FEBRUARY 1, 2016 BY SPYRIDON A. PLAKOUDAS / Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) – Vol. 19, No. 3

The Russian military intervention in Syria since September 2015 has sparked spirited debates in Western policymaking and intellectual circles about the genuine motives behind the Kremlin’s unexpected decision. Various monocausal explanations have been propounded, which, however, do not interpret this intervention in either an objective or systematic way. This article aspires to examine the Russian military intervention in Syria in an unbiased, innovative, and thorough way by adding the crucial geopolitical dimension. It will show that, without discounting the other incentives (e.g., support for the only Arab ally), this operation intends primarily to restore Russia’s status as a world power in the twenty-first century.


On September 30, 2015, the world’s news media circulated a startling development: Russian warplanes flew to Syria after an official invitation by the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad and waged a fierce wave of aerial bombardment against the regime’s opponents. According to Putin, Russia stepped into the war to stem the tide of jihadi terror in Syria and beyond.[1] However, the target lists of the Russian air force told a different story: From the outset, the Russian warplanes primarily targeted the Free Syrian Army and other armed Islamist organizations that threatened the regime’s nerve centers (i.e., the Latakia-Damascus highway and the Alawite enclave) rather than the Islamic State.[2] Only in November 2015 did the Russian warplanes shift their military focus to the Islamic State and, in particular, its oil industry (tankers and refineries).[3]The main factions of the anti-Assad camp (most notably, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and NATO) were surprised and upset by the dynamic intervention of the Kremlin that threatened to undo the results of their policies since 2011.[4]

Why did Russia intervene in support of Assad in late 2015–almost a long four years after the outbreak of the conflict? Over the course of the following weeks, articles and analyses by prominent academics were published seeking to solve this riddle. Must this intervention be attributed to Putin’s desire to aid his only Arab ally no matter the cost?[5] Or has Putin decided to step in the conflict only to distract NATO and the United States from his actions in Ukraine?[6] Or does Putin just want to show that Russia can still play in the “first league” of the world powers?[7] Should this intervention be ascribed to Putin’s aversion for “color revolutions” and popular uprisings?[8] As with every political phenomenon, monocausal explanations do not suffice to convey reality; rather, a combination of the above explanations plus the insight of sound geopolitical theory can in effect interpret the true motives behind Russia’s intervention in the Syria quagmire.


Undoubtedly, Russia intervened in Syria to support a friendly regime on the verge of collapse after years of brutal war. In July 2015, Assad addressed a desperate call to Putin for aid, citing the recent setbacks on the battlefield. Between March and June 2015, a newly-established alliance between the Islamist militant groups and the Free Syrian Army overran the regime’s armed forces in northern Syria near the long frontier with Turkey–capturing Idlib, the capital of the homonymous province–and even scored some success in southern Syria near the Golan Heights. At the same time, the Islamic State attacked from the east and seized Palmyra in May 2015.[9]

A steadfast supporter of the Assad dynasty since the Cold War era, Moscow decided to intervene in Syria to secure its vital interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the obvious costs and dangers for Russia’s first military operation outside the periphery of the former Soviet Union since 1989. In fact, Syria hosts one of the two Russian military bases outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (the other is located in Vietnam) and the sole Russian naval base in the Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War.[10] Russia cannot afford to abandon its only Arab ally after the end of Qaddafi. The latter was toppled by a NATO military intervention in 2011 and later on killed by the victorious Islamist rebels while Russia watched from a distance. Putin does not want to repeat the same mistake.[11] In addition, the Russian strongman has invested heavily on his profile as a custodian of the status quo, which translates into support for autocrats in the Middle East and elsewhere no matter the human rights violations they may commit. After the “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet periphery and the Arab Spring, autocrats have begun to worry about their survival. Russia has reached out to them with tokens of friendship and guarantees of security.[12] In an effort to win over additional Arab autocrats, Putin has begun to flirt Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, the new strongman of Egypt following his coup d’état against the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president in 2013 and who now faces a violent Islamist insurgency in Sinai. Sisi longs for international recognition and support.[13]

After all, Putin has consistently promoted the image of Russia as an upholder of international law who opposes external interventions in the internal affairs of third countries. Though several countries operate militarily inside Syria at the moment,[14] only Russia possesses a legal mandate to intervene after being invited by Assad, the state authority still recognized as legitimate by the UN.[15] Moscow views the Syrian War not as a revolution against an autocracy but as a conspiracy orchestrated by the anti-Shi’a Western and Arab states to topple the pro-Iranian Assad.

