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What Chekhov Tells Us About Putin’s Syria Airstrikes

Moscow's new war in Syria has the makings of a quagmire. But it'll be bad news for Washington way before that.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak to the media after a meeting concerning Syria at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 30, 2015. Russia's air strikes in Syria targeted opposition forces and not Islamic State jihadists, a US defense official said, contradicting Russian claims. At the United Nations in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that Washington would have "grave concerns" should Moscow opt to strike targets in areas where IS fighters and Al-Qaeda-linked groups are not operating. AFP PHOTO/Dominick Reuter        (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)
United States Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak to the media after a meeting concerning Syria at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 30, 2015. Russia's air strikes in Syria targeted opposition forces and not Islamic State jihadists, a US defense official said, contradicting Russian claims. At the United Nations in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that Washington would have "grave concerns" should Moscow opt to strike targets in areas where IS fighters and Al-Qaeda-linked groups are not operating. AFP PHOTO/Dominick Reuter (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday morning, the Russians pinged the American embassy in Baghdad and let the Yanks know: We’re bombing Syria in an hour. The story hasn’t stopped spinning every which contradictory way since, so here are some initial thoughts about Russia’s latest gambit.

Russian airstrikes in Syria may be shocking, but they’re certainly not surprising. For a few weeks, Latakia has been filling up with Russian planes, helipads, housing units, an air traffic control tower, and even military personnel. It stood to reason that they weren’t there for decoration. The West seemed to be taken by surprise, but, “what else could you have expected?” says Georgy Mirsky, an Arabist who teaches Middle Eastern conflict in Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “What I didn’t expect was that Putin would bring all these planes and materiel to Syria and just let it sit there.” And, let’s be real: Russia is the country of playwright Anton Chekhov, who famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” And here we are.

Note that the bombing started after Putin’s meeting with Obama. We know that Putin didn’t discuss this plan for airstrikes with the American president. We also know that they didn’t agree on much of anything in their meeting. Yet Putin felt comfortable enough walking away and, two days later, springing this on Obama. “It’s not that they agreed to coordinate, but at least Putin gauged his reaction,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “At least they seemed to get to ‘We won’t get in each other’s way.’ And that’s a lot.”

Sound familiar? “The only real way to fight terrorism,” Putin said yesterday, “is to act preemptively, to fight and destroy fighters and terrorists on territory they have already seized, and not to wait until they come to our house.” Sound like anybody you know?

“Our security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives,” George W. Bush said at West Point in the summer of 2002. Bush, too, spoke about going after the bad guys where they live, not where we live. It was a key premise of his foreign policy.

“I find it interesting that the language Moscow is using to justify and describe its military intervention in Syria borrows so much from the lexicon that the US used to talk about its invasion of Iraq,” says Alexander Kliment, a director specializing in Russia at the Eurasia Group. “These echoes reflect both the resentment and the aspiration that lies at the heart of Russian revisionism. Using the same words as the U.S. is a way to tweak Washington’s nose about the abject failure of the Iraq war, but also to say ‘we can do this too.’ And to be in a position where Russia can do these things too is a major ambition of Putin’s.” But, as Masha Lipman, an independent Russian political analyst, points out, this aspiration cuts in two contradictory ways, especially coming from a man who always said that there is no military solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. “It’s always there, the ‘why can you do it and we can’t?'” Lipman told me. “But it’s double-edged: you can do it and you’re bad, but we do it and we’re good.”

When Putin said he was going to support Bashar al-Assad, he really meant he was going to support Bashar al-Assad. The Russians claimed to be going after the Islamic State, but, almost as soon as the bombs started falling, it became clear that Russia wasn’t going after the Islamic State at all. Instead, it struck areas where the group is not present. Who was? CIA-vetted, American-backed, anti-Assad rebels. Moreover, it also became quickly apparent that Russia, much like Assad, was using “stupid” bombs — i.e., not precision-guided missiles — to hit these targets. Not surprisingly, the Syrian opposition reported that 36 civilians, including six children were killed in the Russian attack. (Subsequent reports only added to the body count.) In other words, Russia is doing just what Assad does in Syria, but maybe with a bit more oomph, so expect more of the same if Russia’s air campaign continues. The features will likely include avoiding going after the Islamic State; targeting the rebels who go after Assad and are backed by the West; and sowing as much death, destruction, and terror as the lisping ophthalmologist himself. (It’s also worth pointing out that the more non-Islamic State fighters Russia takes out, the stronger it makes them — in direct contradiction to the stated purpose of Moscow’s mission in Syria.)

