US Secretary of State John Kerry and former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
The tired and trite observation that the wily Kremlin plays chess while the White House fumbles with checkers is, after a much needed respite, back with gusto in Western media of all political bents. Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again caught the United States seemingly off-guard, this time in the Middle East. Superficially, it appears that the New Cold War is on and that the US is already losing.
Yet Putin’s recent foray into Syria, a move pregnant with ramifications and motives both considerable and myriad, need not be met with exasperation. Where President Barack Obama once pursued an optimistically cooperative reset with Russia, Putin’s aggression now presents the equivalent of a unicorn in foreign policy before him: the opportunity for an immediate strategic overhaul in a region of vital importance. American policy in Syria, the tail that wags the dog of American Middle Eastern policy writ large, can be made anew atop what may become the ruins of Putin’s short-lived string of geopolitical coups that supposedly began with the 2008 invasion of Georgia. With experts of every stripe solemnly proclaiming America’s Syria policy dead, Putin has arrived at Obama’s darkest hour with an incredible gift. Putin ex machina, indeed.
“Russia is never as strong as she seems; Russia is never as weak as she looks.”
The year is 2015, not 1973. The Moskva is not the Soviet 5th squadron, arms sales to Egypt and other Middle Eastern powers are not the Aswan Dam or hundreds of T-62’s soon to roll down the Golan or across the Sinai, and Russia is not on the verge of gaining a preponderance of influence in the Middle East. Stepping back, Russia is not competing with the US in another existential global battle for supremacy where the ideologies are Manichean and nuclear war appears nigh inevitable. Russian is not a synonym for Soviet. This is not the New Cold War, so stop trying to make “New Cold War” happen.
Russia has, however, embarked on a methodical, multi-decade geopolitical recovery from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its military, though still replete with aged equipment and single-year conscripts, remains nuclear-armed and is attempting to modernize to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars this decade in order to reestablish what Russia views as its historical sphere of influence, including its periphery and near abroad. Given the gargantuan, transcontinental size of Russia, the historical ebb and flow of its territorial control, its recent assumption once more as the Third Rome of Christianity, and its apical position atop the global natural gas market, Russia’s historical sphere necessarily comes into conflict with a United States still adjusting to the end of unipolarity. Russia’s interests logically follow both its borderlands and its economic priorities, though its subsequent ambitions in pursuit of those interests are several degrees of magnitude lower than the Soviet Union’s, as are its means of achieving them.
After the fall of the USSR, NATO pressed forward in a triumphant spree of aggressive eastward expansion in mild violation of previous agreements with Russia. These advancements, in combination with America’s conventional military dominance, economic superiority, and growing coterie of allies offering up their territory for missile defense installations and bases, led to a newfound sense of vulnerability and paranoia in the Kremlin. Putin foresaw a looming national security catastrophe and, even less tolerable, the humiliation of Russia at the hands of the West, which could not be trusted to treat a weakened Russia fairly.
Putin reacted, testing the West and fine-tuning his tactics and military through a series of increasingly provocative actions along Russia’s periphery beginning in the early 2000’s, eventually turning his attention to the territory that made Russia a true Eurasian power: ukraina. The Ukrainian invasion in February, 2014 was a qualitative leap in Russian tactics and foreign policy, and was executed in two components. The near flawless Crimean annexation, complete with a Potemkin referendum, was fittingly completed by Russian Special Forces devoid of insignia, commonly referred to as little green men. Crimea was largely a military objective, permanently providing the naval base at Sevastopol to a resurgent Black Sea Fleet that had been quietly growing in strength and that was soon to acquire two Mistral-class ships from France. Hybrid warfare operations in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine were more geopolitical in nature and required a more subtle – by Russian standards – use of Russian forces. Proxies from Chechnya and Ukraine were supported with materiel, electronic and cyber capabilities, inventive political warfare, and robust diplomatic posturing.
This episode was instructive in several ways. First, it showed the costs of overextension, as Russia suffered for its overreach in the Donbass. Its economy contracted by 1% from sanctions alone over the past year. Second, the world observed the efficacy of hybrid warfare and a number of modern Russian military technologies. Third, and most consequential, Putin learned that the US and Europe are ill-prepared to challenge him. NATO is at its post-Cold War nadir and is operationally incapable of deterring Russia. Additionally, the fractious nature of the European Union has been laid bare, as countries such as Germany care little about national security threats from Russia and more about economic ties, while states such as Poland have begun forming new organizations for the defense of Eastern Europe. The refugee crisis has only accelerated the disunity that has come to characterize modern European policymaking. Putin is all too aware of the lack of political will for continuing sanctions related to Ukraine and for challenging his actions elsewhere.
