Understanding the Kremlin’s new found aggression towards Ukraine requires an understanding of Russia’s history, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy motif. An understanding is essential in avoiding the frigid hostility of the Cold War.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. The world turned a blind eye, partly because Georgia is an insignificant state on the fringe of Europe but mostly because the costs of cutting Russia adrift would be too high. Days after the Sochi Olympics, Russia annexed Crimea. The world accepted it because Crimea should have been Russian all along – the territory had been transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. If the Soviet leader were alive today he would likely admit that in hindsight the transfer was a mistake. Now the Russian army is infiltrated eastern Ukraine, albeit subversively. Putin denies any such action, however this is highly implausible. The attacks were co-ordinated, and in strategically useful places that had seen few prior protests. Ukraine is a part of Europe, it was moving towards EU membership, and despite Moscow’s perception it is a sovereign state. Disregarding minor sanctions, why is the West standing by while Russia destabilises its neighbour? The answer is that ultimately, Ukraine remains within Russia’s sphere of influence and the land matters more to Putin than it does to any Western leader. Those two reasons are what the whole conflict is over, after all.
Its all about geography – the vast Russian landmass and its foreign policy
The Russian foreign-policy paradigm is one I have examined many times; recent events make the explanation relevant once again. The Russian landmass is incredibly large, flat, and thus vulnerable. Throughout history, the peoples that populated this landmass secured their frontiers aggressively. This is true of the Scythians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Russian Empire of the Czars, the Soviets, and the modern Russian Federation. Throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945.
Today Russia is the most vulnerable it has been in centuries
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow gave up much of its influence of both the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Republic states. Many of these states subsequently joined the EU and NATO. This left Russia even smaller, and in Moscow’s eyes even more vulnerable as a result than it was in the aftermath of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the Central Powers. Indeed, Russia holds a similar amount of territory today as it did under Peter the Great.
Expanding EU integration is seen by Moscow as an attempt to install Russia-hostile political regimes in Russia’s former sphere of influence. In contrast to the EU’s value-driven foreign policy, Russia’s government places importance on stable governance, it believes the promotion of democracy and the rule of law risks regional stability. Thus, Moscow remains very wary of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an attempt to deepen EU ties with the post-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To Moscow this is an attempt by the EU to contain Russia by removing the legitimate authoritarian regimes and installing Russia-hostile governments. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Ukraine is of utmost importance. If the country were to slip out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, Russia would be left that much more vulnerable. The nation feels cornered.
The man with the plan
Putin has stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He sees the world as in a state of transition from an American dominated power balance that began with the fall of the USSR to one that is made up of several global powers. As such the Russian President’s goal is to re-establish Russia as a great-power, if not in a bipolar state system than in a multipolar state system. Allowing Ukraine to drift westwards is in direct conflict with this goal, and thus the overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in favour of a European oriented interim government is anathema to the Kremlin. The Ukraine is in particular a more personal-desire to the Russian national narrative, as it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Furthermore the country borders Russia, cutting deep into its southern flank. To the Kremlin, a western-oriented Ukraine is likely even more undesirable than a western-oriented Poland.
So what does Putin hope to achieve in the Ukraine? It is unlikely that the intention is to annex Ukraine’s east, occupation would come at heavy costs, both politically and militarily. It is more likely that the Kremlin hopes to incite civil conflict to erode the authority of the new pro-Western government in Kiev. In Putin’s eyes, a destabilised Ukraine is better than a Western one.
The West’s Balancing Act
With this in mind, how best can the West counter Russia’s new found aggression? Both sanctions and NATO military exercises are certainly necessary, the latter to assure the Baltic states that they are not second-class NATO members, and can count on NATO to come to their defense. However, the West must be very careful not to overact, thereby plunging the world back into a Cold War, or worse. A complete isolation of Russia would be devastating to Europe’s economy, a distraction to America’s “Asian Pivot,” and destructive to overall global security. A cornered bear is a dangerous one, and West must understand where it can act, and what is outside of its own sphere of influence. Henry Kissinger eloquently described the balancing act the West must achieve in order to counter Moscow without ostracising it, and it all comes down to understanding Putin’s motives.
“Paradoxically, a Russia is a country that has enormous internal problems … but it is in a piece of strategic real estate from St Petersburg to Moscow. It is in everybody’s interest that it becomes part of the international system, and not an isolated island. One has to interpret Putin not like a Hitler-type, as he has been, but as a Russian Czar who is trying to achieve the maximum for his country. We are correct in standing up to him, but we also have to know when the confrontation should end.”
Bugajski, Janusz. Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions. Washington D.C.: The Center for Strategic and International Studies Press, 2008.
Insatiable, The Economist, 19 April 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
Kissinger, Henry. GPS, 11 May 2014.
