Russia has intervened Syrian crisis with a small but significant military force deployment Latakia. And October 1st onwards, hours after Russian parliament approved unanimously military intervention in Syria, Russia started its airstrikes in Syria, albeit not with a focus on ISIS as it was expected, but with a focus on Assad opposition. Russian moves has added new dimensions to already volatile four-year civil war. Yet the most interesting interpretation to me is that Russian moves came as a surprise to all, including President Obama. Ignatius writes that:
“The speed and decisiveness of Russian action appear to have taken the administration by surprise, prompting Kerry to voice “grave concerns.” A U.S. official said the intelligence community predicted that Russia would provide indirect support to Assad, such as training and advisers, but that “direct military intervention was not considered the most likely” response.”
Really? here is the question today I am addressing to. Would we be really surprised by what Putin is doing in Syria?
To answer this question we need to look at the way Putin thinks and acts. With a more balanced and informed understanding of his actions, we should not be much of surprised by his recent actions in Syria. First of all, as Michael Kofman argues Putin very well knows hot to use force whereas others, Obama in particular, afraid of it. He says:
“Russia has consistently demonstrated its ability to use military force to achieve desired political ends. Russia’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign in Chechnya was by all accounts brutal, but successful. It stabilized a notoriously restless region to the point that Russia could be bold enough to host the Sochi Olympics nearby in 2014. Russia’s brief war with Georgia in 2008 demonstrated terrible military inadequacies, but still achieved its strategic purpose by ending any serious consideration of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Eventually, that defeat also resulted in an inglorious end to President Mikhail Saakashvili’s political career in his country; Georgia seeks him on political charges and he now serves as governor of Odessa in Ukraine. Compared with the war in Georgia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea demonstrated a decisive and competent use of force to achieve political ends. Without losing a single soldier, Moscow seized the most strategically important part of Ukraine, from which it can control almost the entire Black Sea.”
In this sense, Putin acts and doesn’t mind using force. Indeed, Putin does not just use force very effectively but also use it very often. In this sense, Putin seems he well read Clausewitz and internalize Clausewitz iteration of “war as a continuation of politics” principle.
Secondly, he knows how to capitalize even crisis for his favor domestically and internationally. He uses events so brilliantly to prob up his domestic or international standing that it is difficult to resists to praise his Machiavellian ability to shine his popularity. As Kofman argues:
“Despite the disastrous state of Russia’s economy, his approval hovers at 80–90 percent with the Russian people. Putin is the most popular leader in Europe, and rather than weaken him, Western sanctions have achieved a remarkable consolidation of opinion across Russian society behind him.”
Remember how he grabbed the opportunity to make huge international popularity from a gaffe John Kerry did in London back in 2013. Putin used that gaffe on his own advantage and prevented a military strike and saved his staunch ally Syrian dictator president Assad. The most important fact is that back then no one, except Putin, could really understand the long term benefits of this canning act. Even the US circle thought then Putin had saved Obama’s war (exit at any cost) legacy. See this:
“If the Obama administration’s response to Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons appears erratic, improvised and incoherent, that’s because it has been, ever since the president declared the use of chemical weapons to constitute a “red line” that apparently prompted US action. A different improvisation, from his secretary of state on Monday, offered the Obama administration an opportunity to climb back from the brink of a war Obama initially wanted to avoid.”
What happens actually is that Putin took the stage and used a John Kerry’s gaffe to both polish his charisma on global affairs and save his ally with a cheap bargain.
In this sense, he always looks at long runs but not stay idle to take advantage of daily occurrences. That is, he is both a strategist succeeding in a long-term plan and cunning tactician who responds to events as they happen to take advantage from them.
One another important qualities that Putin absolutely has is that he understands and acknowledges better the division within opposing-sides and uses them wittingly to implement “divide and rule” tactics. Whether domestic or international, and uses them wisely for his benefits. Sometimes he drives a wedges among Western governments, sometimes use multilateral diplomacy and sometimes mere threats, yet eventually manage to keep other side divided and short handed to his bellicose acts. In this sense, Gordon Han suggest “Putin may not be a strategic genius, but he is strategically competent. He is also tactically unpredictable, even brilliant.”
Let’s now turn my question. Would you ever be surprised by what Putin is doing in Syria? Matter of fact, I am very surprised to see what the US is doing but I am not a bit surprised by what Putin does. To me when it comes to Syrian issue it is crystal clear to me that Putin interventions is something predictable as opposed to Obama’s surprised. Whereas US led interventions has been shredding the most important UN Charter Principle of sovereignty and non-interference, Russia saw how dangerously R2P can be used in Libya. From this hat-learned lessons, Russia and China have blocked all attempts at action by the UNSC times and times again. Meanwhile, the US has stayed idle when Assad was powerful in massacring his people with barrel bombs and chemical weapons while Russia staunchly support Assad with billions of dollars worth military equipments. Whereas the US has had not a single clear cut strategy, Russia always had one: prevent Assad regime falling. Why should it be surprise to see Russia acts when Assad’s weak and almost done military at the ground. It is obvious Russia and Iran would not allow that to happen. Briefly, Putin’s acts are predictable if you have ever read a little bit history. As Washington Post’s editorial put it:
“He (Putin) toyed with the Obama administration for a few years and then took matters into his own hands. Of course he is not in Syria to destroy the Islamic State. He is there to save a dictator, while protecting Russia’s naval base on the Mediterranean coast.”
It is that simple, isn’t it?