How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced without any warning that he would be withdrawing his main forces from Syria while maintaining Russia’s bases and forces in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus. This came as a surprise for most, but Putin’s announcement is not actually a pullout from Syria, and it is also consistent with his strategy there to date.
As I argued in Foreign Affairs last fall, the Kremlin has been following a policy of “reasonable sufficiency” in Syria, which means using just enough force to convey that Russia still has significant influence in the country, but not so much that it got pulled into a messy war. To ensure the right balance between using too little and too much force, Moscow used a combination of diplomacy and military intervention in Syria, an approach that falls under a doctrine known as “New Generation Warfare.” Moscow understands its military and diplomatic operation in Syria is far from over, but its overall assessment of its intervention is positive, given that it has reversed the course of the war and met most of its initial goals.
In Moscow’s view, its heavy strikes on forces attacking the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have significantly weakened the opposition and killed hundreds of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters, strengthening the incumbent regime and making the political process more attractive to all fighting parties. Russia has also expanded its stronghold in Syria, positioned itself as an indispensable player in the Middle East that succeeded where Washington failed, and diverted attention from the conflict in Ukraine. Another of what Moscow considers its achievements includes testing state-of-the-art weapons systems in Syria, showing off military capabilities to advance its arms sales and sending threatening signals to NATO. Furthermore, this proved a cost-effective way to train its forces. All the while, Moscow facilitated parallel diplomatic meetings with the international community in Geneva and Vienna, as well as separate reconciliation talks with opposition groups within Syria. The Kremlin’s combination of military strikes and diplomacy was intended to cease hostilities among all armed groups, stabilize Syria, preserve its territorial integrity, and ensure a political settlement that safeguarded Moscow’s control there.
Putin’s moves in Syria echo his tactics during the Second Chechen War from 1999 to 2000. At the time, he sought to divide the opposition militarily and politically by appeasing and pacifying those that could be won over and drawing them into an alliance led by a pro-Kremlin leader (Akhmad Kadyrov). Putin then ostracized and crushed the uncooperative factions.
In Syria, too, Putin’s military operation opened up an opportunity for dividing the anti-Assad opposition between those who will honor the cease-fire and those who won’t. Putin aims to accelerate the radicalization of the latter, an action that could push them into joining ISIS or al-Nusra Front and would legitimize Putin’s use of force against them.
In February, after the United States and Russia agreed on a cessation of hostilities in Syria, Moscow lowered its number of strikes. At this point, with its goals largely met and with few casualties of its own, it is likely that Moscow considered it the most optimal moment to stage a withdrawal, but it was mostly for show. Essentially, nothing changed, neither Moscow’s strategy nor its operations. The announcement, in Moscow’s view, simply downgrades its risks in Syria, expands its space to maneuver, creates optimal conditions for whatever comes next, and refutes U.S. claims that it would get bogged down in the Syrian quagmire.
Russia’s current mission is to maintain the cessation of hostilities, although its jets will continue their strikes against ISIS and al-Nusra Front. Russian military experts and advisers will continue to train, equip, plan, and assist Syrian operations on all levels—from the generals down to the battalions. According to Putin, the current force enables Russia to maintain the “balance of power” between Assad and the opposition forces. Although Putin withdrew one-third of his air fleet, his expeditionary force—which involves air, naval, and ground power—remains in place. In fact, following the February agreement, and especially for the recent liberation of Palmyra, Putin sent in more sealifts, advanced ground attack helicopters, and military mining units. Russia had even delivered advanced Iskander ballistic missiles to Syria at some point, according to reports that surfaced on March 27. In short, the term “withdrawal” is a misnomer.
Within Syria, Russia hoped that its announcement to withdraw would signal its good intentions, encourage cooperation among the opposition parties, and at the same time limit the allies’ military ambitions. Regionally, it extinguishes any pretext for Saudi Arabia or Turkey to intervene in Syria. At the time, Moscow suspected that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had been considering deploying troops. With Washington, Russia sought to create a favorable climate for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before his visit to Moscow in late March.
Last but not least, Putin has appeased his domestic audience. Since early February this year, the Russian media machine began promoting a “mission accomplished” narrative, crediting its actions in Syria for the peace talks, cease-fire deals, and putative stabilization of the country. In early March, leaks about the forthcoming decision to withdraw from Syria appeared in nonofficial media. After Putin’s withdrawal announcement, the Kremlin spread official propaganda further intensifying the message among the Russian public that the operation in Syria had been fully successful. From the start of the intervention in Syria, the Kremlin has been mindful of the difficulties it faces in sustaining public support as Russia’s economy declines. Cutting down the per diem spending in Syria resonates with a population that has grown frustrated with belt-tightening. During an awards ceremony in Kremlin on March 18, Putin spoke before hundreds of participants in the Syrian operation, emphasizing the importance of economic development and citizens’ welfare. Wording and symbolism matter in Russian strategic culture. And Putin exploited both in his “victory” speech. He used the phrase “troops withdrawal” to echo the language Soviet leaders used to announce a pullback from Afghanistan. More important, Putin gave his speech at the Kremlin’s Georgievsky Hall, where Stalin delivered his famous victory address in 1945. Capitalizing on this subtext, Putin emphasized the symbolism of conducting the ceremony in a hall “saturated with the victorious spirit” of Russian warriors.
Putin has, in effect, left the door open in Syria to step in again if he needs to. He has shown his resolve and ability to send forces back to Syria in a matter of hours or launch strikes from Russia should the situation reescalate.
To some, Moscow’s announcement to withdraw was more surprising than Putin’s decision to intervene. But as the scholar Kimberly Marten has pointed out, Putin’s love of judo philosophy has profoundly influenced his approach to foreign policy. Judo involves a mastery of achieving maximum results with minimum effort, a philosophy that clearly aligns with the “reasonable sufficiency” principle. Also, concealing one’s intentions and making opponents guess your next move are a part of Asian martial arts, with which Putin is also no stranger to. Even if his political gambits are not designed to surprise, Putin knows that a skillful competitor will not miss the opportunity to exploit disorienting and throwing his opponent off balance.
Looking ahead, the Kremlin’s immediate challenges include maintaining the reconciliation process, ensuring a minimum of stability in Syria, and continuing the campaign against ISIS and al-Nusra Front and certain opposition groups.Another difficult task is ensuring that if Assad is replaced, his successor maintains Moscow’s control in Syria under any political dynamic, including the country’s possible federalization. At this stage, Russia’s competition with Iran may intensify, since Tehran also seeks to solidify its control in the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean, but on its own terms.
Moscow may also find a number of opportunities in the Middle East. It is likely to capitalize on its status as an effective regional power broker and promote itself as an effective middleman, on a par with Washington. Moscow may even seek out further ties with traditionally pro-U.S. actors—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates—and attempt to assume a role as a potentially new Sunni-Shiite peace broker. Other avenues that Russia may explore include expanding its efforts to reconcile Egypt and Syria or mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, exploiting the vacuum produced by the United States. Moscow might find that working with the Kurds will give it a number of leverage points against Turkey, which fears that the Kurdish forces’ success in taking territory from ISIS emboldens its own Kurdish minority. Finally, Moscow may appeal to Israel by trying to ensure that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, do not make their way into the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights.
In short, the world would be best to keep calm and carry on, as Russia is not truly withdrawing from Syria. In fact, Putin is here to stay as a central player in the Middle East.