What Vladimir Putin Really Wants in the Middle East

A new book translates Russia’s fears and hopes for Syria, and the wider region, for an American audience.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Sochi on November 20, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Sochi on November 20, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

On Nov. 20, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a joint statement from the Black Sea resort town of Sochi about the end of Russia’s military operations in Syria. The two leaders stood calmly together in a conference room flanked by men in uniform whom Putin introduced as those who “played a decisive role in saving Syria.” Putin reassured his audience that he and Assad had discussed all the relevant aspects of “the normalization of the situation” in Syria; the leaders then took turns thanking the Russian troops for their bravery and sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and for creating the conditions for sustained political dialogue.

Putin and Assad’s statement from Sochi, reinforced by Putin’s highly-publicized triumphant tour of Russia’s Middle Eastern allies in Syria, Egypt, and Turkey this week, was meant to be yet another rebuttal to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 warning that a limited bombing campaign in Syria would suck Russia into a “quagmire.” But it also produced a shift in the Western media coverage of a conflict that for years had emphasized Assad’s culpability for, and Putin’s complicity in, the bombarded buildings, sarin gas attacks, mass displacement of refugees, and torture hospitals that have been a feature of Syria’s civil war. Now that the war has turned decisively in Assad’s favor, it has become permissible to portray the Syrian and Russian presidents as symbols of some sort of stability.

No such shift was necessary for Russian state-controlled television, which for years has propagated the Kremlin’s preferred “clash of civilizations” justification for military intervention in Syria. Political commentators like the influential Channel One host Vladimir Posner have emphasized Syria’s proximity to Russian and Central Asian borders as well as the potential threats posed by the large Muslim population inside Russia. Speaking in October 2015 to a group of fans at his Moscow restaurant, Posner warned, “Let’s not wait until the fire comes home to us.… ISIS is not a country that can be occupied … it has a strong ideology, and we need to show them that God is not on their side.”

The Russian media treatment of Syria has remained too insulated for too long from the larger international dialogue about the war and Russian-American relations. The West would clearly benefit from a better understanding of the Russian perspective — which is not to suggest that the Russian media’s portrayal of the country’s Middle East strategy should be taken at face value. Fortunately, a far more sober and comprehensive account of the Russian government’s objectives in the region, and its blind spots, is available in form of Dmitri Trenin’s short new book, What Is Russia Up to in the Middle East?

Trenin is well positioned for the job of explaining Russia to the West. During the Cold War, he served for 21 years in the Soviet military, five of those years in military intelligence as a liaison officer in the “external relations” branch of the Group of Soviet Forces in East Germany and as member of the Soviet delegation to the nuclear arms talks in Geneva in the late 1980s. Since his retirement at the rank of colonel, he became the first Russian director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a regional affiliate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the first major Western think tank to open in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Since its inception, the Carnegie Moscow Center has been committed to improving U.S.-Russian relations through promoting greater knowledge in the West of Russia’s policy interests, goals, and developments. Its secondary goal has been to set forth a model for independent policy research and debate in Russia. (Both aspects of its mission seem to have the tacit approval, if not endorsement, of the Russian government: A new law passed in 2012 requires all nonprofits receiving donations from abroad to publicly declare themselves “foreign agents,” but despite receiving generous foreign grants, the center has been left off the official lists of “undesirable organizations.”)

To explain what Russia is up to in the Middle East, Trenin first criticizes the Cold War “prism” that is favored by Russia critics such as American consultant Molly McKew, who has argued, “We won the last Cold War. We will win the next one too.” As Trenin cautions, this viewpoint creates misleading expectations in a new world characterized by the absence of an iron curtain, the peripheral rather than pivotal global importance of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

It also creates misleading expectations about Russia, which is no longer the ideological revolutionary regime it once was. Rather, Trenin argues, Russia must be regarded as a country that is integrated into the global capitalist economy and global information space. There, it fights for survival as a major independent geopolitical entity against the far superior forces of its competitors. Above all else, Trenin suggests using language borrowed from U.S. President Donald Trump: Moscow today is interested in “making deals.”

In the new world order, history matters. Not only do “historical legacies” shape the context of current policymaking but, as Trenin further argues, contemporary Russia is also “becoming increasingly conscious of its historical roots.” The history that Trenin brings to bear on the current crisis in the Middle East ranges from the Christianization of Kievan Rus in the 10th century to Russia’s betrayals by the West after 9/11. This story is mostly one of Russia’s unapologetic expansion guided by the need to gain access to the sea in the south as well as the north. Peter the Great engaged the Ottomans in the Black Sea; Nicholas II entered World War I motivated by a desire to extend Russia’s control to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles; Stalin demanded special privileges in the Turkish Straits after the end of World War II, a miscalculation that Trenin concludes “helped throw Ankara into Washington’s arms.”

This history contains some disturbing omissions. He suggests a causal link, for example, between Israel’s failure to fulfill Soviet diplomatic expectations and Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign of the early 1950s. This is troubling, not least because it flagrantly overlooks the documented purges of Jewish intellectuals during the Soviet Union’s anti-cosmopolitanism campaigns of the 1940s, among many other earlier expressions of anti-Semitism.

