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As Russian jets started striking targets in Syria, Moscow’s other foreign intervention went strikingly quiet. The war in Ukraine’s Donbass, which has killed nearly 8,000 soldiers and civilians since the Russian-backed separatist revolt began in March 2014, has rapidly de-escalated since the signing of a new interim ceasefire on September 1.
The near-simultaneous timing of Russia’s deployment of troops to Syria and de-escalation in eastern Ukraine is hardly coincidental. The war in Ukraine and the resulting Western sanctions are becoming increasingly problematic, and Moscow’s intervention in Syria provides the Kremlin with an opportunity to divert attention and resources away from the stagnant war. It also gives Russia the chance to deflect the waves of patriotic mobilization sparked by the seizure of Crimea and intervention in Donbass. Indeed, Moscow increasingly needs to find a face-saving exit from the Donbass conflict that does not precipitate a domestic backlash. The Syrian deployment can help the Kremlin square this circle.
After more than a year and a half of fighting between the Ukrainian government and rebel groups within the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR in Russian, respectively), months of fruitless diplomacy have given way to significant progress toward ending the fighting. At the end of August, the Trilateral Contact Group comprising representatives of the Ukrainian government, the rebels, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reached agreement in principle on the interim ceasefire. More than a month on, the September 1 agreement has largely held. It was followed by additional agreements between the parties to first withdraw heavy artillery and then smaller caliber arms from the front lines. Denis Pushilin, chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic, announced that the agreement to pull back weapons “could mean the end of the war.” Although this statement is likely premature, the willingness of both Moscow and the rebel groups to negotiate seemingly in good faith—and to follow through on their commitments—stands in stark contrast to their approach earlier in the conflict.
Russia has understood for months that its more ambitious goals in the conflict, such creating a land bridge to Crimea or restoring the Tsarist-era province of Novorossiya, cannot be achieved at an acceptable cost. Yet Russia has already achieved its minimum objectives in Ukraine: It has essentially taken the issue of Ukrainian NATO membership off the table and will continue to exercise near veto power on Kiev’s foreign policy, thanks to the decentralization of such decisions as required by the Minsk-II agreement, and the likely maintenance of pro-Russian representatives in Donetsk and Luhansk that would torpedo any related measures. Although Minsk-II also calls for handing back control of the border between Russia and the separatist regions to Kiev, Moscow has been in no rush to do so, and will continue for the foreseeable future to retain the ability to move military equipment and personnel across the border.
The domestic costs of Russia’s Ukrainian intervention, however, continue to grow, and Moscow has come to understand that time is not on its side for devising a resolution. The West’s sanctions have had a real, if limited, impact on the Russian economy. The International Monetary Fund estimates that sanctions will shave 1–1.5 percent off Russian GDP this year, out of a total decline of roughly 3.4 percent (with the rest being due mostly to lower oil prices). That figure likely understates the political impact of the sanctions, though. Several major projects have been delayed or put on hold because of difficulties accessing financing. Russia is isolated and lacks any short-term prospects for a return to growth, and members of Putin’s inner circle are reportedly becoming nervous that he has backed the country into a corner. Some observers suggest that disaffection within Russia's elite is mounting, notwithstanding Putin’s still robust poll ratings.
Donbass itself has also become an increasingly complex problem for the Kremlin. The conflict has decimated Donbass’ industrial economy, particularly in the separatist-controlled areas that have seen the heaviest fighting. Kiev has cut off pension payments and banking services to the areas outside its control, leaving Moscow to pick up the costs. Russia has sent at least 37 convoys of so-called humanitarian assistance across the border, and appears to be paying pensions to inhabitants of the two self-proclaimed people’s republics out of its own strained budget.
Domestically, the wave of Russian patriotic mobilization touched off by the initial Ukrainian intervention is also beginning to create political problems for the Kremlin. Putin relied on nationalist mobilization after Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in part to divert public attention away from Russia’s stagnating economy, as well as the crisis of legitimacy he faced after the outbreak of mass protests in Moscow and other cities in December 2011. In place of rising incomes and democratization, Russians were fed a diet of myths about Russia’s historical mission and its resistance to the West. Sacrifices were justified as the price Russia has to pay for fulfilling its historic mission of making the nation great once again. With the Donbass conflict more or less frozen and the Russian economy continuing to deteriorate, the Kremlin has a harder time making this case today. A particular problem is dealing with the disaffected (and often armed) veterans of the Donbass conflict now returning to Russia.
Pivoting to Syria gives the Kremlin a new basis for patriotic mobilization. Rather than fighting fascists in Kiev, Russians are now told that they must make sacrifices in order to fight terrorists in Syria. Fighters who signed up for the conflict in Ukraine, including Chechen fighters loyal to Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov, can now be deployed to a new front. Television news can show video of Russian planes bombing ISIS training camps rather than dwell on Russia’s economic inflation and negative growth. Meanwhile, arrests and assassinations of disobedient rebels allows Moscow to assert greater operational control over the areas controlled by the DNR and LNR, which is one reason the September 1 ceasefire still holds.
The conflict in Ukraine is hardly over, but the ceasefire, coupled with the Russian operations in Syria, hints at Kremlin’s endgame. Moscow will move towards implementing the Minsk-II agreement, which ensures Russia’s minimum objectives in Ukraine, while maintaining the ability to re-escalate the conflict in the future if Kiev or the West crosses one of its redlines. It will also continue calling, as Putin did in his speech to the UN General Assembly, for a broad international coalition against extremism in the Middle East in which Russia itself is an indispensable player.
Moscow has genuine interests in the Syrian conflict, including maintenance of its strategic foothold in the Mediterranean as well as curbing the spread of extremism. The Syrian intervention is also, however, intimately tied to Russia’s strategy regarding Ukraine. By acting more constructively in Ukraine and proposing to help address Europe’s spiraling refugee problem at its source, Putin will provide leverage for French President François Hollande and others who would like to roll back sanctions against Moscow. Putin will also help reassert Russia’s claim to major power status, and, at the very least, will paper over a series of pressing domestic challenges within Russia’s borders.