What the Hell Is Putin Doing in Syria?

The presence of Russian troops in Syria will discourage other powers from invading.

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Voronezh, August 5, 2014 (Kremlin)

And more importantly, what does he want?

It’s important to remember how swears like that will net the sort of Google-searching folks I very much want here: the sort who want to understand, but who don’t need the gross, and largely unimportant, blow by blows.

In two years, Vladimir Putin has taken Russia to war in not one but two countries; he’s conquered the strategically vital Crimea, froze a conflict in Ukraine and now has turned his war machine upon Syria’s conflict. The hapless United States under Barack Obama seems paralyzed with handwringing indecision and the Google searches for “World War III” are skyrocketing.

Yes, we all ought to be worried and we all should try to understand why powerful places choose to seek war in faraway lands.

So why is Russia now at war in Syria? What the hell happened, and, most importantly, what can happen?

Let’s get super.

And let’s get the cliff notes

  • Putin’s competition with America is rooted in how unstable Russia could potentially become should it become too democratic too soon. That’s a legacy of empire and the bill for centuries of imperial government hasn’t yet been fully paid.
  • But Russia is fundamentally weaker militarily and economically than the United States. Putin knows this so to remain competitive, he must use what’s left of Russian power in very narrow and precise places for maximum effect.
  • His move into Syria is meant to do just that: it forces the United States to consider Russian interests while giving him valuable leverage for negotiations on just about every front he cares about.
  • But it’s a high-risk, high-reward situation and Putin has a narrower margin of failure than the United States, which can take losses he cannot.

So let’s talk about why Russia favors leaders like Putin and why leaders like Putin need to keep Russia at arm’s length from the rest of the world

Russia is unique among the world’s powers. It’s vast, it’s underpopulated, it’s resource-rich and it has lots and lots of neighbors, many of whom alternate between being friends to rivals. It’s one of the few nation states on Earth that still holds many of its former imperial territories. All of this is a combination to make it unstable and insecure.

Its resources and size make it a tempting target which is precisely why Hitler invaded in 1941. Its underpopulation in many regions adds to this susceptibility.

Its legacy of imperialism creates two problems for any Russian ruler: non-Russian ethnic groups who might like their own countries and social contracts that hinge on force rather than cooperation. Within Russia are some 185 ethnic groups who were all at various points conquered by Czarist Russia. They haven’t homogenized into the Russian nation, a process that takes generations. Many of them are big enough to one day become nation states of their own, splitting territory and resources off from the Russian Federation.

Because they don’t yet see themselves as Russian, such groups must be controlled as they always have: with a credible threat of force. Even if that threat is distant, ethnic nationalists must believe they’re better off working within Russia. This differs greatly from a highly democratic state like the United Kingdom where ethnic nationalists get to speak at full volume in the halls of government. The Scottish nationalists of the United Kingdom are a threat to the power of the country but most British citizens don’t care because they feel very secure underneath America’s defense umbrella.

Russians have no such umbrella; their elites are on their own. While Russia manages some of its ethnic groups by giving them a say over their local affairs, Russia’s low population and resource-rich nature means it must have access to both the people and the goods within those ethnic republics. In other words, if you’re an ethnic minority in Russia with oil in you area, the profits from the rigs go to Moscow and not to you.

Which is a key reason why Russia as it exists today couldn’t survive a democracy like the United Kingdom’s

Over time, with enough education and economic migration, such ethnic differences will smooth over and disappear. But to throw a heaping dose of democracy onto the many peoples of the Russian Federation would inspire the same kind of agitation, unrest and instability that killed the Soviet Union.

That’s key for the thinking of elites like Putin: the last time Russia went too democratic, too fast, it ended up shedding some of its most valuable territories and its superpower status. The root cause of the demise of the USSR were bad economic theory, terrible government and ethnic differences that couldn’t be overcome by communism. When pushes came to shoves, ethnic republics went their own way rather than stick by a failing system.

Back in 1991, Soviet tanks and troops refused to fire on crowds assembled in Moscow; in that moment, it became clear to just about everyone that the Soviet Union would not fight to save itself. Not long after, its most valuable territories, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, fled the union.

That could well happen again should Russia as exists today get too free.

Which means that a Russian leader who is to be successful must keep foreign ideas and influence at bay

One reason Putin keeps winning elections, as well as surviving challenges from other Russian elites, is because he knows what country he’s running. Russian culture doesn’t produce strongmen like him more than other cultures; we all have our Stalins waiting in the wings. But Russian geopolitics rewards men like him more than America or France or Germany does. While America is isolated by sea from its enemies and is therefore more secure to indulge political experiments, Russia’s foes are both right on the border and within it, forcing it to stick with its tried and true formulas of governance.

If Russia were to adopt EU-approved government, it would almost immediately lose its Caucasian republics who would doubtless vote for independence. Other ethnic republics throughout the federation would be likely to follow suit; the new borders would shrivel Russian power further, increase Russia’s defense needs (by making the borders more complicated and longer) and demoralize Russia’s remaining people. Much as the fall of the Soviet Union was followed by a decade of economic and social chaos still not wholly overcome, a second Russian collapse would likely have the same effects.

So a leader who recognizes Russia for what it is must also recognize they can’t run it as a true democracy or they risk giving power to forces that would take entire chunks of Russia.

Putin and the new Russian elite also understand they can’t afford to oppress their way to stability either. Still recovering from the shock of defeat in the Cold War, Russia’s leaders instead have adopted a sophisticated system of propaganda, mass media and ambiguous legalism to blur information and the truth to the point where it becomes difficult for opposition forces to organize (and detailed in wonderful narrative here). When you don’t even know the name of the law the government is breaking, how can you protest against it, let alone organize a political party to do something about it?

