Putin's Gamble: Syria Move Born of Hopes of Coming in From Cold

Russia's Motives in Syria Based on Security
  • Kremlin hardliners backed bid to show Russia's global power
  • Putin said hoping to break isolation, win support in Europe

When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces seemed on the verge of losing control of the capital over the summer, Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity.

Encouraged by hardliners in his inner circle, the Russian president sensed not only a chance for the Kremlin to shore up its last remaining ally in the Middle East, at least temporarily. He also saw a way to muscle his way out of the isolation he faced following the Ukraine crisis, re-asserting the nation’s role as a global power, senior Russian officials said. Putin’s audacious military move could shift the conversation away from the conflict in Ukraine to Russia’s ability to help stem the flow of refugees from Syria now flooding Europe and possibly lead to an easing of sanctions.

The airstrikes are also fraught with risk for the Kremlin, raising the prospect of worsening the violence in Syria. That could scuttle hopes of rapprochement with the West and potentially drag Russia into a military quagmire that could undermine Putin’s now-huge public support.

Battered by a more than 50 percent plunge in oil prices and U.S. and European sanctions imposed since Putin’s annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia is in the midst of what is forecast to be the longest recession since the contraction that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Russia is using the situation in Syria, where the West really needs our help, to show that we aren’t the enemy,” said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy head of the Russian Academy of Sciences USA-Canada Institute.

Big Risk

Publicly, Russia’s government says the Syrian air campaign is aimed only at helping Assad’s forces to fight terrorists, denying any broader motivation. But in private, officials say the Kremlin’s plans emerged over the last several months, fueled by setbacks Assad’s forces suffered on the battlefield in the spring and summer and by the continuing deep-freeze in relations with the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine. This account is based on interviews with five senior Russian officials in the past week, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential matters.

The officials admit that the Syrian move is a big risk. To succeed, the airstrikes have to help Syrian forces win back land lost to Islamic State and other terrorist groups, something a year of bombing by the U.S. and its allies has failed to do.

The Kremlin is preparing for a major campaign that could last at least several months, officials said. The military presence, though, will remain in Syria much longer, according to a senior diplomat.

In addition to the risks of losses on the battlefield in a war polls show most Russians don’t support, the Kremlin faces dangers at home from Islamist terrorists who’ve killed hundreds in attacks in the last two decades.

The Kremlin’s gambit that military success in Syria will jump-start its ties with the U.S. and Europe also could fail, given the deep skepticism lingering in western capitals after what officials there say were repeated Kremlin lies during the Ukraine crisis.

On Thursday, U.S. officials expressed anger that Russia began its airstrikes without using the new channels of communication the countries had promised to set up.

‘Highest Price’

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Russia risked exacerbating the sectarian conflict in Syria, where more than 250,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes in the past 4 1/2 years. “But ultimately, it’s the Russians that will pay the highest price for that.”

Putin on Friday met his counterparts from France, Germany and Ukraine in Paris to discuss implementation of the peace accord that’s quelled fighting in Russia’s western neighbor. The airstrikes this week forced Syria onto the agenda in those discussions as well.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said after the talks that political progress won’t be possible in Syria with Assad and that there was no link between the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Sept 25. Europe can’t keep up sanctions on Russia forever and at the same time ask Russia for help on Syria. “We will have to change our relationship with Russia,” he said. The 28-member EU must agree unanimously to extend economic sanctions that expire at the end of January.

Russia started to consider the use of force in Syria in August when it became clear that Assad was on the edge of collapse, the senior Russian diplomat said.

Damascus Danger

“There was a real threat of Damascus falling,” said Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s advisory board. “The capture of Damascus would be a huge symbol that would provoke a new burst of extremist activity across the world.”

Initially, Russia stepped up its diplomacy, meeting with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in Doha, Qatar, in early August and inviting Arab leaders to Moscow the same month to discuss a potential transition away from Assad -- a possibility they say they are still committed to. U.S. officials stuck to their position that Assad was part of the problem in Syria.

The military plan was pushed by the head of the presidential administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s, as well as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Security Council, according to two officials. Taking on the Islamic State in Syria would show Russia could succeed where the U.S. and its allies had failed.

The Kremlin made no public comments on its military plans, but the steadily growing deployment of troops, fighter jets and anti-missile systems to an air base near Latakia last month, got U.S. attention. Initially, the U.S. sought to block Russian arms shipments, but the Kremlin routed them via Iranian and Iraqi airspace. 

Later, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter discussed the buildup with his Russian counterpart on Sept. 18, the first such direct military contact between the countries since the Ukraine crisis began.

‘Completely Understand’

Ten days later, President Barack Obama met Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, just weeks after U.S. officials had said there was nothing for the two to discuss. Wednesday, Russian aircraft began bombing targets in Syria, with a one-hour warning for the U.S.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday in New York dismissed accusations the warplanes were hitting targets other than Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Presidents Putin and Obama "completely understand each other," he said. "But for some reason, this complete understanding cannot be translated into complete joint action, complete cooperation."

Later Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry met to discuss the situation in New York with members of the U.S.-led coalition that opposes Islamic State. A European official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said the sentiment in the room was that Russia is making the Mideast -- and probably the related refugee problem in Europe -- much worse and much more dangerous for everyone, and that perhaps Putin’s government hasn’t fully thought through the longer-term implications.