The conclusion of the 22-month-long investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and the presentation of his report to United States Attorney General William Barr is certain to capture prime international attention for weeks to come—and to directly impact on many global points of tension. Russia is the main culprit in this investigation, and while it is possible to deduce from the absence of any new indictments that the proposition about “collusion” between Moscow and the Donald Trump campaign is not proven, the fact of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections is established beyond any reasonable doubt (Kommersant, March 3). This bottom line could result in a new tightening of the sanctions regime, and the Russian Central Bank has consequently already signaled the possibility of a rise in the key interest rate (RBC, March 22). Political fallout may be even heavier, so the Kremlin is now attempting to pre-empt this escalation of punishment for past misdeeds by staging a high-profile diversionary operation.
Syria provides the best stage for such a renewed Russian show of force; and the long-delayed offensive against the rebel-held Idlib province could be a perfect solution. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a quick visit to Syria last week (March 19) to discuss details with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Russian Khmeimin airbase, which is located just 50 miles west of Idlib (Gazeta.ru, March 20). Airstrikes on “terrorist” targets in Idlib resumed in mid-March, despite the ceasefire agreement re-confirmed at the Russia-Iran-Turkey summit in Sochi last February (Lenta.ru, March 21). Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to come to Moscow on April 8 to reiterate his objections, but at this point he can only hope for a face-saving compromise (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 23). His leverage is diminished by Turkey’s feeble control over the “security zone” along its border with Syria. Indeed, Russian media has been reporting on Turkey’s alleged failure to enforce a semblance of order in Idlib (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 20).
One particular incentive for resuming combat operations in Syria is the recurrent desire to demonstrate the effectiveness of new Russian weapon systems. President Vladimir Putin announced, in his March 2019 address to the Federal Assembly (upper chamber of parliament), that the Tsirkon (3M22) hypersonic missile was ready for deployment. Even if rebels in Idlib cannot possibly present a worthy target for such an advanced weapon, a test strike could still be performed (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 17; Novaya Gazeta, March 23). Russia’s top brass cannot explain to their frustrated commander-in-chief why the Trump administration is not sufficiently impressed by his bragging about “wonder-missiles” to resume arms control talks (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 21). In order to reinforce the message from the top, mainstream Russian think tanks have started to discuss the supposed practicability of limited nuclear war (Russiancouncil.ru, March 15). This may be a case of brinksmanship going too far (see EDM, March 21); but using Syria as a testing ground for new missiles is seen in Moscow as a perfectly acceptable practice.
The offensive on Idlib may also serve to discharge tensions in relations with Israel, which has no reservations to such an operation. While the Kremlin felt obliged to disagree with President Trump’s initiative to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Putin would be glad to add his gesture of support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s tough election campaign (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 23). Shoigu and his generals are rather less interested in such intrigues and tend to see Israel as a risk to their “brotherhood-in-arms” with Iran (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 21). Every Israeli airstrike on Iranian assets in Syria proves that the Russian-controlled air-defense system reinforced with S-300 surface-to-air missiles cannot cope against a technologically advanced adversary. A victorious Russian attack on a motley band of rebels may, thus, help to camouflage this irreducible deficiency.
Putin may also calculate that a propaganda-amplified “victory” will help in checking the worrisome trend of steady decline of his approval ratings (New Times, March 20). His newly accentuated attention to social problems is far from convincing for the increasingly disenchanted populace and has failed to dissuade the apprehension of further contraction of incomes (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 21). Fierce clashes in the US domestic political arena are of little interest to the Russian public, but the absence of any high-level bilateral dialogue is seen as a manifestation of hostility in the US political class toward Russia. Opinion polls show negative attitudes toward the United States growing from 40 percent in July 2018 (at the time of the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit) to 56 percent today (Levada.ru, March 20). One politically useful way to play on this animosity can be to deny the US the triumph of liberating the last bit of the Islamic State’s physically held territory by moving forcefully against the al-Qaeda affiliates in Idlib.
Potentially adding to the Kremlin’s urge to score in Syria is the unexpected decision of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-sitting ruler of Kazakhstan, to step down from the presidential post, while keeping most of the levers of control over policymaking (Kommersant, March 21). The predictable explosion of commentary about a post-Putin transition in Russia is particularly poor timing for the sitting master of Russia’s political theater, who presently needs to re-confirm the monopoly of his will (Newsru.com, March 21). Yet, an uncomfortable foreboding exists that Putin’s dominance, as solid as it may appear, could suddenly expose sign of weakness and unleash a brutal struggle for power, in which rival clans would seek to pin the blame for many weighty crimes on the former boss (Carnegie.ru, March 21). The black comedy film The Death of Stalin is banned in Russia for a reason (Meduza.io, January 25).
In his not-quite-farewell statement, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev pointedly made no mention of Eurasian integration, even though he can justly claim authorship of this vague idea. This was a subtle reminder to Putin that the proposition to establish Russia’s “sphere of influence” is far from successful, and in the confrontation with the West Moscow has no allies. Meanwhile, Mueller’s report points out something else: Russia’s claim to a key role in global affairs is undercut rather than strengthened by its vast export of corruption. Putin avoids acknowledging mistakes and seems not to fully learn from his failures. He persists with denials of the most apparent blunders—and is empowered to commit new ones. One thing he cannot afford now is passivity. And in his list of low-risk escapades, Syria is an easy choice.