Since assuming the office of President in 2012 for a third term, Vladimir Putin has been facing crisis after crisis on the external front. After the war with Ukraine over the Crimea issue, Russia went into a confrontational mode with the European Union (EU) over supply of energy. This contributed to a series of financial sanctions imposed by the EU and its allies on Russia. After a brief lull, Moscow is once again engaging itself in the West Asian conflict zone by fighting the non-State radical forces such as the Islamic State (IS) as well as hardliner groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
So, why is Russia intervening in the Syrian crisis while facing the worst ever domestic financial crisis since 1998? In August, a report by the International Monetary Fund stated that in the medium term the economy will grow by a measly 1.5 percent, because of financial sanctions imposed by other Western powers as well as the slump in oil prices. The rouble is depreciating fast, aggravating the country’s economic woes.
Though Russia’s economic condition is not as rosy as it was in 2012, with Putin at the helm, the country is trying to ‘reassert’ itself in global politics by turning the Syrian crisis into an opportunity. Moscow’s foreign policy objectives are deeply tied to the Syrian crisis at four different fronts.
The first is geopolitical in nature. After a rebuff from the Western powers during the Crimean crisis, Russia wants to challenge America’s neo-imperial project in West Asia. Barring Iran, most West Asian States such as Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are now among the closest Western allies, which is giving much headache to Russian policymakers. No wonder Russia wants its closest friend since the Cold War period, the Shia-dominated Syrian regime of Assad, to stay within its orbit. Without Damascus, it would be more difficult for Moscow to flex its muscle in the region and pose a direct challenge to the pro- Western forces.
The “superpower mindset”, which seems to have survived the end of Cold War, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, occasionally flashes out in the form of “soft conflicts”. That is perhaps the reason why NATO — a Cold War vintage formation — still tries to encircle Russia by deploying troops in central and eastern Europe. The European Union, too, has launched the ‘Eastern Partnership Programme’ in which some of the closest former Soviet Republics such as Armenia and Belarus are members.
The persistence of the Cold War “syndrome” gives grist to Putin’s “New Cold War” refrain.
Taking a dig at NATO countries in his address to the 70th UN General Assembly on 28 September, Putin said, “They [Western countries] continued their policy of expanding NATO and its military infrastructure. Then they offered the post-Soviet countries a false choice, either to be with the West or with the East.” It clearly reflected the unease in the Russian establishment in the face of the NATO-led expansion of the Western forces.
Russia’s intent to protect the Assad regime became evident way back in February 2012 when Moscow vetoed a UN resolution that called for the “internationalisation of the Syrian crisis”. The Russian veto, strongly supported by China, urged for “an inclusive Syrian-led political process… aimed at effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.” It echoed the stance of the erstwhile Soviet Union when “colour revolutions” — largely aided and abetted by Western forces — shook several countries within its orbit.
Checkmating Western penetration in this part of the world is not the only geopolitical interest on Russia’s mind. Syria is one of the largest importers of Russian weapons and this helps its defence industry to sustain itself. A Congressional testimony submitted to the US House of Representatives on 14 June 2012 mentions that Russia sold around $1 billion worth of weapons to Syria in 2011 alone. It also states that Russia’s deputy defence minister justified the sale of arms and found no ground to stop it, calling it a “legitimate” deal.