Trenin is correct, however, in suggesting that the most relevant historical experience for understanding Moscow’s present approach was the “blunder” of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. That war, Trenin argues, indelibly shaped Russian views about the interconnectedness of Russia’s domestic and foreign Muslim populations:

The Afghan War for the first time demonstrated to Moscow the strength of Islamist radicalism and the power of cross-border Muslim solidarity. It also taught it to regard alliances and alignments in that part of the world as essentially tactical and easily shifting, with no permanent friends and no eternal enemies. That experience would come in handy soon, as the Soviet Union began to unravel.… In Tajikistan and then in the North Caucasus, Russia confronted an enemy that bore close resemblance to the Afghan mujahedeen.

It is understandable why Trenin focuses on the lessons of the “foreign” war instead of the “domestic” wars in Chechnya. History of the latter has now been rewritten as a decisive victory for Putin culminating in the passage of a Moscow-backed constitutional referendum and the election in 2003 of a pro-Moscow regional president, Akhmad Kadyrov. Yet despite that powerful narrative of victory, Trenin’s portrayal of the essential porousness of foreign and domestic politics in “that part of the world” — like Russian pundits’ insistence on drawing attention to domestic threats when talking about Syria — suggests that anxieties about hijackings, car bombings, kidnappings, and other ghosts of the Chechen wars continue to haunt contemporary Russian politics.

These anxieties about the Muslim world, both “internal” and “external,” become sublimated in Russia’s obsession with using foreign policy to promote and defend its sense of civilization. This does not always take the form of strictly military intervention. In May 2016, the Mariinsky Orchestra performed Bach, Prokofiev, and Rodion Shchedrin amid the ruins of Palmyra shortly after Assad’s forces pushed the Islamic State out of the area. (The iconic concert was conducted by Putin’s longtime associate Valery Gergiev; the premier cellist was another billionaire friend of Putin’s whose banking details came under scrutiny in the Panama Papers, Sergei Roldugin.)

According to the New York Times, the version of the concert broadcast on Russian television was spliced with footage of Islamic State atrocities and concluded with Putin thanking the musicians from his vacation home on the Black Sea for offering “hope that our contemporary civilization will be relieved from this horrible disease, international terrorism.” To some observers, this performance seemed like an encore of Gergiev’s 2008 concert in Tskhinvali, the devastated capital of South Ossetia. There, against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings, the Mariinsky performed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, which had been previously broadcast during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.

The Palmyra concert reclaimed another destabilized eastern territory in the name of Russia’s civilization. The Russian Embassy in Washington made the same argument explicitly in October 2016. After then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his concerns about Russian fighter jets’ bombardment of Aleppo as harking back to a similar strategy used by the Kremlin in Chechnya, the embassy tweeted images of Grozny rebuilt with billions of dollars from Moscow and the Gulf above the caption: “Ain’t that a solution we’re all looking for?”

The projection of Russian civilization into new spaces, both domestic and international, serves also to heighten the Kremlin’s concerns about reaction by the West’s own political civilization. Moscow’s interpretations of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt as the continuation of the “color revolutions” that swept through Belgrade, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s, and the association of these revolutions with the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012 and Kiev in 2013 and 2014, certainly informed Putin’s calculations in Syria.

Yet what finally pushed him to intervene, as Trenin suggests, was Libya. There, Russia had retained several post-Soviet contracts for arms sales and infrastructure projects totaling around $7 billion. Hoping to partner with the West, Russia refrained from blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution declaring a no-fly zone just as Muammar al-Qaddafi was mounting a counteroffensive. These actions resulted in regime change and the disintegration of the Libyan state, an outcome that confirmed to Russia that the United States had no compunctions about going beyond the limits set by U.N. resolutions, and that Americans were unable to foresee even the most immediate consequences of their actions. After this betrayal, according to Trenin, Russia started blocking any resolution that might have constituted a pretext for foreign military intervention in Syria and supplying Assad with arms. It was not until August 2013, after the chemical attack in Syria that forced Obama to accept Putin’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, that America finally started to deal with Russia as an equal.

What would it take to build trust? If we take Putin and Trenin at their word, Moscow is seeking an alliance with the United States that would require a fundamental shift in Western perceptions of Russia from that of competitor to that of a partner in the fight against global terrorism. What Russia has to offer to this partnership is outlined in the remaining chapters of Trenin’s book: its “stunning” ability to build coalitions and negotiate across the “seemingly unbridgeable divides” of Middle Eastern politics — between Sunnis and Shiites; Israel and the Palestinians; Israel and Iran; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Turkey and the Kurds; and the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk in Libya.

Yet taking this deal would require a show of good faith in Putin’s definitions of terrorism and civilization, and in his narrative of what happened in Syria as the safeguarding of the state and of political dialogue. This dialogue, like Trenin’s book, shows little interest in Syria’s internal dynamics, let alone in the voices of the many Syrians who had opposed the Assad regime. Perhaps instead of looking at Syria as a “microcosm,” as Trenin does, of a world order being reconfigured from U.S. hegemony to a multipolar system that includes Russia, we might see it as place defined more by the interests of the Syrians themselves, including those of returning refugees. That would mean approaching the future not as a process of Washington’s “normalization” of the Kremlin, as Trenin suggests, but rather difficult, long-term reconciliation on the part of the United States and Russia both.

Masha Kirasirova is an assistant professor of history at New York University.

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