Making Sense of Moscow’s Syrian Gambit
6/27/12: By Dr. Stephen Blank
Evidently the Administration thinks it can persuade Russia to resolve Syria’s civil war by simply abandoning its ally, Bashear Assad, and thereby facilitate a Yemeni type solution there where Assad simply leaves Syria.[i]
Moscow too has sent envoys around the world telling everyone that it could accept a Yemeni solution but only if that is what the Syrian people want. Yet it simultaneously insists that Assad cannot be driven out by force or foreign pressure.[ii]
Moreover, numerous press reports show that it is still sending weapons, apparently including radars and refurbished helicopters to aid him against the rebels and deter foreign intervention.
Russia is also sending naval ships ostensibly to perform a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) and the Russian press has raised the possibility of providing air support for those ships and sending troops for peacemaking purposes.
Thus, Moscow is playing what appears to be a shrewdly conceived double game that exposes the faulty logic of the U.S. approach. [iii]
That approach clearly misreads both Syrian and Russian strategic realities.
Assad fully understands that the UN’s failure to impose meaningful penalties on him for his brutality gives him carte blanche to murder opponents with impunity and Russian support even if it is occasionally grudging. He and his supporters know that were they to lose power at best they would either be exiled or more likely murdered.
Rule or die clearly remains the watchword in Syria.
So Assad’s forces and supporters have no incentive to surrender and obviously nobody can now ask the Syrian people what they prefer. Furthermore Assad’s situation wholly differs from those in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, not to mention Yemen. As many observers note, Syria is not Yemen.[iv] Unlike other rulers, Assad has had the armed forces’ unswerving — the truly ultimate argument of Middle Eastern rulers.
Moreover, all the religious minorities, Alawites, Shiites, Christians, etc. and those economic groups who have profited under his and his father’s protection, support him, again a condition unique to Syria. Thus, unlike those other rulers, he can reliably command the support of probably 30-40% if not more of the population. And as long as he insists on staying in power Moscow will support him.[v]
But perhaps more consequential is the Administration’s utter misreading of Russia’s motives and objectives.
Indeed, it is quite unlikely that Moscow can be induced to betray its client despite his crimes when it so clearly perceives that its resolute diplomacy in support of him has prevailed and that it confronts a West torn by confusion, disunity, vacillation, and indecision.
And even if Moscow could be so persuaded the quid pro quo is utterly unacceptable, Moscow apparently believes the U.S. is prepared to make deals with Islamists under the guise of democratization to oust Russia from influence in the Middle East, surround it to the south with Islamist regimes, and threaten it indirectly in the insurgent North Caucasus.
Moscow is hardly disposed to cooperate with Washington unless it can exact a high price for that cooperation.
Moscow’s “quid pro quo” in any deal regarding Syria is that the U.S. and NATO formally recognize Moscow’s status as an active major power entitled to a recognized strategic foothold in Syria and the Middle East more broadly and not to make end runs around it in the Security Council as happened with Libya.
This Libyan analogy and the accompanying fact that the Arab Spring has enhanced the strategic importance of the Middle East appear to drive much Russian thinking about vocally opposing the U.S. in Syria.[vi]
Furthermore any such deal will allow Moscow to become the “sponsor” of any new regime and let it define the nature and contours of that regime.[vii]
In other words, Moscow’s price, the acceptance of a Russian sphere of influence, is an outcome wholly at odds with what Western interests, not to mention the interests of regional security in the Middle East.
Therefore the gap between Moscow and Brussels and Washington is not one of diverging assessments and common support for the Annan Plan that was dead on arrival and should have never been considered seriously.
Rather that divergence reflects a deeper and more fundamental chasm separating Russian from Western perceptions, interests, and goals.[viii]
I. Russian Interests and Objectives
Russia’s resistance to Western policy on Syria comprises political, economic, and geostrategic motives and objectives.
