Russian President Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia's Arctic North on board the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky, August 17, 2005.
Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 2015 decision to deploy military forces to Syria’s battlefields surprised even the sharpest foreign policy experts. Yet Putin does tend to do the unexpected, especially lately. His annexation of Crimea and support for the two breakaway statelets in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region are cases in point.

In the summer of 2014, the self-proclaimed republics were heading for defeat. The Ukrainian army and a gaggle of warlord-led private militias had advanced into the rebel-held territories, and it seemed as though the rebels would not be able to hold out for much longer. To save them, Putin supplied the arms and personnel for a counteroffensive and to help open a new front on Ukraine’s southern coast near Novoazovsk. The maneuver was designed to split Ukrainian forces.

The Russian intervention did, in fact, push the Donbas front westward. Putin eventually halted the rebels’ Russian-backed offensive—but not before the rout of Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in February 2015. Trapped in a pocket and taking fire from all directions save one, Ukrainian troops retreated in humiliation.

Putin’s escalation largely nullified Ukraine’s previous gains and sent a message about Moscow’s resolve. Today, back-and-forth shelling along the new front continues, and the resulting stalemate gives Putin leverage.

From Ukraine, Putin went to Syria. Critics—for example, Gary Kasparov, a former leader of Russia’s political opposition and a chess grand master, as well as Western commentators—have implied that it was U.S. President Barack Obama’s fecklessness in Ukraine that encouraged Russia’s intervention. After all, having pulled off the land grab in Crimea and a war in Donbas without provoking a U.S. military response, the Russian president might have reasoned that he could do something equally audacious in Syria and get away with it. It is impossible to know whether this charge is valid because of the lack of solid evidence on Putin’s thinking prior to his intervention in Syria.

Yet the Ukraine-Syria connection does shed light on Putin’s worldview—and that of those around him.

Like it or not, Russia’s ruling elite consider Ukraine part of their country’s legitimate, historic sphere of influence. It might be comforting to believe that the proprietary attitude reflects only Putin’s personal obsession with power and status and that if Putin somehow fades, the ideas would dissipate. But that optimistic assessment doesn’t hold up. It was the current Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, regarded by some as a potential reformer and supporter of improving relations with the West, who proclaimed during his presidential interregnum (and in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war) that the countries near Russia belonged to its zone “of privileged interest.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a wreath laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, Russia, February 23, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a wreath laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, Russia, February 23, 2016.
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Well before Putin and Medvedev, it was the government of Boris Yeltsin, a leader now lionized as a democrat by some dispirited Western observers of Russia, that lambasted NATO’s eastward expansion. Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin’s first foreign minister, who held the post until 1996, was hailed for his statements about Russia seeking “to join the democratic community of nations with a market economy.” But it was the same Kozyrev who warned as early as 1992 that NATO’s enlargement would divide Europe and empower Russian hard-liners. (He proved prescient.) Under Kozyrev’s successor, the wily Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s criticism of NATO intensified. And Yeltsin himself railed against the Atlantic alliance’s 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo and Serbia.

In other words, it is not just Putin who believes that great powers are entitled to spheres of influence and that Russia’s is in danger. Top Russian leaders held this view well before he took the helm, just as their tsarist and Soviet forebears did; and top Russian leaders will believe it long after he departs. Nor is this outlook peculiar to Russia, as even a cursory look at U.S., British, French, German, or Chinese history reveals.

Opinion surveys—not only those conducted by Russian state pollsters—show that Putin’s defiance of the West and defense of Russian foreign policy interests also have considerable purchase in Russian society at large, not just within the leadership.

Russians at large deemed unacceptable the prospect of Ukraine aligning with Europe as a result of a free trade deal—the Association Agreement—that it had been negotiating with the EU since 2008. Ditto the possibility that Ukrainians, who took to the streets in late 2013, might oust President Viktor Yanukovych, whom Moscow had just bribed and cajoled into shelving the accord with the EU. The Kremlin stepped in because it believed that the West had no realistic choice but to accept geostrategic realities and back away from tangling with Russia on its own doorstep. This assumption proved accurate. The West responded only with sanctions, which cannot make Russia change course on a matter that it sees as so central to its security and status.

