Vladimir Putin continued his winning streak on the global stage as he announced his troops will begin departing Syria on March 15. He gloated a bit and asserted they have essentially fulfilled their mission.
He gets to play the hero of the hour while holding onto his gains, for no matter how many troops Putin withdraws, he will not leave Syria completely, nor abandon his new and expanded outposts, nor end cooperation with Iran over Syria. He has made Russia the most important great power to deal with in the Middle East.
This analysis is not an ode to Putin but rather an examination of his latest actions in the context of the last six months. Honest and objective observers of international relations—no matter what they think of Putin’s goals—can see lessons to learn here, lessons about what diplomacy really is and the role of power in global affairs.
Start with a question: Why is a weak Russia—reeling from sanctions over Ukraine and suffering mightily from a collapse in oil prices—able to succeed so well at geopolitics? Answer: Because the Russians know how to calibrate diplomacy and force to play on their allies’ needs and the West’s timidity, all to Russia’s favor. Russia knows diplomacy alone is inadequate to score wins; armed diplomacy is what fulfills strategic goals.
American Weakness Enables Villains
Regarding Syria, Putin has not played simply a smash-and-grab game. That is, he has not relied only on force to get what he wants. He’s been fully engaged in diplomacy at all times and combined it with force when the time was right.
As the Syrian civil war erupted and then progressed, Putin was very likely looking for an opportunity to best the West, as such is important for his domestic and foreign policy goals. As President Obama ramped up his rhetoric on Syria, Putin saw both danger and opportunity. The danger was to his ally and his bases in Syria if the United States tried to take out his client, Bashar al-Assad. The opportunity was a U.S. misstep that might provide Putin a chance to secure his interests in Syria and re-establish Russian preeminence in the region.
When Obama carelessly drew his red line on chemical weapons, Putin sprang. Whether President Obama ever intended to uphold his red line against al-Assad for using chemical weapons, Putin intended to make the most of it. If Obama were to follow through, as Putin argued in a New York Times op-ed, U.S. strikes against Assad would only make the situation worse even as they violated international law and sidelined the United Nations. But if Obama failed to uphold his red line, he’d be showing weakness.
That weakness is a strength and opportunity for a struggling great power like Russia eager to re-engage in the Middle East and take the attention off its actions in Ukraine. One can imagine Putin was hoping for—and expected—Obama to back down. And that is what happened.
As time passed and Assad ignored Obama’s red line, Obama did nothing to back it up. But Putin came riding to Obama’s rescue, offering him a diplomatic way out through a deal he would broker that would collect and remove Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. This was a huge win for Putin and a humiliation for Obama. Putin’s stock was climbing in the region while Obama’s was declining, and Putin hadn’t fired a shot.
The Strength of Armed Diplomacy
Putin had read Obama accurately; by diplomacy he was saving his ally and at the same time showing America’s Arab allies who was ascending. But diplomacy alone doesn’t always settle matters; rather, armed diplomacy does.
Over the next two years, watching his Syrian and Iranian allies fail to defeat the Islamic State while the United States half-heartedly supported the Free Syrian Army, Putin determined he should intervene militarily and that he could likely do so with impunity. Cynically asserting that he was engaged in a war on terror, he heeded a call from Assad to come to the Syrian government’s aid.
Putin introduced troops and equipment, and for the next six month bombed the Syrian rebels almost exclusively while hitting the Islamic State barely at all. He created the most important facts on the ground that would determine if Assad would be removed, and if so, when and how. As matters stand today, Russia will be the primary “decider” of all of these decisions and will do so from a position of strength.
What happened over the last six months is that a struggling and weakened great power used armed diplomacy to get its way. By means of Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov’s constant hectoring of the United States to follow international law, the Times op-ed, and the Russian-brokered chemical weapons deal, the soft side of Russian power made great gains.
Then when Russia saw American will to use force was lacking, it launched its own force. The very thing Putin had urged caution about in his op-ed, Russia began to do late last year. Russia’s months-long bombing campaign has killed civilians and wreaked havoc across Syria. But no matter; the goal was always to be the primary influence in the region’s turmoil for the sake of Russia’s interests.
Here’s a Rundown of Putin’s Wins
Consider the categories of wins for Putin.
Tactical wins: By announcing a troop withdrawal without warning in the middle of the second round of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva, Putin can pressure Assad to bend as much as Russia wants him to bend. Putin can also mollify any domestic critics he cares to (if he really cares about domestic critics of his administration), and he can ease some of his budgetary strains.
But probably the most important tactical victory for Putin is that through this military incursion in Syria he got to test new weapons systems. That’s probably also a strategic win, since the United States and Europe are paying close attention to the capabilities he’s displayed with new missile technology.
Strategic win: Putin has secured rather conclusively his hold on his Syrian assets in terms of air, sea, and land bases. After 40-plus years playing almost no role in the region, Russia is back.
Prestige win: In the long game of global politics, this kind of win is perhaps the most important even if it is the hardest to measure. When people want a war to end badly enough, the way it ends becomes less important than the fact that it simply ends. This is true for all but the people suffering on the ground at the hands of the aggressors, but they tend to matter less and less as the great powers and the international institutions run the show.
So for a great power to be seen as the one that, more than any other state, brought about peace—whether a just peace or not—is a feather in the cap. In this case, Russia is so far winning the feather. No other power, certainly not the United States, is seen as solving anything. And what the United States has said from the beginning must happen for things to be put right in Syria is not happening.
Even if Assad eventually steps down, Russia will have determined when and how, with the bonus of having bolstered its position in the Middle East, shored up and expanded its strategic position on the ground in Syria, and demonstrated what it is capable of doing for its allies and interests in the region. That is what Russia’s intervention into the Syrian civil war has always been about. No wonder the regional powers have made their pilgrimages to Moscow.
Well done, Vladimir Putin, although I hate to acknowledge it. There is much to criticize in what he’s done regarding Syria, but he has done what he set out to do with efficiency and by teaching other great powers a lesson in armed diplomacy—the only kind that ever works.