Getting it Wrong on Putin in Syria

One of the most remarkable developments over the past several weeks is how diametrically opposed the views of most American media, policymakers and candidates for office are to the majority view among Russian liberals and Kremlin analysts regarding President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria. Four Republican presidential candidates are on record supporting a U.S. no-fly zone over Syria to protect anti-Assad “rebels” from Russia’s air campaign in support of Assad’s government, Hezbollah and Iran. This view is shared by former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who favors one for humanitarian reasons.

Most of the print and electronic media in the U.S., and some of the major outlets in Western Europe, agree with America’s presidential candidates and leading politicians regarding the framework for the Kremlin’s involvement in Syria — if not necessarily their proposed responses. The framework basically holds that Putin has never been stronger and is on the march to replace the U.S. and its allies as the wider Middle East’s power broker while simultaneously building, in the words of Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, an “Unholy Alliance” of Shia powers from Tehran to Beirut. In other words, Putin is playing a purely tactical game with support of Assad being an end in itself. As Charles Krauthammer noted, Putin’s highest ambition is to avenge and reverse Russia’s humiliating loss of superpower status.

The thinking apparently goes that Putin is a nationalist ideologue committed to restoring the Russian Empire and humiliating the U.S. and its western allies at every opportunity because that was what K.T. Macfarland’s, Charles Krauthammer’s, William Kristol’s and Jennifer Rubin’s (among others) counterparts in the former Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Beginning with the assumption that Putin is acting from a position of strength triggered by a failure of America and its allies to “lead” in the wider Middle East, every move made by the Kremlin is seen through the lens of punch/counter-punch. This explains the eagerness to protect an assortment of Al-Qaeda linked Islamists, neo-Islamists and secular rebels (whose affinity for liberal values is questionable at best) from Assad’s tanks, Russian marines, Hezbollah irregulars and Russian fighter-bombers as well as calls to deploy U.S. naval assets off Syria’s coast, deploy more U.S. special forces into areas controlled by non-ISIS/anti-Assad factions and constant chatter regarding Assad having no role to play in Syria’s political transition.

This article seeks to show that American policymakers’ operating assumptions regarding Putin, his motives in Syria and the success of his recent foreign policy are flawed — in fact, nearly diametrically opposite to the reality. Moreover, this assessment is based on the views of many of Russia’s leading Kremlinologists and political analysts who make it their business to monitor Putin and his designs. This spills over into the hawkish proposals regarding a response in Syria to Russia’s intervention.

Putin’s strategic defeat in Ukraine

Putin has suffered a complete strategic defeat in Ukraine. That is the view of Andrei Piontkovsky, a leading Russian political analyst, sometime member of the liberal Yabloko Party and Kremlin policy critic. (Disclosure: this author has interned for Dr. Piontkovsky.) In several interviews and articles for Russian media, Piontkovsky noted how the terms “Russian world” and “Novorossiya,” stock phrases of the Kremlin-regulated media for over a year since the 2014 Maidan Uprising in Ukraine, have disappeared from view. Similarly, Putin has begun to comply with the general parameters of the Minsk Agreement concluded last February.

Despite what was seen as a defeat for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at a recent summit, where Germany and France compelled him to accept a comprehensive amnesty of separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine (many of them from the ranks of old elites or tied to mob bosses) and local elections which could give areas controlled by the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics a degree of autonomy, Putin’s overarching aim of cementing a tumor in Ukraine designed to derail the country’s long-term western realignment has failed. The West has not recognized either of the breakaway republics or Russia’s annexation of Crimea, targeted sanctions against the Kremlin inner circle and their assets remain in place and Ukraine continues to move closer to Europe.

Most important, and no matter its technical flaws, the end-game of the Minsk Agreement is Ukrainian sovereignty over the conflict territory with the separatists (i.e., the liquidation of the separatist republics and restoration of Kiev’s authority in eastern Ukraine). In short, for all the public relations gains and mass hysteria across Russia for defeating western-backed “fascists” and liberating the oppressed peoples of the East (to quote Putin a month after then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown — “to protect life”), Russia is now left holding the bag to feed, pay and arm the separatists and their followers whose cause is going nowhere.

Thus, while the consensus in the United States and much of the American media appears to be that Putin is the clear victor of the Ukrainian tussle, the Russian media and political establishment have changed gears in an effort to get Ukraine out of the headlines as fast as possible. As one editorial noted, Moscow kiosks, which a few weeks ago were set up to collect money for besieged Donbas, have been refurbished to aid Syrians fighting radical Islamists. Television talking heads have become instant experts on the Middle East, whereas before they spoke all day, every day about Ukraine.

The shift from Ukraine to Syria has been so sudden that “sometimes it appears that in [Russian analysts’ and policymakers’] articles, speeches, and appeals, they have hastily replaced Donetsk with Damascus.” And so it is on the ground. While separatist leaders have threatened to turn eastern Ukraine into Gaza and vowed that the Novorossiya project remains alive and well, they have also postponed local elections originally set for this month and withdrawn small arms from frontline positions.

