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. The sanctions have seriously diminished foreign investment into Russia and contributed to an ongoing economic recession that puts Putin under pressure.
Putin also underestimated the long-term damage that his invasion of Ukraine would do to Russia’s soft power, particularly in its relations with the largest and most strategic former Soviet republic. Public opinion polls and votes show that most Ukrainians regard Russia as an enemy and probably will for decades. Ukraine has banned Russian television and slashed imports of Russian gas (it used to be Russia’s number two gas market), and it is now calling for Russia to be kicked off the UN Security Council.
The trouble for Putin is that he cannot easily walk away from this disaster. To leave and admit defeat would be to lose face and possibly power. To stay and suffer the consequences of economic losses, military attrition, and Western sanctions would also be painful over the long term, since most Russians do not support direct involvement in Eastern Ukraine and Putin must carefully hide casualties. He cannot, however, hide the damage to the Russian economy and will eventually be called to account.
Putin’s sudden pivot to Syria allows him to achieve a few key objectives. First, it gets Ukraine out of the headlines. Foreign policy thinkers in Moscow believe or hope that, if Ukraine goes quiet for a while, the West will forget about it and eventually walk back sanctions. Second, it positions Putin as an important world leader with whom the West can and must do business.
In this regard, Putin has already won a victory—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to visit Moscow on Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Friday for the first time since taking office about “deconfliction” in Syria, and The New York Times reports that the White House is considering a meeting between Obama and Putin when Putin comes to address the UN General Assembly at the end of September. This high-level attention is central to what Putin hoped to achieve by moving troops and armor into Syria—to rescue his poor international reputation and be treated as an important leader in world affairs. Finally, of course, Putin wishes to protect his man in Damascus.
Russia’s so-called help in the Middle East mainly consists of convincing or assisting the United States to do things that benefit Russia and its core allies in the region. Before the United States, however, gives Putin all of what he wants for free, it should consider the costs and benefits of acceding to this particular ploy. A meeting should not be costless for Putin. In fact, the West should use his desperation as an asset.
In particular, the United States should demand concessions on Ukraine in exchange for its public recognition of Putin.
During the reset, the Obama administration made the mistake of trading off concessions in Europe (such as cancelling the missile defense shield) for Russian help in the Middle East. At the time, the Middle East was seen as a more important strategic priority for the United States because that is where the calls for U.S. military intervention had been greatest. However, U.S. strategy and goals have been unclear, and it is questionable what help Russia can really provide there that would be of decisive value to the United States.
Russia’s so-called help in the Middle East mainly consists of convincing or assisting the United States to do things that benefit Russia and its core allies in the region, while the United States pays the costs. In Iran, Russia had a strong interest in acting as a broker, preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, and selling Iran nuclear reactors and weapons. Russia will reap immediate benefits, and the United States paid the costs of bringing Iran to the table. Moscow’s proffered help in Syria depends on Washington acceding to support the Assad regime, while Russia continues to free ride off the U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State (also called ISIS).
Russia does not have the power to deliver a happy ending to the Syria story. Syria is a disaster. No solution is a good one; there are only some that are worse than others. Russia might be able to help somewhat in preventing a full ISIS takeover, but it has already been doing that—without an end to the fight. It can bolster the Assad government, but that is a mixed blessing. It can prevent Russian troops from shooting at U.S.-supported rebels, but both sides have an interest in that without high-level meetings. Putin’s promise in Syria is a false one. His latest bold and bluff initiative seems to hold out hope, but only because the situation is so hopeless.
By contrast, Western goals in Europe are quite clear and achievable, and ultimately they are more important. The European Union is in crisis economically and strategically. The migration crisis has put a temporary end to free travel within Europe. The Greek crisis has battered eurozone unity. Integration on the continent is under threat from a potential Brexit. The United States has a strong interest in preventing the disintegration of the European Union. The fight for Ukraine is, in many ways, a fight for the European Union: to preserve the right of states to join the union and the union’s mission of spreading peace through trade and integration. Ultimately, the battle for Ukraine is also about integrating Russia, too, into European economic and security structures.
As a precondition to coming to the table over Syria and treating Putin as the world leader he desperately wants to be, the United States should demand concessions in Ukraine. Namely, Russia must recognize Ukraine’s right to control its own borders in the East, it must withdraw Russian military and equipment, and it must push the leaders of the rebel republics to hand power back to Kiev in exchange for amnesty and a power-sharing agreement, modeled perhaps on the Northern Ireland agreement. It will be easier for Putin to climb down over Ukraine—something that he needs to do, which is in his interests as well—after he is photographed sitting at a table with Western leaders and shaking their hands. But the promise should be inked before.