The United Nations General Assembly will hear today (September 28) the long-promised address by President Vladimir Putin, which is unlikely to contain any shocking surprises. The main content of his initiative on bringing the devastating civil war in Syria to an end has already been tested in many international fora and explained to numerous regional leaders, including Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in a series of face-to-face meetings (Rbc.ru, September 22). He has found no takers for his main proposition—that peace in Syria should be restored by joining efforts to exterminate the Islamic State (IS) and all other opposition to the “legitimate” government of President Bashar al-Assad—but this rejection does not seem to upset Putin (Kommersant, September 25). The over-advertised non-starter is just a means to Putin’s greater ideological end: to establish that revolutions against tyrannical regimes bring only violent chaos and, thus, to condemn Western strategies of “regime change.”
This counter-revolutionary ethos underpins Putin’s desire for a meeting with the United States President Barack Obama, to which the latter reluctantly agreed, apparently assuming that turning down such persistent requests would be impolitic (Moscow Echo, September 25). There seems to be a disagreement about the main theme for this rare rendezvous, with the US side insisting on the focus on the Ukraine crisis and the Russians arguing for concentrating on Syria (Rbc.ru, September 24). In fact, it is Ukraine that is the absolutely central issue for Moscow. But Russia seeks to arrive at discussing this dangerous deadlock by first maximally exploiting the United States’ weak position on Syria (Slon.ru, September 21). A profound confusion indeed exists in Western strategies for managing the Syrian catastrophe, with the European Union struggling to accommodate the massive waves of refugees coming from the region and the US failing to build an armed force representing a moderate Syrian opposition (Moscow Echo, September 23).
This confusion creates an opportunity for Putin to make a major political impact by applying small-scale military instruments with heavy propaganda spin. In order to achieve this out-sized effect, official semi-denials of the presence of Russian troops in Syria are mixed with plentiful commentary on the ability of a limited grouping of Russian forces to decisively change the balance of forces in key battlegrounds (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, September 25; Rbc.ru, September 27). The size of this grouping is the subject of much speculation, but it is clear that the combat-capable battalions of the Russian army continue to be tied up in the Donbas war zone, in eastern Ukraine, so it is primarily the Russian Air Force that could deploy a few squadrons to the newly-upgraded airbase outside Latakia (Newsru.com, September 26). It is hard to expect that Russian combat planes will perform any better from this base than in training exercises at home, where a shocking number of accidents and crashes was registered this summer. What could make some small difference is air strikes not on the IS strongholds but on the forces of other militant Islamist opposition groups, particularly the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, which has undertaken an offensive toward Latakia (Moscow Echo, September 22).
The main problem for Russian experiments with air power projection is that they are limited to the relatively safe Mediterranean coast and cannot reach Damascus, the decisive battleground for the al-Assad regime. Turkish President Erdoğan explained to his Russian counterpart, in no uncertain terms, that a continuation of the al-Assad regime is unacceptable, while Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took pains to clarify that every modern weapons system that could end up in the hands of Hezbollah would be destroyed (Slon.ru, September 22). Even Iran, which used to stand firmly behind al-Assad and directed Hezbollah forces in the battle for Damascus, is indicating a readiness to wash its hands of the fate of the besieged regime (Novaya Gazeta, September 23). Putin surely hears these messages; he also undoubtedly knows that an intervention in Syria is deeply unpopular in Russian public opinion and finds no enthusiasm in the military, so that kontraktniki (contract soldiers) are turning into refuseniki (Gazeta.ru, September 19).
The window of opportunity for executing a low-risk (and largely virtual) military intervention is narrowing as Russia’s support for President al-Assad gives a boost to Syrian opposition factions of different political persuasions. But Putin has perfectly timed his intervention to create the impression that his initiative for gathering an international anti–Islamic State (and pro-al-Assad) coalition is backed by solid muscle (New Times, September 15). Putin’s need to project such an impression was quite probably sharpened by his visit to Beijing earlier this month, when the military parade may have reminded him of the urgency to prove to China Russia’s value as a strategic partner (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 7). Beijing is quite sensitive to the turmoil in the Middle East, and it is also resolutely opposed to revolutionary protests against dictatorial regimes, so Moscow can position itself as a champion in the struggle against revolutions—and as an indispensable power in stabilizing the chaos engulfing Mesopotamia. The Chinese leadership, however, has fairly accurate data on the capabilities of the Russian armed forces and is unlikely to be impressed with the rapid but feeble deployment to Latakia. President Xi Jinping, for that matter, did not mention Syria once in his address to the UN General Assembly (Newsru.com, September 27).
Putin seems to believe his initiative on reinforcing and granting new legitimacy to the al-Assad regime is a no-go, but he continues to press on with more determination than is necessary to simply demonstrate the confusion of US and EU policies in Syria. Daily sending more troops and armaments into harm’s way and denying this escalation, Putin apparently seeks to project the impression of Russia’s unpredictability. This compels the main stake-holders in Middle East conflict management—from the king of Saudi Arabia to President Obama—to engage the Russian leader in dialogue and joint enterprises. Moscow’s own stakes in the unfolding Syrian disaster and the wider Middle East are, in fact, limited, which makes it easier for Russia to play with fire and to demonstrate readiness to take far greater risks than the cautious West. The Kremlin’s real preoccupation remains in Ukraine, and the Syrian escapade is mainly a means of distracting attention from this deadlock in Europe’s East, while reminding the West that Russia’s big battalions are able to break it at will. Crimea and Donbas are hanging so heavily on Moscow’ shoulders that the Latakia intervention can only be an in-and-out game.