One good way to respond to Putin: Take the unexpected cushion shot in Syria

One good way to respond to Putin: Take the unexpected cushion shot in Syria

By Lt. James Schmitt, USAF
Best Defense guest columnist

If there’s one lesson to be learned in the Russian invasion of Crimea, it is that hard power acts faster than soft power. The international outrage against Russia for its actions traveled at a fraction of the pace of the Russian troops moving out of their bases in the region. Consequences for the action will follow “in days, not weeks,” according to unnamed U.S. officials, but the entire Russian takeover of the peninsula took less than a day. The slow reaction of the international community in Ukraine follows an ineffectual reaction from the international community in a much more deadly Syrian conflict. International inaction was likely part of Vladimir Putin‘s decision-making calculus when he was planning, allegedly for weeks, Russia’s advance.

In fact, for Russia, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine bear striking similarities. In both cases, Russia is acting to protect a strategically-important warm water port, at Tartous in Syria and at Sevastopol in Ukraine. In both cases, the standing governments were supportive of Russian interests, even if not perfectly so, but faced popular uprisings with the open backing of Western powers. Finally, in both cases, the catalyst for action was exactly what Russia is determined to avoid within its own borders: mass uprisings by groups that feel politically underrepresented. These three similarities touch on central interests of the Russian state: power projection, international alliances, and domestic stability. In this light, the benefits of previously unthinkable Russian intervention in Ukraine become more clear.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies seek opposite goals on all three fronts in order to protect — or produce — security in Europe, peace in the Levant, and human rights within Russian borders. Ukraine, however, is no place to make a stand against an aggressive Russian advance.

The reason lies in the differences that are plainly obvious to Western powers. First and most importantly, the humanitarian crisis that Syria represents dwarfs the violence in Ukraine. While there have been close to 100 deaths in Ukraine, the number in Syria now likely exceeds 140,000. On the most basic humanitarian level, there is more to be gained with an end to the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria than to be gained with Ukrainian control over Crimea. More cynically, the United States benefits more from a new ally in the Middle East than from supporting an old and only sometimes-friendly nation in Eastern Europe. Removing Assad would deprive Iran of a key ally and transit point for arms to Hezbollah, would help stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation in neighboring Iraq, and would calm Israel’s nerves at the start of a new push for peace talks. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the United States and NATO may have already overextended themselves with their standing commitments. Taking on more responsibility in the region could destabilize regions that rely on NATO’s finite attention, such as Afghanistan. Finally, there are more means for the United States to help the Syrian opposition than to help in Ukraine; financial assistance for the Ukrainian government and punitive sanctions against Russia are unlikely to significantly rebalance the conflict. In Syria, large increases in weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army, looser restrictions on the recipients of aid, and cruise missile strikes designed to encourage the government to accelerate suspiciously slow chemical weapons deliveries all have the potential to make major differences in the opposition’s favor.

The benefit of a Syrian response to Russia’s Ukrainian aggression is that it uses both parties’ assumptions. The Russians, who perceive the conflicts to be similar, will likely (and correctly) take the increased intervention as a countermove. In future cost-benefit analyses, they will now have to consider not just theater ramifications, but immediate international ramifications. This return to a mindset more similar to the Cold War, when conflicts in Cuba could be partially resolved by drawbacks in Turkey, may lead to a more stable and conservative Russia in the future, which would be a benefit to uneasy neighbors such as Georgia.

For the West, the low point of Russian legitimacy in the international arena provides a unique opportunity to seize the initiative in Syria for the first time since the Russian-crafted chemical weapons deal that left John Kerry agreeing to what he once considered an offhand joke. More importantly, an ebb in Russian soft power could allow the United States to help solve a humanitarian crisis that continues to claim the lives of hundreds each week.

The takeway: The United States does not face a dichotomy between doing nothing and an impossible military reaction against Russia; instead, it can seize a major opportunity to save thousands of lives.

James Schmitt is a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and a graduate of American University. The views expressed here are his own.