The West cannot ignore such hard political realities. Those who call for defending democracy and freedom in the states adjoining Russia must be realistic about the consequences of trying to do so. So should Western leaders, lest they speak in lofty rhetoric only to retreat when the risks prove too daunting, abandoning the states they promised to protect.

LOGIC OF SYRIA

The same logic can be applied in Syria. To be sure, Syria doesn’t compare with the former Soviet republics in terms of strategic significance to Russia—for geographic, ethnic, and cultural reasons. But Putin didn’t send warplanes and armor into Syria as a display of machismo or because the Ukraine crisis convinced him that Obama lacks spine.

Nor did he do so to divert attention from Ukraine. As in Ukraine, Russia used military power in Syria because it believed there were important interests at stake. And it was prepared to protect those interests even though Western economic sanctions were squeezing Russia and its relationship with the United States and Europe was in tatters.

Some historical background helps show why. Moscow has had close ties with successive Syrian Baathist regimes since the 1950s. The first arms deal the Soviet Union signed with a Middle Eastern government was with Syria—in 1954. Over the ensuing decades, Syria was a prime recipient of Soviet economic aid. The state sector of its economy was built with substantial sums of Russian money and through abundant help from Russian technical experts. More than 30,000 Syrians were educated—mostly in science, engineering, and medicine—in Soviet universities and learned Russian as a result. In addition, 10,000 Syrian officers were trained in Soviet military academies. Some of these civilians and soldiers married Russian women, and several thousands of them, as well as other Russians, now live in Syria.

A papier mache caricature figure for a carnival float of Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, Germany February 2, 2016.
A papier mache caricature figure for a carnival float of Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, Germany February 2, 2016.
Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
The Soviet navy won access to the port of Tartus in 1971 thanks to the economic and military assistance it gave Syria. In 1980, the USSR signed, with then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, a treaty of friendship and cooperation that had security overtones. The Soviet and Syrian military and intelligences agencies got to know one another very well. Syria’s staunchly anti-Marxists leaders regularly jailed and persecuted communists at home, but that didn’t bother Moscow; Syria was a strategic investment, not a test of ideological purity.

Once the Soviet Union imploded, Russia stuck with Syria. In 2005, it forgave nearly $10 billion of the $14 billion debt that Syria had accumulated during the Soviet era. Political ties remained strong. Russian arms kept flowing. And Russia revamped Tartus and deepened its harbor, making it the perfect new home for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet of warships and submarines.

So when Putin jumped into Syria’s civil war, he was, as in Ukraine, protecting long-standing interests. The catalyst for his move—which was planned with Iraq and Iran—was the Russian leadership’s realization that the Syrian regime might soon crumble. By then, Islamist fighters had swept into Idlib and Aleppo provinces, having already taken parts of Aleppo city, Syria’s largest city and its commercial center. Worse, from Idlib they had moved into the coastal strip stretching from the north of Latakia southward beyond Tartus. Their operations were bordered in the east by the Jabal an-Nusayriyah range, the historic homeland of the Alawite minority (to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs) that has dominated the Syrian state for decades.

Had the Islamist warriors fully occupied this area, Assad would have fallen. Putin understood that Russian influence, built up over half a century, would evaporate. Moreover, thousands of Muslim fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus had joined the war against Assad, and he feared that an Islamist state in Syria would inspire those Russian Muslims inclined to radicalism and perhaps even deepen the Islamist insurgency in southern Russia.

As in Ukraine, Russia won’t back away from Syria, and few experts are urging the United States to up the ante now that Russian jets and bombers dot Syria’s skies and Russian troops and advisers mill about on its ground. It is hard to square the hesitation to act with the fact that over 300,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict and more than seven million refugees have been created. Many people in the West are appropriately outraged and want something done, but there is little the United States can realistically do.

Arming the forces resisting Assad might be the least bad option, but even then it is unclear to whom weapons should be funneled. The most powerful anti-Assad groups are in the Jaish al-Fateh coalition, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate whose goal is a caliphate in Syria. Despite talk of the moderates and democrats in the resistance, they are marginal when it comes to what truly matters: numbers and arms and control of land.