Above all, any manifestation of autonomous public participation in politics terrifies Moscow. The many signs of long-term preparation of multiple domestic police and military forces for armed repression against the protesters of Putin’s illegitimate stolen election and the equally corrupt Duma elections of 2011 signify this.[ix]
And current signs point towards the potential use of at least some of that capability in targeted domestic repressions e.g. the new law imposing draconian penalties, fines, home searches, and jail time on demonstrators and protesters.[x]
As seen by Moscow a vacillating or even neutral, not to say positive, reaction to Syria would only encourage more domestic unrest.
Beyond that Moscow was and still may be equally anxious that the “Arab Spring” or some analogue of it might erupt in Central Asia where it even publicly voiced its apprehensions about that in April 2011.[xi] Any such uprising might spread throughout Central Asia and trigger an explosion on a scale resembling or even surpassing Syria’s current travails. And there are analysts who have publicly warned that such a revolution could occur under the inspiration of Arab events.[xii]
Moreover, Russian perceptions of disaster were quickly confirmed as Libya fell into civil war and as it became clear that Islamist factions might actually take power in one or more of the affected Arab states.
Russian discussions of the Arab Spring regularly complain that these revolutions’ likely outcome is an Islamist takeover leading to a protracted civil war or at least civil strife as those forces seek to impose their vision of a just society on their countries if not neighbors as well.[xiii]
Since Moscow is currently fighting an Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus and fears for one in Central Asia the prospect of other Islamist victories or civil wars engendered by attempted Islamist takeovers in regions where Moscow still perceives as its strategic perimeter might evoke profound nervousness if not anxiety in Moscow.
(For a look at a video showing Russian attack helicopters of the sort being sent to aide the Assad regime see
II Strategic and Geopolitical Goals
Beyond these compelling domestic reasons for resisting the Arab Spring, Russia has equally profound strategic objections to Western interventions in the Middle East.
These include but go beyond the belief that the West deceived Moscow regarding Libya and used the UN resolutions on Libya to create a precedent as in Kosovo for a war on behalf of democracy promotion, or, more cynically, for French access to Libyan oil and gas. If the democracy virus could easily spread to Moscow’s restive Muslim south or Central Asia, democracy promotion on the wings of NATO aircraft threatens Russia’s fundamental domestic system and great power interests.
Since 1991 Russia has professed that any regional strife in and around its (i.e. Soviet) perimeter not only exposes it to war or at least significant threat, it might also escalate beyond anyone’s control as in Iraq and trigger a protracted war that could escalate vertically even to the nuclear level if Russia is drawn in.[xiv] Alternatively it could escalate horizontally if it spreads throughout the Middle East, which Moscow still claims as its strategic perimeter.
Given Moscow’s lack of confidence in Western judgments and suspicions of its inveterate hostility to Russia, it is hardly surprising that Russian spokesmen from Putin and Medvedev down have repeatedly threatened that intervention in Arab revolutions could escalate all the way up to nuclear war.[xv]
Neither are the threats of war or of Islamic revolution the only risks that Moscow claims to be running due to Western policies.
From Moscow’s standpoint Western intervention threatens its geopolitical objectives in the Middle East if not elsewhere because it allows the West to sidestep the UN and intervene where it pleases on behalf of democracy with impunity and at the expense of Russian power and interests, including its untrammeled sovereignty in world politics that is the analogue of its unfettered domestic autocracy
Because of Moscow’s failure to generate a Libyan or Syrian mediation process, Russia has tried to limit the US’s and NATO’s use of force by insisting that Washington and/or NATO get approval from the UN Security Council where Russia (and China) can exercise a veto. Invoking the UN as the supreme and exclusive arbiter of the US’s use of force has been a basic tenet of Russian foreign policy for over a decade.
Should the US and/or NATO demonstrate that they can act without this approval, that would display Russia’s impotence and Washington’s disregard for Moscow’s policy interests. Since the Libyan operation Russia has feared that the US and NATO are unpredictable actors not bound by respect for Russian interests, international law, or anything other than their own national interests. This is a clear challenge to a Russia determined to retain tactical independence and flexibility in world affairs and restore its great power status in the region and globally.
Since Moscow regards the Middle East as part of its strategic perimeter and an increasingly important region where it is determined to make up for the losses of the 1990s, it is equally determined to reassert its great power status there to constrain Washington to take account of Russian interests there.
