Alexander Bogomolov*: Russia going global again with the help of… Syria


While many, perhaps, would object to our title by saying that Russia’s interests in the region as well as its relations with a number of key regional actors, notably Syria, are in fact so long-standing that they even may be called ‘historic’, at no point since 1990s Russia had any semblance of the influence in the Middle Eastern affairs as it has suddenly acquired today. While for its archrival the United States the greater Middle East military campaigns of the last two decades appear to have brought more troubles than benefits, for Russia, so far, its contribution to the region’s most bloody current war have been a prudent political investment.

According to an authoritative Western report: ‘Perhaps the most consequential new external entrant to the politics of the region is Russia, which has executed a formidable campaign of significant and lasting geopolitical consequence for the region, and will be a force in its politics for the foreseeable [1].

Russia’s newly established regional role, as we shall argue below, had never been meant to bring peace, and will likely leave Syria and the region in a situation where every party to the current conflict, whether the genuine local opposition or any local proxy force (the latter roles now increasingly blur) or its state-sponsor, will end up by having considerably less than it had initially aspired to get. It now may seem that Russia’s allies in the Syrian conflict – Iran, Hizbullah, and the Syria’s Alawite elite – could be an exception, but despite their recent gains, nothing guarantees them against a possibility of future losses, which may come in a variety of forms. In contrast to the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, Russia’s invasion of Syria in September 2015 meant, ostensibly, to prop up, or as we will elaborate below, rather to exploit the ailing regime of Bashar al-Assad, contrary to the expectations of many regional and international actors, turned out to be a military success, which with the help of an apt diplomacy Russia managed to convert into a major foreign policy asset.  This brief paper resulting from a presentation that was made at 20 November 2017 CRS conference ‘Middle Eastern vector in Russia’s Foreign Policy’ is an attempt to reopen a few issues concerning the rationale and consequences of Russia’s vigorous re-entry to the Middle Eastern scene, as well as key factors that enabled it, which, in our opinion, often appear to be omitted from discussion or misconstrued.

Why did it happen now? Tracking Russia’s Middle East engagement

For a long time, Russia’s role in respect to the Greater Middle East troubled places, such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria was that of an external observer, sometimes a judge (given Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UNSC), critical of the Western policy of ‘unilateral interference’, vigorously promoting the sanctity of the ‘national sovereignty’, and, generally, fitting into and often lost against a broad backdrop of international anti-globalist and anti-Western discourses.  Even as recently as in 2011, nobody, probably, not even Russian analysts, could have predicted what would happen in 2015.

The countdown begins with the advent of the Arab Spring and the Libyan civil war in particular. Russia took a back seat on the issue of providing the no-flight zones on humanitarian grounds, which affectively served as an air support for the rebels’ ground operations. Russia was then rumored to have been offered something in return for its abstention vote, most probably, a lucrative Libya oil deal, which had failed to materialize in view of the turmoil that followed the Gaddafi’s downfall. The UNSC resolution 1973 of 17.03.11 sealed the fate of the Gaddafi regime and set up a precedent, as it later appeared, for Syria. It had been a precedent that many Arab parties, Syria’s democratic opposition most prominent among them, have invested much hope in at the initial phase of the crisis. Russia soon embarked on a diplomatic offensive to undermine the validity of this precedent. In order to understand the logic behind such behavior, it merits taking a look at how Russia’s stance on Syrian crisis was evolving in time. It would be particularly helpful to put in sync a few important developments that happened – both in Russia and its ‘near’ abroad and around the Syria issue, starting with 2011 when the Arab Spring, along with its Syrian plotline.