Russia, now having established frozen conflicts in two neighboring states, preventing NATO or EU membership while ensuring political influence for years to come, has begun the second and more daring phase of its influence reclamation – establishing a permanent foothold in Syria, in whose civil war can be found the turbid confluence of all global and regional interests concerning the Middle East.
Turkish Troubles: Russian Lakes, Natural Gas, and the Rise of the Kurds
The region – fractured, war-torn, and bereft of strong external leadership as it is – abounds with strategic imperatives and geopolitical opportunities. The threat of resurgent Salafi-jihadism, the most virulent form of militant Islamism in modern times, snaking its way from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq into the ever restive Caucasus is very real. Putin loses considerable sleep at the thought of having to once again pacify Chechnya, though this time having to contend with the already proclaimed Caucasian province of Islamic State. With a largely Sunni Muslim population comprising 12-14% of Russia’s otherwise notoriously xenophobic populace, fears of Islamist cells are well-founded.
Yet terrorism is not the primary reason for Russia’s direct entrance into the Syrian conflict. Indeed, Russia is very openly not bombing Islamic State, but rather backing Assad. At play are other broader and closely intertwined goals in the Middle East. Turkey, at the focal point of several such goals, has now fallen into the Kremlin’s crosshairs, a position in which it has not found itself since the first years after WWII and which prompted its early entrance into NATO in the 1950s. Recent and repeated incursions by Russian jets into Turkish airspace are “no accident” and are emblematic of Russia’s designs for the region.
A Black Sea fleet, aside from ensuring access to the resources locked beneath the surface of that essentially Russian lake, is useless unless the Dardanelles and Bosporus can be uncorked. By international treaty, Turkey is the lone gatekeeper of these straits and so is tasked, with reluctant NATO backing, to keep the Russian naval genie in the Black Sea bottle and away from the Suez Canal, NATO’s southern flank, and Russia’s now defunct ally, Libya. Yet by that very same treaty, there are few legitimate reasons for Turkey to restrict Russian access to the Mediterranean, making the task exceedingly difficult. Russia, largely unnoticed, has been increasing the size of this still diminutive fleet, publicly declaring its intentions to reestablish a permanent naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, one that it has not had since the disbanding of the 5th squadron in 1992. It has enticed Greek and Cypriot acceptance of this reality through economic incentives, opportunities the cash-strapped states have jumped at, with Cyprus even surreptitiously inking a basing deal in the process. With improvements underway at Latakia and Tartus and with Russian forces barricading themselves within Little Syria, Turkey faces a naval squeeze as Putin gleefully continues to skip across naval stepping stones into the Mediterranean.
The steady creep of the Russian military back into its old, Mediterranean hunting grounds also comes with a contemporary twist. The states with the largest proven natural gas reserves – Russia, Iran, and Qatar – are all now major, opposing players in Syria. The top two exporters are likewise Russia and Qatar, and as sanctions are lifted, Iran will soon catch up. Unsurprisingly, the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, a recently established though embryonic entity similar to OPEC, is based in Doha, Qatar and is headed by an Iranian. Greece and Cyprus, so recently courted by Russia, are natural points of export as full EU members. Recent and massive natural gas discoveries off the coasts of Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Syria itself further evidence the reality that the Middle East, as a transit route and global reservoir, is essential to natural gas markets and, consequently, to the Russian economy.
So instead of all roads leading to Rome, it appears that all pipelines lead to Turkey. Long championed as the crossroads of Europe and the East, this position has now thrust the state into the forefront of the emerging energy rivalries of the 21st century. Natural gas, cheaply transported via pipeline when gaseous and by ship when expensively liquefied, is rapidly transforming global energy markets and geopolitics. Pipelines, unlike tankers, must cross national territory, be they overland or underwater. As the conflict in eastern Ukraine forces Russia to phase out natural gas transit through that country by 2019, pipelines must now link Russian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern gas fields to Europe in other ways, with many of them running through Turkish land and maritime claims, from the Trans-Anatolia route to Turkish Stream. Natural gas and oil are Russia’s lifeblood, now and for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, Russia must position itself to reap the benefits of higher energy prices in the future, once the current plunge has subsided.