From Moscow’s point of view, the West and its Sunni (Arab and non-Arab) allies are following in Syria the same old tactic of the Afghan War against the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989: They foster the growth of nomadic jihad to topple a regional opponent without any regard for the monster they breed.[16] Indeed, the participation in the Syrian War of thousands of fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia has fueled the anxieties of Russia even further; Moscow labors to wipe out the Caucasian Emirate and quash the separatist Muslim insurgencies in the Russian Caucasus and, at the same time, guards the vulnerable ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia (most notably Tajikistan) from the jihadi spillover of the Afghan War. Indicatively, Chechen jihadists–who have already flocked to Syria by the thousands to join the ranks of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra–trumpeted their loyalty in July 2015 to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[17]

Russia in effect intervened in an ongoing “war by proxy” between Iran and Saudi Arabia–the champions of Shi’i and Sunni Islam, respectively–and their regional and international allies. Victory for the pro-Assad camp will obviously translate into the securing of the Shi’i Crescent (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) and the consolidation of Russia’s influence in the Fertile Crescent, a region where more than 50 percent of the world’s oil reserves are situated.[18] Russia would extend its influence in a region traditionally included within the U.S. sphere of influence and, by extension, upgrade itself as an international actor–not an actor destined by its weakness to operate only in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, Russia has proven thus far reluctant to intervene outside the periphery of the former Soviet Union to protect its interests (e.g., the case of Libya). Had Russia not already established a military base in Syria, a Russian military operation in support of Assad might have been aborted, as in the case of Qaddafi.

Russia is now testing its new military capabilities, the result of a silent revolution in military affairs after the war in South Ossetia in 2008, and its resolve to lead a campaign against jihadism in the Middle East and Central Asia.[19] Russian officials recently vaunted that the arms exports of Russia have increased considerably in the aftermath of the military intervention in Syria.[20] Already an arena for regional and international powers, Syria has also developed into the test tube for Russia’s new military tactics and weapons at a relatively cheap cost: The military expedition has thus far not cost much in treasure or blood (only three confirmed deaths and a loss of one aircraft and helicopter).[21] In effect, Putin wants to kill two birds in one stone: He wishes to wipe out the threat of the Russian jihadists to Russia’s national security and boost Russia’s legitimacy as the champion against jihadism for the beleaguered regimes in Central Asia and the Middle East.[22]

Putin portrays the military intervention in Syria as a war against jihadi terrorism and, therefore, an a priori positive contribution to the U.S.-led international campaign against the Islamic State. In effect, Putin is trying to win the “battle for legitimacy.” By putting forward the idea of an international alliance of anti-jihadi powers with the United States and Russia at the forefront, the Kremlin inter alia strives to convince the United States that they must cooperate as allies against the common enemy–the Islamic State and jihadism. A rapprochement between the two powers, whose relations were frozen due to the Ukrainian crisis, would greatly benefit Russia. Ideally, Moscow could persuade Washington to retain Assad in power as a vanguard against the Islamic State and even rescind the strict sanctions, a by-product of the Ukrainian crisis, which have crippled the Russian economy.[23]

In addition, Russia wants to gain a foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the time of the czars, Moscow has longed for an exodus to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the riches of the Near East, since geography has not graced this northern ice-capped country with serviceable ports throughout the year. Indeed, only the naval bases in Sevastapol (in Crimea) and in Latakia (Syria) do not freeze during winter.[24] The recent discovery of vast energy reserves in the exclusive economic zones of Egypt and Israel (the Zhor and Leviathan hydrocarbon reserves respectively) has radically changed the energy landscape of the region. This development has created opportunities and risks for Russia, a “petro-state” whose federal budget depends critically on energy exports; in fact, 68 percent of the total revenues in 2013 originated from natural gas and oil exports.[25] Russia is concerned that the energy-thirsty Europe is seeking other sources of oil and natural gas that will reduce its over-dependency on Russia for its hydrocarbon needs. In fact, the EU has approved certain energy projects (e.g. the TAP pipeline) and even considered favorably the construction of the East-Med pipeline, which would ideally transport natural gas from the vast reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean to the EU through Cyprus and Greece.[26] By intervening in Syria and allying itself with Egypt, Moscow has acquired a strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean and, therefore, the peripheral players (Turkey, Israel, Egypt, as well as the EU) cannot ignore Russia in their future designs about the new energy Eldorado.[27]


Putin, an ex-KGB officer, once deplored the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century and since his first term of office has striven consistently to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. He started by rebuilding the Soviet Union on new grounds, primarily through two institutions: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a peripheral organization of collective security in Central Asia and the Caucasus) and the Eurasian Economic Union (an economic union that includes the majority of the post-Soviet states). Putin’s efforts to reassert Russian control over the post-Soviet space (or near abroad in Russian political terms) have resulted in aggressive actions against neighboring countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.[28] Putin views the Ukrainian crisis as yet another endeavor by the United States and NATO to isolate and weaken Russia by denying it control over the Heartland, a region that roughly corresponds to the size of the former Soviet Union according to the greatest geopolitical thinkers.[29]