In July 2011, due to the ferociously violent response of the Assad regime, the Syrian mass protests rapidly degenerate into a civil war. On 4 December 2011, Russia holds its Duma elections and on 10 – 24 December, the government is faced with its own Bolotnaya square protests. When on 4 March 2012 Putin secures his 3rd presidential term, 7 mass rallies follow through May 2012. In a month, in June 2012, Geneva I international conference is convened as the world’s 1st attempt to resolve the Syrian crisis. Through June 2013 Moscow witnesses an average of 1 rally a month, while by mid-2013 the Assad regime is on the brink of collapse. While in June Russian protestants finally run out of steam, on 5 June 2013 the Iranian proxy Hizbullah takes the little strategic town of Qusayr and reverses the steady revolutionary offensive. The most interesting sync comes later down the road. When the second round of the international effort to save Syria, Geneva II, kicks off on 22 January 2014 in Montreux to continue on 23–31 January in Geneva, in Ukraine, on 22-23 January 2014 tires are burned on Hrushevsky street It is during the final days of the Geneva II that, on 25 June, what for Yanukovych would become his capitulation terms were sealed. And in March – April 2014, having seized Crimea and already beginning to shake up the eastern Ukraine, Russia takes its 1st round of Western sanctions. In a Manichean world view, in which every rally, being it in Moscow or in Damascus, is seen as an element of a Western grand scheme, such coincidences just could not be taken lightly. Unsurprisingly, Moscow would treat every meeting on Syria that it attended as a front line episode and over the 6 years of Syrian war, Russia vetoed UNSC resolutions on Syria 11 times[2]. While rebuffing the Western efforts to end the crisis, Russia apparently was also plotting a counter offensive.

Windows of opportunity: U.S. out – Russia in

In summer 2012, president Obama declared that the U.S. would go for an airstrike if the Assad regime ever uses chemical weapons against the opposition. This went down as the Obama Red Line. To the U.S. Arab allies, such a strong message sounded much as promise of a more decisive U.S. engagement in Syrian conflict, which could probably be followed by the establishment of a no-flight zone, which would strengthen the opposition and facilitate Assad’s downfall in line with the Libyan precedent. However, following an atrocious Eastern Ghouta chemical attack on 21 August 2013, at the G20 summit on 6 Sept. 2013, Obama makes a deal with Putin on establishing an international program to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, which was then enforced by UNSC Resolution 2118. Even though Obama appeared to have registered the first serve in achieving the Syria chemical weapons deal[3], it was certainly a great diplomatic victory for Russia. The Obama chemical weapons deal undermined trust of the U.S. Arab allies in its willingness to come on their side in the Syrian crisis. The impression was greatly reinforced by the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran on 14 July 2015. On the backdrop of the U.S. continued presence in Iraq alongside Iranian proxies, the disengagement from the Syrian conflict, and the JCPA, which stood to release huge Iranian fund frozen abroad, which could be used to finance Iran’s military expansion in Syria and across the Middle East, a strong consensus emerged among the Arab allies that the U.S. was going into a strategic alliance with the Islamic Republic. Israel was also unhappy with the Iranian nuclear deal. These developments created a window of opportunity for Russia, which it aptly used to cultivate alliances of convenience with parties that could otherwise present a major hurdle on the way to its subsequent intervention in the Syrian war - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt. Turkey followed suit joining the club of Russia’s fellow travelers under different circumstances, but for essentially similar reasons, when its initial attempt to take a more resolute posture against Russian interference in Syria met a rather restrained response on the part of its NATO allies[4], which allowed Russia to subsequently pressure Turkey to cooperate.  When in 2015 the Assad regime was weakening again, Moscow went on a broader regional diplomatic offensive that included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, U.A.E., Jordan, meetings with various factions of the Syrian opposition, calling everyone to join a new coalition against ISIS. Grounds were probed thereby, quite apparently, for the 30 September 2015 invasion.

It is due to the partnerships of convenience that Russia forged in such manner, while the U.S. appeared to be on exit from the Middle East, that the Astana negotiating process came into being, operating in parallel to the official UN-supported Geneva format, which allowed Russia to significantly reshape the Syrian conflict map.  With the help of this initiative Russia now hopes to even push its own version of the Syrian constitution, rename the country, make it a federation, i.e. basically reinvent Syria according to its own design. Recent Russian S400 surface-to-air missile systems deals concluded with both Ankara and Riyadh demonstrate that the alliance of convenience has sustained the transformation that is now going on in the U.S. foreign policy and even the renewed commitment of the new administration to the Arab allies. 

