that, too, as long as they maintain their access to the Lebanese border and manage to keep the urban corridor intact.
For decades now, Moscow has been gleefully carving off chunks of other nations into unrecognized pro-Russian statelets, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine, making frozen conflicts one of its chief political exports since its empire fell with the Berlin Wall.
Aside from Crimea, these Russian-controlled fragments are useless to everybody who doesn’t actually live there—especially the hopelessly backward Soviet-style failure of Transnistria—but they get the job done by preventing Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova from joining the EU and NATO. If Russia can’t have these nations as vassals under its boot, at least it can compromise them enough to keep them out of Western hands. A rump state in Syria controlled partly by Russia that includes the majority of the population rather than just a small part of it would be Russia’s most significant achievement yet in the art of frozen conflicts it is trying to perfect.
Either way, freezing Syria’s status quo may be the best Russia can get. If it’s willing to send in massive numbers of ground troops, sure it could destroy the ISIS “state” in the east, but how long would that last? The United States defeated ISIS under its previous name, al-Qaeda in Iraq, only to watch it mushroom again as soon as American soldiers were out of the way.
Predicting the course of events is a difficult science generally, and especially difficult in a byzantine place like the Middle East. Lord only knows where Russia’s adventure will lead, especially if it lasts several years. Keenly perceptive analysts can sometimes see around one corner, but nobody can see around four.
Obama may be right that Putin is getting himself into a quagmire that he will sorely regret, but it partly depends on Putin’s goals. If he simply wants to shore up Assad and doesn’t care what ISIS does on its own turf in the hinterlands, his odds of success are excellent.
One thing at least is certain: Getting Russia out of the Middle East again will take a long time.