Light, Margot. “Russia and Europe and the process of EU enlargement.” In The Multilateral Dimension in Russian Foreign Policy, edited by Elana Wilson Rowe and Stina Torjesen, 83-96. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Zagorski, Andrei. “The limits of a global consensus on security: the case of Russia.” Global Security in a Multipolar World (2009): 67-84. Accessed March 6, 2012.http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/cp118.pdf
I strongly believe that it is time for an American military response to Assad’s brutality. I appreciate the case made by many that military action may only exacerbate the violence in Syria, but it is also equally possible that military action will quicken Assad’s departure. The fact is violence will ensue either way. Therefore we must look beyond the direct effects of an American military strike, to the broader consequences of not reacting to this affront of human decency.
Disclaimer: this article is based on the assumption that it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad that used chemical weapons on the East Ghouta region of Damascus, resulting in the death of over a thousand Syrian men, women, and children. Despite denials by the regime and its foreign backers, I believe the evidence to be overwhelming. Anyone with doubts should watch John Kerry’s disclosure of the evidence. Regardless, this debate is for another article.
A Dangerous Precedent – The Humanitarian Case
The use of chemical weapons is both against international convention and international norms. There exists a standard in international relations wherein it is morally reprehensible for a state to use chemical weapons. Indeed, unlike many other horrendous weapons, chemical weapons have only been used three times in historic warfare: World War 1, Italy’s 1935-1936 invasion of Ethiopia, and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War – that is of course before Syria fell into disarray.
Thus, Assad’s use of chemical weapons sets a dangerous precedent. Without an American reaction, in the 21st century it would become acceptable to use these horrendous tools of human destruction on civilian populations. Indeed, Assad used these weapons on his own people. What does this say to other tyrants who face domestic opposition? If the world is willing to stand by and watch as Assad poisons men, women, and children, this opens the door to future autocrats who hope to hold on to power through any means necessary. No matter how violent or brutal the method, the world will stand back and watch.
True, this is a job for the United Nations. But the UN has been hopelessly defanged by the threat of Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes; thus the task falls to the United States of America. But without UN backing, it is critical for Barack Obama to gain the legitimizing support of a multinational coalition. Other states in the region and the Arab League have a particularly important role to play in this.
A Matter of Credibility – The National Security Case
In August of last year, President Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would bring about an American response. For clarity, here are his words:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus – that would change my equation. We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
Admittedly, Obama did not directly say his reaction would be a military one, but it was assumed that this is what the President meant. Also, like many (including myself) the President probably did not assume Assad would be able to cling to power for as long as he has, and this threat was part of other tough language that would hasten Assad’s departure. In hindsight this may have been a mistake, but the mistake was made and the consequences must be handled.
We have now reached the point that chemical weapons have been used on a large scale on a civilian population by the Syrian government. Assuming Obama does not act, what message does this send to other regimes who hope to frustrate American ambitions in the region. What will Iran learn from this? Iran will learn that it can continue its nuclear program without fear of an American reaction. The precedent will be set that American leadership does not mean what it says. In this era of American isolationism lawlessness in the world will reign supreme.
A Final Clarification
I find it very troubling that many have compared a potential military strike on Syria to 2003’s invasion of Iraq. The two are incomparable. First, Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unprovoked preventive attack. Syria would be a limited reaction to protect the civilians of a foreign country who face a direct and immediate threat. Second, 2003’s invasion of Iraq was an attempt to remove a government and replace it with American-backed institutions. Syria is only an attempt to hasten the removal of Assad by rebel forces in the country. Finally, Iraq required tens of thousands of American troops on the ground. Nobody is talking about a ground-invasion of Syria, and with good reason. The American public is war-weary, and boots-on-the-ground would likely only paint the Americans as occupiers. If the world does nothing, Syria will join Rwanda and be studied by future generations as a case of international inaction, this is the true comparison people should consider.
I Compel the Civilized Nations of the World to Act
Force can be used for good in the world. It was used to prevent Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. It was used to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It was used to remove Colonel Qaddafi, a tyrant who possessed Assad-like potential. It can be used for good in Syria. I compel the nations of the world to act.
Supplying Syria’s rebels with arms will do little to alleviate the bloodshed or directly remove Bashar al-Assad’s embattled government. However, by arming the rebels Barack Obama is convincing Vladimir Putin that his support of the Syrian regime is futile.
On June 13 US officials confirmed that America will begin supplying Syrian rebel groups with small arms and ammunition. This development has been officially attributed to Washington’s confirmation that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used sarin gas (a nerve agent) against the opposition, killing up to 150 people – the use of chemical weapons previously being labelled as a ‘red-line’ by President Obama. However, it is more likely that the American decision was made due to recent battlefield victories by Assad’s forces. June 5th’s collapse of rebel resistance in the city of Qusayr, an important logistics hub, being the main example of this. For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s fall did not appear inevitable. Let us examine what Barack Obama can achieve by arming the Syrian rebels.
