Why Russia Will Not Abandon Assad: The Internal Dynamics behind Russia’s Syria Policy

Alexander Shumilin – August 15, 2012 – Alexander Shumilin is head of the Center for the Greater Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for the USA & Canada Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences).

Russia’s stance on the Syrian crisis has been very rigid. In an attempt to understand the reasoning behind it, most foreign analysts have perceived it as an integral part of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, but this is false. The “Syrian story” is in fact an important element of Mr. Vladimir Putin’s domestic political strategy, and it is from this context that the Kremlin approaches its policy toward Syria.

Officially, of course, the Syrian crisis is viewed as an external issue, which falls under the purview of corresponding bodies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense (whose naval base is in Tartus, Syria). The strategic response of any state actor to an external crisis is normally based on the consequences of such a response on the state’s geopolitical positioning, yet it is typically domestically undesirable www.mesop.de  and unprofitable. In short, in dealing with an external crisis, state actors must make sacrifices for their deemed strategic benefits.

Today, in the case of Syria, we have not seen a balanced strategic approach from Russia. It differs from previous cases such as Afghanistan in 2001 and Yugoslavia in 1999 because the most predictable outcome—the collapse of the Assad regime—leads to a strategic disaster for Moscow in Syria and the Middle East region as well as an increased confrontation with major countries. This perspective (that Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered) has been admitted anonymously even by some of those in Putin’s circles.

With deeper analysis, we find that the Russian agencies (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense) involved in settling the crisis are clearly not implementing a comprehensive foreign strategy. They are www.mesop.de playing another role, designed in the context of Russian domestic politics. Furthermore, the Russian approach to Syria has been defined exclusively by President Putin and imposed upon executives under the careful control of the president himself. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no decision-making role except to carry out the Kremlin’s orders.Recent months have proven that Putin remains firm in his perception of the “Arab Spring” as being a product of the so-called “Orange virus,” referring to Georgia’s revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s revolution in 2004. Putin sincerely believes that such events were carried out behind the scenes by Western powers (calling it the “State Department’s deal”), with the purpose of “[reformatting] the international space to favor the U.S. and harm Russia.” Since 2005, the Kremlin has been constructing a “strategy to counter the Orange virus” in Russia as well as in post-Soviet states. Indeed, this strategy has become the prevailing element of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy.

Of note is the distinct departure that Putin’s approach to Syria has made from his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev’s approach to Libya. In fall 2011, Putin openly condemned the then-president for the “mistake” committed over the Libyan crisis by abstaining in the UN Security Council resolution 1973 vote in favor of a no-fly zone and air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi. He later publicly announced that the West and NATO deceived Russia by going beyond the limits defined in the resolution, using military intervention. After this, it is likely that Russia will never condone similar NATO actions in future conflicts.

Such declarations by Putin in fact signaled the start of his electoral campaign, in which his strategy of confronting the increasing “Western threat” became a centerpiece. The bloody developments in Libya became a natural background for the media to assert the necessity to return the “strong Putin” to the Kremlin. Such messages were reproduced and imposed by state-controlled television channels on the population.

When protests erupted in objection to mass falsifications following the parliamentary and the presidential elections, Putin used the instability to bolster his existing strategy, declaring that they were provoked and manipulated by the “State Department” and the “Orange virus,” which had reached Russia. To make people believe in these so-called threats and to mobilize the population against them, Putin’s team used the elevating crisis in Syria to design successful PR campaigns with slogans such as: “The U.S. is threatening Syria today – tomorrow it will threaten Russia” and “Syria is the frontline in the battle to protect Russia.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s growing protest movement continued to question the legitimacy of Putin’s third term in office. Putin gradually began to lose the support of liberal, educated, and creative groups in Russian society, who had been previously loyal, viewing him as a protector against the communists. This pushed Putin even more into the camp of his traditional, pro-Soviet electorate, symbolized by the “guys from Uralvagonzavod” (the largest battle tank manufacturer in the world, located in Nizhny Tagil, Russia). This group even publicly promised to come to Moscow to end the protest movement there. So, Russia’s increased role in the Syria crisis began in a purely domestic context, as a symbol of Russia’s confrontation with the West. Putin’s team exerted efforts to foster an image of Syria as an extension of the collapsed (but glorious) Soviet empire, playing on the nostalgia of influential parts of his electorate such as the military and arms exporters.

In the following summer months, Putin’s team opted for a rigid stance on the Syria issue in the UN Security Council, playing the card of “steadfastness” as a demonstration of force among growing internal tension in Russia in order to try to overcome the suffering legitimacy of Putin’s presidency. Russia’s line against any kind of outside intervention is being projected by the Kremlin as a symbol of Russian-American relations as a whole.

This being the case, one might observe that Putin’s team might be able to soften its approach, but under certain conditions. First, this might come in exchange for U.S. concessions with regards to the “Magnitsky list.” Second, conditions would require European concessions on the anti-missile system project. Such concessions on the part of the West, however, seem to be unrealistic.

Therefore, it is logical to conclude that in the context of the aforementioned developments, Putin’s team would prefer to preserve the image of a “true and reliable friend and partner of the Arab dictators” rather than to try to protect Russia’s long-term interests in a post-Assad Syria by dealing with the opposition. This line might at least preserve the loyalty of Putin’s electorate and offer an element of stabilization in his own regime in the face of the continuing social and political troubles in Russia.