As a leader with a sharp geopolitical instinct, Putin understands that Russia will remain slave to the status of a second-class power without control of the Heartland. NATO and the EU made inroads into the Heartland during the 1990s by taking advantage of Moscow’s profound weakness: the Baltic Sea states were admitted to NATO and the EU, Afghanistan was occupied by the United States after 2001, and several states (including Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia) established close cooperation with NATO and the EU. Now Moscow is fighting fiercely to guard its vital interests in Ukraine. If Moscow loses Ukraine to the West, Russia will become a middle power, as the famous geopolitical thinker Brzezinski warned.[30]

Putin has proven an adept chess player. Putin tried hard to protect the vital interests of Russia in Ukraine. Due to its key geopolitical value as part of the Heartland, Ukraine was transformed into a battleground between Russia and the West. Through his actions in Ukraine, Putin warranted that Russia continues at least to shape Ukraine’s future. Russia is now challenging the undisputed U.S. control over the Rimland (the periphery of the Heartland in geopolitical terms) since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is seeking access to centers of power across the Heartland’s periphery that have traditionally been included in the U.S. orbit since the early phase of the Cold War (most notably the Middle East and Western Europe). Iran, Egypt, and Syria–three countries in the Middle East with which the Kremlin has lately forged alliances–belong to the Rimland in geopolitical terms.[31]

In addition, Russia has attempted to establish alliances and organizations antagonistic to the United States and NATO (most notably the Shanghai Treaty Organization and the BRIC Group), which would include other powers of the Rimland. In other words, Putin is striving to transform the international system into a multipolar world in which the United States will share power with Russia and other powers (e.g. China) rather than operate unilaterally.[32] The outcome of the Syrian War will not only change the balance of power in the Middle East but also shape the geopolitical landscape in Eurasia. As Spykman’s famous axiom asserts, “Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”[33]

In summary, various motives have impelled Putin to intervene militarily in Syria, the most important of which is his desire to restore Russia to its pre-1989 status as a world power. How the military intervention of Russia will evolve and whether this enterprise will eventually succeed is unpredictable due to the dynamics inherent in any conflict; however, Russia and, Putin personally, has too much invested in this enterprise to be able to afford a failure.

*Dr. Spyridon Plakoudas is a lecturer on strategy and security at the Hellenic National Defence College (Athens, Greece). He is also a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Macedonia (Thessaloniki, Greece), focusing on the Kurdish question in Turkey. He authors articles regularly on strategy and geopolitics. His forthcoming bookThe Greek Civil War: Strategy, Counter-Insurgency and the Monarchy will be published by I.B. Tauris.


[1] The term “jihadist” should be treated with caution. With the exception of the Kurdish YPG, Russia labels every armed organization in Syria as “jihadi,” from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

[2] Helene Cooper, Michael R. Gordon, and Neil MacFarquhar: “Russians Strike Targets in Syria, But Not ISIS Areas,” New York Times, September 30, 2015,; “Map Shows Russian Airstrikes Target Syrian Moderate Opposition and Civilians, Not Daesh,” Daily Sabah, December 27, 2015,

[3] Jake Burman, “Russia Pounds 263 Islamic State Targets in Just Two Days,” Express, December 6, 2015,; “Russian Airstrikes Destroy 472 Terrorist Targets in Syria in 48 Hours, 1,000 Tankers in 5 Days,” Russia Today, December 23, 2015,

[4] Patrick J. McDonnell, W. J. Hennigan, and Nabih Bulos, “Russia Launches Airstrikes in Syria amid U.S. Concerns About Targets,” Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2015,

[5] Matthias Schepp, “Putin Plan: The Russian President’s Strategy for Syria,” Spiegel Online International, November 15, 2015,

[6] Angela Stent, “Putin’s Power Play in Syria: How to Respond to Russia’s Intervention,” Foreign Affairs, December 14, 2015,

[7] Emmanuel Karagiannis, “What Putin Is Really After,” al-Jazeera English, December 1, 2015,

[8] Timothy Snyder, “The Real Reason Russia Is ‘Helping’ Syria,” Time, September 30, 2015,

[9] Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “ISIS Fighters Seize Control of Syrian City of Palmyra and Ancient Ruins,” New York Times, May 20, 2015,; Umberto Bacchi, “Syria: Assad Regime Caught Between Aleppo Islamist Alliance Offensive and Moderate Rebels’ Southern Push,” International Business Time, July 3, 2015,

[10] Matthew Bodner, “Why Russia Is Expanding Its Naval Base in Syria,” Moscow Times, September 21, 2015,

[11] Alexey Malashenko, Russia and the Arab Spring (Moscow: Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 2013),, pp. 5-21; Philip Butler, “How Muammar Gaddafi’s Death Reshaped Destinies,” Russia Today, October 20, 2014,

[12] Thomas Abrosio, Authoritarian Backlash: Russian Resistance to Democratization in the Former Soviet Union (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009); Nikolay Kozhanov, “Russia and the Middle East: Adjusting to a New Political Vista,” in Robert Mason (ed.), The International Politics of the Arab Spring: Popular Unrest and Foreign Policy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 83-124.