Moscow’s support for Syria and Iran resides, at least in part, on the belief that it must cultivate those states who want it in the Middle East to relieve them and it of the pressure of confronting a Middle East consolidated under exclusive US/Western auspices. It is no coincidence that Moscow uses Iran and Syria as conduits for arms sales to Hezbollah and that it still seeks to bring Iran, Iraq, and Syria together as these were the same states that represented the “rejectionist Front” of the late 1970s that sought to block US efforts to resolve Arab-Israeli tensions.
Above all else save possibly fears for democratization at home, the restoration of Moscow’s great power sphere of influence in the Middle East to block US leadership there and prevent regional consolidation under Western auspices drives Russian policy towards the Middle East.
Such consolidation would marginalize Russia and allow the Western and democratic virus to spread throughout the area into Russia’s south. Despite opposition to Iranian nuclearization, Russia regards Iran as the key player in the region and the most powerful state (except perhaps for Israel with which it wants good businesslike relations but cannot attain true partnership) [xvi]
That is one reason it demands Iranian participation in any negotiation over Syria (also because it knows it can count on Tehran’s support). Similarly it wants a permanent base of operations in Syria, e.g. the naval base at Taurus and the ability to exercise pressure on the other Middle Eastern actors through its sponsorship of Syria and Iran. That sponsorship takes the form of large-scale energy deals and arms sales.
Since those are the only areas where Russia is competitive with the West it cannot afford to lose the billions of dollars in arms sales and energy contracts it lost in Libya and would lose in Syria.
But those arms sales clearly aim to check Israel and strengthen Iran and Syria, proven nuclear proliferators and supporters of terrorism. Russia cannot be oblivious of who the “end-users” of these weapons are and the purposes for which they are used.[xvii]
But the economic component of its strategic objectives is not merely a question of lost contracts or influence. Loss of arms sales positions is bad enough but the loss of energy positions would be a strategic catastrophe of the first order.
On a daily basis energy is the primary instrument of Russian foreign policy objectives. While Syria is not a major energy producer, Russian support for it gives it access to the naval base in Taurus which it can use to threaten governments that oppose it on energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean, e.g. Turkey against whom it has already shown an interest in defending Cyprus, the site of a much Russian money laundering and massive new energy discoveries, against Turkish threats.[xviii]
But much more importantly Russian support for Syria is important because it keeps Iran in some measure tied to Russia given the alliance between Tehran and Damascus.
Russian failure to support the Assad regime would show Iran that it couldn’t rely on Russia.
An Iran that then detached itself from Russia (which it already has good reason not to trust too much) because it lost Syria to the West or failed to uphold the Assad regime would immediately engender a rapprochement with the West and lead Iran to resume energy sales to Europe that would challenge Russian gas sales and thus political leverage in Europe and elsewhere.
In addition, the loss of a friendly Syria, by depriving Moscow of a foothold in the Middle East would seriously reduce its possibilities for influencing Middle Eastern energy flows. In addition Putin and his cronies directly enrich themselves from the arms and energy sales that would suffer serious reverses if the Russian position in Syria and the larger Middle East were weakened
III Strategic Consequences
Russia’s policy should engage our utmost attention.
Its perception of Western weakness and irresolution has clearly led it to intensify its willingness to make overt military threats to its rivals in the region and beyond. This is not merely visible in the many instances of threats made by high-ranking military and political leaders going back to November 2011 of escalation processes all the way up to nuclear war if the West intervenes in Syria.
As noted above, Moscow has sent its navy to rearm Syria in the midst of this fighting and fully intends to keep on rearming Syria despite the uses to which those weapons are put. And it is contemplating more deployments and arms sales.
Russia also is apparently secretly still rearming Iran.[xix] Likewise, Russia has played the military card in launching a huge military buildup in the Caucasus allegedly to forestall a Western attack on Iran and an Iranian retaliation.
