9 October 2015

Why Putin Has Gone to War in Syria

President at Eurasia Group


Oct 7, 2015 
As if Syria weren’t complicated enough, tempers have now flared between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member on the edge of the Middle East’s most violent conflicts. Early this week, Istanbul accused Moscow of deliberately breaching Turkish air space en route to bombing missions in Syria, its first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Russia’s aggressive approach sends a signal that it has returned as a major player on the international stage. Some argue that’s the main reason Russia entered the Syrian war in the first place. The truth is a bit more complicated than that, but it’s a good place to start. These five facts explain Putin’s various calculations for joining the fight in Syria. This piece has been repurposed from my column inTIME.

Putin’s Popularity

Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for more than 15 years now; it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t the strongman we know today. But when Putin was first appointed prime minister in 1999, he had an approval rating of 31 percent. A full 37 percent of Russians didn’t even know who he was. Less than a year later, a series of mysterious apartment bombings rocked Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodnsk. Quick to blame Chechen rebels, Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed to 84 percent. Putin is nothing if not politically savvy, and he clearly learned something from the experience. When Russia launched its war in Georgia in August 2008, Putin’s poll numbers jumped 5 percent despite the death of 67 Russian servicemen and few tangible benefits for Russia beyond a reminder for the neighbors of who’s boss. Over the following year, Putin’s PR campaign against Georgia was so effective that his popularity held firm in the upper 70s despite Russia’s 8 percent GDP plunge in the wake of the global financial crisis.

(Forbes, CNN, graphic h/t: The Guardian)

Russia’s Submerging Economy

While 2008’s global financial crisis originated half a world away, Russia felt its impact acutely. That’s because the Russian economy remains heavily reliant on the sale of gas and oil, which accounts for 68 percent of Russia’s export proceeds and nearly 50 percent of its government revenues. It’s helpful to think of it this way: for every dollar the price of oil drops, Russia is estimated to lose $2 billion in potential sales. The price of oil has fallen by more than $50 dollar a barrel in the last year alone. In the past two months, inflation has climbed 16 percent, making the daily lives of Russians that much harder. The ruble has fallen 6.2 percent against the dollar. Overall, the Russian economy is projected to contract 3.4 percent this year, and there are currently 22 million Russians living in poverty. Yet, Putin’s approval rating remains at 84 percent.

(Bloomberg, EIA, BBC, CNN, Google Finance, Levada, graphic h/t: CNN)

Russian Pride

How has Putin managed to remain so popular? He realizes that his popularity is now dependent on his ability to pump up Russian pride—and to do that, he needs an aggressive approach to foreign policy. It certainly helps that 90 percent of Russians get their news from state-dominated television channels, but Putin’s ability to speak to Russian’s sense of exceptionalism runs deeper than that. By framing recent conflicts like Ukraine as a clash between Russia and the “West,” Putin has convinced many Russians that the very soul of Russia is dependent on the outcome of these conflicts, and that Putin is its best defender. When Russia grabbed Crimea in March 2014, his approval rating jumped 15 percent. Today, nearly nine-in-ten (88 percent) Russians “have confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs”; 66 percent of Russians have a lot of confidence in Putin on that score. Putin has been so successful in playing up Russian patriotism that today 61 percent of Russians believe there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to Russia; when the Soviet Union broke up in 1992, less than 40 percent of Russians agreed with that statement.

Ukraine: In Context

This is all necessary background to understanding Putin’s calculation in Syria; but to get the full picture, you also have to understand Putin’s play in Ukraine. While Putin has consistently used aggressive foreign policy to bolster his popularity at home, this has never been his ultimate aim. For years Putin has talked about the creation of a “Eurasian Union” as a counterweight to the EU. But to achieve that goal, Putin needs Ukraine; it’s just not much of a Eurasian Union with only Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on board.

Until last year, Ukraine looked to be moving away from Russia’s orbit toward Europe. To keep his dream alive, Putin had to stop this shift at all costs; hence the annexation of Crimea and the direct military involvement in eastern Ukraine. But beyond Crimea, the goal was never to extend Russia’s borders deeper into Ukraine—instead, Putin aims to force Ukraine’s government to rewrite its constitution so that individual regions can veto national foreign and trade policy. Given that there are Ukrainian territories still loyal to Moscow, this is an insurance policy against Ukraine joining the EU. And while Ukraine as a news story has fallen off the front page, the military stalemate continues to cost Kiev between $5 to $10 million per day. The longer the stalemate continues, the more money Ukraine bleeds, bringing Russia closer to its goal.

(ECFR, image h/t: The Telegraph)

Russia’s War in Syria

While the ongoing Ukraine conflict has created a crisis for Kiev, the move has cost Moscow as well. In retaliation for its Crimea grab, the US and Europe were quick to impose economic sanctions on Moscow. The IMF estimates that these sanctions could cost Russia up to 9 percent of its GDP over the coming years. Given the already low price of oil, these sanctions have taken a significant toll on Russia’s economy. This is where Syria comes in.

Europe has been struggling for months with the influx of Syrian refugees. Aside from the sheer costs associated with the housing and care of these people, the refugee crisis has also proved politically divisive for the continent as a whole. Putin calculates that if he is able to wade into Syria and eventually help turn the tide against ISIS, Syria will stabilize and the migration flow will ebb—a grateful Europe will then allow sanctions against Moscow to lapse over the coming months. There is a larger and more immediate goal—to bolster Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian ally, by attacking US and Arab-backed rebels as well as ISIS. Joining the war in Syria gives Moscow a military foothold in the Middle East and protects its access to a deep-water port in the Mediterranean. It also gives him the opportunity to flex his muscles for the entire world to see.

Intervention in Syria is a gamble. Polls show that Russians don’t support action in Syria as they do the Russian effort in Ukraine, and attacks on ISIS invite terrorist attacks on Russian cities. But if Russia can claim credit for restoring order in Syria, succeeding where the US has failed, Putin might just secure himself the Russian presidency through 2024.

(Reuters, Guardian, graphic h/t: New York Times)

Photo h/t: Freedom House

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