It’s rare for me to think Ralph Peters has misapprehended the strategic context of a situation. But in the case of Russia’s military pullout from Syria (which will not be total, but does signal a reduction in the scope of Russian engagement), I do think Peters isn’t zoomed out far enough.
His proposition is basically that Vladimir Putin is pulling out because he has realized he can’t trust Iran’s intentions.
But, of course, Iran’s purpose in Syria has never been to “defeat ISIS.” It’s always been to consolidate an imperial outpost for Iran. That’s the function the Assad regime fills for the mullahs in Tehran, and it’s why they’ve been bolstering the Assads, and backing Hezbollah in Lebanon, for more than three decades.
It would be uncharacteristic of Putin to not realize that going in. Besides the fact that Iran’s purposes in Syria are blindingly obvious, Russia and Iran have common interests there. They both see a need to flank Turkey and keep her in a box. And they both see a need to control frontage on the Eastern Mediterranean coast, which is a key factor in preventing the Mediterranean from being a pathway into their interests wholly controlled by the “Atlantic” European powers. Syria is either going to be held, made a client-buffer, or turned against them. Russians, qua “Russians,” have perceived that for at least three centuries, and Persians for well in excess of twenty-three.
I believe Putin knew exactly what he was getting into when he made common cause with Iran in Syria. And he’s not pulling out now because he can’t trust Iran. He’s pulling out now because he can. This isn’t a matter of amity and fraternal trust between the allies. It’s just a matter of knowing what Iran will do.
His attention and his forces need to be concentrated elsewhere. We’ll get to that in a second. And Putin can leave Iran to bolster Assad and hold onto power in the crucial axis from Damascus to Aleppo, which is what has been reconsolidated with the Russia-Iran push.
Putin isn’t nearly as interested in restoring a stable territorial arrangement in Syria as the West would be. It’s actually to his advantage to allow Syria to remain a thorn in Turkey’s side, as long as Russia has her base access on the coast, and Iran and the Kurds are all over the interior. A divided, war-rent Syria serves a useful purpose for Putin. Even ISIS plays a useful role in that dynamic. Putin never cared if ISIS was “defeated,” and still doesn’t. That’s not his priority.
But now he needs to reposition. In the last 6-8 weeks, his pulsating strategic vulnerability has shifted to the area just north of Turkey. If he’s embedded in a shooting war in Syria, he’s overextended, relative to that area, and visibly reliant on that vulnerable chokepoint for his logistics pipeline to the theater of war.
Emerging Black Sea flashpoint
Americans probably haven’t heard a thing about this, other than a few snippets about irresponsible threats at sea in and around the Bosporus. Those small events, status-quo-busting as they were, are not the main things going on.
The main things are the sudden importance of Turkey to Europe’s most basic security concern – the mass migration from South Asia – and the NATO reaction to Russia’s military activism in Eastern Europe.
These two factors combined have changed Russia’s outlook on her southwestern flank. The EU suddenly wants desperately for Turkey to help stem the human tide overwhelming Europe. That gives Turkey a kind of leverage she has not had in Brussels for decades. Although there would certainly be pushback from much of the EU against fast-tracking Turkey into the collective – a borderless Schengen area with Turkey in it is unthinkable – that’s the level of desperation the EU leadership reportedly has.
Turkey wouldn’t snap at all the bait, of course. Things have changed significantly under Erdogan, for one thing. Turkey has less use for and interest in the EU now. But Turkey’s hand is much strengthened by Europe’s need to court her. And the potential to leverage Europe against Russia has increased dramatically.
At the same time, NATO has begun deploying warships to the Aegean Sea to patrol the area and deter maritime people-smuggling between Turkey and Greece. This action is not directed at Russia. But it heightens NATO’s profile in an area extremely sensitive for Russia, just outside the Bosphorus.
Meanwhile, NATO has reason already to make power demonstrations to Russia on NATO’s eastern boundary. Since Russia covertly invaded Ukraine and partitioned off Crimea in 2014, Russia and NATO have been exchanging military demonstrations of a kind not seen since the Cold War.
Russia’s activity has involved far bigger numbers than NATO’s in terms of men and weaponry. The instances of serious brinkmanship have been provocations on the Russian side (although to date, most of the tactical confrontations in Northern Europe have been mounted by Russia in international air space, or against non-NATO nations Finland and Sweden).
But NATO is now reacting by deploying additional weaponry to Northern Europe – the first such major reinforcement of prepositioned materiel since the end of the Cold War – and by bolstering the NATO posture in one of Russia’s most sensitive regions: the Black Sea.