Adding to its geopolitical misfortune, Turkey also shares a long and porous border with Syria. Ostensibly to stem the tide of foreign recruits into Syria and to force Islamic State back from Turkish territory, Turkey intervened in the neighboring conflict to establish an internationally approved buffer zone. This allowed Turkish forces to check the advances of the Kurds, who have long sought an independent state and even went so far as to declare the free province of Rojava in northern Syria. A tacit Turkish red line, the Turks felt impelled to intervene lest the Kurds eventually gain the strength to form a nascent state, taking large portions of Turkey’s territory and population with them.
Turkey thus fully embroiled itself in the Syrian war, ensuring that whoever holds the greatest influence at its conclusion will have considerable leverage against it. If Putin succeeds in his goals, the Turks may have no choice but to accept a Kremlin-brokered settlement, with or without Assad, and to rethink their positions on the Russian navy and natural gas transit, in order to stymie the statist ambitions of their restive and increasingly powerful minority.
One of the few commonalities among all external parties to the Syrian civil war is that each one prefers alternative outcomes to either state collapse, in which chaotic spillover will be inevitable, or an Islamic State victory. While various external actors initially sought military victory for their preferred proxies, Russia now serves as the guarantor of the Syrian state, and a negotiated settlement among all non-Islamic State combatants, followed by a refocusing on IS, has become the most likely outcome. Every side will seek to negotiate from a position of strength, while IS continues fighting. With so much external involvement, achieving and sustaining a position of strength will be difficult for any one side. Rather, each will in time likely exhaust itself and accept that a stalemate has been reached, at which time the best positioned party will have the greatest say in the reconstitution of Syria.
Putin envisages Russia as this eventual interlocutor, ensconced within its nearly homogenous Alawite redoubt behind the Alawite Mountains along Syria’s densely populated coast. With Assad dependent on Russia and Iran for survival now more than ever, he will have little say in the inevitable final days of the war as to whether or not he stays on. From this position of strength, and as the only external power with boots and hardware inside Syria besides Iran, Russia is maneuvering itself into the role of indispensable kingmaker in Syria, hoping to either anoint Bashar al-Assad once more or cast him aside for a more pliant client. Its current bombing campaign aims to incapacitate non-IS rebels, leaving the Syrian government, headed by Assad or another puppet, as the only alternative.
This flexibility on Assad positions Russia ahead of Iran, which has involved itself far more in the conflict than any other state solely to keep Assad in power. Iran has staked its regional power on the Syrian conflict, engaging its own Revolutionary Guards, its client government in Iraq, the full weight of Hezbollah, and thousands of Shia militiamen from Iraq and Afghanistan alongside a massive Syrian paramilitary organization – even using the Houthis as a feint in Yemen to draw in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a separate bloody quagmire at little cost to itself. Yet after a summer of unsustainable losses of territory and manpower by the Syrian government and Hezbollah, Iran was forced to invite Russia in directly, ceding a large portion of its influence. Iran’s deployment of soldiers now at the vanguard of the recently begun, and initially successful, Syrian government offensive back into the northwest indicates that Iran not only needs Russian support, but is doubling down on its own involvement. Iran cannot afford to lose in Syria, making Russia essential to Iran as well as to Assad. While Russia can accept Assad’s removal, Iran cannot.
The Sunni axis opposing Assad, including Turkey and the Gulf states, recognizes the subtle difference between the hardline Iranian position and the potentially more amenable Russian position. Russia could reluctantly let Assad go and avail itself of Sunni state objectives, so long as they remained cognizant of Russian interests. While Qatar may back more hardline Sunni factions, the rest of the GCC will likely remain unified and drag Qatar along as it has done previously. Given the Sunni population of Russia, this flexibility may be crucial for it in the long term.
In line with keeping such an option on the table, Putin has pursued a quiet, mutually beneficial soft power campaign more reminiscent of China than a former KGB officer. Russia, in order to prop up its ailing, sanctioned economy, seeks to sell other assets which it possesses in abundance – field-proven arms, including electronic and cyber capabilities; nuclear energy capabilities; and space-related tech, a sort of wish-list for states that are light on manpower, heavy on cash, and expecting a need for both nuclear weapons and covert warfare over the next several decades. What Russia has, the Gulf states may yet buy. Additionally, the anti-access/area-denial (A2-AD) capabilities of the Russian arsenal, such as its state-of-the-art air defense systems, are ideal for countries potentially on the receiving end of American or Israeli airstrikes, which at this stage in Middle Eastern affairs could soon become a growing number of countries besides Iran. Syria is fast becoming Russia’s own Defense and Security Equipment International show.