With his bombing raids in Syria, Putin is taking out several birds with one stone. Remember Ukraine? Crimea? Of course, you don’t. And that’s the point, as Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, pointed out in an interview to NPR over the weekend. By switching to a new field of play, Putin breaks out of his geopolitical isolation — the result of his double invasion of Ukraine — and makes the West talk to him. “Putin isn’t solving anything,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Russian political scientist who used to advise Putin. “He isn’t solving the Assad problem, he isn’t solving the Islamic State problem. He’s solving the Ukraine problem, and he’s solving it through Syria.” As Pavlovsky points out, the problem for the EU, awash in refugees from the conflict, is now also Syria, not Ukraine. For a political entity that was always hesitant about getting tough on Russia, and which has been chomping at the bit all summer to lift the economic sanctions it imposed on Moscow for invading Ukraine, suddenly Russia is no longer the aggressor, but a potential partner in solving the most proximate crisis: Syria.

Does Putin have an exit strategy? Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says Russia is “doomed to fail” in Syria, and the administration’s defenders have been arguing that Russia will end up the loser, sucked into a bloody, messy civil war — the same bloody, messy civil war Obama has spent four years avoiding like the plague. But the sentiment has echoes in Moscow. It’s telling, for instance, that Russian television was reassuring its viewers today that Syria will not become another Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union spent nine years fighting and lost over 14,000 troops, traumatizing a nation. It’s unlikely that Syria will be Afghanistan redux — “our system doesn’t repeat itself,” Pavlovsky argues — but the Russian people aren’t really up for a war in the Middle East. According to a recent poll, though a majority of Russians backs Putin’s Syria policy, only 14 percent want direct military support of Assad.

Not that it can’t be gotten around with some intensive television programming. Lipman points out that public opinion was similarly stacked against military action in Ukraine in early 2014. But the numbers do suggest a certain wariness among Russians. “Everyone I’ve talked to,” says Mirsky, “Says, ‘What war? You want to send our boys to help one set of Arabs kill another set of Arabs? Are you crazy?’”

“No one knows how it will end,” says Lukyanov. Says Pavlovsky, “There’s no strategy. There are a few tactical sketches.… It is a very serious strategic mistake, even more serious than in Ukraine. This is a war that Russia has lost at the starting line.”

Beware of mission creep. The Russian Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, unanimously gave Putin permission to use force on Syrian territory against the Islamic State. But when Putin spoke immediately after the vote, he barely mentioned the Islamic State and spoke instead of ambiguous, undefined “terrorist groups.” (See the point above about pursuing anti-Assad rebels.) Around this time, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Federation Council said that Russia wouldn’t stop the pursuit against the Islamic State at Syria’s borders. That is, Russia might extend its bombing campaign not just to include other groups it deems terrorists, but even into Iraqi territory.

Beware the enemies you reap. Over the weekend, Russia sprung another surprise on the administration: It had entered into an intelligence-sharing consortium with Iraq, Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah. As Lipman points out, these are all Shiite groups. “On the other side are Sunni countries,” Lipman says. “Do we need this?” Her point is not just about the dangers of Russia getting sucked into a sectarian war in the Middle East: Russia’s largely Muslim North Caucasus is Sunni. Putin, who claims to be trying to protect Russia from the Islamist terrorism sprung from this region, doesn’t seem to have done the math on this one. Another bad omen: the Russian Orthodox Church stepped in to call Putin’s offensive a “holy war” against terrorism. Moscow just gave Islamists, who have been long been saying there is a global war against Islam, another recruiting tool.

Remember that Malaysian airliner? Russia has moved anti-aircraft artillery into Syria, which is interesting because the Islamic State does not have aircraft. But there are others in the region who do: Israel, Jordan, Turkey, the United States, and Assad. Now let’s remember that, just over a year ago, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, with nearly 300 civilians on board, was shot out of the sky over eastern Ukraine by Russian anti-aircraft artillery. Much of the evidence very compellingly indicates that the Russian military had a role in this. So, yeah, those deconfliction talks are going to be very, very important — and, hopefully, effective. Because if 300 dead civilians weren’t bad enough, Russians shooting down an American jet would be far worse.

What the hell was John Kerry doing giving a joint statement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov? The insanity of Wednesday ended with the most insane image of all: Kerry, standing beside his Russian counterpart, shaking his head in agreement. Given that the Russians are now militarily pursuing objectives in fairly direct opposition to those of the United States, what was that image supposed to convey? How — after Washington asked various allies not to allow Russian planes fly through their air space, after the defense chief said that their mission was doomed to failure, after Obama and Putin traded such barbs and indicated that they view the Syrian war from opposite sides of the known universe — does it make any sense for Kerry and Lavrov to stand together at the end of a day like yesterday? And for Kerry to nod?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Putin is not a strategist, he’s a tactician. But, boy, is he good at it, and, boy, is he running laps around Washington right now. If he runs himself, and Moscow, into the ground — as his cratering economy indicates he might — well, only time will tell.

Image credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

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