On Tuesday, January 19, 2016 the Ellison Center hosted a panel discussion on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. Chaired by Ellison Center Director Dr. Scott Radnitz, the panel of expert political scientists also included Dr. Chris Jones (University of Washington), Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (University of Washington, Rice University), and Dr. Bradley Murg (Seattle Pacific University).
Rising domestic and international reasons for Russia’s intervention in Syria
Scott Radnitz, Director of the Ellison Center and Associate Professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at UW, opened the panel with an overview of the current situation in Syria, posing arguments as to why Russia had entered the conflict and what its motives were for becoming involved. He speculated on the domestic reasons, including Vladimir Putin’s need to retain his high approval numbers and maintain a sense of mobilization among the Russian people. Radnitz also observed that there is strong reason to believe that Putin wants to set a precedent against overthrowing the leaders of authoritarian states. Putin had advocated against the removal of Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Radnitz noted. Perhaps fearful of the potential for regime change in Russia itself, Putin is drawing a line in the sand for multiple audiences by intervening in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad.
Radnitz also noted several important strategic concerns contributing to Russia’s intervention in Syria. First, he observed, Syria is a long-time Soviet ally and now Russia is trying to reassure the Assad regime of its support. Second and more important, perhaps, is that Russia continues to maintain a naval base in Tartus, Syria, and does not want to have it fall into enemy hands. Third, with the United States and several countries of Western Europe conducting airstrikes in Syria, the fact that Russia has also entered into this conflict ensures that Russia will be consulted in at least this matter of global politics, thus heightening its position as a player on the world stage. Some observers additionally speculate that Russia is trying to direct attention away from the crisis in Ukraine and may seek to use Syria as a bargaining chip, that is, to offer to negotiate peace in Syria in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia. The list of possible reasons goes on – from Russia wanting to show off new military technology, to Russia wanting to keep militants out of its restive North Caucasus region, and finally to Russia wanting to jab at American power and get in the way of Western plans for the Middle East.
With the domestic and international reasons for Russian intervention enumerated above, Radnitz laid out the ultimate question – is Russia’s involvement in Syria a brilliant strategic move or is it a blunder?
Who is making the decisions?
Bradley Murg, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University, raised the important question of who is actually making the decisions in Russian foreign policy. Very briefly he mentioned the Yeltsin era and the struggles, both foreign and domestic, that Russia faced during that time. The era gave rise to Vladimir Putin, who, in his first 12 years in power between 2000 and 2012, operated under a simple social contract that offered security and stability in exchange for the Russian public’s political docility. It was during this period and especially since 2012 that Putin used his success and his popularity to consolidate power through increased centralization and the establishment of a vertical power structure.
Multiple forces in the Kremlin share an interest in maintaining regime stability, Dr. Murg observed. Murg gave a nuanced look about who is in, who is out, and who has what forms of power in the Kremlin, noting in particular the shift in power from Dmitry Medvedev back to Putin in 2012 and the consequent end of the era of liberal reforms. When the Euromaidan protests erupted in Kyiv in late 2013 and early 2014, Putin was quick to support Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had recently backed out of a deal with the West and embraced Russia. Events unfolded quickly in Ukraine – in late February, Yanukovych was ousted and fled to Russia, and in March, Crimea was annexed to Russia. The events surrounding the Ukraine crisis saw Putin’s popularity within Russia soar to 80%, with 60% of Russians believing that their country had once again achieved superpower status. Despite sanctions levied on Russia, despite the collapse of the ruble, and despite the festering conflict in the Donbass and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, Russian public support for Putin and his adventurous policies hardly wavered.
Putin used his popularity to switch gears in 2015, Murg observed, and the largely Kremlin-controlled Russian media quickly turned from talking about Ukraine and Crimea all the time to talking about all Syria all the time. And despite all the woes that had come before as a result of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, the Russian public supported intervention in Syria.
Murg speculated about where this Russian strategy could be headed in the near term, noting that Russia faced many economic challenges connected with its recent assertiveness, even as the country pressed forth with its military intervention in Syria. It was recently announced by the Ministry of Finance that all ministries across the Russian government would see a 10% cut. The Russian economy in 2015 became smaller than Mexico’s, Murg observed, and today it is only the 15th largest in the world (or 75th based on per capita GDP). Real disposable income is down, retail sales are lower than 2009, and the average cost of a Moscow apartment is down 16% from 2014. The economy, overall, is stagnating as it sees major losses in human and other capital. Coupled with this fact are the falling prices of oil and gas across the globe, two sectors that have been key to Russian economic power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, Russia’s pivot to Asia has not been going as well as planned with China not paying nearly as much attention to Moscow as Russia is paying to Beijing. Currently, Russia has $67 billion in its reserves, but without new, substantial sources of revenue, that money could easily be used up by the end of the year, Murg noted.
