​​​RUSSIA; CONFLICT & COOPERATION

Secretary of State Mike Pompeos.

                                                HOW PUTIN IS WINNING IN SYRIA


                                                    Leni Friedman Valenta and Jiri Valenta


                                           Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2020, Vol 27, Number 3


                                                                Published June 1, 2020


                                       https://www.meforum.org/61032/how-putin-is-winning-in-syria



Russian president Vladimir Putin, one of the most important statesmen of our time, is obsessed with appearing strong. His primary goal is countering and containing the United States with an anti- Western world order.

Russian president Vladimir Putin's drive into Syria and the Middle East has been astonishingly successful, but do not expect him to build a Pax Sovietica. He intensely dislikes the Bolsheviks despite having been one himself. A student of history, he lives and breathes Russia's defeats as well as its victories, and he still feels the pain of losing land to the Germans during World War I. "We lost to the losing side," he told pro-Kremlin activists in 2016, "a unique case in history!" [1]

Putin, like it or not, is one of the most important statesmen of our time. Among the richest, the most experienced, the most manipulative, and the most innovative world leaders, he is obsessed with appearing strong and being strong. Not only does he have a black belt in karate, he is a judo expert at the eighth of ten levels of Dan. He has proven himself to be as brutal as he is cruel, at the cost of thousands of lives. And his primary goal is countering and containing the United States with an anti-Western world order.

Putin's Mariupol Ploys

Russia has been fighting in Syria since September 2015 when Putin set out to rescue his longstanding client, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, from his numerous enemies: Sunni Arab insurgents, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey, and U.S. president Barack Obama, who claimed to be arming "moderate rebels." [2]

The murder of Libyan tyrant Mu'ammar Qaddafi by Western-backed militants convinced Putin it was time to save his Syrian protégé. He had already invested much in Syria's port of Tartus for the servicing of Russian ships. [3] He had established an air base at Latakia. [4] And he saw Syria as a future transfer state for oil and gas. He also bet that entering the Syrian war theater was the best way to establish himself in the Middle East, an objective long denied him by the West. [5]

Interestingly enough, the saga began more than a thousand miles from Syria when, in January 2015, Putin first backtracked on a military feint toward the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. After Russia's violent assault there in January, he was expected to attack again. Instead, he surprised the West, froze the Ukraine war, and went into Syria to save the Assad regime.

Nearly four years later, on November 25, 2018, Russia seized three Ukrainian ships en route to Mariupol for allegedly violating Russian waters and detained their crews. To the West it seemed an opening gambit to cripple Ukrainian trade between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. But nothing more happened. Again, Putin froze the war in Ukraine, this time to intensify his war in the Syrian governorate of Idlib.

A year later, even before the December 2019 Normandy peace summit, hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron and brokered by German chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin stabilized his European front by agreeing to a ceasefire and prisoner exchange with Ukraine's new president Volodymyr Zelensky. [6]

Few foresaw Putin's Syrian success. The price of oil had dropped, aggravating an economic crisis in Russia. The outcome of the U.S. presidential elections was uncertain. But having learned that fortune favors the bold, risk-happy Putin ignored all this, and Russia's military forces have since performed exceptionally. [7]

He was also lucky. After Donald Trump's 2016 election, opposition from Washington ended. [8] But while Trump was open to leaving Assad in place and pursuing diplomacy with Moscow, he could not do so for obvious political reasons: He was already accused by his opponents of being a Russian stooge. Trump's diplomatic overture failed, but he rejected any hostility.

The Russian Intervention

Aside from a lack of opposition from Washington, Putin succeeded in Syria largely because his military planners mounted an air campaign against rebels who lacked not only air power but also anti-aircraft capabilities, sparing Moscow a bruising ground campaign. After deploying aircraft to Latakia in October 2015, Russia sent advanced S-300 and S-400 air defense missiles, preventing foreign enemy aircraft from overflying Syria. In the words of former national intelligence officer Eugene Rumer, "The Russian air force acquired a potent anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capability over the Levant and eastern Mediterranean," [9] thus preventing other militaries from using the air space.

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Russian minesweepers, Sevastopol Crimea, May 2015. Putin's recapture of the Sevastopol naval base enabled Moscow to easily deploy and resupply troops and materiel from Black Sea ports to Syria's Port of Tartus. (Photo: Vadim Indeikin)

In 2015, after the Russian insertion into Syria, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scornfully told Putin, "You don't even have common borders with Syria." Erdoğan failed to understand that Russia does not need them. Putin's Crimean power grab had transformed geopolitics in Russia's favor, especially for its navy. The biggest payoff was the recapture of the Sevastopol naval base, the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet, which itself was preceded by Putin obtaining Georgia's Abkhazian coastline in 2008. The ports and waterways gained by these two interventions enabled the Russians to easily deploy and resupply troops and materiel between the Black Sea ports and Syria's Port of Tartus.

