Russia’s entry into Syria’s increasingly chaotic civil war surprised many, raising the question of why it would want to dive into an almost certain quagmire. As the risks of ‘mission creep’ pull more Russian soldiers in, amid rising casualties, costs and terror attacks, the benefits seem few. But a proper understanding of Russian interests shows how the Kremlin hopes to use Syria to achieve two goals: a tighter grip on power at home and expanded clout abroad. It may yet work. But if Russia gets bogged down, the Syrian adventure and sanctions-induced hardship could combine to jeopardise President Vladimir Putin’s re-election chances in 2018.
It is tempting to believe that Russia acted against its interests by entering the Syrian conflict. But thinking along such lines – the same that led many to conclude Moscow’s actions in Ukraine were irrational – reflects a deep misunderstanding of Russia’s motivations.
Former Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently made an argument typical of this flawed view. Expounding on what he called Russia’s ‘tragic miscalculation,’ he complained that instead of working with the United States and Europe to find a solution, Moscow ‘turned’ on its international partners. His conclusion is that the sooner Nato can convince Russia’s leaders that it will stand firm, the sooner the conflict will end.
Such statements go down well with audiences in Europe and the US, but they are based on a complacent notion of moral superiority that insists that the Kremlin will change course if it can only be persuaded to see reason. This perspective ignores the fact that Russia has legitimate interests that oppose the West’s.
Such faulty logic leads to tragic consequences. Along with Nato’s supreme commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, Mr Fogh Rasmussen has been one of the most insistent voices warning of an imminent full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. That all-out assault never materialised, and Moscow surely never intended to mount one. But by scaring off investors and thus bringing Ukraine closer to economic collapse, these statements played directly into the Kremlin’s hands.
We must understand Russia. Doing so is not tantamount to condoning the Kremlin’s actions, some of which have been deplorable indeed. Instead, it would be wise to grasp why the Kremlin behaves the way it does. If US and European leaders make this mental effort, they can stop reacting and moralising and start devising proactive and constructive policies.
The key is to realise that there are two mutually supportive Russian agendas at play: safeguarding what Moscow views as vital national interests abroad, while ensuring the safety of the regime at home. As the Kremlin has shown time and again over the past decade and a half, it is adept at pursuing these two goals at once.
The US and European governments have found it particularly galling that Mr Putin’s shows of force play so well with the Russian public. In a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTSIOM), published on October 22, the Russian president’s approval rating was a stunning 89.9 per cent, surpassing his previous all-time high of 88 per cent, reached just after the August 2008 war with Georgia.
The obvious catalyst for Mr Putin’s spike in popularity was the launch of airstrikes in Syria. Russia’s initiation of an undeclared war in Ukraine had a similar effect. In January 2014, when the situation in Kiev was still in limbo, the Russian president’s approval rating was 60.6 per cent. Boosted by the seizure and annexation of Crimea, it began a steady rise, reaching 86.2 per cent in May 2015.
While the military operations in Georgia, Crimea and Syria have boosted Mr Putin’s popularity, that was not their main motivation. Russians have a deeply ingrained desire for strong leadership – at home as well as in the face of foreign opposition. Mr Putin has used these conflicts to show strength while adhering to a clearly defined vision of national interest.
In sharp contrast to the United States, which often casts its military actions abroad as campaigns to promote a fuzzy set of universal values, the only value for which Moscow will go to war is national interest. As GIS analyst Uwe Nerlich recently pointed out, the Kremlin has been strikingly successful in this strategy, using conflicts to promote its interests on the international stage.
It has also done well in achieving its domestic goal – keeping a firm grip on power. In January 2012, when Mr Putin embarked on his campaign for a third (nonconsecutive) term as president, his approval rating was only 58.8 per cent. By May, following his election and inauguration, it had risen to 68.8 per cent. This increase can partly be ascribed to a skilful portrayal of the Master of the Kremlin as the only safeguard against disrespect on the international stage. Opinion polls have long shown that it is extremely important to Russians that their country be feared and respected. The Kremlin has willingly and successfully catered to this demand.