Syria’s battle lines shift continually. Territory and weaponry change hands, and alliances are fluid. Arms pumped into such an environment could easily reach the wrong hands, something about which proponents of providing the resistance with portable antiaircraft missiles—such as John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona—seem cavalier. Sending U.S. operatives into the field could reduce the risks of the arms being sold or stolen, but those operatives could be taken hostage or killed by groups seeking to change the military balance by drawing the United States deeper into the war. Besides, a U.S. president who makes such a commitment will have put the country’s credibility on the line and would find it hard to disengage if things don’t go well.

MASTER PLAN

None of this means that Putin has a master plan for Ukraine or Syria—or that such a plan, if it does exist, is working. Moscow’s endgame in both places remains unclear, perhaps even to Moscow. Recent speculation about a renewed offensive by Putin in Ukraine overlooks the formidable barriers Russian troops will face as they advance westward. They will enter areas that are majority Ukrainian and encounter resistance. They will have to take big cities—Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Mariupol—and plunge into the bloody business of urban warfare. They will have to defend long supply lines.

More important, Putin would burn any recent bridges he has built with the West through productive participation in the Iran P5+1 negotiations. Such isolation could push Russia toward China. Russian strategists dread this prospect because of China’s growing power, the troubled history between Russia and China during the past 150 years, and the thinly populated Russian Far East, which abuts China.

A papier mache caricature figure for a carnival float of Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, Germany February 2, 2016.
A papier mache caricature figure for a carnival float of Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, Germany February 2, 2016.
Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
In other words, Putin won’t try to annex more territory. Instead, he anticipates a repeat of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The reformers who were elected then succumbed to infighting, failed to implement reforms, and dashed people’s hopes. That fiasco paved the way for Yanukovych, who was more amenable to Russian influence. Russia might believe that the current Ukrainian government will likewise fail to deliver good governance and be pushed aside as a result. The problem for Putin is that his prognosis for Ukraine may prove false, and the country could slip from Russia’s orbit. Ukrainian reformers doubtless face a long and uphill battle, and the pace of change will be slow. Still, they have several successes to their credit, including the creation of a new police force and greater transparency in state-awarded contracts. It is much too early to conclude that Ukraine has failed.

In Syria, Russia has no illusions that Assad will one day rule a unified country. In fact, Moscow has been annoyed by Assad’s recent braggadocio about reasserting total control. Rather, Moscow wants Assad to use the gains made by his troops following the Russian intervention to reach a power-sharing accord with his foes. Paradoxically, though, Russia’s intervention has given Assad confidence that he can secure additional victories and delay a deal. Russia, his patron, could demand that he negotiate. But he could decide not to comply. And therein lies the problem. Putin, having committed his troops and reputation, cannot credibly threaten to decamp.

Putin may thus be in for some long innings. The massive bloodshed, the deep ideological divide separating the Assad regime and its enemies, and the divisions within the resistance rule out a speedy deal that is acceptable to all sides. Meanwhile, the costs for Russia will mount and there could be unpleasant surprises. Among the latter could be terrorist attacks within Russia—payback for the death and destruction wrought by its bombs. Turkey and Russia could clash over Russia’s support for the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey has been attacking. And if Turkey comes under fire, NATO would have to respond.

Russia and the West will remain at loggerheads absent a political settlement in Syria and Ukraine. The next U.S. president, Democrat or Republican, won’t rush to mend fences with Putin. For reasons of domestic politics, he or she will focus first on showing Putin that the new occupant of the White House won’t be pushed around. What’s being called the second Cold War isn’t good for the West.

But it may be even worse for Russia for several reasons. The price of oil, the Russian economy’s lifeblood, has plunged to below $30 a barrel compared with $110 in mid-2014, and the ruble has lost half its value relative to the dollar during the same period. Russia’s foreign exchange reserves will come under pressure as a result of both these developments. To make matters worse, the Russian economy contracted by 3.7 percent in 2015, and the trend is projected to continue in 2016. There are even signs that the harsh economic conditions are creating public unrest. Under these circumstances, Putin may find open-ended wars in Ukraine and Syria unaffordable.

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  • RAJAN MENON is Professor and Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in Political Science at the City University of New York.
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