Removing the Assad regime, tough but worth the effort
Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma estimates that there are 1,000 militias that make up the rebel forces. Such a decentralized military force can hardly be effective whether armed with American weapons or not. The rebel army could become more effective if Washington continues to train rebel fighters, but to what extent this is effective remains to be seen. On June 17, in an interview with PBS television, Obama confirmed this view by deriding the assumption that even heavier weapons, such as anti-tank or anti-helicopter rockets, could swiftly tip the balance of power in favour of the opposition. Equipping and training rebel fighters may remove Assad, but it will take years.
Logically, adding more weapons to a civil war will cause the levels of violence to increase rather than decrease. Even if Assad’s regime was removed, it is likely Syria would then fall into sectarian violence, and the civil war would rage on in a different form. In this scenario, the Syrian Alawite (a Shiite offshoot), and possibly even the Christian and Kurd populations, would feel the wrath of the newly empowered Sunni militias. This outcome would be eerily similar to Iraq’s civil war after the fall of Saddam, and even these massacres could not be stopped by 180,000 American troops on the ground. Therefore the outcome wherein Syria’s humanitarian nightmare is alleviated by arming even moderate rebel groups appears very unlikely.
Let us not forget that Bashar al-Assad is a merciless tyrant who massacres his own population. However unstable Syria may become in the decades following Assad’s fall, I firmly believe it is in the nation’s best interest to leave this dictatorship to the annals of history. Since arming the opposition’s forces cannot achieve this directly, the best way to go about ending Assad’s rule is to remove the regime’s foreign allies. I argue the Obama administration is doing just that.
Assad’s allies and American interests in the region
The fact is Iran and Hezbollah are pouring militias, arms, and funds into Syria in order to prop up the Assad regime. Russia too has been supplying the Assad government with weapons. This support has even been linked to Assad’s recent victories. Indeed armour and infantry units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard fought alongside Syria’s recently formed National Defence Force during the Battle of Qusayr, Hezbollah on the other hand is training Assad’s soldiers in the tactics of urban warfare. These actions are not a sign of strength, but a signal that these actors see the Assad regime as weak, and are attempting to prop it up.
Keeping Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Russia, engaged by supplying their enemies with lethal equipment could be in America’s foreign interest, however cold-blooded and Machiavellian this strategy may be. Wars by proxy are never pretty, but they can be effective in weakening one’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah are of course both enemies of America and its ally in the region: Israel. Arming Syria’s rebels could bleed these two allies of Assad and enemies of America/Israel dry. It will also ensure that although Assad may not fall any time soon, neither will the rebels be vanquished. This final assertion is critical in understanding how this strategy applies to Russia.
Promising developments at the G8 Summit – Putin reconsiders his support for Assad
However normal it is for a nation-state to act according to its interests, above is a cynical view of Washington’s new Syria strategy. The recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland adds promise to this otherwise dreary assumption. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not officially convinced to endorse the removal of Assad, but the G8 did lay out seven steps which will lead to a “transitional governing body.” Enacting a “transitional governing body” essentially infers that the Assad regime will be removed, but it does not say so as eloquently – basically the phrases mean the same thing.
As I alluded to in Russia is Ending Assad’s Reign – Why an Intervention now Appears Likely, Putin may be growing wary of supporting a mad dictator who both uses chemical weapons and is falling out of favour amongst the international community. The more Moscow supports the regime in Damascus, the more it loses valuable political capital with other middle-eastern actors, not to mention whatever government eventually replaces Assad. I get the notion that Russia, much like America, is reluctant to become involved in a civil war that is likely to rage on for years. So while supplying the rebels with arms may not remove Assad directly, because it assures the Kremlin that the rebel cause also will not falter, it dissuades the Russians from continuing their supporting of the regime. Rather than supporting a doomed madman, the Putin administration may be considering getting friendly with the new ‘transitional body.’
There is little doubt left in the mind of any viewer to Obama and Putin’s joint 17 June press conference at the 2013 G8 summit (below) that these two leaders are at odds. But as much as Putin may despise Obama’s aspirations on Syria, he is not stupid. Facing America in a middle-eastern proxy war is not a situation that will benefit Putin in his quest to secure ‘great-power’ status for the Russian Federation. Now that the Syrian rebel groups have American arms, they are unlikely to lose this war. As such, Putin may be backing down. These are slow steps, but better than no steps at all.
“A turning point for Bashar Assad?” The Economist, 8 June 2013.
“Barack Obama’s tentative step.” The Economist, 22 June 2013.
“G8 pledges action in Syria.” Power & Politics, CBC. 18 June 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Politics/Power+%26+Politics/ID/2392266443/
“The regime digs in.” The Economist, 15 June 2013.
Zakaria, Fareed. Global Public Square, CNN. 16 June 2013.