Putin’s ‘unipolar world’ and his Syrian adventure
LONDON - So much for the short-lived unipolar world, in which the United States ostensibly sought to dominate international affairs after the collapse of its Cold War rival.
By intervening in Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has shown it is confident enough to use its muscle beyond its immediate sphere of influence to produce outcomes that correspond to what it sees as its national interest.
President Putin, who has overseen the emergence of a more forthright Russian foreign policy in recent years, spelled out his position in a speech in May at Moscow celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. He admonished Washington for ignoring the importance of international cooperation and attempting to “create a unipolar world”.
This new-found assertiveness did not come overnight. In defiance of its Western partners on the UN Security Council, Russia invaded Georgian territory in 2008 and from 2014 it encouraged and supported separatists in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Syria, however, is the first arena in which Putin’s Russia has committed its military outside the territory of the former Soviet Union.
It follows rising tensions between Moscow and the West, particularly over Ukraine, which stem in part from the eastward encroachment of NATO since the fall of communism.
Moscow also felt cheated by its Security Council partners after it reluctantly acquiesced to the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011. That was used by France and Britain, with US backing, to justify wide-scale air strikes that hastened the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi. Russia complained that these powers had exceeded the mandate of a resolution on which Russia had abstained.
Frequently acting in tandem with China, Russia has acted to block UN actions on a range of issues that would involve international intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. Both countries invariably oppose interventions based on human rights grounds, aware perhaps of their own potential vulnerability on such issues.
They both vetoed the imposition of UN sanctions on Damascus in 2012 and also blocked a resolution in 2014 to refer abuses stemming from the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court.
By choosing to intervene directly in Syria, Putin may have been emboldened by the perception that the United States and its allies have been weakened by interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and that the American and other Western publics have lost their appetite for confrontation.
In what, in retrospect, was a diplomatic blunder, US President Barack Obama helped to foster that perception. He said in an unscripted reply to a question in 2012 that use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a “red line”. He failed to act, however, when chemical weapons use was reported a year later. He never repeated his “red line” threat. That blunder has been compounded by what has been criticised at home and abroad as a directionless White House policy towards Syria and the wider Middle East. The failure of US policy on Syria was in part acknowledged by the Pentagon in October with the decision to abandon a $500 million programme to train and equip Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State (ISIS).
Putin has clearly spotted an opportunity to act unilaterally in Syria without risking more than the anticipated condemnation from the West. Russia and the US-led coalition are ostensibly on the same side against ISIS, although Russian intervention obviously favours the Assad regime that had previously appeared to be on the brink of military collapse.
Despite criticism of the action from the West, the priority in Washington and other Western capitals appears to be to avoid a further escalation of the war or an accidental clash between Russian forces and the West or its allies.
Whatever his underlying motives — protecting the future of Russia’s only Mediterranean base, asserting Russia’s international role, countering the spread of Islamic fundamentalism on its own territory or simply stirring patriotic passions at a time of economic problems at home — the future is fraught with danger.
Putin’s tactical alliance with Iran in Syria risks exacerbating the regional Shia-Sunni conflict. In Syria itself, the outcome of the intervention is far from clear. The Assad regime might survive but that in itself might merely prolong the war.
What will be the consequences for the fight against ISIS? Russia appears confident at the moment but its warnings to the West about the perils of intervention may come back to haunt it. Russians remember their own ignominious retreat from Afghanistan a generation ago. Debate and analysis has focused on the geopolitical consequences of the Russian intervention, the impact on big power relations and the stance of regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The great unknown, however, is what the impact will be for the Syrian people after more than four-and-a-half years of war.