On the evening of March 14th, at a special meeting in the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Syria. The president said that the Russian troops had completed all their tasks, and the withdrawal should “encourage the peace process.” Why is Russia now trying to get out of Syria, and that will it do next?
Recall that last month the United States and Russia reached agreement on a cease-fire in Syria, which entered into force two weeks ago. The truce is a result of several months of negotiations that the United States and Russia were engaged in. The US blackmailed Russia with the possibility of a military confrontation with one of their allies (Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia). In the event of a conflict the Americans were ready to side with the Turks and the Saudis. These countries repeatedly made unambiguous hints about the possibility of an invasion of Syria. The objective of the Americans was to apply direct pressure, using threats, to stop the successful offensive of Syrian troops in the north of the country, with the support of the Russian Air Force. Over time they would block the weapons supply lines to the militants from Turkey.
As a result, the offensive was stopped even as operations in Aleppo were in progress. With the city not having been liberated, the Americans succeeded. Fighting has ceased, despite some exchanges of fire. Formally, the withdrawal of Russian troops could be considered an even bigger prize for the Americans. However the restrained reaction of the American leadership shows that this is not so evident.
After the start of Russia’s military operation in Syria, there were two groups of the Russian elite that matched the traditional division between patriots and liberals in Russian society. The balance between them has become a hallmark of Putin’s policies. Patriots, among which the military plays strong role, demanded the continuation of the war to the bitter end, but the liberals wanted to escape the conflict and start reconciliation with the West. The result was a compromised solution – to withdraw the troops, but not immediately and not all of them. This can be called a kind of balance between the two radical poles, tactics that the Russian president has learned to observe perfectly.
The news hype about the withdrawal of Russian troops was hiding an issue: it is not known what exactly and in what time frame they will leave Syria. The timing of the withdrawal of technical staff and units was not advertised, which gives Russia room for maneuver, including in the diplomatic field. Quantitative, qualitative, and temporal indicators are the trump card in the negotiations, not only with the West but also the government in Damascus and Iran.
Tactics for approaching new frontiers
Putin simultaneously maintains a military presence and withdrew the troops, allowing both groups in Russian society and the Russian elites to interpret the decision in their favor, which has become a signature style of the Russian president. It is the same style we saw after joining Crimea when Russia did not get involved in a large-scale confrontation with the West over Ukraine. However, it retained Crimea and was entrenched in the Eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where the People’s Republic of Donbass was created under its control. Before that, in 2008, in the conflict with Georgia, Russia also began to advance on Tbilisi, and despite the occupation of part of the Georgian territories, it returned to the border of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The foreign policy of Putin’s Russia is characterized by a combination of expansionary bursts, and the subsequent tactical retreats when Russia voluntarily loses some of its gains, but not all. Thus, in every such retreat, Russia gains something. At the same time, after each burst of power, Russia accustoms the international community to its enhanced status in the world system. This turned out to be possible to Russia in 2008, but it was hard to imagine back in 2005 as the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the emergence of Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics were something from an area of unscientific fiction in 2008, and no one would have seriously discussed a Russian military operation in Syria a year ago.
Two of Putin’s realisms
If we analyze all the elements of such a policy, the internal political processes accompanying foreign policy, and the reactions of society (the degree of enthusiasm or, vice versa, the condemnation of any action), it can be concluded that Russia has a specific strategy, which is a consequence of a combination of two types of realistic thinking that is peculiar to different groups influencing the Russian foreign policy.
The first type can be called global realism. It comes from the perception of Russia as a power with global ambitions, which was in a difficult situation in the 90’s, but now seeks to regain lost ground. This is the legacy of the imperial and Soviet great-power thinking. Defeating the US and building a model of a multipolar world, destroying unipolar hegemony at the same time, are, for the supporters of this model, the strategic priorities of the Russian Federation. Global realism means the destruction or radical change of the existing unjust international system, and the building of a new one based on Russian national interests, in which Russia is one of the global poles. From this point of view, the logical pursuit of national interests, which cannot be fully realized in the existing system, will definitely lead to a harsh confrontation with the United States. Enthusiasm and the pronounced anti-Americanism in Russian society during the period of the Russian spring, the Russian-Georgian conflict, and now the war in Syria are signs of the approval of this model.
It is significant that the West considers these “Russian bursts” to be a consequence of thinking in the style of “global realism.” In Crimea, New Russia, Syria, and before that, in Georgia Russia crossed the boundaries prescribed by its system every time; the system itself perceived it to be challenge to itself and its very existence. Thus, US General Philip Breedlove, commander of United States European Command and the Supreme Command of the United Armed Forces of NATO in Europe, has recently come to the conclusion that Putin seeks to create the rules of the game, rather than trying to play by the old rules. Director of the US National Intelligence James R. Clapper estimates Putin’s policy in a similar manner. According to him, Putin continues the expansionist tradition of Russian geopolitics, and moreover, he was the first Russian leader since Stalin to expand the territory of the country.
The annexation of Crimea, a harsh response in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a presence in Novorossia, as well as the very emergence of the conflict, and Russia’s participation in the war in Syria would not be possible without the influence of this model and the specific persons and centers who promote it. Primarily, such an understanding of Russia’s interests is characteristic of the Russian military, security officials, diplomats of the “old school” (post-Soviet rudiments), as well as the group of neo-Imperialists who influenced the beginning of the “Russian spring” and the annexation of Crimea..
Russian Peripheral realism
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But Russia’s foreign policy is greatly influenced by the second model, peripheral realism, which offers a maximum realization of national interests by engaging with the global system and attempts to increase its status within it. This is not the liberal approach of former Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, who urged the pursuit of US interests, taking into account national interests. Peripheral realism does not challenge the global system, but seeks to increase the country’s status within it.
