Putin's Syria Strategy

Russian Airstrikes and What Comes Next

A Sukhoi Su-30SM jet fighter flies above a kite during an airshow outside Moscow, August 29, 2015. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

As some had predicted, in late September Russia intervened in Syria. In Moscow’s eyes, the move reconfirmed Russia’s status as an indispensable power and broke down its international isolation by diverting attention from Ukraine, winning some applause in the EU and possibly creating conditions for sanctions relief. Most important, the United States softened its position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose resignation is no longer considered a precondition for settlement.

To examine what Moscow is ultimately after—its theory of victory—and how it will get there, one has to make some assumptions. First, disputes about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prudence and the Kremlin’s aptitude for sound national security policy are unsettled. But empirical evidence suggests that Putin, though not necessarily a chess grandmaster, does have his own systematic method for managing crises and strategic interactions. He is guided by his understanding of Russia’s past

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