Putin's navy is not top flight (or sail), but he has made excellent use of it. Russia's Caspian Sea flotilla has been moved forward to a new base in ice-free Kaspiysk, which is closer to Syria than its previous one in Astrakhan. [10] And while the Caspian Sea is landlocked, the flotilla's ships have used their cruise missiles' shorter striking range to great advantage against enemy targets in Syria. [11]

Moscow has made effective use of mercenaries in joint operations with Assad's army.

Moscow has also made effective use of special forces in joint operations with Assad's army, employing 2,500-3,000 mercenaries who help ensure that the public is not alarmed by Russian soldiers coming home in body bags. The mercenaries belong to the Wagner Group, presided over by Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, who acquired the sobriquet "Putin's chef" from his booming restaurant and catering business. His fighters, largely young Arabs and Russians, have fought for Putin in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and several other countries for meager remuneration. [12]

Putin and Erdoğan

Putin opened by using force in Syria and Ukraine so he could dominate subsequent negotiations. Then he did his best to develop and maintain positive relationships with his international adversaries so he could advance his goals where interests on both sides converged.

This paradigm is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in Moscow's relations with Turkey, a NATO member and a longtime enemy of Russia. Seeking Assad's downfall, Erdoğan provided both military and financial support to the Syrian rebels, but his relationship with Putin was meanwhile changing. Ironically, the shift began after serious conflict erupted between Ankara and Moscow. On November 24, 2015, when two Turkish pilots shot down a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish border, and rebels killed a Russian pilot as he parachuted from the plane, Putin imposed sanctions against Turkey. [13] Seven months later, on June 27, 2016, Erdoğan apologized, and the two men grew closer when Ankara purchased Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles instead of the U.S. Patriot, triggering a sharp rebuke by Turkey's NATO peers. [14]

No less galling for Washington was the intensifying Russo-Turkish collaboration in the development of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline. [15] TurkStream parallels Nord Stream 2, which will deliver gas beneath the Baltic Sea to Germany, but not to Poland and Lithuania, [16] countries that hope to eschew dependence on Russia. Both projects have broken ground despite heavy U.S. sanctions.

Putin and Erdoğan's relationship changed again following Trump's December 2018 decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and "bring our youth back home." [17] Turkey followed this move with a major attack on the weakened Kurds—Washington's foremost ally in the war against ISIS. As a result, many Kurds were forced to flee their longstanding, autonomous zone along Syria's northern border while more than five hundred of their ISIS prisoners escaped. [18]

As Trump quickly backtracked, most U.S. troops returned to Syria and Washington and Moscow pressured Damascus to create safe zones for the Kurds. When in late October 2019 the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces asked Moscow for a no-fly zone over eastern Syria to protect them from Turkish air strikes, Putin readily complied, effectively ending any U.S. activities in Syria's skies. [19]

Meanwhile, the Putin-Erdoğan intermittent bromance is cooling again. With the continued Russo-Syrian bombing of Idlib creating enormous refugee problems for Turkey, Erdoğan sent his troops into the province where, despite a shaky ceasefire, Turkey is effectively at war with Russia and Syria.

Moscow and Ankara also find themselves on opposite sides of oil rich Libya's ongoing civil war: Putin has thrown his weight, including some 1,600 Wagner Group mercenaries, behind Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, while Erdoğan backs the country's U.N.-recognized leader Fayez Sarraj and his Government of National Accord (GNA). For its part, the U.S. administration, having initially backed Haftar for his anti-jihadist stance and pitch about democracy, seems to have had second thoughts over the prudence of this move. [20] It should. Libya is a Putin power play.

Israel, the Silent Partner

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January 23, 2020, Putin (left) and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveil Jerusalem's Memorial Candle monument, dedicated to Leningrad's residents and defenders. Putin differs from the Russian tsars in that he is friendly toward Jews and Israel.

Though widely referred to by scholars and historians as a new tsar, Putin differs from the Russian tsars in one important respect: Unlike most of them, he is not an anti-Semite but is rather friendly toward Jews and Israel. He is also keenly aware of Israel's enormous technological and military prowess and its close political and economic ties with the United States.

