A Bloomberg article from Monday commendably recognizes that Russia’s goals in Syria are “far broader” than the official goal of fighting Salafi terrorists. The authors fall short of “getting” what the Russian involvement there is about, but they’re on the right track.
The problem is that they, like almost everyone else, are still framing the situation in the terms of a U.S.-style expeditionary intervention. This leads the authors to say something like this:
President Vladimir Putin is willing to run the risk of falling into the kind of quagmire that helped sink the Soviet Union a generation ago for the chance to roll back U.S. influence and demonstrate he can dictate terms to Washington. If the strategy is successful, Russia’s largest military drive in decades outside the former Soviet Union would force the U.S. and its allies to choose between Assad, whom they oppose for his human-rights abuses, and the brutal extremists of Islamic State.
No. For one thing, Russia would never put so much on the line to force the U.S. coalition to choose between Assad and ISIS. There is no history, anywhere, of anyone deploying military force for such a fanciful goal. Russia is too careful and watchful an expeditionary power to take a risky, expensive flyer on that kind of vague proposition, for which there are few if any measures of success.
But to get to the main point: the short version of why Russia can’t fall into a quagmire in Syria, at all, is that Russia never wants to leave Syria.
Syria isn’t Afghanistan, geographically or geopolitically or historically or any other way.
Afghanistan is an accident of geography: a thorn in Russia’s side because of where the nation and its obstreperous people are. Dealing with Afghanistan is like addressing a physical ailment: necessary, but not something Russia wants to be stuck with on a continuing basis.
Russia has to do something about Afghanistan, especially when the Western powers aren’t mucking around there, keeping the Afghans focused. Russia wants to do something about Syria.
Syria is a prize. Syria is territory that improves Russia’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis her neighbors (e.g., Turkey, Western Europe, even China).
Fighting in Afghanistan is a defensive move with limited goals, because there’s nothing to be leveraged out of occupying Afghanistan and directing her future.
Fighting in Syria is an offensive move with much broader goals, because Syria can be leveraged to expand Russia’s horizons: beyond the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the chokepoints and waters that lie within and outside of them.
The British Empire once blocked Russia from realizing the expansionist goal Putin is working on now. The goal has been a constant in the thread of Russian policy since Peter the Great, but the British thwarted it – actively and with intent – and then the policies of the U.S. thwarted it, after World War II.*
Now, because Obama has so utterly withdrawn any effective U.S. power from the region, Putin has an unprecedented opportunity to prosecute this three-century-old goal of Russian geo-policy. He wants to be in Syria, through bad times as well as good. You can’t scare him with the prospect of remaining there – even if he has to fight – because remaining there is the point.
I urge readers to adjust their minds. The Pax Americana is over. Expeditionary interventions are no longer defined by the “rules” of what America did between 1945 and 2009. Borders and alliances are interesting starting points, not final answers. We have reentered an age of great powers using military force to enlarge their span of control: not influence, control.
Russia has no intention of observing any of the formal niceties of American-era interventions abroad. Putin doesn’t care if the “world community” catches on to what he’s doing and accuses him of wanting to stay in Syria, like a colonial occupying power under a flimsy layer of political pretense (i.e., the invitation from Assad). He’ll just lie (as he will if you ask him tomorrow whether Russia wants to stay in Syria) – until it doesn’t matter anymore.
This is how the world behaves when the hand of U.S. power is lifted. Putin can’t be in a quagmire in Syria, ever, because Syria is where he wants to be.
* Note: Russia would point to the map and say, not unreasonably, that it’s no more “expansionist” for Russia to want a span of control over the Mediterranean than it is for Great Britain or the United States to want it. In territorial terms, that can’t really be argued – although in the terms of the late U.S. ascendancy, what was really at issue was influence, not control. And that’s the point: the difference for the Western nations lies in what the opposing parties want to do with such a span of control.
Russia will want to tightly control commerce, including natural resources, and the use of the waterways, up to and including political and even monetary extortion. Her pattern in this regard has never changed. (Ask Ukraine and Poland, just in the last decade.)
Britain and the U.S. have always opposed that construct, insisting on free, unextorted access for trade and political interaction in the region. Russia naturally seeks to form exclusionary regional blocs (as does China). The Western maritime powers naturally seek to bust and deter such blocs.