Five Questions: Russia’s Goals in Syria and Ukraine

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Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in Political Science at the City College of New York, and the author of The Conceit of Humanitarian InterventionHe spoke with Carnegie Corporation’s Eugene Scherbakov about recent Russian actions in Syria, the state of U.S.-Russia relations and the way forward in Ukraine.

What are Russia’s strategic intentions in Syria?

Putin intervened because he concluded—as did Iraq and Iran, which together with Hezbollah allies were already helping Syria’s army—that Assad’s state was on the verge of collapse. By the fall of 2015, the Islamist resistance—which is the strongest component of the opposition, not moderates and secularists—had made major inroads into Aleppo and Idlib province and had also begun to move into the coastal zone, the homeland of the ruling Alawite minority. Had Assad fallen, Syria, as Putin saw it, would have eventually been ruled by Islamists bent on creating a caliphate. This he was not prepared to let happen. The Syrian war has already attracted thousands of fighters from Russia’s war-torn North Caucasus, so the possibility of a caliphate in Syria had internal ramifications as well for Russia.

Does Russia desire peace negotiations, or is it actively undermining such negotiations by bombing the opposition? Can there be peace while Assad is still present?

It’s not true that Assad has no support in Syria. Various Christian minorities (Greeks, Armenians, etc.), urban Sunnis, Druze, and Yazidis have stuck with him—not all of course and certainly not out of love, but because they fear for their future should a caliphate emerge in Syria. Still, these are not the constituencies Assad has to cut a deal with: it’s the hardline Islamists. ISIS won’t cut a deal. Will the other Islamists do so? If so, on what terms? What would make for a good deal in Saudi and Turkish eyes? Maybe a cease-fire will take hold, but that won’t last unless it serves as a segue to a durable settlement. No one, Putin included, knows what the formula for that is. But until a settlement is in place, he may be stuck in Syria, because the regime may not make it on its own.

This is not to say that Russia can succeed in Syria. Certainly, there can be no unified Syrian state ruled by Assad; the old days are gone for good. Moscow understands this. Russia’s calculation, as I see it, is that if it can help Assad’s forces push back the rebels and retake lost critical territory (in Aleppo and Idlib province especially), the regime can enter negotiations in a stronger position. But can there be a deal between a fractious resistance—the opposition consists of a multitude of groups—and a regime with a lot of blood on its hands?

How does the still-smoldering conflict in Ukraine play into the crisis in Syria?

A successful Ukrainian settlement (however one defines it) or even an enduring cease-fire (which would spare many lives) will make it clear that there are parts of the world in which Russia has to be reckoned with if the West wants diplomatic success and stability, as well as to prove that Russia’s permanent isolation is not a viable strategy. That said, anything close to normalization will require peace along Ukraine’s eastern front and a pullback of heavy weapons and some new political arrangement in the Donbass that is acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow. So far Minsk II is being adhered to in the breach. The much more important requirement for stability in Ukraine—and for that country’s success—is good governance. There are promising signs (it’s not true that there has been zero reform), but also no shortage of worrying ones.

What will it take for a settlement to emerge in Ukraine?

The essence of any settlement will have to align Ukraine’s right to self-determination, a new political order in the Donbass as part of a unified Ukraine, and Russia’s security interests. Those who say that the last of these shouldn’t count because Russia is the aggressor forget that there cannot be stability in Ukraine without taking Russia into account. There is no evidence that the rupture in relations with the West, low oil prices, and the pinch of economic sanctions have caused Moscow to change course in Ukraine. Now one can insist that that will happen eventually. But “eventually” could be a very long time. And it would be foolish, given the realities in Ukraine, to assume things couldn’t get worse in the meantime. They could, and in all manner of ways, some which may be totally unexpected.


Taken together, do these conflicts suggest a new geopolitical confrontation, akin to the Cold War, is taking place?

I think that Ukraine and Syria, despite the fact that Russia and the West (and various other parties) are involved, are separate. Ukraine’s crisis resulted from the unraveling of the settlement that the EU had brokered between Yanukovych and his political opposition in February 2015. The latter couldn’t sell it to the rank and file on the Maidan. The protestors had had it with Yanukovych and wanted him gone. Once the deal collapsed, Yanukovych’s support disintegrated. There followed the Russian annexation of Crimea and the emergence of the Russian-backed Donbass republics. 

What happened in Syria was the result of the Arab revolution, something nobody had predicted and that nobody has explained, at least to my satisfaction. There were different outcomes in different places, but it’s fair to say that the authoritarian regimes quashed whatever chances democracy may have had, with the exception of Tunisia. 

In all, the crises in Ukraine and Syria have created deep mistrust between Russia and the West. That’s not good for Russia, especially given its economic problems, but it’s certainly not good for the West either. What we have is not, despite the fact that this has become a commonplace diagnosis, a new Cold War. There is no global rivalry that is ideological and military in nature. There aren’t two rival alliances, daggers drawn, in Europe. No one seriously thinks that there will be a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Still, it’s in no one’s interest to allow things to go from bad to worse.