As a result, while Iran and its proxy Shiite militias, notably Hezbollah, have acted as Moscow's allies against Assad's Sunni enemies, some of whom are supported, armed, and funded by Washington, Putin has effectively acquiesced in Israel's clandestine war against Tehran's military entrenchment in Syria and the transfer of Iranian weapons and military equipment to Hezbollah (notably high precision guiding systems for its long range missiles). [21]

This pattern is not likely to change despite the January 2020 killing of Iran's top military commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone attack. [22] It is clear that Assad's recovery of lost Syrian land has brought Iran and Hezbollah closer to Israel's "red line" on the Golan Heights increasing the potential for an Israeli-Iranian conflagration. But Moscow remains the only power that can mitigate these explosive circumstances. As commentator Joost Hiltermann put it:

Moscow may be reluctant to assume a political role it has shown little capacity for playing. But as the dominant power in Syria that controls the skies, it has no choice. Unlike any other actor, moreover, it enjoys good relations with all the main actors: Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. There is no reasonable alternative to Russia as a balancing power and mediator. [23]

Above all else, Putin's successful intervention has not only made Moscow the arbiter in the Syrian conflict but has allowed it to regain its preeminent role in the region. According to Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer:

Moscow's hand is now profoundly stronger in the Middle East ... Assad, the Kurds, Turkey, and Israel all now depend on Moscow's approval to advance their interest in Syria. All roads to Syria now run through Moscow. Mr. Putin could hardly ask for more. [24]

Conclusion

Putin is determined to contain Washington and create a multipolar world. He has learned how to wage war at minimum cost and how to wield maximum pressure through proxies. Syria is where Putin has best demonstrated how he can win by coupling hard with soft power. Using overwhelming force in the absence of great-power opposition makes subsequent negotiations easier and effectively warns other nations to stay out of his way.

Syria is where Putin has best demonstrated how he can win by coupling hard with soft power.

Putin has sewn up much of the Middle East in an astonishingly short time. But this is partly due to U.S. president Donald Trump's errors and his reluctance to use military force even when warranted. Still, with Soleimani's killing, Trump demonstrated that he is not averse to the unpredictable use of hard power. In essence, he pulled a Putin, and he made himself a force to be reckoned with. What he must do now, since Putin backs dictators, is fully commit himself to democracy, listen to his advisers, and recognize that the United States cannot retreat from the Middle East.

Leni Friedman Valenta holds an MFA in play writing from Yale University and is a contributor to national and international newspapers and magazines, including The National Interest, Aspen Review, Gatestone Institute, and the Kyiv Post. She is also editor-in-chief at The Valenta Center for Strategic Issues.

Jiri Valenta, the center's president, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a senior research associate with the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, and the author of Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision and other books.

Endnotes

[1] The Guardian(London), Jan. 25, 2016.

[2] The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 12, 2016.

[3] Navy Times, Sept. 26, 2019; Financial Times (London), Dec. 17, 2019.

[4] Reuters, Nov. 15, 2019. [5] Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta, "Why Putin Wants Syria," Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2016.

[6] Paris Summit, Presidential Office of Ukraine, Kiev, Dec. 9, 2019.

[7] Seth Jones, "Russia's Battlefield Success in Syria: Will It Be a Pyrrhic Victory?" CTC Sentinel (West Point), Oct. 2019; Kamal Alam," Russia's strategy in Syria shows how to win a Middle East war," Middle East Eye (London), July 11, 2018.

[8] Dmitri Trenin, "The Syrian crisis is now Russia's to resolve," Financial Times, Oct. 20, 2019.

[9] Eugene Rumer, "Russia in the Middle East, Jack of All Trades, Master of None," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 2019.

[10] Sputnik Radio, Rossiya Segodnya News (Moscow), Mar. 4, 2018.

[11] BBC News (London), Oct. 7, 2015.

[12] Adam Taylor, "What we know about the shadowy mercenary firm behind an attack on U.S. troops in Syria," The Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2018; Neil Hauer, "Russia's Favorite Mercenaries," The Atlantic (Washington, D.C.), Aug. 27, 2018; Hauer, "The Rise and Fall of a Russian Mercenary Army," Foreign Policy, Oct. 6, 2019.

[13] The Guardian, Nov. 28, 2015.

[14] BBC News, July 12, 2019.

[15] "TurkStream," Gazprom, Moscow.

[16] "Nord Stream 2," Gazprom, Moscow.

[17] The New York Post, Dec. 20, 2018.

[18] The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2019.

[19] Middle East Eye, Oct. 16, 2019.

