Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Putin’

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THE RUSSIAN DEFENCE OF SYRIA

This headlines during this week’s G-20 summit would have been hijacked by the situation in Syria regardless of where it was held.  The fact that it was held in Saint Petersburg’s Constantine Palace, focused the media’s attention, not only on the question of how western nations should respond to the reported chemical weapon attack of 21 August, but also on Russia’s staunch opposition to any military operation against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Much has been made of late by the Kremlin’s repeated rejection of western intelligence placing the blame for the attack that killed approximately 1,429 Syrian civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on the government. Although Moscow initially confirmed that it’s intelligence services had also reported the attack and refused to say who it thought had been responsible, its position quickly hardened, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, calling first for patience, and then speaking about the dire consequences of any military action.  Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin went a step further, likening the west’s policy toward the Islamic world as akin to a “monkey with a grenade.”  (never underestimate the Russian fondness for a metaphor!).

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This week’s summit provided a platform for President Putin to elucidate his position on the crisis to the world. And he chose unflinching support for the regime.  After describing the video released of the attack as a “provocation” by militants to attract outside help, he gave a vague reference to support for Al Assad, saying Russia would offer unspecified “help” in the event of US led strikes.

Much of the popular media analysis of Russia’s opposition to western intervention has come to the conclusion it is primarily financially or strategically motivated.  Syria is undoubtedly of major commercial interest to the Russians, especially in terms of arms sales.  Although Russian energy companies such as Gazprom, Tatneft and Soyuzneftgaz are involved in projects within the country, the most lucrative business is the provision of weaponry, outstanding orders of which are estimated to total USD 4bn.  Following the collapse of the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Syria is probably the largest remaining buyer of Russian arms in the Middle East and North Africa.  Analysts have also pointed to Russia’s last remaining military base outside of the former Soviet Union, the naval installation of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  Never mind the fact that the Tartus base is manned by only fifty Russian sailors and consists of two floating piers and a repair bay, and cannot even when at full preparedness cater to any of the Russians navy’s major warships.

As important as both the scale of arms sales and the prospect of losing a strategic base are, I cannot find adequate justification for these as the main reasons behind Russian’s unusually bellicose language in defence of the regime.  After all, Russia stood aside and lost a valuable customer and ally during the Libya campaign of 2011, while the Tartus base really serves more as a resupply station for ships passing through the Suez Canal than a military base for the projection of Russian power.  Rather I believe, the origin of Russian opposition can be found in direct relation to questions of Russian national security, ironic as it seems given Syria’s geographic distance from the Russian border. These security concerns are explored below.

1) The UN and the precedent of unauthorised foreign intervention 

More experienced Russia watchers will be familiar with the Russian insistence that military force can only come from a resolution backed by the UN security council (leaving aside resolution 1973 in Libya, the last time this occurred was the Gulf war of 1991).  The Syrian crisis has been no exception, with Mr Putin repeatedly stating that the council must wait for the report from UN weapons inspectors before deciding on a course of action.  Russia adores referring crises to the UN.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia really only has two levers that allow it to maintain the fiction of its superpower status; its nuclear arsenal and its UN security council veto.

Of course calling for patience until evidence is presented to the UN hasn’t stopped Mr Putin from offering his own conclusion that the gas attack was a rebel false-flag operation. Regardless of whether there is conclusive proof of regime culpability, it is extremely unlikely Russia will authorise force at the UN, because of its strongly held view of the international order and the principle of non-intervention.  Mr Putin and the Siloviki who surround him have a natural fear of western liberal interventionism.  The argument that military force can be used in order to uphold or install democratic processes is a concern for the architects of Russia’s “managed democracy”, where nominally democratic institutions are undermined by a cosmetic opposition and the delivery of dubiously large electoral victories for the Kremlin’s candidates.

Likewise, the long running operation in Chechnya has seen many well documented human rights abuses, from the large scale bombing of Grozny to the zachistka (cleansing) operations involving torture, extra-judicial executions and the disappearance of detainees.  The idea that a US led bombing campaign can be authorised, outside of international law, in order to defend human rights creates a shiver of unease within the Kremlin, mindful of its own human rights abuses. Russia therefore remains firmly committed to the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention.

2) Fears concerning Islamic extremism

The Russian experience in Chechnya also helps explain the second factor influencing opposition to a military operation.  Russia has a long, long history of confrontation with the Islamic world. From its battles with the Khanate of Kazan in the 1500’s, to the wars with the Ottoman Empire throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th and 20th centuries.  Afghanistan in the 1980’s and Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s are simply the latest instalment in a conflict that comes from being at the geographic cross-road between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Russia is also aware of the destabilizing threats bubbling below the surface in the old Soviet republics of Central Asia such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb ut Tahrir organisation, which seek to create Islamic caliphates in the Ferghana Valley.IMU

While characterized by some commentators as a dubious threat, or dismissed by the casual observer as ancient history, Russia is acutely sensitive to radical Islam. This is not only because of its experiences in the North Caucasus but also because of the millions of Muslims in the Russian regions of Tatarstan and the Volga basin. The political establishment therefore sees the conflict with radical Islam, not through the US narrative as a struggle between freedom and oppression, but as an existential threat to the state.  It is for this reason that Russia was the first country to offer support to the US war on terror following 11 September 2001 and for this reason that Russia has taken the lead in creating new security structures in Central Asia as NATO prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

The Russians are subsequently aghast at the idea that the west may intervene to assist a collection of Islamic and increasingly radicalised rebel groups, reports of which suggest are loyal to the militant ideology of Al Qaeda, such as the Al Nusrah Front.  While Syria is hundreds of kilometres from Russia, the idea of it becoming a failed state in the centre of the Middle East, capable of fostering and exporting trained militants, who will doubtless recall Russia’s staunch support for their erstwhile enemy, makes any support for the rebel groups unacceptable.  Perhaps this explains why Mr Putin was quick to denounce the idea of any support for those “liver eaters” as he so delicately put it.