It’s in the context of this larger-scale maneuvering that Russia sees the most recent NATO exercise in the Black Sea, in February 2016. The NATO presence was small – objectively small, and to Western eyes it would look ridiculous to exaggerate its military import. The four minesweepers involved would have to flee, wholly outgunned, if challenged by Russia in the Black Sea.
But the real point was that the NATO exercise was held on the coast of Georgia, and NATO publicly stated that it was part of a new NATO push to bolster its presence in the Black Sea region. Very shortly after the exercise, NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, was in Romania, just across the Black Sea, making seminal statements to that effect, and tying a new tactical command headquarters for NATO in Romania to a “changed security environment” and an “increased military presence in the eastern part of the alliance.”
The significance of these developments to Russia is evident in the fact that Russia held as big a “snap drill” as she could put together a couple of weeks after the NATO exercise – and held it just up the coast from NATO’s exercise area, in and offshore from the breakaway province of Abkhazia. (Which is one of the two Georgian provinces that only Russia and a couple of other nations recognize as “independent.” The other is South Ossetia.)
Now add to these factors the point that Turkey is a member of NATO, even though she’s not in the EU.
And add one more remarkable event, which ensued on the unsubtle signals sent by Russia in the Bosphorus over the last several months: Ukraine and Turkey have just held a joint naval exercise in the Black Sea. The exercise capped a series of high-level meetings between Turkey and Ukraine in which they discussed increased cooperation, including arms sales.
Correlation of geopolitical forces shifts – and with it, Russia’s priorities
If you’re Russia, you see an alignment of convenience emerging between Turkey, EU Europe, NATO Europe, and the Euromaidan Ukrainian leadership in Kiev. And if you’re Putin, you don’t see it as your best strategic position, to be invested, and overextended, in pacifying Syria in a way that would largely serve Turkey rather than frustrating her.
You can let Iran hold your gains in Syria, which are enough for your purposes at the moment. Where you need to put your attention is on your near abroad in the Black Sea: most specifically, undermining the NATO clients in Kiev and Tbilisi.
There’s no telling what rumpus the Islamists in the Caucasus will kick up, especially now that ISIS is trying to foment havoc in far-flung areas, partly to diffuse the focus of the coalition against it and relieve pressure on its core geography (Raqqa to Ramadi). So Russia may end up distracted to some extent by someone else’s plans, in the balance of 2016.
But we can expect a new focus by Moscow on subverting the Western-oriented leadership in Georgia, and on consolidating Crimea – and eastern Ukraine, especially Donbass – in such a way that the Ukrainian situation can no longer remain in tension: it will have to subside wholly in Russia’s favor, or escalate to all-out war.
Russia can’t wage this campaign while needing quiescence from Turkey for war movements through the Bosphorus. And Russia will want to have her front-line forces massed mostly on the Russian side of that chokepoint, where the emerging loci of pressure are.
Don’t forget the open back door
But note this well: since launching combat there last fall, Russia has punched a military air route to Syria through Iran and northern Iraq, and under certain circumstances, she will now be able to use that, if she has to. The sheer strategic significance of this cannot be overstated. Russia has wanted to have this option since the end of World War II, but was frustrated for nearly 70 years by a longstanding U.S. commitment to the Truman Doctrine. In 2015, that pillar of the American-backed global order crumbled. Russia has her back door through Southwest Asia to the Med now.
Meanwhile, Russia is embedded with Iran and Iraq in a joint military command in Baghdad. That probably won’t change, which means Russia will have fine-grain visibility on the ground situation in northern Iraq. And that means Russia could even conceivably move forces into Syria over land from the Caspian Sea, across Iranian and Iraqi territory.
The entire situation has changed since Russia launched her Syria campaign. Americans are less likely to see that clearly, because we go in and out of selected patches of territory in the region from a few key bases and our aircraft carriers. But Russia – and Iran – see the entire region holistically, as a theater of war and influence, adjacent to their territory and essential to their interests. They’re doing what Asian nations, in particular, always do when the governor of an outside “sheriff” power is turned off.
Now Russia is reacting to NATO’s reaction to Russia, and it makes sense for Putin to reset his strategic posture to one that’s not overextended relative to the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. He won’t lose anything in Syria by doing that; rather, he’ll keep the pressure on Turkey, by not settling Syria through force of arms. And he’ll reduce his vulnerability, while being able to increase his concentration of force, vis-à-vis NATO in the Black Sea.
Congratulations, folks: this is your world without American leadership.