And the biggest threat of contradictory ideas is the United States

America threatens Russia not territorially but, like during the Cold War, ideologically. Americans misunderstand that their desire to see democracy spread may well undo Russia itself; Russian leaders have no such illusions. This explains some of the back and forth between the two: Americans feel they’re just doing the right thing by pushing democratic elections in Ukraine and elsewhere while the Russians feel America is intentionally using an ideology it knows could drive a stake through heart of the Russian state. (My own view is that American elites are mostly too naive to understand how democracy could be lethal to Russia rather than conspiratorial grandmasters but hell, I could be wrong).

Thus to preserve Russia as it exists today forces Moscow to push back against American power. But Russia is weaker than the United States; it has a smaller economy and military while what forces it does have are mostly unhappy conscripts or woefully equipped with Soviet gear.

Which means to be a wise Russian leader compelled to push back against the United States also means one must do more with less

Nuclear weapons remain key to Russia’s grand strategy for with them the country remains invulnerable. The United States won’t start a nuclear war with Russia on a whim; only a world war could force that. Which is good news for the Russians because they’d lose a long conventional global struggle against America and its many allies.

Instead, because the Russians don’t seek global domination but rather to push back American power in particular regions, they can use the less they have to pinpointed effect. Since the Russians don’t have much strategic need in the Pacific, they can neglect their Pacific Fleet and in fact their whole eastern flank. Instead, they can deploy forces that during the Cold War were watching for invasion from Japan or Alaska to more crucial regions like Ukraine.

This also means they must exploit the mistakes of the superpower as quickly as they can. While the overwhelming power of the United States can make American leaders careless, Russia’s finite power forces its elites to more carefully calculate need and ability. When the United States did not wage an air war on Assad after the regime used gas in September 2013, an opening appeared; constrained by Ukraine, it took this long for Putin to exploit it.

But doesn’t Putin just end up throwing power into a maelstrom he cannot stop?

It’s absolutely true that Russia cannot restore Assad to power throughout the whole country. But Russian strategy doesn’t hinge on conquest but area denial (that’s a particularly good piece). Much of its weapon systems are based on nukes, missiles and rockets that can pepper sea lanes, airways and whole continents with enough firepower to make them impassable. Its geopolitical strategy currently does the same thing. Rather than conquering places, Moscow just denies geopolitical access to whole countries.

That’s what it did in Ukraine; with the civil war there simmered but not finished, it ended Ukrainian ambitions to join the EU and NATO. It did the same in 2008 in Georgia where its South Ossetian enclave keeps Tbilisi from ever joining the Western camp. Now it’s trying to deny access to Syria.

All three conflicts were wise uses of Russian power. None of them called for large occupation forces; all of them involved Russian proxies Moscow could arm as it saw fit. Best of all, once Russian troops are on the ground, the United States can’t do much to dislodge them except negotiate.

And it’s likely Putin aims for just that

It was always going to be difficult to end the Syrian Civil War but now it’s impossible unless Moscow signs off. This won’t be a Serbia redux with NATO imposing a settlement and the Russians merely tagging along. Whatever emerges in Syria will have a Russian stamp of approval — and will keep intact Russian interests in some form or another. This means that, so long as Russian troops are in Syria, neither Turkey nor any other local force, like the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council, will be able to opt for a full-scale invasion to smash the Islamic State and overthrow the Assad regime.

This also gives Putin leverage for Ukraine. To win Russian cooperation in Syria must involve tradeoffs; how far Putin will push remains to be seen but anything that keeps Ukraine as a whole out of both the EU and NATO is a win for Russia. That means no Russian annexation of Ukraine but some kind of system that keeps Russian interests permanently entrenched as part of Ukraine’s political system. The West doesn’t want that but to end the Syrian Civil War, and to destroy the Islamic State, it may be willing to sacrifice Ukraine.

But a weaker hand also means you can’t afford to lose as much and Putin’s Syria adventure is a high-risk, high-reward situation

If Putin can roll back rebel advances, restore the Assad regime with a few propaganda victories and show he’s waging a very real war on everyone’s favorite boogeyman, the Islamic State, he’ll be able to preserve Russian interests in Syria and build networks into Iraq and Iran.

But that requires much to go right. This Russian intervention must have been propelled by a critical military situation within the Assad regime. Even with Russian forces on the ground, the regime could still totter and fall. Rebel or Islamic State forces could target and kill Russian troops, inviting unfavorable comparisons to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Or the war could go stale, with violent and dangerous frontiers but little change in the balance of power between struggling factions.

And that leaves out the United States which has plenty of options. The Obama Administration has been unwilling to play hardball with the Russians for fear of escalating the conflict to something like the Cold War. But now that Russia has involved itself in Syria, it may find it hard to resist striking back, even if doing so is outside of Syria.

So the next logical step is for Putin to win a victory of any kind and to use that to bring about negotiations

Remember, Putin must know he can’t conquer Syria; he probably doesn’t want to anyway. So he needs some kind of big victory that will bring the Americans to the negotiating table. He may wait until the elections are over and a new president emerges in 2017 to push for that but he may also know that Barack Obama is a better negotiating partner right now because lame-duck presidents don’t have to answer to the voters anymore. There are rumors of an assault on Palmyra but it’s truly anyone’s guess. The war in Syria will get hotter still.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, October 5, 2015.