Once again the United States and Europe have been caught off guard by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves — sending military hardware to Syria and forming an anti–Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) intelligence-sharing group with Syria, Iran and Iraq. What is Putin really up to?
Putin is often seen as unpredictable, but, secretive as he might be, his motivations are simple and unchanging — to maintain and increase his own power and Russia’s. The two are one and the same for him. Like King Louis XIV, Putin could also say, I am the state.
Putin’s specialty is identifying situations in which power and interests are in the early stages of shifting — and then to act quickly and decisively. That is what he did in Ukraine, for better or worse, and that is what he is doing now in Syria.
But it isn’t events in Syria itself that matter so much here. What Putin sees is that the Syrian war is causing a refugee crisis in Europe. That crisis is already causing serious economic and political strains. It is now very much in Europe’s interest for the stream of refugees to be stemmed as soon as possible. Anyone seen acting to stop that war and stem that flood will be perceived as acting in Europe’s immediate vital interests.
Putin’s most immediate vital interest is the easing or lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Coupled with the nosedive of oil prices, the sanctions are now causing harm to his entourage and constituencies, as well as to the economy in general. The example of Iran proves two things: Sanctions work and, sooner or later, sanctions will be lifted. Unlike Iran, Putin will not seek to come to an agreement with the U.S. and Europe. Rather, he will continue to take steps that will be viewed in Europe as serving its vital interests: slowing the flood of refugees, and taking on ISIL directly.
And so Putin’s moves in Syria are first and foremost about Ukraine, money and his own power. Though Putin is often likened to a chess player, here he appears more like a pool player doing an off-the-cushion shot and using the Syria ball to knock Ukraine into the pocket.
Putin, however, does have other interests in Syria. By forming an intelligence alliance with Syria, Iran and Iraq, Putin presents the U.S. with an impossible choice. It can join in, which essentially means implicitly recognizing the current Syrian regime as legitimate (and siding publicly with Iran), or not join in and be seen as stranded on moral high ground.
By insisting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, Obama is essentially echoing the comments of the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, who recently stated that refugees are fleeing Assad more than ISIL. Russia takes the opposite view, also pointing out that the order imposed by evil strong men is preferable to the evils that ensue from events such as the Arab Spring. But if Putin takes the fight to ISIL and other anti-regime groups, thereby lessening the pressure on Syrians to flee the country, he will have won the dispute by action, not argument.
Putin becomes stronger at home and abroad by besting the U.S. in any way possible. For example, Obama’s declaration that a red line had been crossed when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people prompted Russia to seize the initiative and make a deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. The U.S. looked irresolute, and easy to con. But aside from inducing the Europeans to lift sanctions on Russia and stealing the U.S.’ thunder, Putin has other reasons to support Syria and to be part of the Syria-Iran-Iraq intelligence-sharing alliance.
Putin wants to defeat ISIL in Syria so that he doesn’t have to fight it on Russian soil. On Sept. 23, he presided over the opening of Moscow’s largest mosque. Despite its capacity of 10,000, the capital’s population of some 2,000,000 Muslims is still woefully underserved. Many of those Muslims are guest workers from former Soviet Republics, hundreds of thousands of whom are now returning home to their countries because the sanctions imposed on Russia have hurt the economy enough to cost them their jobs. Some of them will be easy pickings for ISIL.
Worse, the Chechen secessionist groups in the south of Russia have now morphed from seeking national independence to swearing allegiance to ISIL. Worse still, many of those Chechens have joined the ranks of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, where they are considered outstanding fighters because of their experience battling Russia. The paradox here is that if Putin succeeds in bringing some peace to Syria, those Chechens will come home.
If Russia can be seen as seriously trying to stop the war in Syria, which is the cause of much of the refugee crisis — and if the rickety cease-fire continues to hold in Ukraine — sentiment in Europe will begin turning against the sanctions and it is with Europe that Russia does much more business than with the United States.
Putin’s speech at the United Nations stressed the legitimacy of the Assad government and the danger of ISIL. Ukraine was also mentioned, though mostly to criticize NATO’s eastward expansion. But don’t be fooled: Those two topics aren’t unrelated. Because when it comes to Syria, it’s all about Ukraine for Putin right now.