Echoing Piontkovsky on the shift away from Ukraine and a recognition of Putin’s defeat are other leading Russian Kremlinologists and recognized political analysts, including Nikolai Svanidze, Stanislav Belkovsky, Leonid Radzihovsky and Alexander Goltz. All have appeared on Russian media and/or published articles in recent weeks to the effect that Putin and his inner circle are angered and concerned about Russia’s diplomatic isolation, the effects of economic sanctions and the strategic quagmire in Ukraine. Svanidze went so far as to argue that Putin has shunned his more hawkish advisers, who several months ago were urging an offensive as far as Russia’s tanks could drive, in favor of quietly handing the separatists over to Poroshenko so he would take care of them.

Radzihovsky has noted how expectations for Novorossiya have been lowered by the Russian media over a year from being something equivalent to half of Ukraine to isolated pockets under the control of the separatist republics. In his view, Putin’s intervention in Syria aims to swap Ukraine for Syria as far as domestic public relations is concerned and create the conditions for a grand bargain with the West aimed principally not at realigning the Middle East but making the West forget about eastern Ukraine. Specifically, Putin’s loss of face before the Russian public from the physical destruction of the separatist republics (as called for in the Minsk Agreement) would be massive and a price the Kremlin is not eager to pay. Therefore, the Syrian adventure must persuade the West to look the other way while the republics wither on the vine and gradually disappear on their own into Kiev’s bosom. Belkovsky, for his part, took the analysis a step further by claiming Putin is actually indifferent toward Ukraine. His main aim is to force Angela Merkel and Barack Obama to negotiate with him or risk further instability across the post-Soviet sphere as a whole.

In short, save for the annexation of Crimea — the euphoria over which has steadily declined — Putin has achieved no tangible gains from his involvement in Ukraine. Russia is diplomatically isolated, suffering from sanctions and faces the prospect of subsidizing territories it can ill-afford to feed. The country’s socioeconomic problems are legion — demographic stagnation, a drug and alcohol epidemic that the Kremlin authorities largely ignore, crumbling infrastructure and an unstable currency. The plan now is to move on, ingratiate Russia again into the West’s embrace and hope everyone forgets Ukraine ever happened.

Putin’s aim in Syria — ending Russia’s diplomatic blockade

In contrast to Russia-based analysts, the view of many in Washington (save, ironically, for the Obama administration) and the 2016 presidential campaigns (save for Donald Trump) is that Putin is flushed with victory and, to quote Former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, looking “to stymie, to confront, [and] to undermine American power whenever and wherever [he] can.”

Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and U.S. Senator John McCain, among others, have repeatedly stated or implied that American weakness resulted in Russia’s Ukrainian gains. Yet another candidate, Marco Rubio, has vowed to send arms and intelligence support to Ukraine to ensure that Putin’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty “comes at a price.” This naturally connects to the clamor to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, position the 6th fleet off the coast and take other steps toward open confrontation with Russia. To quote Rubio, the U.S. and Russia are “barreling toward a second Cold War,” and Putin is winning.

For all the consternation Putin inspires in western capitals, the man himself appears to be worried. In one press conference with foreign journalists, Putin emphasized that “[Russia] has said from the beginning that the politics of sanctions and isolation is ineffective in the modern world and…against a country like Russia is simply impossible.” In other words, the Kremlin is really tired of being ignored and annoyed at the toll of existing Western sanctions. Russia has been jettisoned from the G-8, its cooperation with NATO has been curtailed, and despite the former USSR’s roll in ending World War II, Putin was not even invited to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This quasi-pariah status has gotten under his skin and, in the words of satirist and Kremlin critic Victor Shenderovich, Putin’s goal going into Syria is to have western leaders speak with him again. This explains the Russian media’s almost wall-to-wall coverage of Putin’s meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly shortly before Russia began its first official airstrikes in Syria and ordered other countries to clear Syrian airspace.

While American media greeted the meeting with a collective shrug, Russian outlets painted it as a great Russo-American duel and pondered endlessly about the two leaders’ body language and who would say what to whom. Again, the reason was clear — people are talking to Russia again and needing its help. This time, to quote Putin, in the hopes of forming a new “anti-Hitler coalition” to defeat ISIS and its allies. For Putin, who has worked to reassure Russians that their country is not on the cusp of a new recession or larger economic crisis, the public relations gambit from meeting Obama and posing as the new leader of western civilization invited by “the legitimate government of Syria” to crush the Islamists did not come a moment too soon.

It is unlikely that Putin and Obama agreed on much of anything in their New York meeting, but that was beside the point. Putin made his Syria pitch and began to implement his plan to change the facts on the ground in Syria in favor of Assad and his allies. But to what end? What can Putin offer the United States and its partners to move Ukraine aside?

