Written by Kimberly Marten.
Russian President Vladimir Putin loves surprises, so perhaps we should take his unexpected military foray into Syria as par for the course. But there is little chance that Putin’s Syria adventure will actually serve Russian national interests.
The Russian economy is in poor shape, given the collapse of global oil prices and the added aggravation of continuing Western sanctions. Putin’s military refurbishment plans had already been scaled back as a result, and ordinary Russians have started to suffer from reduced employment and rising prices. The state budget will now be stretched further by the Syrian intervention. And although Russia is Syria’s main source for weapons, Syrian purchases are a small fraction of Russia’s global arms market, according to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, so Putin is probably not just trying to protect those sales.
Syria does host Russia’s last naval outpost beyond former Soviet territory, but Russia’s navy is a shadow of its former Soviet self, and no one is predicting that Russia will be able to use the leased Tartus naval resupply and repair facility for significant force projection anytime soon. By fighting on behalf of the brutal sectarian regime of Bashar Assad, Putin may also provoke homegrown Islamist extremists in the North Caucasus to attempt new acts of terrorism inside Russia. He is not making Russia safer.
So if Putin’s expensive, risky actions are not doing much to benefit the Russian state, what explains them?
The key may be that Syria’s ruling Assad family is Moscow’s longstanding client. President Bashar Assad’s late father Hafez had been a Soviet ally since taking power in a 1971 coup. Given Russia’s continuing ties to the country—as weapons supplier, heavy industry investor, and international booster—Putin is the Syrian regime’s most powerful current patron.
Russian commentators, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have sometimes pooh-poohed the notion that Russia is protecting Assad as an individual. But if we take Putin’s perspective, demonstrating his ability to support and protect the Syrian regime may send a crucial signal at home.
Russian domestic politics are based on personal network connections between patrons and clients. Putin has placed many individual friends from his hometown of St. Petersburg and his years in the KGB into positions of power. They head state ministries and serve as CEOs of strategic enterprises in Russia’s defense, energy, and raw materials sectors. Putin, the patron, has thereby given his clients the ability to practice graft and extract personal profit from every major state contract that is signed. In order to maintain his clients’ loyalty, Putin must constantly demonstrate that he serves their interests better than any potential competitor could. That means proving his strength as a patron—including strength in the face of adversity, given Russia’s current economic malaise and growing international isolation.
What better way to send a message of continuing strength to his clients at home, than to square off against the West in defending an embattled client abroad?
Recall that this is Putin’s second “Syrian surprise.” In September 2013 Putin proposed what turned out to be the successful removal of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons under United Nations oversight. That earlier Syrian surprise was so stunning because for the previous two-and-a-half years, Russia had used the threat of its UN Security Council veto to prevent authorization of any kind of international intervention in the grinding Syrian civil war. Not only did Moscow suddenly declare that international intervention was warranted, it even approved having Western inspectors and U.S. military technicians carry out the chemical warheads’ removal and destruction.
Many commentators today have focused, as they did in 2013, on Putin’s desire to make U.S. President Barack Obama look bad. In 2013 Putin’s actions undercut a discussion in the U.S. Congress about Obama’s planned airstrikes over Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Now Putin has criticized Obama for the West’s failure to solve the Syrian crisis and destroy the Islamic State. Yet while there is no question that Putin considers Obama a weak leader, there is a more important similarity between the two cases: each time, Putin has stepped in as the vigorous protector to prolong the rule of Assad.
In 2013 Putin saved the Syrian regime from what he might have believed were U.S. plans to use airstrikes to topple Assad. This followed Putin’s experience with NATO intervention in Libya two years earlier. Russia had abstained from vetoing a 2011 UN Security Council resolution authorizing NATO airstrikes in Libya to protect civilians, and was then dismayed to see the UN mission transformed into a NATO effort to support Libyan rebels. The rebels soon overthrew the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, and killed him in cold blood.
This time around Russian forces have intentionally attacked moderate anti-Assad rebels who are backed by the U.S. CIA, at a time when Assad’s regime was seen to be flagging. These opposition groups are also backed by Turkey and several Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. The attacked groups have a clear interest in the destruction of the Islamic State, who are their competitors as potential future rulers of Syria.
Putin’s public claim that he is leading an international coalition against the Islamic State is thus clearly false. While some Russian airstrikes, including in Palmyra, have indeed targeted and killed Islamic State members, Putin’s primary goal is to protect Assad once again.
Perhaps Putin’s actions are influenced, as some commentators have suggested, by his abhorrence of popular revolt in any form. But that seems a flimsy reason for the expense and risk that Putin’s actions entail.
Instead we should remember that all politics are local, and foreign policy begins at home. Putin’s primary goals are to stay in power as long as possible, while going down in history as the man who made Russia great again. Demonstrating his strength as the Syrian regime’s patron serves both of those ends.
Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. This piece forms part of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism‘s research program on Russian foreign and defense policy. Image credit: CC by Global Panorama/Flickr