[20] The Guardian, June 8, 2019.

[21] David Kenner," Why Israel Fears Iran's Presence in Syria," The Atlantic, July 22, 2018; Time Magazine, Jan. 25, 2019.

[22] The New York Times, Jan. 7, 2020.

[23] Joost Hiltermann, "Russia Can Keep the Peace between Israel and Iran," The Atlantic, Feb. 13, 2018.

[24] Jonathan Spyer, "Putin Is the New King of Syria," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 16, 2019.

Related Topics: Russia/Soviet Union, Syria  | Leni Friedman Valenta  | Jiri Valenta  | Summer 2020 MEQreceive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing listThis text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.

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Belarus Needs Peaceful U.S. Engagement


Published on October 13, 2020 by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies
Perspectives Paper No. 1,775, October 13, 2020


                                                                  By Dr. Jiri Valenta
     

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Peaceful revolution has finally come to the last dictatorship on Russia’s Eastern European periphery. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has become an illegitimate leader due to a rigged election. Facing weeks-long massive public demonstrations, he has appealed to Vladimir Putin for help—but what happens next might be up to Donald Trump.

A CIA assessment of Vladimir Putin’s views and policies concluded that he and his Kremlin apparatus clearly favor Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 US presidential election. Trump’s caution in remarking on the democratic movement in Belarus stands in contrast to Biden’s more hawkish posture. If he wins, Biden is likely to adopt more assertive policies toward Russia and to vocally support peaceful revolution in Belarus.

Mass protests erupted in that country in the wake of the rigged presidential election of Alexander Lukashenko, who conducted a secret ceremony in which he was sworn in for a new five-year term. Considered “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power in Minsk for over 25 years.

The huge protests in Minsk, largely organized by women, have shown police brutally trying to control masses of chanting women of all ages. Both men and women have been beaten, arrested, and hauled to jail. Whatever happens with the ongoing massive protests, the country’s society is growing increasingly less governable for a dictator.

Peaceful revolution in Belarus is a key national security issue for Putin. After the 1991 geopolitical dismemberment of Russia, when it lost its non-Russian republics in the Baltics and the Caucasus, Russia’s periphery moved dramatically inward. A small country with only 9 million people, Belarus is on the new Russian periphery, along with Moldova, Georgia, some of the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

To Putin, the Belarus demonstrations must evoke other peaceful revolutions that occurred at the Soviet periphery in the past, such as the 1968 Czechoslovak Prague Spring and Poland’s Gdansk Solidarity movement in 1980. In those cases, the potential for spillover to Russia was a key reason for Soviet intervention. Endless popular attempts at peaceful revolution and ensuing chaos in Belarus would put that country into question as a reliable geopolitical buffer for Russia against NATO countries.

It might also jeopardize Belarus’s standing as Russia’s economic partner in maintaining the Druzhba oil pipeline for supplies to Central Europe. Oil contamination has already halted the westbound supply at a cost of billions to Russia in US dollar terms.

As in the past, there is still the threat of potential spillover of revolt into Russia. There have already been small demonstrations inside Russia in support of freedom for Belarus. Tolerance of freedom in Minsk might encourage demonstrations and demands by Russian dissidents in Moscow, as occurred in 1968 and 1980.

But as in those earlier Soviet interventions, Russian military interference in Belarus could have incalculable negative consequences for Russia: above all, the possible pullout by Germany from the NordStream 2 gas pipeline project.

Although the US, along with Canada, Britain, and the EU, backs sanctions against Lukashenko and his associates, there has been no strong support for peaceful revolution in Belarus by the US State Department and no formal statement from the White House. Trump’s muteness is reminiscent of President Lyndon Johnson’s silence during the 1968 Prague Spring, and it may be similarly motivated by fears of antagonizing Russian leaders amid strategic arms reduction negotiations. Putin is certainly aware that under Trump (again as in 1968), the US and its NATO allies are not fully coordinated. Trump has neither voiced support for democratic values nor rejected the possibility of a violent solution by Lukashenko and Putin. 

Putin has stated that he has designated a police force for a possible intervention in Belarus—but only “if protests there turn violent.” In an interview, he said, “There is no such need at the moment,” and voiced his hope that the situation in Belarus would ”stabilize.’’ The latest news indicates that not just a Russian police force but also Russian military troops, including paratroopers, have participated in joint exercises in Belarus, but it appears that Putin has not yet decided what to do.