Similarly it sent it ships to Cyprus late in 2011 to counter Turkish threats against Cyprus, a case in which both Ankara and Moscow engaged in old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Moscow has also threatened Turkmenistan with forceful intervention and the fomenting of a revolution, if it does not renounce neutrality and its resistance to Russian gas pressure.[xx]
More recently it has threatened, preemptive strikes against European countries hosting missile defenses.[xxi]
These deployments are part of a pattern of gunboat diplomacy and shows of armed force in Cyprus and the Caucasus that have characterized recent Russian policy and suggest a greater disposition to use force even if in measured terms, to secure Russian interests.
Given the constant temptation in a polity like Russia to engage in such displays, the Syrian crisis merits our utmost attention and interest.
Thus, in its Syrian and broader Middle Eastern policy Russia has revealed itself as a fundamentally negative force.
A government that sells heavy weapons to terrorists and their state sponsors, looks the other way at Iranian proliferation, and provides covert intelligence support for Saddam Hussein as it did in 2002-03 is not genuinely interested in building peace in the Middle East, possibly the most troubled region in world politics.[xxii]
Moscow undoubtedly does not want to see another Arab-Israeli war (which its clients would probably lose) but behind its protestations of good will, the main reason is that such a war would bring the US back into the region in a big way, again exposing Moscow’s inability to play the role of a great power it covets and offer tangible support to its friends.
Similarly it opposes an attack on Iran for its nuclear project because it could lead to a protracted war on its strategic perimeter but also because its relative lack of power would again be exposed.
Instead it prefers that the region remain permanently unsettled as that is the only condition that allows it to play the role it covets as it leads Arab regimes like Assad’s to seek support against Washington and the West.
Since Yevgeny Primakov’s time as Foreign Minister in 1996-99 it has been a Russian article of faith that Moscow must support those Arab states who want it to counter Washington.[xxiii]
As part of that design Moscow has championed its usual propaganda proposals for collective security systems in the Gulf or even advocated recognizing Iran as a Black Sea power![xxiv]
But its fundamental objective is preventing the consolidation of a peaceful order in the greater Middle East, especially if that entails signs of democratization and pro-Western consensus among the region’s actors.
Russia may share a common anxiety with the West about Islamists taking power in the Middle East but its own heavy-handed support for Assad makes that outcome potentially all the more likely as Secretary of State Clinton has observed.[xxv]
Similarly its analogous domestic policies have long since engendered an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Lacking a positive vision for the Middle East, Russia is a negative force there, an obstacle to the progress towards representative government and peace that the Middle East so badly needs.
But if the U.S. and its allies continue to vacillate and display a continuing incapacity for strategic action and thought even without the use of force for more vigorous pressure to stop the slaughter in Syria; Russia, which apparently does have a strategy for action, may well prevail in this instance thanks to the indecision and divided counsels of the West.[xxvi]
And if it does it will set back the cause of progress in the Middle East once again. This region may be a treacherous one but it is also one from which we cannot simply walk away or abstain.
If the West’s abstention from strategic thought and action leads to a vacuum in the Middle East others will fill that vacuum and do so against Western interests and values. And Russia has already shown itself to be a willing aspirant to that role.
[i] Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, “U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid,” New York Times, May 16, 2012, ww.nytimes.com
[iv] Mark N. Katz, “The “Yemeni Solution” Won’t Work in Syria, “”http:katzreview.w.rodpress.com, June 2, 2012
[viii] Remarks of James Steinberg on National Public Radio, “Outside Countries Disagree on Next Steps in Syria,” June 4, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/06/04/154305940/outside-countries-disagree-on-next-steps-in-syria.
[ix] Stephen Blank, Civil-Military Relations and Russian Security,” Stephen J. Blank, Ed., Civil-Military Relations in Medvedev’s Russia, Carlisle Barracks, PA, : Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College 2011, pp. 1-76; Dmitri Trenin, Maria Lipman, Alexey Malashenko, Nikolay Petrov, Russia on the Move , Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012, www.ceip.org, pp. 1-3; David M. Herszhenhorn, “Putin Signs Law With Harsh Fines For Protesters,” New York Times, June 8, 2012, www.nytimes.com
[xii] Ralph S. Clem,”From the Arab Street to the Silk Road: Implications of the Unrest in North Africa for the Central Asian States,” Eurasian Geography and Economics, LII, No. 2, 2011, pp. 228-241.
