Is Putin Pivoting From Ukraine to Syria?

Whether the goal is to prop up Assad against ISIS or simply expand Russia’s geopolitical influence, Moscow will find it hard to handle two major deployments.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It’s no longer just posturing and providing a diplomatic umbrella at the United Nations. As of this week, Russia is officially all-in in Syria.

As President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday at a conference in Tajikistan, “we support the struggle of the Syrian government against terrorist aggression and we will continue offering them military and technological support.”

Not that Russia’s support for the Assad regime is new, but now it’s official. And with the giant Antonov strategic airlifters flying daily to Syria, the satellite footage of airfield expansion and construction, and the reports of Russian tanks, artillery and personnel already in Syria, this is the biggest deployment of Russian forces outside the former Soviet Union since the Eastern Bloc broke up around a quarter century ago.

But the question remains, why now? The Kremlin has long been Bashar Assad’s staunchest ally, along with the Iranian regime. Both Tehran and Moscow have supported Assad throughout his forces’ bloodbaths and mass murders, throughout the chemical, barrel-bomb and chlorine attacks on civilians that have made neither country swerve in its loyalty to Damascus.

So why is Putin making a much grander gesture now? What has changed? Is it just that Assad and his remaining forces have become much weaker and lost too much ground, or does Putin have other interests?

This question resonates particularly now in Ukraine, the main target of Russia’s aggression over the past year and a half. It resonated last weekend at the annual Yalta European Strategy conference (which for the last two years after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea has been forced to move from Yalta to Kiev). Many experts were asking whether Putin is indeed pivoting from Ukraine’s Donbass region to Syria, or does the Russian president intend to keep both crises on the boil?

Russia has increased its military involvement since the Syrian civil war began over four years ago, so why make such a public deal out of it now? And if Putin is convinced that the only way to beat the Islamic State is by supporting Assad, why didn’t he come out and say so a year ago when ISIS suddenly became the great global threat it’s being treated as now?

Syrians holding posters of President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Damascus, March 4, 2012. Credit: AP

“Putin’s latest move is due to his need to ease Russia’s international isolation and repair its economy, which has been battered by sanctions over Ukraine,” says Ivan Yakovina, a former Arabist with Russian military intelligence and now a columnist with Ukrainian newspaper Novoe Vremya.

“That’s why he decided to show himself as some kind of ally in fighting ISIS by putting Russian boots on the ground. He hopes this will be the leverage that will return him to the civilized world.”

A calmer Ukraine

At the same time, Russia has been racheting down its military operations around Ukraine’s eastern border, reining in the pro-Russian separatists who may finally be ready to implement the Minsk II agreement, which was to achieve a political resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the separatists had even agreed to take part in local elections to be held under Ukrainian law and supervised from Kiev.

Is this just a tactical retreat or is Putin finally conceding that he has gone too far in trying to hack away at Ukraine’s sovereignty?

Svitlana Zalishchuk, a Ukrainian legislator from President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc and a member of the foreign affairs committee, is skeptical. “Putin is trying to get the world off his back so in December they will take off at least some of the sanctions and then he can get around to building a corridor to Crimea through the Donbass,” she says. “That why he’s juggling all the balls in the air at one time.”

According to Oleksiy Melnyk, director of the international security program at Kiev’s Razumkov Center and a former combat pilot and colonel in both the Soviet and Ukrainian air forces, “Putin’s motives are always based on his need to preserve his power.”

“His actions in Ukraine were dictated by the need to create an external enemy and stoke nationalism with concepts of regaining Russian land. But that seems to have worn out now as the occupation of Crimea is expensive and the hopes for occupying a corridor all the way to Odessa and Transnistria haven’t worked,” Melnyk says.

“So now Putin’s going geopolitical with Syria, and in doing that, he’s showing Russians how he can challenge the Americans. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on controlling Ukraine, it’s still part of his idea of a Russian empire, but the Russian military is overstretched for now.”

Special-forces dearth

Whether Putin’s objective is just to prop up Assad’s failing regime or expand Russia’s geopolitical influence, observers of the Russian army agree Moscow will find it hard to carry out two major deployments simultaneously. While Russia still maintains large ground forces and a few of its units have modernized in recent years, the number of experienced special-forces troops on professional contracts, unlike badly trained conscripts, is relatively small.

“The army already has other missions in the south Caucasus and Tajikistan which tie it down,” says Melnyk. “It won’t be able to keep up a presence in Donbass and at the same time have a sizable ground force in Syria.”

This is another reason why Russia has reportedly been deepening its cooperation with Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah. These three Assad supporters are each taking responsibility for a different key region in Syria.

The Russians, mainly with combat aircraft, helicopters and just a small ground component, are securing the Mediterranean coast and Alawite heartland, including the port towns of Tartous and Latakia, where they have been expanding their bases. Hezbollah is still fighting near the Lebanese border, keeping the Beirut-Damascus Highway open and rebel-free, while the Iranian fighters who have recently arrived in Damascus are securing the capital’s main approaches and key neighborhoods.

Even together, the Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah and the remnants of the Syrian army don’t have sufficient forces to recapture the majority of Syrian territory lost to the rebels or to vanquish the Islamic State. But keeping at least these three regions under their control should at least ensure Assad’s survival — for as long as it’s in Putin’s interest, of course. Still, any attempt by Putin to push further could create a dangerous backlash for him at home.

“The Kremlin has largely hidden the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine,” says Melnyk. “It’s cruel to the families who haven’t received an acknowledgment of where their sons died, but the public has not been too angry, partly because they support Russia taking back parts of Ukraine. But there is still the trauma of Afghanistan, and if coffins start to come back from Syria, where there is no nationalist justification for Russia, it’s hard to know how the public will react.”

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