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The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad

Mistaking Syria for Chechnya

A Russian soldier in Chechnya, November 1999. (Courtesy Reuters)

Few issues better illustrate the limits of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia than the crisis in Syria. For more than a year, the United States has tried, and failed, to work with Russia to find a solution to end the violence. Moscow has firmly opposed international intervention to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, arguing that the conflict must be resolved through negotiations and that Assad must be included in any transitional arrangement leading to a new government. Although the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, reached out recently to the leaders of the Syrian opposition, these talks produced no indication that the Kremlin is seriously recalibrating its positions on Syria. And that’s hardly surprising: the main obstacle to any shift in Russia’s calculations is President Vladimir Putin himself, whose aversion to forcible regime change is intense and unwavering.

Why has Putin offered such steadfast support to Assad? On the surface, Moscow seems to profit from exporting arms to Syria, and it depends on the regime’s good will to maintain Russian access to a naval facility at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. But these are marginal and symbolic interests. Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse -- a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009. (In Russia, the republics are semi-autonomous federal units comprising the historic territories of the country’s non-ethnic Russian groups.) In a series of interviews he gave in 2000 for an authorized biography, Putin declared that “the essence of the ... situation in the North Caucasus and in Chechnya ... is the continuation of the collapse of the USSR.... If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist.... I was convinced that if we did not immediately stop the extremists [in Chechnya], then in no time at all we would be facing a second Yugoslavia across the entire territory of the Russian Federation -- the Yugoslavization of Russia.” And we know how Putin feels about the demise of the Soviet Union; in 2005 he called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” a comment that was meant to bemoan the collapse of the Soviet state rather than the demise of communism.

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