Lukashenko can be considered an incarnation of Romania’s late dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Belarus dictator has skillfully played the West and Moscow against each other for decades, buttering up one to entice concessions from the other. In following the Ceaușescu model, which severely antagonized Brezhnev and Gorbachev, Lukashenko has not endeared himself to Putin, but he is likely warning the Russian president that if the Minsk protests aren’t contained, the spirit of revolution will one day reach Moscow.

Putin is suspected of supporting if not ordering criminal tactics against democratic-minded opposition figures who appeared to be developing close ties with other democrats in Eastern Europe. On August 20, 2020, in the midst of the Belarus crisis, Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, a man with many contacts in Belarus, was poisoned by a nerve agent and hospitalized in serious condition in Germany. The nerve agent had been tested by Russian agents earlier. It was used to neutralize a less prominent dissident in Russia, as well as former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain. The “advantage” of the nerve agent is that it does not kill but inflicts a long and difficult psychological and physical recovery.

Ordinarily Trump would have—and indeed should have—expressed his dismay at the poisoning of Navalny. Though he disavows Russian meddling in US elections, his silence on Lukashenko has the appearance of being tied to his belief that Putin has ordered Russian propaganda and media outlets to support him against Biden in the 2020 elections, as he did in 2016 against Clinton.

No matter how full Trump’s plate may be, upholding the sanctioning of Lukashenko and his associates is not enough. Trump needs to speak out on behalf of the people of Belarus and to express support for democratic values. Biden has already slammed Trump for not doing so.

Putin may even realize that any Russian intervention in Belarus prior to the November US election will negatively affect Trump, who would be accused of, if not colluding with Russia, at least making it easy for the Kremlin to suppress the peaceful revolution in Minsk.

Moreover, Trump should remember that in 1968, President Johnson, a Democrat, ignored a peaceful revolution in Prague in favor of arms negotiation with Russia. His closing his eyes to the Soviet intervention not only led to the postponement of arms negotiations but was detrimental to the election of his VP, Hubert Humphrey. The enduring lesson for US presidents is not to be indifferent to large peaceful revolutions at Russia’s periphery.

The Russian president has had mixed experiences trying to support political tyrants. It did not work out in Ukraine, where dictator Viktor Yanukovich had to run for his life to Russia in 2014. Putin’s rescue of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad a year later could only be accomplished through a direct and very expensive military intervention. But what was possible in the conflict-ridden Middle East would be much more difficult in an Eastern European country bordering NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Indeed, Putin’s latest moves—inviting Lukashenko to Moscow, providing him with a $1.5 billion loan, and holding joint Belarus-Russia military exercises—seem to suggest that the Russian president is still on the fence. Putin might choose to wait until it becomes clear who has won the US election before cutting the Gordian knot in Belarus.

With the EU having rejected Lukashenko’s election as president of Belarus as illegitimate, there is an opportunity for Trump to broker an alternative solution to the Belarus crisis that does not involve force.

Putin may be the “biggest liar in the world,” as Trump’s former National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster put it. World leaders tend to lie, and Putin, who was schooled in KGB techniques of deception, is a master. Yet as suggested by Henry Kissinger, he is also a staunch defender of Russia’s national interests. Instead of using forceful suppression, Putin might accept help from his opposite number, whom he views as a cunning and basically friendly leader.

A negotiated settlement involving economics, geopolitics, and politics could work in Belarus, a nation that has traditionally had close cultural, linguistic, political, and economic ties with Russia. High-level negotiations with Putin leading to the retirement of the Belarus dictator and support for democratic elections could have benefits for Russia. A negotiated settlement could preserve Russia’s strategic as well as economic interests. It could guarantee Belarus’s rejection of NATO membership, as well as economic agreements in which the US reduces burdensome sanctions on Russia. It might also provide aid to economically strapped Belarus from Western Europe and America.

One hopeful sign was a surprising statement by Putin in which he essentially proposed that Russia and America stop meddling in each other elections by agreeing on “… a comprehensive program of practical measures to reboot our relations in the field of security, in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).” He proposed the “exchange, in a mutually acceptable format, [of] guarantees of non-intervention into internal affairs of each other, including into electoral processes.”

This might be a step in the right direction toward recognizing the need for new and bold initiatives in the complex US-Russian relationship, no matter who wins the US election. The time has come for Trump to respond with initiatives of his own on the explosive situation in Belarus, with a possible role for the US as mediator.

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Dr. Jiri Valenta, a former professor and coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies at the US Naval Post Graduate School, is author of Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, with a foreword by Alexander Dubcek. He is a non-resident senior research Associate at BESA and a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin