Can Russia’s Gambit Force a Stalemate with the United States?

Since Sept. 30, Russia has been pushing forward with a large-scale assault on Islamic State forces within Syria. Why is Russia mobilizing its troops so heavily in Syria?

Despite skepticism from the West toward Russia’s assertion that it is attacking the Islamic State group, I believe Russia is, to a great degree, planning such a course. This view emerged not only out of the knowledge that Russia has suffered greatly from terrorism and has firsthand experience with two bloody wars in Chechnya, but more crucially, because there are currently over 7,000 Russian citizens fighting alongside the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. If allowed to return, dangerous elements could easily take root and fester within the heart of Russia.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Russia’s goals are so simple. In addition to air strikes on locations seized by Islamic State forces, Russian military targets have been somewhat more heavily focused on the Syrian opposition’s front lines, which have been stifling government troops. This reveals Russia’s aim to prop up Bashar Assad’s regime, and, by doing so, maintain Russia’s strategic presence in Syria and the Middle East.

From a military and security perspective, a key objective of Russian military operations within Syria is to protect the Russian naval technology center at Tartus and the air base in Latakia. As many well know, Russia has long sought supremacy over the waters of the Black Sea and access to, as well as a foothold in, the Mediterranean. Especially following the Crimean crisis, Russia will treat its bases in Syria as a forward strategic fulcrum in the Mediterranean for its Black Sea Fleet, as Russia indeed believes these bases are necessary to counterbalance NATO “containment” efforts.

Russia’s calculus is clearly not limited to this. According to Russia, ever since the Iraq War, the U.S.’s “greater Middle East strategy” has encompassed a string of missteps. As the United States accelerates the pace of its withdrawal from the Middle East, in favor of a pivot to Asia, a power vacuum – not seen since the close of the Cold War – has appeared. If Russia is able to move in quickly, filling the gap will move it a long way toward restoring its former influence within the region and will win it a strategic piece on the board, matched with the United States. Perhaps even more significantly, such actions would to a large extent help the Russian bear reawaken its long-dormant sense of pride as a great power.

It is also important to note that, for three centuries, the hallmark of Russian diplomacy has been misdirection. Now, Russia is using a simultaneous “show of force,” through military action in Syria and an “impression of weakness” in implementing the Minsk II agreement, to extract itself from the quagmire of the Ukraine crisis and is making a play to force a stalemate with the United States through a strategic presence in Syria.

Foreign affairs are an extension of internal politics and air strikes in Syria are linked to complex political and economic intricacies within Russia. Under heavy pressure from Western sanctions and falling oil prices, the Russian economy has entered into a recession that will likely continue into the next year and result in adverse political and societal effects. According to Russian strategists, air strikes in Syria could force the Saudis to increase their assistance to the Syrian opposition, subsequently causing enough financial pressure to induce a change in their policy of maintaining [oil] production targets to depress prices and seize a greater market share. But, in addition, they could increase Iran’s confidence in supporting the Assad regime, thereby lowering the competitiveness of adversaries who have re-emerged in the international energy market with the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. This geopolitical “uncertainty” in the Middle East would prop up international oil prices, solving one pressing concern for Russia. Dispatching troops to Syria to “heroically” push back against the United States and NATO may also serve to fire up the Russian people and lend a boost to [Vladimir Putin’s] approval ratings.

In sum, these actions by Russia have not only been taken to simply assist Assad in reclaiming lost territory, as a mere effort to sweep out the Islamic State group or as part of a desire to engage in a “duel to the death” with the United States and NATO. Their focus is on advancing on one front while retreating on another, using both a carrot and a stick and killing two birds with one stone, all as part of a meticulously laid-out plan to win a compromise with a fight. But while people may formulate plans, their success in practice is the sole dominion of the heavens. Whether or not Russia’s gambit will go as hoped will depend upon not only Russia’s eye for strategy, but on its strength as a nation, the measures undertaken by the West to counter Russia’s every move and the myriad contests being played out by forces throughout the Middle East and Syria.

The author is a research fellow at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

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