Only a madman in Putin’s shoes would want to involve his country into another costly war | Archive
Vladimir Putin says he isn’t a czar, but increasingly he’s behaving like one. So why not let him go the way of Russia’s last czar—and sink himself by overextending himself militarily?
Despite the risk that a weak or dithering response by the West to Putin’s new advance into Syria will only encourage the hardliners around him, it may well be that Washington and NATO’s best response is to let Putin fight. Russia’s leader has imperial ambitions, but he does not have the economy to support them, especially as a decade of high oil prices recedes into the past. Aside from arms and vodka, Russia sells no competitive products internationally. The ruble now costs about three times less of what it was before the financial crisis of 2008, and it doesn’t help that politically Russia is isolated. Even China and India–the two countries that traditionally take the side of Russia’s foreign policy and whose economies are in much better shape–are unlikely to make any substantial contributions to Putin’s mission in Syria, if they were to jeopardize their relations with the US and EU.
Meanwhile, the Russian people are already paying a very high price for the annexation of Crimea: 19th century-style land-grabs may stimulate nationalism but not the economy. The Northern Caucasus may also explode again, as the relative peace in Chechnya is contingent on massive sums of cash sent from the Kremlin to Grozny and on the personal allegiance of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to Putin. As Leo Tolstoy persuasively showed in his novel Hadji Murat, this is the kind of allegiance that can change at any moment.
In this political and economic environment, only a madman in Putin’s shoes would want to involve his country into another costly war. Even roads are still non-existent in Russia: almost a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no good highway connecting two major Russian cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg.
So perhaps it’s wise to welcome Putin to the fight. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already took the initiative by paying a visit to Putin in Moscow on Sept 21. The two leaders discussed the consequences of Russia’s aid to Assad for the state of Israel.
Putin, of course, sees the Syrian issue another way. By sending tanks and equipment to Syria and declaring forthrightly that he supports Bashar Assad, he is seeking to move past Ukraine, and he wants readmission into the councils of the major powers, which are themselves edging toward an acknowledgement that simply calling for Assad’s ouster is neither workable or wise at this juncture. It was little surprise that in Putin’s address to the United Nations on Monday, he barely mentioned Ukraine while blaming the U.S. and NATO for instigating the chaos in the Middle East, even drawing a direct parallel between the attempts to export socialism by the USSR and attempts to export democracy by the West.
In Putin Russia has not seen such a tremendous concentration of power since the Romanovs of the czarist era. Autocratic and secretive, the Kremlin’s current decision making is reminiscent of Byzantine and Roman politics, not even of the good old Soviet days. In an interview last week with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Putin told Charlie Rose that he is not a czar but in reality, even in the USSR, key foreign policy decisions took more time and were made more collegially. It took more than a year and many heated discussions for Brezhnev’s Politburo to dispatch the Soviet 40th army to Afghanistan—the last time the Kremlin seriously overextended itself. It took only a few days or maybe even hours for Vladimir Putin to make up his mind regarding the future of Crimea.
Putin seems to have defined his new Middle East strategy just as fast. Officially, Russia’s president claims that his goal is to build a new coalition to fight Islamic State, as he indicated in his UN address, and the terrorist group does indeed pose a serious threat to Russia, as Sunni Moslem communities in Central Asia and the Caucasus provide fertile recruiting soil for terrorists. Putin claims that over 2,000 citizens of Russia and post-Soviet states are already fighting on the side of Islamic State. The most recent destructions and executions in the Syrian town of Palmyra must have also been played a role: Putin’s native St. Petersburg has been referred to “Northern Palmyra” since the reign of Catherine the Great and romanticized in Russian poetry, literature and art.
However, on the grand chessboard of Eurasian geopolitics, Putin’s motivation for the Russian military action in Syria goes far beyond ISIS and Palmyra. Machiavellian in its complexity, it pursues multiple goals aimed both at domestic and international audiences. Philosophically, Putin and his cronies have embraced the ideology of Russian exceptionalism and messianism, favoring the autocratic forms of government. Russia’s president likes to quote from Russia’s most conservative religious philosophers. His favorite thinker, Ivan Illyin (1884-1953), praised Hitler and Franco. Philosopher Konstantin Leontiev (1831-1891), whom Putin also quotes, favored monarchy and juxtaposed Russia’s civilization to that of the west. Russia’s talking heads like to discuss geopolitics a la Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman as their theories allotted Russia and its former imperial provinces an exceptional if not decisive role in history. The increasing role of the U.S., EU and NATO in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe is portrayed in the Russian media as a direct threat to Russia’s sovereignty, i.e, a sort of cordon sanitaire built along Russia’s borders.
And now, by condemning Western failure in the Middle East, Putin is extending his domestic creed into a foreign-policy doctrine—forthrightly embracing dictators and autocrats as the only answer to Islamic terrorism. As he has done before, Putin alluded to Libya and the murder of Muammar Gaddafi as a turning point in his 60 Minutes interview, since it has led only to chaos.
What we cannot do under any conditions is to forget about Ukraine, the Baltic States, the Caucasus and other areas of Eurasia that may at some point become the targets of Russia’s aggression.
By pushing outward, Putin is only extending a very old Russian tradition that Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin were the exceptions to, rather than the other way around. Since the reign of Ivan the 4th in the 16th century, an inherent element of Russia’s political identity has been to expand its empire over the vast territories of Eurasia, comprising Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. Historians still argue about the origins of this crucial trait of Russia’s political culture: Is it national character, geography, the legacy of the Byzantine Empire and Genghis Khan, or Russia’s religious messianism? Syria may first appear insignificant to Russia’s traditional spheres of influence, but instability in the Middle East presents a major threat to what Russian perceives as its buffer zones: the Caucasus and Central Asia. There is a growing support for jihadism in these region. With the obvious decline of the US leadership in the Middle East under the Obama administration and in the context of Russia’s collapsing economy, Putin must be willing to take a chance in establishing Russia’s presence in the oil rich areas of the Mediterranean basin.
Overextending its power, Russia is likely to face disastrous political consequences. This happened to the Russian empire at the beginning of the 20th century when Russia stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Poland and from the Arctic Ocean to South Asia. In 1904, Czar Nicholas the II provoked a Russo-Japanese war by overextending in the Far East: this war turned out to be a disaster. In 2014-2017, the same czar Nicholas ignored Russia’s deteriorating economy and the success of Revolutionary movements. This political blindness eventually led to the Bolshevik cout d’etah of October 1917. Likewise, in December of 1979, Leonid Brezhnev’s politburo ignored the deteriorating morale and economy in the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. They launched a military campaign which buried the USSR. The current Russian presence in Syria may seem minor when compared to the aforementioned historical events. Located roughly between Jerusalem and Damascus, Latakia nonetheless may be just the beginning of the further move of Russia’s troops and arms to the Middle East. When Russian soldiers begin to return home dead or even beheaded, it is going to be much more difficult for Putin to justify his war. Putin’s Syrian campaign may become the beginning of the end of his autocratic regime.
Peter Eltsov is senior research fellow and associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
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