[13] Sharif Nashashibi, “Putin and Sisi: A Fine Bromance,” al-Jazeera, February 12, 2015,

[14] For instance, the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State raids jihadi targets in Iraq and Syria almost daily, whereas Iran has sent soldiers and advisors to the beleaguered governments in Baghdad and Damascus.

[15] Alexander Mezyaev, “The Russian Operation in Syria and International Law,” Syria 360o, October 4, 2015,

[16] For an analysis indicative of the Russian viewpoint on the Syrian Civil War, see: Ghada Shehade, “Evil Assad, Evil Gaddafi and Now Evil Putin: How the West Sells War and Makes a Killing,” Russia Insider, February 21, 2015,

[17] Roland Oliphant, “Islamic State Spreads Tentacles to Russia As Chechnya Militants Pledge Allegiance to Leader Baghdadi,” Telegraph, June 24, 2015,; Neil MacFarquhar, “For Russia, Links between ISIS and Chechnya Provoke Anxiety,” New York Times, November 20, 2015,

[18] Brinda Banerjee, “Has the U.S. Started a Proxy War with Russia in Syria?” Value Walk, October 20, 2015,; Lionel Beehmer, “How Proxy Wars Work and What That Means for Ending the War in Syria,” Foreign Affairs, November 12, 2015,

[19] Gustav Gressel, Russia’s Quiet Military Revolution and What it Means for Europe (London: European Council on Foreign Affairs, 2015)

[20] Ghassan Shabaneh, “Putin’s Moment in the Middle East”, al-Jazeera Center for Studies, November 30, /2015,

[21] However, the Ukrainian intelligence services dispute this claim and contend that Russia has been trying to conceal its heavy losses in Syria from the Russian public and international media. “Russia Struggles to Hide Its Casualties in Syria,” Syrian Observer, October 22, 2015,

[22] Marvin Kalb, “Putin’s Muslim Nightmare,” Foreign Policy, November 2, 2015,

[23] Mike Wheatley, “Putin Proposes New Coalition to Fight Islamic State,” Russian Insider, June 30, 2015,; Henry Meyer, “Russia Seeks Coalition on Islamic State While It Backs Assad,” Bloomberg, August 4, 2015,

[24] Edward Delman, “The Link between Putin’s Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine,” Atlantic, October 2, 2015,

[25] David Ashworth, “Energy Export Dependency Hurt the Russian Economy,” Yahoo News, October 7, 2015,

[26] The EU promotes the construction of the East-Med pipeline that will transport natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Cyprus and, subsequently, Greece before connecting with the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in northern Greece. Giorgia Lamaro, “Europe Counting on Gas from Eastern Mediterranean,” About Oil, March 25, 2014,; Isabella Ruble, EU Energy Security Through Supply Diversification: Do Natural Gas Reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean Present a Viable Option? (Cleveland: International Association for Energy Economics, 2015), pp. 31-34.

[27] Peter C. Glover and Michael J. Economides, “Russia’s New Middle East Energy Game,” Commentator, October 5, 2015,

[28] S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, “Introduction” in S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell (eds.), Putin’s Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and its Discontents(Washington, D.C.: Central Asia – Caucasus Institute, Silk Road Studies Program, 2014), pp. 5-13.

[29] John Bachelor: “Russia Seeks Eurasian Hegemony, with Germany’s Help”, al-Jazeera America, April 27, 2014,; Patrick Tiney, “Geopolitics and Ukraine,” Future Foreign Policy, May 21, 2014,

[30] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Premature Partnership,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 2 (1994), pp. 67-82; Vartan Oskanian, “Conquering Russia and the ‘Heartland,’” al-Jazeera English, July 14, 2014,

[31] Pavel Slykov, “Russian Foreign Policy in the Eastern Mediterranean Since 1991,” in Spyridon N. Litsas and Aristotle Tziampiris (eds.), The Eastern Mediterranean in Transition: Multipolarity, Politics and Power (Piraeus: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 44-45.

[32] Robert H. Donaldson, Joseph L. Nogee, and Vidya Nadkarni, The Foreign Policy of Russia: Challenging Systems, Enduring Interests (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2014), pp. 362-423; Srdja Trifkovic, The Geopolitics of New Multipolarity (Paris: Institut de la Democratie, 2014),; Hans-Christof Kraus, “Whoever Controls Eurasia Controls the World,” Russian Insider, October 16, 2015,

[33] Nicolas John Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Brace and Company, 1942) p. xxvii.