Vladimir Putin's stubborn support for the Syrian regime is intended to shore up his faltering support within Russia.
Eleven months and more than 7,000 deaths later, the Syrian regime’s only ally outside of Iran remains Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has provided both diplomatic support to President Bashar al-Assad by obstructing key Security Council resolutions and material support in the form of a vigorous arms trade with Damascus. The Kremlin has proven that it is expert in the grim application of realpolitik to defend its last remaining friend in the Middle East.
There is, however, another important element to Putin’s defiant support for the Syrian regime: the upcoming Russian presidential election, scheduled for March 4. Putin’s orchestrated return to power as president has been complicated by an increasingly vocal domestic opposition movement, which took to the streets en masse to protest against voter fraud in December’s parliamentary elections.
These demonstrations, coupled with the general weariness at the decline of living standards and increasing state corruption, have raised the possibility that Putin may not secure a majority in the first round of voting, a contingency he has acknowledged as possible — though it would no doubt be politically disastrous for him and his ruling United Russia party. As a consequence, Putin is attempting to shore up his reputation as an unyielding strongman abroad to detract from the increasing perception of weakness at home.
Putin has not had a significant foreign policy standoff since the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which was billed as an effort to reclaim Russia’s "near abroad" from creeping Western and NATO influence. He opposed, but did not veto, the Security Council’s authorization of a NATO-imposed no-fly zone in Libya last year. He now appears to be compensating for that acquiescence by backing a friendly tyrant and showing a wobbly electorate that Russia won’t be pushed around by American and European democracy-promoters.
Putin has hard military reasons for supporting Assad’s Syria, home to Russia’s only warm-water port in the Mediterranean and a longstanding symbol of Russian influence in the Middle East. In 1957, Bashar’s father Hafez, then still a Syrian Air Force pilot, received his training in MiG fighter jets in the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the Syrian-Russian relationship has not only endured but strengthened. In recent years, Damascus and Moscow have enjoyed an arms trade estimated at $4 billion. Last month, a Russian naval flotilla, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, docked in the Russian-controlled port of Tartous. Two weeks ago, Russia dispatched a freighter carrying several dozen tons of munitions to Syria via Cyprus. And just as the Arab League was deciding to endorse a policy of peaceful transition of power in Syria, Moscow inked a $550 million deal to provide Assad with 36 new Yakovlev Yak-130 attack jets.
Putin’s defiance on Syria is also an effort to reclaim the mantle of nationalism, which he once used to his advantage but has now slipped beyond his control. Great Russian chauvinism, historically exploited by czars and Communist Party general secretaries, has always been both an asset and a liability to Putin’s political fortunes. Far-right nationalists oppose Russia’s financing of puppet-regimes in the Caucasus, for instance, yet Putin has underwritten jingoistic pro-Kremlin youth movements such as Nashi, whose agents have harassed Western diplomats, violently disrupted pro-democracy demonstrations, and staged annual indoctrinating summer camp programs where figures such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are compared to Nazis.
As Putin has sought to project strength abroad, he has intensified his efforts to whitewash his authoritarian political record and re-write Russian history. Over the last month, he produced a barrage of opinion pieces covering everything from his program of economic and political "reforms," to the imperative of preserving the "dominance of Russian culture." Nostalgia for lost great power status looms large in the mind of a man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century." In another recent article, Putin attempted to regain the ground lost to opposition nationalists by reasserting the platform of Russian exceptionalism that United Russia has long cultivated. "The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilization," he wrote. "But all kinds of provocateurs and our enemies will do their best to snatch this linchpin from Russia … What they really want in the end is to make people destroy their homeland with their own hands."
Putin’s Russia has also employed this ultra-nationalist rhetoric in an intensive media war meant to prop up the Syrian regime. Kremlin-controlled media outlets, such as Pravda and the English-language channel Russia Today, have repeatedly parroted Assad’s justification that his brutal assault on Syrian demonstrators is actually a crackdown on "terrorists" abetted by foreign intelligence agencies. To rally domestic support, Putin has implicitly drawn a parallel between the Syrian regime’s crackdown on a civil protest movement and Russia’s scorched-earth campaign in Chechnya.
It’s a familiar playbook for Putin. The Second Chechen War vastly increased his poll ratings when he was still Boris Yeltsin’s last prime minister and heir apparent. Assad’s rhetoric, which depicts the Syrian demonstrators as a contagion to be "cleansed," echoes Putin’s infamous threat to Chechen rebels that he would "wipe them out in the outhouse." By defending Assad’s propaganda war on an imagined Islamist insurgency, Putin is reminding Russians of what made them want to vote for him over a decade ago.
Yet Putin’s opportunism might just be his rivals’ opportunity. The United States, the European Union, and the Arab League — all committed to phasing out the Assad dictatorship — stands to remind the tens of thousands of Russians set to protest this week that their battle for self-determination is the same as their counterparts in Syria. Russian democrats should be encouraged to show Putin that his foreign policy is a symptom of, not an antidote to, his defunct domestic agenda.