The August 2008 war against Georgia was not fought to curry favour with the Russian public, however. Instead, it was intended to send a strong message to the US and Europe that further expansion of Nato would not be tolerated. Similarly, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was not intended to boost the regime’s popularity, but to send that same message again. In both cases, the ambition to secure a vital national interest was combined with a successful drive to elicit support from the population.
Russia’s actions in Syria have been designed with the same two goals in mind.
The Kremlin has long worried that Islamic militancy will proliferate even further within its own borders, and it watched with chagrin as US policy in the Middle East spread chaos across the region. It saw a chance to address these concerns in Syria.
Moscow planned carefully and deliberately. It pre-positioned prefabricated housing and a portable radar station, created a joint Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi intelligence analysis centre in Baghdad, and liaised with Egypt to mediate and improve relations with Saudi Arabia.
Now, as Moscow has taken the lead in seeking a solution to the Syria crisis, Washington is being pushed out of the picture – to the delight of everyday Russians, who resent the US’s steps to cow their government. Opinion polls have shown a sharp rise in negative attitudes towards the US, up from 44 per cent in January 2014 to 71 per cent in October of this year.
The Western policy of imposing sanctions on Russia must be viewed against this backdrop. Trust in the efficacy of sanctions was based on the erroneous belief that Mr Putin’s leadership is based on a kind of social contract, whereby political freedoms were surrendered in exchange for material welfare. This was indeed the case during Mr Putin’s first two terms in power, when high oil prices allowed the Kremlin to purchase popular support by lavish handouts. Russians never enjoyed such prosperity as during the years of the ‘petro bonanza.’
But those days are long gone. The mass rallies that shook Moscow during the winter of 2011-2012 brought home to the Kremlin that a new form of social contract was needed. Mr Putin’s revised ideology combines conservative values, a close relationship with the Orthodox Church, patriotism and a tough stance against the West.
Mr Putin’s ability to achieve record approval ratings in the face of plunging oil prices and growing international isolation shows that this shift has been successful. It makes short shrift of the Western belief that heaping hardship on Russians would cause them to turn against their leader – at least in the short term. Polls show that two-thirds of Russians view sanctions as a means deployed by the West to weaken and humiliate Russia. As a result, they have given their support to Mr Putin.
The key question is how long this can last. The economic privation induced by the sanctions – if they are kept in place – will become increasingly severe, and the cost in blood and treasure of Russia’s involvement in Syria will continue to mount. Barring Russian energy companies from working with Western service firms will speed up the decline in the country’s oil output. If the price of crude remains low, the stress on Russia’s finances will become intense. Over the long haul, the West’s flawed calculations may yet yield the desired effect.
The Kremlin has had a good run, but there is plenty of reason to question how long its winning streak can continue. The patriotic fervour that accompanied the annexation of Crimea has begun to fade; the same will happen with Syria, especially if the death toll there rises.
The Duma elections scheduled for September 2016 will not bring any surprises. The campaign will be carefully stage-managed to ensure victory for team Kremlin. But the outlook for 2018, when the presidential election is scheduled, is considerably less certain.
By then, material hardship at home will have grown to levels so substantial that Russians will finally have to start questioning their leadership. As the ruble keeps depreciating, they will be forced to give up foreign travel, the most treasured perk of Russia’s aspiring middle class. Already, slumping demand has forced the bankruptcy of Transaero, Russia’s second largest air carrier. Even for those who can afford it, going abroad is becoming increasingly difficult. The bombing of an airliner in Egypt and the spat with Turkey over its downing of a Russian warplane have led to travel bans to both countries, where 5.8 million Russian tourists spend their summer holidays.
Then there is the near-unanimous decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations to suspend Russian participation in all international athletic events, including the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, on allegations of state sponsored doping. The ongoing FIFA corruption scandals are bound to lead to more demands that Russia be barred from hosting the 2018 World Cup in football. These are embarrassing blows to the country’s international prestige that even Russians may find hard to endure.
All told, the Kremlin has reason to be concerned about Mr Putin’s re-election prospects. A success in Syria would provide a real boost. But if the campaign there becomes a costly stalemate – as in Ukraine – then Syria becomes a double-edged sword, and Russians’ stalwart support of their leader will start to wear thin.
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