Egypt, historically influential, if less so of late, and with interests distinct from those of the Gulf states, continues with an on-again-off-again relationship with Russia. With a rocky post-Tahrir relationship with the US, it has inched closer to the Kremlin since Abdel Fateh el-Sisi took power. With multiple state visits to Moscow by al-Sisi, large bilateral trade, arms and nuclear power agreements, and a festering Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai, Egypt quickly applauded Russian airstrikes in Syria – despite numerous Sunni Gulf countries propping up its economy and the involvement of Egyptian soldiers in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Israel, another regional power currently at loggerheads with the US, has no choice but to tacitly accept Russia’s presence, as Russia is now the main bulwark against the collapse of the Syrian state, Israel’s primary fear, and holds considerable sway with Iran and its proxies. The presence of surface-to-sea missiles in Hezbollah’s hands near Latakia also means that Israeli airstrikes could now come dangerously close to Russian anti-air, making deconfliction paramount.
As such, Russia now has connections to every major player in the region, albeit some are much stronger than others. While it is closest to Iran and its Shia axis, it is seeking to bridge the widening sectarian chasm. Putin here may find himself once again overstretched.
A Russian Gamble, an American Opportunity
Recently, Obama remarked that he would like someone to ask critics of his Syria policy “Specifically, precisely – what exactly is it you would do?” with regards to the conflict. Various, unnamed Diplomacist contributors have begged a similar question in great earnest, as well. None likely expected an answer from Putin himself. Obama would enjoy nothing more than watching an arrogant Putin sink into the quagmire of Syria and the broader Middle East, bringing all the talk of the New Cold War down with him. Yet Napoleon’s adage of “Never interrupt an enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself” should be amended in this instance, for rather than allowing Putin to stumble, the US should place the block in front of him and ensure that he falls flat on his face.
With Russia’s diverse array of interests, Putin has initiated a complex plan with too many moving parts, each one of which can be interrupted or thrown askew. Russian jets in Syrian skies may give it the greatest say for now, but they also come with the greatest risk. Putin maintains domestic approval largely through nationalism and international prestige, as living standards are slipping. Thus in failing to achieve his objectives abroad, he will suffer greatly at home. If the US can capitalize on Putin’s misadventure in the Middle East, it may not only halt the decline of US influence in the region, but also inflict considerable damage on Russia’s global position and Putin’s domestic status. Sharpen the long knives, Mr. President.
The aim is to retool the Obama doctrine’s cautious pragmatism, which tends to sharply limit the direct application of American military power abroad. Rather than using such pragmatism as the basis of a reserved approach, it must become the foundation of a more engaged effort in light of the now raised costs of minimal involvement. To exploit the situation created by Putin, a balance must be struck between the recklessness of the Iraq invasion and Obama’s aloofness during the opening years of Syria’s civil war.
Specifically, increasing support to distinct proxies in Syria can increase American influence over the final outcome of the conflict while reassuring allies from Israel to the GCC that the US remains committed to the region. It will necessarily involve placing significantly more military pressure on Islamic State through proxies and airstrikes, much to the approbation of western and regional allies as well as the American people, while also eroding that group’s combat capabilities and reducing the amount of pressure it can place on other rebels. These activities will also work to reduce steadily mounting Iranian influence across the region, from Manama to Baghdad to the Bakaa Valley, demonstrating that the nuclear deal is not a free pass for regional skullduggery. Additionally, the US can push its own domestic interests in regional arms and energy markets, where Russia has chipped away at its long-term market shares. If Russia does stumble in Syria, then concessions may also be obtained in other regions, most importantly in Eastern Europe. While relations with Russia are not zero-sum and the US will not achieve everything it desires, the chance for modest or even substantial gains – with relatively minor investments – is high.
The overarching goal of any American strategy vis-à-vis Russia is to embarrass Putin, which need not involve total Russian failure. Indeed, regardless of Russia’s success or failure in propping up Assad, its intervention guarantees it a seat at the negotiating table. To limit Russia’s future role and to further its own interests, the US must sever Russia’s nascent ties to the Sunni axis, leaving it with no flexibility on Assad, who must then be weakened to the point of accepting a negotiated transition. Another failed state would be ruinous for all parties involved and amount to a defeat for the US, making outright military victory over Assad highly undesirable.The more sectarian Russia’s actions become in defense of its only route to victory, the more it will alienate its own Russian Sunnis, draw the ire of Islamic State and every other rebel group, and push the Sunni axis even more firmly towards the US, obviating its potential as a bridge between the sectarian axes.