Will this economic downturn start affecting public support for Putin and if so, when? The regular payment of pensions, which has been key to support for the regime, might well suggest an answer. After all, past pension cuts led to significant disorder and protests against the regime, and today the Finance Ministry recognizes cuts to pensions as a potential source of future instability. All that being said, however, Murg said he does not necessarily see any popular uprising in Russia’s forecast. Rather he foresees more cracks appearing which may or may not affect the stability and popularity of the regime.
Russia at the negotiating table?
Christopher Jones, Associate Professor of International Studies at UW’s Jackson School, turned his attention to Russia’s broader international position. Jones noted that the Assad regime had recently made public a document that exempted Russian personnel in Syria from Syrian law and also excused them from liability for any damage done to targets, people, and property in Syria. Jones noted that this document is important for two reasons. First, its content marks a clear contrast to the military actions of the United States and French combat missions, showing that there was no authorization for such action from Damascus or from the United Nations Security Council. As importantly, the document also provides legal justification for indefinite Russian presence in Syria.
Addressing Russia’s greater strategic concerns, Jones noted that the Russian naval base of Tartus on the Mediterranean represented Russia’s last expeditionary force in the Middle East, and therefore was not something the country should be expected to lightly give up. Not only that, Latakia province lies north of Tartus and is a bastion of support for the Assad regime. Thus Russia has a vested interest in keeping Syria’s Mediterranean provinces out of the hands of the Assad regime’s opponents, and this puts Russia at the center of the conflicts in the Middle East.
Turning to Russia’s place in diplomatic processes, Jones addressed two interviews – one from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the other from President Vladimir Putin – which he found persuasive in the context of the Middle East. Although carefully worded, these interviews highlighted three different processes that Russia genuinely wants to be engaged in, Jones insisted. These are the Vienna process, the Minsk process, and the “Moscow-Washington process,” the latter of which is a term Jones has coined himself because the process otherwise lacks a name. First, the Vienna process, which is an American proposal looking to solve the conflict in Syria, Russia supports; second, the Minsk process involves settling the conflict in Ukraine, is also something in which Russia is heavily engaged; and lastly, the Moscow-Washington proposal is a joint venture aimed at containing and defeating the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Jones expressed his belief that the Russians are acting in good faith regarding these proposals and supported his claim by noting Russia’s crucial support for and involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Without Russia, the Iran Deal would not have been reached, Jones insisted. Russia earned itself a spot at the negotiating table through its support and cooperation.
Central to all of these processes, Jones pointed out, is Russia’s leverage. Simply put, Russia has the capacity to end these conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, and it also has the capacity to make them worse if it should choose to do so.
Escalating tension in the Middle East
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Affiliate Professor of Middle East Studies at UW’s Jackson School, concluded the evening’s panel with a discussion of the strategic stalemate in Syria. No one side can achieve military victory in Syria, Ulrichsen warned, particularly as tensions have been escalating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. All external groups in Vienna are leveraging for an eventual settlement, but overlapping conflicts make compromise difficult even as it is impossible for any one group to achieve primacy or dominance.
Ulrichsen expressed his belief that Russia wants to maintain its military and political networks in Syria. To this end, Russia’s short-term objectives are to keep Assad in power and weaken the Syrian rebel forces, ISIS and other opposition to the regime. And while Russia has carried out airstrikes against ISIS forces, it is simultaneously unleashing a bombing campaign against the very rebel groups the United States and others seek to support. Thus, Russian actions and interests only partially overlap with the objectives of the West.
Finally, Ulrichsen observed that the diplomatic and strategic Russia-West dichotomy over Assad’s fate is far from sufficient to describe the many interests and forces at play in Syria. Russia arguably has some legitimate domestic concerns in the Syrian conflict, as many Chechens were among the first volunteers to join ISIS. The Gulf States, bogged down in Yemen, confronting plunging oil prices, and facing rising tensions with Iran, nevertheless seek to advance their interests in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia wants Gulf State investment in Russian energy infrastructure but at the same time it is eager to maintain its military and political ties with Iran. Is the Gulf States’ investment in Russian energy infrastructure worth more than Iranian support or might Russia be forced to choose sides? And what of Turkey, which shot down a Russian military jet in its airspace in November 2015, infuriating Russia?
With all these dynamics in play, Ulrichsen predicted that the upcoming Geneva talks will likely result in failure and therefore, a forthcoming resolution of the Syrian Conflict is unlikely.