Russia has been most of the time and remains the single party that maintains strong channels of communication with the entire set of parties to the Syrian conflict, both inside and outside the country. Russia’s lack of sustainable commitment to any of its fellow travelers or even allies allows it to cultivate these relationships in parallel or to play them against each other. While it always has something to offer or deny to most of the sides, even its allies’ interests may at times be treated as bargaining chips.

In an early comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, president Obama famously remarked: “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness”.[5]  Similar comment followed later when Russia landed its force in Syria: “Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client Mr. Assad was crumbling and it was insufficient for him to send arms and money”.[6] The significance of personality factor in politics, particularly, when it comes to autocracies, of course, should not be belittled. However, Russian leader’s very plausible hard feelings regarding Obama’s persistently degrading comments must have in fact resonated with many in the Russian security, defense and diplomatic establishment, provoking them to reciprocate by showing their country’s worth. Russia’s reaction to the US attitude to Russia’s assertiveness as reflected in the Obama’s comments finds a perfect expression in the words of the late ex-PM and authoritative expert on Arab affairs Yevgeniy Primakov:

 “… [It is] absolutely unimportant what our long-term interests are – [what is] important [is] that we had been had in Libya, we have approved the resolution (i.e. the UNSC resolution #1973 on Libya – A.B.), and we were left with an empty bag! Now we will show them all”[7]

It is, however, not only the hard feelings and the desire to be acknowledged as a global power, but a careful calculation that had prompted Russia’ sudden direct engagement in the Syrian war. While in the aftermath of the Crimea seizure and the ongoing war in the eastern Ukraine, Western military analysts were already weighing the chances of a similar attack in Europe (Baltic states, the Balkans), Syria, a ruined country, where powerful Western interests and sensitivities conflated and combined with a growing sense of inability to act affectively, appeared to be an ideally soft target. Military interference in the Middle East, unlike in NATO’s sphere of responsibility, could not have produced such a sense of clear and present danger and, for all its negative effects, even proved to be acceptable to some member states being dressed up as it was as another episode in the GWOT. Russia initially declared that it was fighting ISIS; soon it became apparent that its airstrikes only hit the genuine opposition to the Assad regime. Contrary to what Obama believed, however, Assad as such never has been the purpose of the operation, but an asset that Russia has cultivated and cashed in right on time to achieve what the American president had persistently denied it – prominence on the global scene and leverage against the US and the EU, which have just imposed the sanctions regime over Ukraine.

Time for Russian interference was chosen very aptly, both in view of ensuring a greater political success of the operation and Russia’s further ability to engage with the regional actors. The Iranian proxy Hizbullah entry to the Syrian conflict war in 2013 marked not only the end of the Syrian revolution, but the phasing out of the Arab Spring as a pan-Arab phenomenon. Much of Arab and regional enthusiasm (which notably includes Turkey) went down, which allowed the resurgence of reactionary forces. Ending war, not only in Syria but in Yemen, has become a greater priority than fulfilling what turned out to be somewhat overstated aspirations for change. It is quite emblematic that Egypt’s ‘revolutionary’ president Mursi fell within a month after the fall of strategic town of Qusayr to Hizbullah fighters (July 3, 2013 and June 5, 2013 resp.). Russia entered the Syrian conflict at a time of the second anticlimax for the Assad regime, which could by all counts become its doom, and when nothing but the flag and media voice remained from the Syrian Arab Army, while the Iranian military assistance, including Hizbullah, was already running out of steam. 