The US could accelerate all of this by prodding various rebel groups – such as the resilient remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that it already supports, most notably the 101st Division, and the ironically moderate jihadis, chiefly Ahrar al-Sham – into an anti-Russia coalition. Such a loose alliance has already begun to take shape. The potential introduction of Russian irregulars and the declaration of a Russian Orthodox “blessed struggle” should inflame anti-Russian sentiment further still. Public reassurances that the US is committed to ousting Assad will also help.
A central component of American strategy, however, will be the US-backed Arab and Kurdish offensive on Raqqa, the now exposed jugular of Islamic State. Unlike the Cold War, there is no proxy war between the US and Russia this time. Instead, the game is on to see which group succumbs first to external bombings – non-IS rebels under Russian bombardment in the northwest and south, or Islamic State under coalition and Kurdish fire. Such a contest may pit an American tortoise, chipping away at IS, against a Russian hare, seeking to rapidly overwhelm beleaguered – albeit TOW missile wielding – rebels.
The celerity of the Russian hare, however, will likely be short-lived. Russia’s air campaign is widely believed to be unsustainable given the state of its military logistics and supply chains. Amidst the sound and the fury of cruise missiles out of the Caspian Sea and advanced electronic warfare and SIGINT hardware, it may soon become apparent that Russia’s staying power in Syria is severely limited, forcing Putin to seek rapid gains and take greater risks, such as with the current Syrian government offensive.
The US must concentrate its efforts on this new offensive and provide robust support to Kurdish and Arab forces. Rather than challenging Russia directly in the northwest, the US should publicly trumpet its own advances against IS in the east and north while decrying Russian support of government offensives against more moderate rebel groups. As Iranian soldiers march shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah and Syrian soldiers against non-IS rebels while Russian Hind attack helicopters skim the treetops, an easy public relations win should unfold.
Regarding Turkey, the US should provide unequivocal support against Russian encroachment in all its forms in exchange for explicit Turkish acceptance of more powerful Kurdish forces in the region. The Turks have long been fearful of Russian aggression, and may soon cancel Turkish Stream and other deals. Various Kurdish units in Iraq and Syria, conversely, are fast becoming dependable American partners, if not allies, in the fight against IS. The Kurds are also essential to maintaining American influence in Iraq, where Iran predominates and will continue to do so for years. The US should not endorse a Kurdish state per se, but instead press its erstwhile allies to accept Syrian federalism for the time being. The Kurdish question will have to endure long past the current conflict. Turkey, for its part, will have to accept this reality, particularly as Putin is painted into Assad’s corner and threatens to co-opt Kurdish forces in Syria, which would completely derail American designs.
Should these efforts be successful, the US must press the advantage and seek concessions from Russia on Ukraine and Eastern Europe. As the conflict winds down in the east, Russia is searching for an exit strategy. Having failed to achieve the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, it will now settle for lesser objectives in order to extricate itself and begin shifting proxies and other resources to the Syrian front. The US should push for as diluted a form of Ukrainian federalism as possible and preempt any attempts at Russian economic subversion. Assurances should also be obtained from Russia regarding the Baltics while publicly supporting the defense of those same states and Poland rhetorically and militarily. Any form of Russian drawdown in Eastern Europe, even temporarily, must be met with an American increase. This can be done loudly, to spite Putin publicly while he is distracted, or quietly, to allow for a face-saving exit in exchange for safety in the Baltics. The admittance of Montenegro into NATO, for example, would be an unabashed first step in the direction of the former, in line with Putin’s proclivity for allusive gestures in foreign policy.
While a more bellicose Russia raises the specter of the USSR in the eyes of many, its efforts must be recognized as categorically different. This is not the beginning of a new global rivalry requiring patriotic declamations of “We must fight!,” but rather a further increase in the intensity and tempo of competition in Russia’s near abroad, which extends into the eastern Mediterranean and northern Middle East through its periphery in the Caucasus and the Black Sea. In other words, this is part of the day-to-day foreign policy of a multipolar world.
Brazen efforts by Russia, from a position of economic and demographic weakness, should likewise not be seen as calamitous for US foreign policy. By staking Russian regional influence on this conflict, after years of careful diplomacy and military interventions in other countries, a reversal now would seriously undermine the façade of a Russian geopolitical revival and Putin’s domestic invincibility. If Putin is about to fall into a quagmire, why not give him a small push?
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. His writings tend to focus on the Middle East and central Africa, geopolitics, and international security. He is currently on a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.