The Russian air campaign in Syria has captured so much international attention that this past Friday’s (October 2) difficult summit in Paris, involving French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, made nearly no headlines. The outcome of the tense talks, lasting just about five hours, barely lived up to their already low expectations; nevertheless, the four leaders’ confirmed commitment to continue and prolong the so-called “Minsk process” constitutes a reasonably positive step in managing the high-risk conflict (Rbc.ru, October 2). While Ukraine shows readiness to sustain the pause in Donbas, Russia finds the deadlock expensive and unrewarding: Moscow has to deliver the bulk of supplies to the rebel-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, it has to deploy a large grouping of ground forces inside and in the vicinity of this “rump-Novorossiya,” and Russia has to keep its domestic “patriotic” mobilization going despite the lull in hostilities. Seeking to escape from this no-win drag-on situation, Putin has opted to launch a small-scale but high-resonance military intervention in the Syrian civil war (Forbes.ru, October 2).
It is striking in this respect that preparations for the Syria intervention coincided precisely with the cessation of fighting in the Donbas war zone. During August, hundreds of ceasefire violations were registered daily; but since the start of September, the provocations by joint separatist-Russian forces have abruptly stopped. And the agreement on withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line is being implemented smoothly (Kommersant, September 29). Meanwhile, in the first days of September, Russia opened an air and sea “bridge” to Latakia and began work on preparing the airbase for the deployment of a mixed regiment of the Russian Air Force (Rbc.ru, September 30). While addressing the United Nations General Assembly, on September 28, Putin was thus able both to claim that Russia was a responsible stake-holder in conflict management in Ukraine and to advance the initiative for building a broad international anti–Islamic State (and pro–Bashar al-Assad) coalition in Syria. Also addressing the UN, Poroshenko (speaking on September 29) condemned Russia’s occupation of Donbas, and US President Barack Obama (delivering his remarks on September 28) rejected the proposition for accepting President al-Assad’s regime into the coalition. Nonetheless, Putin had reasons to believe that his geopolitical maneuver was successful (Slon.ru, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 29).
Underpinning the Russian leader’s self-complimentary assessment is the apparent confusion in the West’s strategy for containing the Syrian catastrophe, as well as deep concern in Europe about a confrontation with Russia. Putin is eager to emphasize that Washington’s investments in training and equipping moderate Syrian opposition forces have yielded embarrassing results and that the sustained bombing campaign has failed to disrupt the Islamic State’s operations (even if it is unclear how Russian bombing could be more effective) (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 2). He is also keen to exploit all signs of divisions in the Western position on deterring and isolating Russia, focusing particularly on the counter-productiveness of the sanctions policy (Rbc.ru, October 1). Russia’s intervention was expected to deepen Western discord on managing the Syrian crisis; while the reluctant acknowledgement by Germany and France that this management required Moscow’s participation was expected to further erode the West’s determination to tighten and fine-tune the sanctions regime (Novaya Gazeta, October 2). Neither of these expectations is likely to come true, however.
Putin has indeed achieved a tactical surprise, primarily by, yet again, stepping beyond the borders of political prudence and, indeed, common sense. The combat order for close air support to al-Assad’s troops pressed hard by rebels of various persuasions is a high-risk operation, particularly taking into consideration the track record of Russian air accidents during this summer (Meduza.io, October 1). The costs of sustaining high-intensity combat sorties and delivering fuel, supplies and ammunition to the poorly prepared Hmeimim airbase outside Latakia are so high that Russia must count on a successful offensive by Syrian government forces, perhaps reinforced by Iranian troops (Newsru.com, October 1). Moscow may be unconcerned about civilian casualties, but it is poorly prepared to deal with the threat of terrorist attacks on the crowded base it now occupies. Hence, Russia may now be on the verge of rediscovering that it is far easier to insert oneself into the quagmire of a civil war than to later find a way out (Carnegie.ru, October 2). The messy Syrian disaster has acquired a new level of complexity with the arrival of Russia’s expeditionary squadrons, but it is by no means clear that Bashar al-Assad has consequently gained sufficient time and strength for a new offensive (Moscow Echo, October 1).
What is clear is that key regional powers, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, whom Putin was actively courting in the last couple of months, have expressed strong objections to the Russian airstrikes (Rbc.ru, October 2). The advisors who sold Putin on the idea of making a big impression with a small-scale intervention excel at playing on the Russian president’s vanity and obsession with revolutions; but they are seemingly unable to grasp all the intricate intrigues driving the Syrian war (Newsru.com, October 2). For Putin, the costs and casualties of the intervention appear to be a secondary consideration compared with the opportunity to compel Obama to agree to a face-to-face meeting and to score a point in this personal sparring (Gazeta.ru, September 28). He also tends to assume that footage of effective Russian airstrikes coupled with reports about US confusion will shift domestic public opinion, which was strongly against a direct military intervention—69 percent against, and only 14 percent in favor (Levada.ru, September 28).
This distorted worldview, in which geopolitical fantasies are indistinguishable from psychological idiosyncrasies, propels Putin along the path of covering one mistake with another blunder. He appears uninformed about the structural ills of Russia’s declining economy and seeks to eliminate the population’s deepening discontent with a “patriotic” mobilization; this propaganda-driven pseudo-unity is centered on defying US global dominance, but it leaves no clear options for how to move from this aggressive-defensive stance to lifting the sanctions. The diplomatic maneuver from Ukraine to Syria and back might appear cleverly constructed, but in fact, Russia remains stuck with the useless occupation of Donbas—and is now trapped in a looming Syrian disaster. Putin may imagine that he forced the arrogant West to treat him as an indispensable partner, but Obama, Merkel and Hollande have only recognized his readiness to expose Russia to great risks for fictitious gains.