Russia’s main competitive advantage in the Syria game, over all other parties, is that, contrary a popular view, it is after no particular local asset, even though it will never reject an opportunity of a gain. Russia’s true purpose is larger than Syria, it is neither peace, nor war, but anything that may enhance its influence both regionally and globally. From the cost and benefit perspective, war is a more efficient tool for achieving this purpose as opposed to peace as the latter comes at a far greater cost. War and peace dilemma is resolved in a smart manner – always talk peace and pretend to be pursuing it tirelessly – for otherwise your war effort will be seen as illegitimate, in the meantime continue not simply fighting the war but contributing to aggravating the conflict by various means available, even the peaceful ones (such as persistently making unacceptable proposals to the opposition and undermining its legitimacy, while knowing all too well that the absence of a credible partner at peace talks will lead to a stalemate). The most obvious instance of this tactic was the seemingly endless negotiations process between Russian MFA Lavrov and the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, commenting on which Aljazeera’s Marwan Bishara wrote: ‘Records show that Kerry has given in to Lavrov on many or most occasions when he was simply manipulated by his Russian counterpart while Moscow continued to make advances in Syria.’[8]


For Obama, and many in the West and the Arab world, Russia’s entry to the Syrian war in September 2015 was perceived as an immediate flashback to the Soviet Afghanistan disaster. Obama’s passive response to this move could be accounted for by his firm conviction that Russia would indeed be soon entangled in what he repeatedly described as ‘quagmire’ similar to the Soviet Afghan war experience, the U.S. just had to patiently wait until it happens[9]. Yet while the circumstances seemed to be familiar, the outcome turned out to be quite the opposite. While for Obama the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq had been another important point of reference and a major demotivating factor for taking up a more active role toward Syria, Russia’s invasion of Syria was in fact everything that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not. Major difference between both the Soviet Afghan campaign and the American invasion of Iraq, on the one hand, and Russia’s current operation in Syria, on the other, is in the size and the nature of liabilities it entails. Russia has done a lot to hedge against a truly comprehensive nation (re)building commitment, which has doomed its Afghan campaign and considerably undermined the U.S. Iraq engagement. Now Russia only appears to be committed to the Assad’s puppet regime. Its political settlement initiative is designed to shift major share of liabilities to the two other sponsors of the Astana process, which in contrast to Russia are local parties, who are there to stay, while Russia may always find an excuse to exit the game, as it once already pretended to do with its contrived withdrawal in 2016[10]. Estimated cost of Syria’s reconstruction as calculated in July 2017 had been $300 billion – five times the nation’s pre-war GDP[11] – representing a burden, which Russia, claiming the role of the current regime’s best friend, will hardly be able to shoulder. Looking from this perspective, if Russia is interested in peace, it should be interested in it more as a process, than a result.  De-escalation zones and other instruments that Russia is currently promoting are mainly designed to minimize the war costs and enable Russia to continue calling the shots at both the regional and the global level.   

 When it comes to the Afghan precedent, contrary to Obama’s predictions, Soviet experience with the Middle East overall was by far not as disastrous as its Afghan endgame suggests. On the contrary, in many instances and for a rather long time it had been a unique success story. Much of what Russia is doing now in Syria and across the region has in fact been inspired by lessons learned from the KGB (and party leadership) driven experience of weaponizing the 3rd world anticolonial struggle against the main adversary. Same as nowadays, the ultimate goal then had been to subvert it politically and exhaust militarily. It is about the facilitation and even shaping, whenever possible, an essentially natural course of events and processes that would be occurring anyway even though in a different manner and scale, and deploying their effects to one’s own purpose.  Back in the old days, it had been an enormously broad scale endeavor, matching in size the processes in which it had been embedded. Tools included grooming and intimidating elites, providing a diplomatic cover by skillfully using the UN system, meddling in identity politics, ‘active measures’ (250 in 1974 alone) aimed to discredit Western ‘imperialists’, military aid and direct, although often covert, military deployment, and large scale infrastructure projects[12]. Now Russia, with its considerably diminished ambitions and the newly acquired economic prowess is picking out only the most efficient and less costly part out of this rather extensive toolkit.   

