What does Russia want?
WASHINGTON - Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
The Russia of President Vladimir Putin is a bit more transparent — Putin speaks publicly frequently and often has been quite direct in stating his objectives. For example, when he first intervened militarily in Syria, he claimed it was part of the global war against terrorism. And his military has conferred with the United States and its allies to ensure that there are no fender benders at 30,000 feet.
But should we take Putin at his word? After all, most of Russia’s air strikes have not been against the Islamic State (ISIS) but have targeted the so-called Syrian moderates, some of whom have been supported by the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
A round-table discussion at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) explored exactly what Russia’s objectives are and how Putin’s policies have affected Russian-GCC relations. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at AGSIW, noted that Russia’s intervention followed a string of battlefield victories by anti-regime rebels in areas that the Assad regime desperately needed to hold. Putin acted, Ibish said, to “prevent the downfall or significant degrading of the regime”.
Assuming Ibish is correct — that Putin acted out of fear — what does Russia aim to achieve now that it is actively involved and has troops on the ground in Syria?
Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University, said that at this point Russia has three overriding objectives: to protect “its last real ally in the Arab world”; to strengthen Putin with his domestic audience by demonstrating his decisiveness; and to provide “a useful distraction from the mess in Ukraine”.
The domestic factor also was emphasised by Bessma Momani, associate professor of international affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Russia’s economy under Putin has been a failure, Momani said, that “runs on oil money and oligarch support”. Because Putin controls the Russian media, Momani said, he can “build up his persona” and spin every story to his favour. His underlying message: “Mother Russia is back.”
An added benefit for Putin, Momani said, is that his intervention in Syria has been “a thorn in America’s side”.
Ibish suggested that Putin may have a “maximalist goal” of creating a new Moscow-led Middle East alliance including Iran, the Assad regime, Hezbollah and possibly Iraq. But he acknowledged that this would be a fantasy, even if Putin believes it is possible.
The GCC states, like the rest of the world, were surprised by Russia’s intervention but Fahad Nazer, an intelligence analyst with consultancy JTG Inc. and a former analyst at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, said Riyadh finds it easier to understand Putin’s moves than it does US President Barack Obama’s.
Given that “Saudi-Iranian relations are getting worse by the day”, the Saudi leadership will continue to maintain its dialogue with Moscow despite differences over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Nazer said.
Russia’s position towards Assad was subject to debate. Momani said Moscow’s relationship is a “marriage of convenience” and that Russian loyalty is “to the regime, not to Assad personally”. Also, depending on a cost-benefit analysis, Putin could agree to Assad’s removal. Katz, however, said that Putin “is loyal to Assad because he is loyal to those who are loyal to him”.
Katz noted that Putin wants to demonstrate to Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders that he will not abandon them — if they suspect he might, they could switch allegiance to China. Even if Putin were willing to sacrifice Assad, Katz said “the Russians cannot remove Assad if the Iranians do not agree to it”.
None of the experts expressed much hope for the Vienna process. Nazer said that the United States pushed for Iran’s inclusion in talks in the Austrian city, against Saudi Arabia’s wishes. After Iran’s provocative performance at the conference, Riyadh was able to tell Washington, “We told you so”. Nazer said the Saudi-Iranian tension at the Vienna conference worsened their already bitter relationship.
Russia indeed risks getting into a “quagmire”, as Obama suggested would happen. Russia primarily attacked non-ISIS rebels for obvious reasons: It wants to present the only options as Bashar Assad or ISIS and hopes the rest of the world eventually concurs. But Russia’s attacks have spurred the Gulf states to increase support for non-ISIS rebels and one of Putin’s fears is that this support eventually could include advanced anti-aircraft missiles capable of bringing down Russian planes.
The US position on Syria continues to confuse Gulf policy-makers, said Nazer. The bottom line, according to both Katz and Momani, is that Obama is determined to limit US involvement as much as possible. Putin is aware of this, said Momani, and as a result “knows that he has a free hand until the next president comes into office”.
Ibish was more directly critical of US policy, calling US Secretary of State John Kerry’s stated position — Assad must go, but not right away — “an oxymoron”. Ibish has concluded that the White House “cannot identify a plausible conceivable outcome it can accept, nor an acceptable outcome that is plausible”.