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memri
May 14, 2018 No.
159

Why Is Russia In Syria?


(Image source: Globalaffairs.ru, March 1, 2016)

To understand the Kremlin's policy in the Middle East, two questions seem to be imperative: Why is Russia in Syria? And why is it aligning with the "resistance camp" (i.e. Iran, Syria, Hizbullah)?

To answer these questions, we have to analyze Moscow's vision for Russia, and consider the past.

Everything started with the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia lost two elements that comprise a superpower: real force and ideology. As a consequence, the new Russia began to increasingly resent the U.S., for several reasons.

As explained by Mikhail Gorbachev, in an article published in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the first disagreement started when the West declared that it had triumphed in the Cold War. Gorbachev wrote: "This all began when 'the victory of the West' in the Cold War was proclaimed. Our shared victory in the Cold War was declared to be a triumph of one side only [i.e. the West], which now thinks that 'everything is permitted.' This is the root from which today's global unrest has sprung."[1]

Russia could not stand not sharing the winner's podium with the U.S., because that would have meant the beginning of a unipolar world order. Furthermore, Russia subsequently felt betrayed by NATO's eastward expansion closer to its border. Russian leaders stated that they had been given assurances that this would not happen.[2] This eastward expansion was, and is, lived by Russia as a trauma, as a military provocation, and as a way of obstructing Russia from reassuming its historic role as a global player. Then the war and the dismantling of Yugoslavia was lived as a further provocation.

Vladimir Putin's rise to power marked a new vision for the country: to have Russia reemerge as a super power. However, the U.S. was dismissing Russia. In 2014, President Barack Obama even called Russia a "regional power."[3] But the whole core of Putin's presidency from 2012 to 2018 was to prove the U.S. wrong. Russia did not have the requisites to be regarded as a global power and an equal partner. So the only way to be one was to become a "dangerous opponent."[4] In order to legitimize its power, and break the unipolar order, which became Russia's obsession, the Kremlin needed to demonstrate its machismo to the U.S. As political analyst Liliya Shevtsova explained, in an article titled "Obsession, Or How Russia Got Hooked on America," viewing the world through the prism of Russia's relations with the U.S. has become the backbone of the Russian autocracy.[5]

The Ukraine crisis made this position official. The U.S. did not recognize the annexation of Crimea, a land considered "in people's hearts and minds" as "an inseparable part of Russia."[6] Not only did the U.S. refuse to recognize Crimea, it even levied sanctions against Russia. This was the moment when the Kremlin could unite Russian public opinion against the U.S. and around its own power. But it was not enough; Putin had still to prove that Russia was not a regional player, but a global one. Syria, a former Soviet ally, then became the battlefield where Russia could antagonize the U.S., by supporting the Syrian regime and the resistance camp – becoming the leader of the anti-U.S. forces.

Nevertheless, Russia seems ready to give up on the Syrian regime and on the resistance camp if Moscow gets a good deal from the West. For Moscow, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad represents only a "liquid asset," as explained by political analyst Leonid Isaev. According to Isaev, Russia will ask a "very steep price" for abandoning him. "Assad is not an end in himself. We have achieved certain success; now we must sell it," Isaev said clearly.[7]

Furthermore, in an interview with Fotanka.ru, the renowned Professor Valery Solovei suggested that Russia could "offer to untie the Syrian knot" in exchange for Crimea and the lifting of sanctions. "The sanctions can be, in fact, watered down without announcing their removal. Which is what we hope for: that if we reach an agreement on Syria, we will then be able to come to an agreement on sanctions," explained Solovei.[8]

The main problem for the West remains the Russia-Iran alliance, and that too is, for Russia, only a "tactical" alliance, not a "strategic" one.[9] However, if the West fails to separate Moscow from Tehran, Russia's only choice will be to strengthen this alliance with Iran, in order to survive as a global player.

At the Valdai Russian-Iranian dialogue, held in Tehran on April 9, 2018, before the U.S.-U.K.-France strike against Syria, the latter scenario was underlined. Russian intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov explained that even though Russia and Iran have disagreements and different understanding of interests, especially in Syria, the two countries should cooperate on specific issues against the unipolar order. He stressed that the "old world order" is completely shattered and that President Donald Trump has actively completed the process. Hence, Lukyanov opined that it is time for Russia and Iran to jointly construct a new world system.

Putin's State of the Nation 2018 address, in which he presented a new Sarmat heavy missile, may be perceived as marking the beginning of the new Cold War.[10] At this stage, Russia needs a new Cold War, as it seems to be the only way for Moscow to be considered an equal to the U.S., and the only way to begin a new multipolar order.

 

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6343, Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia Must Return To A Path Of Real Democracy, March 9, 2016.

[2] In 2007, at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin stressed, both in his speech and in the debate that followed, that NATO's expansion was a provocation against Russia, because NATO, unlike the UN, is a military and political alliance and "not a universal organization": "I think it is obvious that NATO expansion has nothing to do with the modernization of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary – it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances given by our Western partners after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that 'the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.' Where are these guarantees?" Kremlin.ru, February 10, 2007.

[3] Washingtonpost.com, March 25, 2018.

[4] In an article in the Russian daily Kommersant, Russian intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov stated that there is one main idea that unites president Barack Obama and President Donald Trump: Russia is nonessential for the U.S. According to Lukyanov, both Obama and Trump wanted to use relations with Russia to "facilitate solutions" to their own problems, but neither believed that Russia intrinsically possessed "any value." Lukyanov then added: "In the meantime, Moscow has painstakingly proved the opposite, and as a result has reconstructed the status... not of an important partner but of a dangerous opponent." See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7411, Russian Intellectual Lukyanov: The Liberal Order Did Not Materialize; In The New Six Years Of Putin's Presidency, We Will Discover Its Successor, April 3, 2018.

[5] Political analyst Liliya Shevtsova explained, in an article titled "Obsession, Or How Russia Got Hooked on America," why Russia wants to prove itself as a power vis à vis Washington. According to Shevtsova, the Kremlin in order to legitimize its "great power statehood" needs to demonstrate its machismo to the U.S., a powerful global force. "References to the U.S. [and] the view of the world through the prism of our relations with the U.S. and its leader have become a confirmation of our status as a great power – the backbone of the Russian autocracy. In short: America has become a systemic factor of existence of present-day Russia," opined Shevtsova. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6800, Russian Political Analyst Shevtsova: 'America Possesses Us, Even If It Does Not Want It', February 23, 2017.

[6] In 2014, while addressing the State Duma deputies, Federation Council members, heads of Russian regions, and civil society representatives in the Kremlin, Putin stated: "In people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century." Kremlin.ru, March 18, 2014.

[9] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 156, Let's Make A Deal – But Do The Russians Want One?, April 24, 2018.

[10] Russian analyst The well-respected Russian military analyst Aleksandr Goltz published an article in the Russian independent media outlet Ej.ru, titled "'Cold War' is Now Reality," analyzing Putin's State of the Nation Address. According to Goltz, Putin's speech marks the beginning of a new "cold war." See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.7378, Russian Military Analyst: 'Cold War' Is Now A Reality, March 12, 2018.

See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7363, Putin After Unveiling The Revolutionary Hypersonic Sarmat ICBM: 'Nobody Wanted To Listen To Us – So Listen Now', March 5, 2018.