Here are the most obvious differences between the Soviet 3rd world enterprise and the current Syria project. The Soviet expansion in the 3rd world was powered by the energy of its revolutionary liberation movements. Current operations are pinned on the conservative counter-revolutionary forces and the shared desire of entrenched authoritarian old elites to hold on to power. In the Middle East, these elites are not only contested domestically but also enmeshed in deeply embedded rivalries among each other. Absence of the former ideological constraints and the lack of clear political commitment, opened up a range of opportunities that were unavailable to the Soviet Union. In that sense, modern Russia stays in contrast not only to itself 30 years ago, but to the United States, which, on the one hand remains committed to promoting liberal democracy, while, on the other, it has become obsessively absorbed with the meticulous vetting of its local clients. This propensity, among other things, has helped Russia and Bashar in their master plan of disqualifying the bulk of Syrian opposition as Islamists. In contrast to the U.S., Russia sees the Middle East fractured nature as opportunity, rather than a liability, and is trying to exploit its contradictions by simultaneously bidding on rival forces. Often ‘running both ends against the middle’ as has become the case with its continued relationship with Iran and Hizbullah, on the one hand, and Israel on the other, Turkey and both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, with officially fighting the Islamic extremism and using ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates as the dumping ground for its own Muslim militants.[13]

While during the Cold War both parties were often eagerly upping the stakes, now Russia has better mustered the trick of investing into opponent’s weaknesses, even using their own weaknesses as a strategic asset.

Back in the 1980s, young Russians sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan for the sake of what was then described as ‘international duty’. There is no such overarching idea anymore and little moral sense in fighting so far from homeland, even though Russia’s Syrian escapade is sold as a peacekeeping operation on the TV. Money, as in many other spheres of post-communist life, has efficiently substituted fraying moral incentives. Soldiers go to fight for a fraction of a NATO colleague pay, while for officers war is often a business opportunity (‘military company’ Wagner not the only example). Men trained to fight and otherwise underemployed are in no short supply due to Russia’s protracted low intensity military campaigns from Chechnya to Ukraine. This is one among the many examples of Russia’s ability to turn weakness into a strategic asset. The flipside of an ‘international duty’ now being commodified is the total denial of responsibility on the part of the government for lives lost in battle, and the easiness with which, in contrast to the West, the Russian public is ready to dismiss the growing number of war casualties as someone else’s problem.  Generally, what marks the difference between the current Russian the old Soviet foreign policy approaches is an acute awareness of the balance of costs to benefits.

Power that Russia has amassed through its ability to manipulate the Syrian crisis, largely stems from its often skillful use of the windows of opportunity that arise from the Western prejudice and desire to minimize the costs. Generally, the Western, often poorly concealed, Middle East fatigue created a conducive environment for Russia’s interference, both diplomatic and military.


The invasion of Syria is the 1st Russian military deployment to a Muslim country since Feb. 1989, when the last Soviet military convoy left Afghanistan. Then, the resistance to the Soviet invasion had been mobilized under the banner of Islam. Since that time, also confronted with internal Muslim insurgency in the North Caucasus, Russia has invested much into creating an image of ostensibly the most Muslim-friendly international power outside Islam’s heartlands. In 2005 Russia obtained an observer status with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). ). Under PM Primakov’s guardianship in 2006, Russia has established a Russia – Muslim World Strategic Vision Group, which has recently got into the spotlight with the proposed hosting of the next meeting of the group by the Saudi king[14]. Speaking to the Arab League Summit in Cairo in June 2009, President Medvedev went to extent of saying that “[Russia] has no need to seek friendship with the Muslim world because our country is an organic part of this world”[15] (Medvedev 2009). Clearly, these efforts have been largely aimed at hedging against an intense external interest, particularly on the part of various international Islamists groups, in the plight of Muslims of the North Caucasus or other Russian Muslim majority regions[16]. Limited Arab volunteer support of Chechen independence fighting in the 1990s notwithstanding, Russia also has so far largely maintained immunity to the Western-Islamic confrontation. Now the situation is changing as the Syrian opposition is actively engaged in framing Russia as yet another crusader force that invaded and continues to occupy and torment a Muslim nation. This discourse, however, still appears to confront an enormous cognitive hurdle resulting from a deeply embedded vision of the ‘imperialist’ West as traditional foe and Russia – for the sake of its explicit anti-Western stance – as, at least potentially, a friendly force. Incidentally, the old wisdom ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ works to Russia’s benefit also in the reverse direction: for as long as Russia appears to be fighting the Islamists, many in the West are still eagerly making concessions to it as, again potentially, an ally in the ‘war against terror’.


