Russia’s Syria Intervention Sign of Weakness, Not Strength

Russia can only afford to be “bold” in Syria because it has no other allies to care about.

Russia’s recent intervention in the Syrian Civil War has given new fodder to critics of America’s foreign policy under Barack Obama. The Democratic president, many of his Republican opponents allege, is portraying weakness abroad — unlike his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who is bold and decisive.

Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon argue in Foreign Affairs magazine that such criticisms dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics.

“Putin’s appearance of strength,” they write, “is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position.”

Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as American weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless — sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.

This goes to an argument the Atlantic Sentinel made in February against admiring supposedly strong authoritarian rulers like Putin. A strong nation, we said, doesn’t need a strong leader. It needs a strong citizenry: people who are informed and take responsibility for their own lives. Their leaders should respect personal autonomy and privacy.

Strongmen never do. They impose their values on others, mistrust citizens (and businesses) to make wise decisions and snoop into people’s personal lives to see if they aren’t secretly insubordinate.

If “bold and decisive” leaders impose their will on their own people, they are also more likely to use force to get their way abroad.

The United States, by contrast, sit at the center of “a vast network of alliances, strategic partnerships, bases and access agreements,” according to Cooley and Nexon, that allows them to influence world affairs without resorting to intimidation or unilateral military intervention.

Washington’s close allies include many of the world’s wealthiest nations — France, Germany, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom. It is a driving force in NATO, maintains close security cooperation with the Gulf states, enjoys deeply institutionalized alliances with every major Pacific power other than China and has recently seen many other Asian countries tilt in its direction. Most of its linchpin regional allies, especially in Europe and Asia, are democratic regimes. In France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom, the question of security cooperation with the United States concerns not whether but how much.

Leading this complex array of allies, friends and partners America calls the free world — and doing so in a responsible way — is hard and often messy. Those “obsessed with flashy displays of boldness and resolve,” write Cooley and Nexon, may look at it and see indecision and weakness. In reality, America under Obama has patience and such overwhelming strength — both in hard, military power and influence — that it need not jump into the quagmire that is Syria’s war to safeguard its interests in the Middle East.

Russia’s armed forces, by contrast — however effective and professional they might appear in a relatively small expedition like Syria — are nowhere near as powerful as America’s.

Kyle Mizokami has reported for The Week that while Russia is turning out a handful of hypermodern fighter jets that might challenge American-made F-35s, the bulk of its air force is outdated and some planes are literally falling out of the skies.

The navy is little better. Russia can’t send its remaining aircraft carrier and cruisers abroad without an oceangoing tugboat shadowing them — “in case one of the ships breaks down.”

Dave Majumdar points out at The National Interest that only about a quarter of Russia’s ground forces is fully staffed and well-trained. But even those soldiers are not quite up to the standards of Western armies. The rest is largely made up of conscripts who do only a year of military service.

In terms of alliances and influence, Russia’s position is even less enviable. Cooley and Nexon argue that it often needs to bribe strongmen, like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, with subsidized energy and military assistance. “Yet, as the world saw with the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Russia’s political clients are often deeply kleptocratic and enjoy fragile domestic legitimacy.” Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader Russia’s military intervention is designed to keep in power, is no exception.

Even worse, many of Russia’s clients are flight risks; they enjoy access to multiple international patrons and could leave Moscow’s sphere of influence relatively easily. For example, China offers an emerging alternative to Russian dominance in Central Asia. The European Union pulls at Russian clients in western Eurasia. This provides ways for many of Russia’s clients to enhance their autonomy from Moscow.

On the upside, with no extensive alliance system to worry about, Russia can take “bold” action whenever and wherever it wants. “But in international affairs, fortune — as Washington learned in Iraq and Libya — does not always favor the bold.”