As Svandize and Radzihovsky have emphasized, a large deployment of ground forces is likely not to be seriously considered by the Kremlin and, to the extent troops are sent in, it could very well be auxiliaries (like Chechen leader Kadyrov’s men) or special forces (to supplement the marines already in Syria) as a complement to Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian army. The overwhelming majority of the Russian public, while fine with diplomatically supporting Assad against ISIS, is not at all in favor of sacrificing Russian troops to save Damascus.

Similarly, unless Syria is to be partitioned between Assad, the opposition and the Islamists (a plan far easier dreamed than achieved), Russian analysts believe Putin has a weak hand. Handing over Assad without massive concessions from the West would be a tremendous blow to Russian prestige and upend its makeshift alliance system in the wider Middle East. Leaving Assad in place may make a political solution in Syria impossible or compel Russia to go it alone without western backing (something Putin, who is in Syria largely because of Ukraine, is not keen on doing). And every day of airstrikes heightens the risk of casualties for Russia’s deployed personnel and costing the Kremlin a small fortune. In short, there is every indication that Putin wants the operation over and negotiations with the West to begin as soon as possible.

Responding to Putin in Syria — avoid escalation and maintain current policy

With Putin now enmeshed in Syria and the threat of Russian ground troops lingering in the air, how should the West (specifically the United States) respond? The answer was hinted at in a statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on September 30th: “If [Putin is] going to side with Assad and with Iran and Hezbollah, he’s going to have a very serious problem with the Sunni countries in the region . . . that means he . . . could very well become a target for those Sunni jihadists.”

Indeed, given that the overwhelming majority of Russia’s almost 17 million Muslims are Sunni, including those in the federated republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, it will be interesting to see how Russia rationalizes joining a Shiite coalition headlined by Iran to protect a Shia Alawite dictator against a mostly Sunni opposition. Doubtful that Putin, despite Carly Fiorina’s certainties, wants to stay in this alliance for long and make permanent enemies of, among others, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Similarly, given ISIS’s recruitment in Chechnya and the rest of Russia, the last thing the Kremlin needs is a new terror wave and for the public to connect the dots between the Syrian war and those attacks.

This obvious geopolitical problem as well as the material costs of Russia’s operations form the basis of the White House’s contention that Putin’s intervention in Syria may well turn into a quagmire and undermine Putin’s leadership. Between the former “Minister of Defense” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who said that he “will not voluntarily go to Syria . . . and what in the world is Russia doing there in the first place?”, and Russian marines in Novorossiysk who balked at deployment and Svanidze, who flailed over Russia plunging itself into an “intra-civil, intra-ethnic and intra-religious snake pit,” there is not much enthusiasm for making Syria as protracted a contest as Ukraine and none of the euphoria of Crimea.

With Kerry’s warning in mind, Russia’s strategic problems in view and its real aims in Syria largely apparent, the United States and its allies should meet Putin’s grand bluff with crossed arms. Specifically, existing sanctions on Russia should not be lifted and the current position on Ukraine should not be changed. If anything, the United States should work with Germany and France to strengthen the current Minsk Agreement to make clear that no rapprochement with Russia can occur without a guarantee that the separatist republics in the East will cease to exist after local elections are held.

As for Crimea, it can become a new Taiwan with the West sticking to a “one Ukraine” policy and not recognizing Russia’s annexation while looking the other way in practice. For Crimeans dealing with collapsing tourism and other challenges associated with Russia’s bureaucracy and economic woes, this will not necessarily come out as a victory. For Ukraine, it could also be spun as not a complete defeat. In practical terms, just as Kennedy concluded that a wall was better than nuclear war as concerned West Berlin, similarly Poroshenko likely understands that no one is interested in a nuclear or a protracted conventional war over Crimea. Putin will be left with nothing and, like in Ukraine right now, find himself holding the bag in Syria and owning whatever outcome (military and political) emerges from the current chaos.

The approach of not taking Putin’s bait appears to be the position of the White House and Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, in contrast to Hillary Clinton and Republican hawks who have advocated open confrontation. To follow their proposals, up the ante in Ukraine and, worst of all, create circumstances in Syria which may result in a direct clash between American and Russian aviators or air assets may not only trigger a horrific chain reaction toward all-out war but also give Putin precisely the public relations victory he craves.

Specifically, instead of making Syria an issue of Arabs fighting Arabs with Russia protecting narrow interests, it will become a polygon for an epic showdown with the neo-imperialist, fascist West (the same forces Putin vowed to crush in Ukraine and now wants Russians to forget about). Russia’s establishment politicians and Kremlin-supportive media will have a field day and Putin will have the grounds to either foment conflicts in other post-Soviet states (Belkovsky cited northern Kazakhstan as a tantalizing possibility) or engage in nuclear blackmail. Putin will have a much easier time spinning his way out of any of these scenarios than a protracted military conflict not particularly interesting to most Russians.

In short, American voters should tune out Rubin, Fiorina, Rubio, Clinton, et al., recognize what Putin is really after, and oppose attempts to get the United States involved in an unnecessary war or confrontation over Syria.