History does not repeat itself. Vladimir Putin can only hope that this famous statement by Karl Marx, which has been recently quoted by Angela Merkel, is true, because his actions in Syria pose a huge risk for Russia.
What is interesting in the situation is a striking, though likely also coincidental, parallel: Both the Russian head of state and the German chancellor have started policy pivots simultaneously, which could ultimately undermine their authority. Both have, for the first time since they have been in office, made decisions that were not in harmony with the majority in public opinion polls – Mrs. Merkel’s regarding the refugees, and Mr. Putin’s on Syria.
Mr. Putin could bank on the support of the Russian people when it came to Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. But the majority of Russians reject military intervention in Syria.
Once bitten, twice shy. The Soviet Union was humiliated by having to pull out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Its invasion left tens of thousands of Russian soldiers traumatized and was the beginning of the end of the USSR.
Syria now looks like the second attempt by Russia to bomb its way to the negotiating table.
And now there is another military intervention on the part of Moscow, and in an area where Mr. Putin has been castigating Western intervention. And in a situation where Russian experts say little can be achieved with air attacks alone and where there is the threat of being dragged into a dangerous ground war. Why then is Mr. Putin undertaking this adventure?
Syria is the only country in the Middle East in which Russia still has influence. It even has a military base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Moscow believes Syria can only be secure if ruled by the Assad clan, whether or not it is President Bashar al-Assad’s is reportedly irrelevant. Mr. Putin recently spoke for the first time about defending Russia’s interests, after previously having given pseudo-altruistic humanitarian motives.
But there is another argument for Mr. Putin’s risky move, and that is that the United States, despite the destabilization of Ukraine, has not offered Russia partnership on equal terms, or negotiations over a geopolitical post-War order. Syria now looks like the second attempt by Russia to bomb its way to the negotiating table.
There are two historical parallels that show that this is a problematic undertaking. First, the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan after the United States armed its Arab allies with anti-ballistic missiles. Who gives Russia the guarantee that Saudi Arabia will not break Moscow’s air supremacy again by delivering weapons to the rebels?
Mr. Putin has, at any rate, made two powerful enemies in the region, whom he had previously courted as friends: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He needs both for the game of energy poker he is playing with the West. He needs the Saudis because with their oil production they influence the market more than anyone else.
The floods in the oil market in 1990-91 and rapid drop in prices accelerated the decline of the Soviet Union substantially. And Turkey, as the gas hub, may be the wildcard in Mr. Putin’s poker game over Europe. He is now jeopardizing both with his military presence in Syria, not to mention a further foreseeable worsening of relations with Washington.
Furthermore, there is his international reputation, because there is yet another inglorious parallel: Just as Russia is now going in unilaterally in Syria, in 1999 it also rushed into Yugoslavia, having an unauthorized military unit occupy the airport in Priština, Kosovo.
At that time, as is the case with Mr. Assad, the Russian-friendly Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic was protected by Moscow. How it ended is well known.
Maybe history is truly repeating itself. Mr. Putin is taking a calculated risk with his last attempt at retrieving his geopolitical claim to power.
If his maneuver fails, Russia will either be drawn into a ground operation in Syria or will be humiliated militarily. If that happens, Mr. Putin will lose his claim to being a world power, his self-declared role as being a protector of Moscow-friendly regimes and the long-hoped for partnership with the regional powers there.
In the end he will even lose his own power. The daunting parallels with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and Boris Yeltsin’s in Yugoslavia should bring Moscow to choose a joint Syria strategy instead of going it alone.
Washington should also urgently facilitate that. Because no one needs a conflict between the major powers in addition to the enormous problems of fighting terrorism in Syria and Iraq.
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