3) The Russian narrative of the Arab spring

It is doubtful if Russia needs any help tarnishing the credentials of the Arab spring following the collapse of state authority in Yemen, the near balkanization of Libya into gangs of armed militants, and the 2013 coup in Egypt, but it will certainly look to use this crisis to its advantage.  The fear of large scale popular uprisings against an unresponsive and authoritarian system have lurked in the recesses of the minds of Russia’s political elite since Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. During these upheavals Russian friendly governments were replaced by largely pro-western administrations.  If any in the Kremlin had grown complacent about their position the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012 in Russia brought home to them the danger of the precedent on display in the Middle East.  Although the demonstrations in Russia failed to disrupt the regime or force a re- run of the elections, they underscored the need to undermine the idea of popular uprising.

Ironically, what began as a source of inspiration to global political activists has now descended into a demonstration of how the collapse of governing structures can lead to anarchy, mob rule and sectarian violence.  For a Russian elite desperate for an example to showcase the dangers of a loss of stability Syria is a godsend.  But this new chemical weapons crisis has given them a further card to play, something more serious than the violence in Yemen or Egypt.  The conflict in Syria, which has already led to outright civil war and the deaths of over 100,000, has now witnessed an atrocity on a scale not seen since the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s.  If Russia can tie the rebels to the use of chemical weapons it will do enormous damage to the narrative of positive political uprising as well as shore up support for Mr Putin’s administration amongst younger Russians, those who did not experience the lawlessness and disorganisation of the 1990s.  A chance to weaken the enthusiasm of this key and typically energetic constituency cannot be missed.  Therefore, look for continued assertions by the Russian government that the operation in Syria was a rebel atrocity and false-flag operation.

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International relations is a complicated game, no one knows this better than the Russians. Despite the popular narrative of the elite’s constant desire to stand in opposition to western powers to demonstrate their grandeur on the world stage the Russian foreign policy and security establishment is remarkably patient and analytical, and rarely moves to confront the west in the style it has chosen on this occasion.  The delivery of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, the despatch of advanced cruisers to the Mediterranean and the warning of “consequences” in the face of foreign intervention is, for them, very strong action.  The times when Russia chooses confrontation are considered very carefully and are not dictated by short term financial gain. Yes the USD 4bn in unfulfilled arms contracts for Syria represents a major source of income when one considers that Russian arms exports last year totalled a record high of USD 15bn. That pales in comparison, however, to say the importance of Russian hydrocarbon exports, which supply two thirds of government revenue.  Russia, however, was hardly prepared to risk confrontation with China when the Turkmenistan-China pipeline was opened in 2009, freeing Central Asian Gas from Russia’s near monopoly.  Like any country with foreign interests, Russia advocates for its commercial clients, but will not risk confrontation to defend them.

Nor are these times of confrontation dictated by the potential loss of an ally, even a major regional one like Syria.  Some commentators have pointed in recent weeks to the fact that Syria is Russia’s last ally in the Middle East.  Were it to lose Assad’s regime, all Russian influence in the theatre would disappear. But Russia’s influence in the region evaporated after 1973 and it has never truly rebuilt it. It has little influence in Iran and none in Turkey, Israel or Saudi Arabia. These are the states that will shape the future of the Middle East, and Russia will be firmly shut out. And why should it care about Middle Eastern influence? It has no energy concerns requiring good relations with the Gulf Arabs. It is largely unconcerned by the Palestinian Israeli conflict, lacking a influential domestic Jewish constituency. Its real geopolitical projects are inside the former Soviet Union not in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, as already established, its naval base at Tartus is of negligible value to power projection.  Therefore, as painful as the loss of an ally in the region will be to Russia’s sense as a great power, even this would not be sufficient to provoke it into the danger of confrontation with western powers. As in Libya, and Iraq before it, Russia was prepared to let an ally collapse because the consequences were small to Russia itself.

This time round, however, the threat to the Russian state can be considered to be existential, rather than financial or geopolitical. For North American readers this can be harder to understand and easier to dismiss. Apart from a time centuries ago, nothing has threatened the geographic boundaries of our countries or the stability of our governmental structures.  But for the Russians a generation still exists that remembers the Nazi invasion of 1941. The parents of Russian children still remember the disintegration of their country in 1991 and the collapse of the Communist system under outside pressure.  Young Russian adults today have grown up amid an extremely bitter conflict with nationalists and Islamic extremists in the Caucasus that threatens the unity of their country. These Russians find it easy to understand existential threats.  To the Russian political elite the potential threat of US humanitarian intervention to defend Chechen civilians is real. The threat of extremism flowing north from Syria up into the Caucasus to renew the battles of the 1990s is real. The possibility of US sponsored and Arab inspired popular revolt is real.  It is for these reasons that the Russians are serious about Syria. Don’t expect Russian ships to fire on US aircraft next week, but do believe Russia will not stand by this time like in 2003 and 2011.