The first anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria has been marked by the collapse of talks between Russia and the US on a ceasefire agreement, and a fierce assault on Aleppo by the Russian-led coalition. In the year since Moscow first intervened in Syria, initiating airstrikes against Islamist targets, the conflict has broadened further, triggering a war of words between Russia and Turkey, and now between Russia and the US. The Russian military intervention in September 2015 took the West by surprise and bolstered Russian claims that it is a major power with a key role to play within the international system. It also drew attention to the apparent ineffectiveness of Western efforts to date, allowing the Russian leadership to launch implicit criticism of the West’s inaction. During a meeting with President Vladimir Putin earlier this year to discuss the Syrian operation, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that Russia has ‘consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue’ but had been disappointed by the lack of will of its ‘partners’, a situation that he believed had begun to change since the start of operations by the Russian Air Force. Thus, it would appear that a key lesson that Moscow has drawn from its involvement in Syria is that the use of force is an effective tool to utilise in pursuit of its strategic objectives.
Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. The 1990s were a period of turmoil and change for Russia. Putin took power when the country was perceived to be at its weakest, both domestically and internationally, encapsulated by the disastrous first attempt to quell separatism in Chechnya in 1994. Russia was initially unable to convert its extensive (numerically at least) military capabilities into military and strategic success, and thousands of Russian troops proved unable to secure the tiny republic. One of Putin’s first priorities on taking power in 2000 was to halt the perceived decline of the Russian armed forces, which have undergone a comprehensive programme of reform and modernisation. The 2008 conflict with Georgia, the first Russian offensive operation against a foreign state since the end of the Cold War, demonstrated the renewed ability of the Russian armed forces to fight conventional wars, following years of conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The military action, an extension of policies that served to reinforce Russia’s coercive efforts in other post-Soviet states, also acted as a warning that Russia will not stand by and let countries in what it considers to be its ‘zone of privileged interest’ integrate more closely with Western organisations. Medvedev himself stated his belief that the events of 2008 were vital for Russia ‘for it to feel strong and not disintegrate—irrespective of how those events may be interpreted in other countries. This was important, first and foremost, for ourselves’. This reflects a determination to re-establish Russia’s authority as a strong state that is capable of influencing events within the global arena and pursuing an independent stance on international issues. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and increasing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were indicative of a far more confident Russia, one that is determined to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area, using force if necessary.
Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, initially appeared to have been a significant foreign policy coup, ending Russia’s isolation from the West less than two years after its annexation of Crimea. Casting its mission as part of an international coalition against IS, Russia again took the West by surprise in March 2016, when Putin ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian forces from Syria, announcing that they had achieved their objectives. The West seems powerless (or perhaps unwilling) to halt the bombardment of Aleppo, despite the large number of civilian casualties. This is perhaps partly because there is very little understanding of what Russia is seeking to achieve through its use of military force in Syria. Certainly, the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) made it clear that the Kremlin considers Russia to be a major power within the global system, one that has a key role to play ‘in tackling major international problems, the resolution of military conflicts, the maintenance of strategic stability and of leadership in international law and inter-state relations. Russia’s proactive and often ambiguous use of force (across the post-Soviet space and now the Middle East), has been related to a variety of issues, not least an attempt to counter the attraction of the EU, NATO and the West, with hard power tools of coercion and threats. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.
Image: Unloading of anti-aircraft missile systems S-400 via wikimedia commons.