Staunton, October 6 – Vladimir Putin views Barack Obama as being in “panicked retreat” because of the latter’s decision to extricate the US from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and believes that it would be foolish not to exploit the possibilities that such a drawdown in American power present, according to Konstantin von Eggert.
But in doing so, the Moscow analyst says, Putin has opened the door to even more problems for himself as the conflict continues not only internationally but at home where most Russians and especially Russia’s predominantly Sunni Muslim community oppose his support of Assad.
In the short term, von Eggert argues, Putin has achieved five goals by his Syrian actions:
First, he has forced Obama to meet with him because, as a result of Syria, Obama “simply could not refuse dialogue with Putin” given the stakes.
Second, Putin has succeeded in reducing the importance of Ukraine for Washington and thus making it less the defining issue of the West’s relations with Moscow.
Third, Putin has “sent an unambiguous signal to the not-very-numerous allies of the Russian regime: ‘if things are going badly for you, we won’t throw you over,’” a message by which the Kremlin leader wants to contrast himself with the behavior of the United States.
Fourth, “participation in the Syrian civil war is giving [Russia] a chance to demonstrate what the latest Russian arms are capable of,” something useful not only to influence others but to attract new orders for Russia’s arms exporters.
And fifth, “Putin has made it clear to the entire world and above all to the United States that the principle of the sovereign right of any regime to do what it finds appropriate on its own territory is for him inviolable.”
Putin’s moves in this regard reflect a fundamental difference between the West and Russia. Western leaders get involved in foreign affairs “by necessity.” Putin in contrast sees foreign actions as “one of the main (if not the chief) component parts of his legitimacy in the eyes of his compatriots.”
Moreover, von Eggert continues, “Obama and his entourage have the dislike of using military force characteristic of Western leftists while Putin considers [the use of such force] as the key element of world politics.” For him, respect is everything because people “’respect the strong but beat the weak,’” as he has said many times.
Von Eggert says that he is “certain that the decision of Obama to leave Iraq and Afghanistan was viewed in the Kremlin as a panicked flight from responsibility,” as actions and an attitude that have created a power vacuum that it would be “strange” if Moscow were not to try to exploit.
And consequently, Putin has moved back into the Middle East in much the same way the Soviet leadership did during the Cold War, as a region of competition with the US “in which Moscow has nothing particular to lose” unless and until Washington shows a new willingness to counter him.
If Putin is able to get Obama to agree to his terms in Syria: Russian support for the fight against ISIS in exchange for the West’s acceptance of Assad’s remaining in power, then, von Eggert says, “America will suffer yet another diplomatic defeat and [Putin] will be confirmed as a politician without whose participation no major international problem can be resolved.”
“More than that,” the Moscow commentator says, “until the end of the Obama presidency, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Belarus will have reason to be nervous. For in the Kremlin, such a development of events will be viewed as carte blanche for a new expansion in the post-Soviet space, and even possibly into the Baltic countries.”
But if Obama and the West do not agree, then “the situation for official Moscow could become quite unfavorable.” Russia is “not the largest, most influential and richest player in the Middle East scene,” and Putin would have to face potentially serious problems both there and at home.
“Terror inside Russia and against objects linked with it abroad, the taking prisoner and execution of Russian troops, the gradual broadening of a military presence in Syria and the prospect of being dragged into a full-scale war on the ground are only some of the undesirable but possible consequences,” von Eggert says.
At home, polls show that most Russians are not enthusiastic about any campaign in Syria and “the overwhelming majority of Russian Muslims are Sunnis.” Consequently, “the Kremlin’s struggle to save the Assad regime which is viewed namely as the hangman of Syrian Sunis is hardly going to please them.”
And thus Putin might discover that “leaving the Middle East without losing face…would be more difficult than doing so from Ukraine,” von Eggert says, offering in conclusion the following analogy that the Kremlin leader may ultimately have to face.
“The legitimization of a political regime with the help of ‘small victorious wars’ recalls a bicycle race: it is impossible to stop; one must keep pedaling. And thus risk a major defeat. Vladimir Putin, [by going into Syria as he has,] is risking just that.”