Your move, John.

Photographer: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

Putin in Syria Is Just Like Putin in Ukraine

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Even before Russia started bombing targets in Syria, it should have been clear to all involved that its actions would follow the pattern President Vladimir Putin set in Ukraine. He will be indiscriminately ruthless in making sure his allies achieve territorial gains to improve their negotiating position, and his diplomacy and propaganda machine would do its best to erect a smokescreen around his true plans and actions.

On Wednesday, the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament gave Putin permission to use troops overseas, an obligatory procedure under Russian law. That's how the Crimea annexation began in March, 2014, too, but there's a striking difference between the two Federation Council resolutions. Last year's specifically permitted Putin to use the Russian military in Ukraine. Wednesday's document is a blanket one. It doesn't mention Syria at all, granting the president the right to use "the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation outside the territory of the Russian Federation on the basis of commonly accepted principles and norms of international law."

The difference between the two documents is proof of similar tactics. Putin isn't really bound by the decisions of his rubber-stamp parliament. He only uses the parliamentary procedure to strike fear into his enemies. In March, 2014, the Federation Council resolution mentioned Ukraine but not specifically Crimea, warning the revolutionary government in Kiev to stand down and let Putin take over the peninsula or potentially face a full-scale invasion. In September, 2015, Putin is telling whomever it may concern that anything goes in his latest military adventure -- including, implicitly, operations in countries neighboring Syria, such as Iraq.

After the resolution received unanimous approval, Putin's chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko said the matter only concerned Syria and Russia would only conduct airstrikes there, ruling out the use of ground troops. That, like everything else official Moscow says, means nothing. Putin wants, and has, full discretion in what he can do to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

At the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Putin talked about fighting the terrorist threat of the Islamic State, but he also made it clear he, like Assad, saw little difference between Islamic State and other anti-Assad groups fighting in Syria. "The radicals' ranks are now being supplemented by members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, supported by the West," he said. "First they are armed and trained, then they go over to the side of the so-called Islamic State."

That was typical Putin: There is no evidence that anti-Assad opposition is joining Islamic State en masse, but the Russian leader is happy to use isolated incidents to draw his battle lines. That's what he did as the conflict in eastern Ukraine developed, denouncing Ukrainian troops as neo-Nazi executioners to make it clear they were fair game.

Putin's public statements are usually pretty clear on who the enemy is, even if the reasons he gives to back up these determinations are often disingenuous. When it comes to fighting the enemy, though, the Kremlin doesn't feel compelled to tell the truth. To Putin the intelligence officer, obfuscation is an important weapon. Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Russia has denied the presence of its troops in Eastern Ukraine and even pretended that it wasn't arming the separatist rebels there. Now, official Moscow is already denying that the targets it is striking in Syria have nothing to do with Islamic State.

The Russian defense ministry reported on Wednesday that it had bombed Islamic State positions. After the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that this didn't appear to be true, the Russian foreign minister responded with a familiar gambit:

Our American partners are concerned about those having been the wrong targets, and they expressed these concerns to us, saying they had some kind of proof. We asked them to produce it because we are sure of our targets.

"Prove it" was the Russian response to every Ukrainian accusation, and every time proof was delivered Moscow declared itself dissatisfied with it. No wonder: The Kremlin is not engaged in an academic debate in which either side can be persuaded by proof. It is waging a war in which force is the ultimate argument, and that force is ehanced when coupled with deception.

In Ukraine, Putin initially hoped the rebels, with minimal support from Moscow, would run through the country's Russian-speaking east and southeast, splitting Ukraine and making it too risky for the West to aid and integrate. The separatists failed militarily, so Putin backed them up with regular Russian units, refusing to talk to the Kiev government until enough territory was captured for him to have the upper hand in any negotiations. The rebel-controlled territory holds much of Ukraine's heavy industry, and an economic recovery would be much easier with it than without it. So the government in Kiev is unwilling to let the eastern regions go, and Putin retains leverage and an ability to destabilize Ukraine at will.

In Syria, too, he will now do his best to help Assad recapture lost territory from whomever is holding it now, Islamic State or any other anti-Assad groups -- and I wouldn't rule out limited intervention by Russian ground troops if it becomes absolutely necessary. Putin probably knows he can't help Assad retake all of Syria, because there are too many external players involved in the conflict. Together, Russia and Assad can recapture enough territory to negotiate a post-war settlement from a position of strength. That's why Assad invited Russian troops in the first place. Putin's goals are aligned with Assad's for now, because he seeks to bolster his role; in talking to Assad, Western powers will be talking to Putin. 

What the Syrian president may not realize is that once Putin comes in, it's hard to get him out. The pro-Russian separatist leaders, reshuffled every few months and constantly humiliated by Moscow overseers, know that well.

Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama would be naive if they didn't understand all this after watching Putin in Ukraine for 18 months. They are probably aware of all the implications of his interference. If they're not countering it more actively, it means they hope Putin's interference will ultimately help end the war, something the U.S. has been unable to do, or they're betting that Russia will overstretch itself and fail. Both bets are extremely risky, but there are few alternatives. As in Ukraine, stopping Putin would mean fighting him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net