In recent days, Moscow has drastically increased its military assistance to Syria, sending an estimated 500 Russian troops to an air base in the Syrian port of Latakia, along with warplanes, helicopters, artillery, tanks, an air traffic control tower, and prefabricated housing units for up to 1000 personnel. Although Russia insists that the troops are there for training purposes, there are reports that Russian troops are involved in the fighting. The timing is dramatic, coming as hundreds of thousands of Syrians arrive on Europe’s doorstep clamoring for refuge from a conflict that has killed around 220,000 and displaced millions.
Observers in the West have described Putin’s pivot to Syria as a bold and decisive move, displaying his panache as a forceful leader in world affairs. As Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the New York Times, “The Russians have done a masterful job of changing the subject on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s arrival in New York for the 70th commemoration of the UN General Assembly.” Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer wrote in his Financial Times blog that Russia’s military buildup provides an opportunity for U.S. President Barack Obama to climb down from his failed Syria strategy and cede initiative to “a strengthened alliance of Russia, Iran and Syria.” Yet Russia’s latest act of aggression should not be seen as a sign of strength but a cry for help.
Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has yielded meager results. In fact, for Russia, the benefits of seizing Crimea and creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas have been far outweighed by the costs. Putin vastly underestimated the West’s reaction to his Ukraine adventures, counting on something akin to the way Europe greeted his invasion of Georgia in 2008. Yet the European Union, led by Germany, punished Russia for the annexation of Crimea with damaging sanctions.
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