Muscovite history offers up few examples of far-flung military adventurousness. Close to home, there’s of course the 2008 attack on Georgia and the more recent action in Ukraine, and, during the 1980s, full-fledged war in Afghanistan. Soviet combat jets helped Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; its tanks rolled into both Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968).
But in terms of boots-on-the-ground force exported to distant lands, it hasn’t offered much—some 3,000 Soviets fought at one time or another in Vietnam, but overall Moscow has largely eschewed an evangelistic, imperial stretch such as practiced by Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain over the centuries, and the US now. For full-fledged examples of that, you need to go back to the Soviet seizure of Berlin in World War II and, before that, czar Alexander I’s capture of Paris and overthrow of Napoleon in 1814.
Generally speaking, Moscow has preferred to push its weight around locally.
So in what category is Moscow’s current venture in Syria, as described today in an address to the United Nations in New York by president Vladimir Putin? Does his powerful show of combat aircraft, choppers, outfittings for some 2,000 soldiers, and plans for a regional defense coalition fall onto the historical short list of on-the-boots combat far from home? Or is it an example of Moscow’s usual gingerliness about distant foreign expeditions?
Moscow as usual has provided ambiguous answers: Putin suggests it’s the latter—he has no plans to deploy combat troops—but one of his senior generals says it’s the former, that the buildup would be pointless unless Russian soldiers are fighting, too.
Outside of Russia, observers so far generally side with Putin’s version of events, though for differing reasons than he himself would publicly cite. One big factor, experts say, is Moscow’s traumatic Afghan experience—some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died and 35,000 were wounded in the decade-long occupation.
Those casualties remain etched in Russian memory, and Putin himself has no appetite for combat casualties. “The Kremlin has been afraid to admit to its own people that Russian forces are engaged in combat much closer to home, in Ukraine, and taking substantial casualties,” William Courtney, a former US ambassador and long-time diplomat to the former Soviet region, tells Quartz.
Russia wants to be an acknowledged great power
In a way, the military buildup in Syria has seemed a prelude to Putin’s speech at the UN, his first in a decade, for which he prepared for a month, according to his spokesman. His aim: to reveal US power to be hollow, and Moscow by comparison resolute and far more realistic. In other words, Putin is campaigning, a quarter century after the Soviet demise, for renewed recognition of Moscow as an indispensable great power.
That may be an elusive goal, at least for now. Though Putin has demonstrated that he can move military stuff around, and with unnerving timing, those knacks are different from the outsized economic and military heft that usually goes along with great power status, not to mention trusted adherence to main international norms.
Yet Putin is trying.
In his speech at the UN today, he lashed out at the West and the US in particular. He blamed the West for the violence in the Middle East and Ukraine, too, hanging the upheaval on Western efforts to export democracy to these countries. And he advocated an international effort to get behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as the only force “truly fighting” ISIL.
Putin rejected accusations that his Syrian policy supporting Assad is rooted in political ambitions—those who make such charges, he said, are no less ambitious than he. The West, he said, favors a “logic of confrontation that was bound to spark geopolitical crisis.”
He has a point. If Assad were brought down, how stable would any replacement leader or coalition be? Who would stop ISIL from taking power? As the Financial Times’ Edward Luce wrote today, an ISIL regime would be definitively worse (paywall) than Assad.
Obama said in his own UN address, delivered shortly before Putin’s, that he won’t accept Assad staying on in the long term. Any deal must include a “managed transition from Assad to a new leader,” Obama said. But even if a stable alternative to Assad can be found, it likely would be hard to dislodge the Syrian leader without assuaging Putin, or for that matter Iran, in some matter.
Putin’s game is to steamroll the West’s suspicions
The West views Putin with such suspicion that any Russian diplomatic victory would be viewed, especially in the US, as necessarily an American defeat. Bolstering this view is that, in fortifying Russia’s already-long history of military support for Syria’s regime, Putin does seem to be merely puffing out his chest in an opportunistic push for a role in big events.
But as long as US strategic interests are met, Washington probably shouldn’t care if Russian actions—or those of China or Iran—help, or even are primary, in achieving American objectives. If the aim is to stabilize Syria and, if possible, Iraq, it shouldn’t matter that Putin has swooped in at the last minute to prop up Assad, and bolster his regime against ISIL.
In this case, Putin gets to stick it to the man—the US—which plays so well at home. If everything goes right, he can divert attention from Ukraine, and persuade at least Europe to cancel its Russian sanctions.
But a key credibility factor for Putin will be this: Although he already has deployed considerable hardware on the ground in Syria, is he any more likely than the US to put actual troops into action?
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, said he expects Putin to do exactly that, in part to take down the heat in Ukraine. Some of the little green men in Ukraine could now be filtered into Syria—”a nice safety valve for aggressive radical nationalists with guns now that the [Ukraine] ceasefire is actually being observed,” Rojansky said.
If so, the diversion efforts will be minimal—Putin is unlikely to risk the capture of any Russian forces by ISIL, for instance. But he will go as far as he needs to achieve at least one aim, which is the lifting of European sanctions.
Toward that end, in another rapid move on Sept. 27, Putin got Iraq to agree to share intelligence with Russia, Iran, and Syria about ISIL. From this base, he’ll engage the West diplomatically on his overall strategic aims. “We’ll see the extent to which the West is willing to play ball,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, of the Center on Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Obama said at the UN that he does in fact intend to work with Russia. But who will do the heavy lifting? The US sees that its Syrian strategy is in chaos, but insists on its continuing strategic primacy; Putin knows he doesn’t intend to actually fight, yet he wants to direct the outcome. To find a solution, both sides will have to rise above their usual biases.