A pure example of such a strategy is the Russian policy of alliance with the United States after September 11th, 2001: Russia tried to explain its war in Chechnya as being part of the global fight against terrorism, and began to cooperate with the US in Afghanistan, contributing to the opening of US military bases in Central Asia. Thus, Russia was trying to raise its status in the world system. By using the crisis tendencies within itself, it has been active, militaristic, but, at the same time, conformist. Realism is a weak power and is a characteristic in particular of the Latin American countries, where peripheral realism was first conceptualized as a theory. Peripheral realism in Russia is peculiar to the majority of staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, parts of the security forces, most of the scientific and expert community, and representatives of the Western-oriented “sixth column” in power.
The specificity of the Russian peripheral realism is the exploitation of the pulses and the initiatives of global realists. Since 2008, Russia creates a crisis, overcomes it, and then uses it to trade for itself a more favorable place in the US-centric world. When resistance from a global hegemon greets Russian expansion, which means the continuation of a policy that will bring a challenge to the system, Russia immediately enters into negotiations. It disorients society, which once again used to believe that “this was our last and decisive battle”, but brings about certain results. Let’s see what Russia has achieved in Syria.
What has been accomplished?
Russia significantly strengthened the position of Bashar al-Assad’s government. When Russia entered the war, the militants direct threatened the capture of Damascus. The Syrian army was facing the threat of complete defeat, despite the substantial help of Iran. Now the enemy has been driven from the capital. The area controlled by the official Syrian government has increased significantly.
Russia tested the latest weapons in Syria and dispose of old weapons. Upgrading the weaponry of the Russian army gave the defense industry a lot of needed work during an economic crisis, which significantly helped this sector and the Russian economy as a whole.
The Russian forces have demonstrated their ability to conduct air operations outside the country. They tried and tested combat tactics in new conditions, with Russian military advisers and PMCs increasing their expertise in ground battles.
Russia has shown the West that it has the political will and technical ability to use military force outside of not only their own country but also the region of northeastern Eurasia. Spectacular and expensive missile launches from the Caspian Sea, and the participation of strategic aviation had such a purpose.
Russia gained military bases in Tartus (Air Force) and Latakia (Navy). Remaining Russian military advisors, Special Forces, and private military companies all remain in Syria.
At the same time, Russia almost lost Turkey as a friendly power, and the departure from Syria could deteriorate relations with Iran, which were strengthened during a joint military campaign.
Choosing a peripheral strategy
Having achieved significant results, Russia is faced with the desperate resistance of the West as it once did in the Ukraine, and before that in Georgia. The current situation in Syria called for a continuation of the war or an exit from the conflict. Continuation of the war meant an increase in the air group, the possible start of a ground operation, a high probability of a military conflict with Turkey with unpredictable results, and the strengthening of US sanctions and their armed support for militants, including supply of man-portable air defense systems.
Continuation of the war in Syria would lead, therefore, to a global conflict with the United States, which would be interpreted as an attempt not simply to occupy a higher position in the existing system, but to reformat it and create its own rules. Russia’s actions showed that it initially did not set itself such a task, or that those who advocate such anti-Western global targets do not have a crucial say in the Russian leadership. That is why Russia was involved in the negotiation process, and is putting pressure on Damascus, which was prepared to fight with the support of Russia to the finish. Russia does not leave Bashar al-Assad, but weakens its support to such a level where he is more concessive and involved in the negotiation process, with the prospect of federalization, i.e. defragmentation of Syria, looming on the horizon.
Evidently Russia believes that it achieved or will achieve an agreement with the United States and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in a fragmented Syria. The lifting of sanctions against the Turkish tour operators is indirect evidence of this. The enthusiasm of the Kremlin propaganda theme, which links Syria to Ukraine, said that Russia would agree to something similar on Donbass. The question is whether the West should agree?
The response of the West
On the one hand, the West, frightened by the fact that Russia is about to break the existing world order of US unipolar hegemony, could agree on the adoption of Russian conformist integration strategies to the existing system with an increase in status. However, there is a risk that Russia at some point will decide to continue aiming for promotion. Do not forget that geopolitically, Russia is the Heartland, the basis of land power, and therefore is prone to expansionism, a great power’s imperial manners. The last these compromises did not stop Russia from taking new radical steps. Contributing to the rise of Russian foreign policy is not in the interests of the West. Therefore, we can assume that in response to the concessions, Russia will not get what it wants. The West will strengthen the external pressure on Russia and will attempt to use internal discontent, including among the patriots, to destabilize the situation inside the country, using the forthcoming parliamentary elections as a pretext.
Reaching a compromise with words does not necessarily mean that the other side will actually abide by it. This is well demonstrated by the experience of Mikhail Gorbachev, who through concessions unsuccessfully tried to adjust the Soviet Union into a liberal-democratic state system, where the natural hegemon was the United States. As a result the Soviet Union collapsed.
New Russian Steps
In response to the West’s obstruction in Syria, Russia will try to continue efforts to create a crisis in the system and derive benefits from resolving it. Therefore, we should not exclude new Russian actions in Ukraine and in other unstable regions of the world, including actions quite usual for Russian geopolitics, such as Afghanistan, as well as more exotic fronts, for example, like North Korea. In the logic of peripheral realism, Russia may try to side with the West, waiting for a compromise on other issues.
However, the preservation of the system and its constant strength test are incompatible things. It will be more difficult with each step to keep the balance. The costs are growing: sanctions, rejected allies, new enemies, and the pressure of the fifth and sixth columns. Sooner or later, Russia will be forced to choose between staying in the system, and trying to reset the game.
In a world without US global hegemony, neither sanctions nor former US satellites will no longer play a role. The alternative is to abandon global ambitions and surrender to the winners.