[xiii] Valdai Club, passim comments extensively on this point
[xiv] Jacob Kipp, Russia’s Nuclear Posture and the Threat That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Stephen J. Blank, Ed., Russia’s Nuclear Forces: Past, Present, and Future, Carlisle Barracks, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2011, P. 459-503
[xv] Border Alert: Nuke War Risk Is rising, Russia Warns,” www.rt.com, November 17, 2011;Roger N. McDermott, “General Makarov Highlights the “Risk” of Nuclear Conflict,” Valdai Discussion Club, , December 8, 2011, www.waldaiclub.com; Andrei Lebedev, “Yuri Baluevsky: The Russian Military Has a Chance to Straighten Its Spine,” Izvestiya, March 2, 2005, Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis
[xv] Moscow, Interfax-AVN Online, in English, March 20, 2012, Open Source Center,, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, (Henceforth FBIS SOV), March 20, 2012
[xvi] Remarks of Ambassador Gleb A. Ivashentsov, Second Department for Asia Director, Russian Foreign Ministry,” Iran’s Security Challenges and the Region, Liechtenstein Colloquium Report, I, Liechetnestein and Princeton, NJ, 2005, p. 39
[xvii] Alexander Nemets and Steffany Troffino, “Russia: Tipping the Balance in the Middle East,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, XXII, NO. 3, July, 2009, pp. 367-382
[xviii] Jean Christou, ”Greece and Russia Rally Behind Cyprus,” Cyprus Mail, October 2, 2011, http://www.cyprus-mail.com/cyprus/greece-and-russia-rally-behind-cyprus/20111002; “Turkey, Israel, Greece and Russia Mobilizing Over Cyprus,” www.Asianews.it, October 5, 2011
[xx] “Senior MP Advises Turkmenistan to Stick with Russia to Avoid Libya’ Fate,” Moscow, Interfax, November 15, 2011, also available from BBC Monitoring; Vladimir Socor, “Moscow Issues Trans-Caspian Project Warning,” Asia Times Online, December 2, 2011, www.latimes.com
[xxi] Andrew Kramer, “Russian General Makes Threat on Missile-Defense Sites,” New York Times, May 3, 2012, www.nytimes.com
[xxii] David Harrison, “Revealed: Russia spied on Blair for Saddam,” The Daily Telegraph, April 13, 2003, www.telegraph.co.uk
[xxiii] Alvin Z. Rubinstein, “Moscow and Teheran: The Wary Accommodation,”, Alvin Z. Rubinstein and Oles M. Smolansky, Eds., Regional Power Rivalries in the New Eurasia: Russia, Turkey, and Iran, Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. and Co., 1994, pp. 31-32
[xxiv] Ariel Cohen, “Russia and the Axis of Evil: Money, Ambition, and U.S. Interests, Eugene B. Rumer, “Russia’s Policies Toward the Axis of Evil: Money and Geopolitics in Iraq and Iran,” Testimony to the House International Relations Committee, February 26, 2003,wwc.house.gov/international_relations/108/rume0226; Celeste A. Wallander, “Russian Interest in Trading With the “Axis of Evil”, Ibid., wwc.house.internatonal_Relations/108/wall/0226; Transcript of Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov Interview to Turkish Media, Moscow, May 29, 2006, www.mid.ru
[xxv] Steven Lee Myers and J. David Goodman, “Clinton Says Russian Inaction May Lead to Syrian Civil War,” New York times, May 31, 2012, www.nytimes.com
[xxvi] Steinberg’s remarks indicate some of what might be done, “Remarks of James Steinberg on National Public Radio, “Outside Countries Disagree On Next Steps In Syria,”
Dr. Blank is a well-known American strategic analyst with special competence in the Soviet Union and Russia. These comments are personal reflections of Dr. Blank.
Editor’s Comments: When it comes to the Middle East, there is much continuity among the Tsarist, Communist and post-Soviet Union policies. Any one who is surprised by current Russian policy in Syria must really believe in re-sets and other U.S. imagined global tools. The Second Line of Defense team welcomes Stephen as a contributor.