When you look into the abyss..

While Russia’s leadership may be priding themselves on their newly regained influence over the Middle Eastern affairs, the influence in fact appears to be reciprocal. The leader of a conservative religious group Christian State (affectively a Russian clone of ISIS) Aleksandr Kalinin recently said: “An [Christian] Orthodox country should be such as Iran”.[17] The Kalinin’s group has gained notoriety over its Khomeini-style scaremongering and intimidation campaign against the screening of a Russian blockbuster ‘Matilda’ portraying the last Russian monarch, who the Russian religious conservatives have proclaimed a saint, as having a rather intense affair with a Polish Russian ballerina. Such figures may be dismissed as marginal and indeed Mr. Kalinin has recently been detained by the Russian authorities over his role in the said campaign, but the openly traditionalist, conservative, anti-Western and anti-globalist values that he espouses, effectively, represent the very same negative set, which forms the foundations of the current Russian political thinking. While Russia continues to progress on its deliberately chosen track of rejecting its European heritage it naturally, consciously and largely subconsciously, falls pray of ideational attractions originating from the Middle East, which since the Iranian revolution of 1979 has developed into the world’s number one powerhouse of the extremist anti-Western ideas and practices. While during the Cold War, Moscow had been the source of ideological inspiration, the port of call for every militant group or a nation that confronted the West under the banners of anti-imperialism and national liberation, the center of gravity for such ideas have now shifted to the Greater Middle East, while political Islam has picked up the torch from the militant Marxism.  The ideas and practices originating from the Middle East affected the operations of Russia’s political system both domestically and externally. Perhaps, the most prominent case in point is the idea of Russkiy Mir (Russian World), which represents a replica of much older Middle Eastern political ideas of the Arab World and Islamic World, both conceived as a communities of nations united by common language, culture and religion.  Another influence may be traced in the Russian effort at creating a proxy militia in Donbas, whose allegiance to Russia is grounded in cultural affinity rather than formal citizenship, and which, according to Russia’s plans is to be inserted into the Ukrainian body politic. This whole organizational pattern and expected behavior of an identity-based proxy political military force is far too similar in too many details to, to be dismissed as mere coincidence, to the Lebanese Shia organization Hizbullah, which progressed, under a close Iranian guardianship, from a minority militant group to a complete takeover of the Lebanese statehood from within.


Final remarks

Now the scene appears to be set in the Middle East for an even more ferocious proxy war scenario, pitting against each other the archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose theater of operations now extends from the Persian Gulf to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as Turks against the Kurds, while ISIS legacy is being contested among multiple parties – and this is to name only the key protagonists. Against this backdrop, Russia is facing both new risks and tempting fresh opportunities to enhance even deeper its regional reach. The increasingly more pressing nature of the current fault lines will put Russia in front of difficult choices. Presently, the most challenging one among them is related to the future of Russia - Iran partnership. Russia appears to be at an early stage of accommodating the Israeli, U.S. and Saudi pressure to cut to size if not to eliminate altogether the Hizbullah formidable presence in Syria. Russia and Iran may effectively part ways. This option may be tempting to Russia particularly if the Iranian proxies will be eliminated by force of the circumstances with only little if any Russian direct involvement. Such situation, on the other hand, will leave Russia bare and with less number of bargaining chips in the face of Arab, Turkish and Western pressures. Iran and Russia now are two friends in need, whose usefulness to each other largely hinges on their equal capacity to finally absorb the blame for the Syrian tragedy, which regional powers will never allow to be forgotten, if even now they have temporarily swept it under the carpet.  Shifting the blame to the other party, may help, to some extent, to absolve one’s own sins. It appears more likely under the circumstances, that Iran, not Russia, will end up by being the ultimate scapegoat. 

