Putin’s Power Play in Syria

How to Respond to Russia’s Intervention

From Russia with love: after a Russian air strike in Aleppo, November 2015.  Beha El Halebi / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

At the end of September, Russia began conducting air strikes in Syria, ostensibly to combat terrorist groups. The strikes constitute Russia’s biggest intervention in the Middle East in decades. Its unanticipated military foray into Syria has transformed the civil war there into a proxy U.S.-Russian conflict and has raised the stakes in the ongoing standoff between Moscow and Washington. It has also succeeded in diverting attention away from Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine, making it impossible for the West to continue to isolate the Kremlin. Russia is now a player in the Syrian crisis, and the United States will have to find a way to deal with it.

Once again, Washington has been caught off-guard, just as it was in March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. For all of Russia’s domestic problems—a shrinking economy, a declining population, and high rates of capital flight and brain drain—it has projected a surprising amount of power not only in its neighborhood but also beyond. U.S. President Barack Obama may refer to Russia as a regional power, but Russia’s military intervention in Syria demonstrates that it once again intends to be accepted as a global actor and play a part in every major international decision. This will be a vexing challenge not only for Obama during his remaining time in office but also for the next occupant of the White House.

Why has Washington been so slow to grasp the new Russian reality? Russian President Vladimir Putin has not kept his agenda a secret. In February 2007, for example, he delivered a scathing critique of U.S. foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference. “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” he warned. Countless times since, Russia has vowed to replace what it sees as a coercive U.S.-led global order with one in which

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