The current dilemma for Russia is how to craft a sellable semblance of peace deal to the ‘Friends of Syria’ in a manner that would allow it to minimize liabilities and continue to profit from its position of ultimate power broker. The least thing needed would be a complete political settlement. As argued above, peace does not appear to be an option that Russia can shoulder without either major material losses or losing its current special status. Conveniently, now such option for Syria is hardly feasible. In midterm perspective Russia appears to be capable of maintaining the right combination of peace and war and using its ability to cope with the low level turmoil as leverage. Further down the road, however, it may have to sell its most valuable current political asset – the Assad regime – to whoever appears on the winning side among the regional forces or as part of its long aspired grand bargain with major world powers. Now, in the absence of a comprehensive US/NATO strategy, which in the midterm does not appear to be forthcoming, regardless of risks and costs, Russia will be tempted to hold on to Syria, if anything to continue enjoying its renewed ‘global power’ status.

The fractured nature of the opposition and their external support bases, precluding the emergence of a powerful resistance to Russia’s continued ‘occupation’ of Syria, would still allow for a vast maneuvering space to be explored and exploited, in as much as multiple local contestants would still be interested in bending Russia to their side, if only in a limited manner and temporarily. Navigating between conflicting interests of allies (Iran and Hizbullah), fellow travelers (Turkey) and partners of convenience (Israel and Saudis) will be not an easy ride for Russia. Russia’s major strategic disadvantage is that, while it will need a growing number of holding forces in key de-escalation areas, it will have to commit more of its own troops, as unlike Iran, Turkey or the U.S., it has hardly any reliable local proxies. Unscrupulousness in picking partners for self-interested deals among bitter rivals, as well the continued teaming up with unpopular repressive regimes against their peoples is, however, a risky rout. Russia too often appears at a cross purpose even with its current allies; grudges and bitterness that continue to accumulate may one day combine with Russia’s own resource limitations into a perfect storm, which may come simultaneously at several fronts: regional, global and even domestic.


[1] Hizballah’s Terror Army: How to Prevent a Third Lebanon War. An Assessment by the High Level Military Group October 2017, p. 16 http://www.high-level-military-group.org/pdf/hlmg-hizballahs-terror-army.pdf

[2] Most recently on Nov. 17, 2017 when it vetoed a Japanese-drafted UNSC resolution on 1 month extension of the inquiry into chemical weapon attack on the Syrian opposition-held town of Khan Sheykhun on April, 4  2017.

[3] According to Jeffrey Goldberg, it was Obama’s idea to approach Putin at the G20 summit with this plan, cf. Jeffrey Goldberg. The Obama Doctrine. The Atlantic. April 2016 -  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

[4] In respect to the downing of Russian jet over the Turkish territory NATO essentially advised Turkey to negotiate a solution with Russia, see NATO Secretary General press conference of 24 Nov. 2015, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_125052.htm

[7] Anna Neistat. Nieviernaia Stavka Putina (Putin’s erroneous bet), Grani.ru, 01.10.2015(English translation ours – A.B) - now to be found only in a cached version https://goo.gl/6VMGmG.

[8] John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov: Fatal attraction. Aljazeera. 12 Sept. 2016 - https://goo.gl/z8M1iK

[12] Christopher Andrew, The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB in the World, 2014, Penguin UK, 2014, pp. 8 - 18

[15] Dmitry Medvedev. Speech at Meeting of the Permanent Representatives of the League of Arab States. June 23, 2009, Cairo http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/4804

[16] Mohiaddin Mesbahi. Islam and security narratives in Eurasia Caucasus Survey. Vol.1, No.1, October 2013, pp. 1-22

11.12.2017 19:00:00