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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Syria: January 4, 2016

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Is Putin's Involvement In Syria Really About Ukraine Or Russia's Economic Woes?

Deutsche Welle ran an interesting editorial this week by Ingo Mannteufel: "Putin's 'Syria Card' in the Ukraine Conflict." First Mannteufel makes the argument that Russia's involvement in Syria is not a game changer -- Moscow was already supporting Assad at the United Nations and was supplying arms to keep Assad in power:

Russia's military intervention in the Syrian war has surprised - and even slightly frightened - the West. With it, Putin has managed to give the impression of political strength both on the domestic and the international front. But the actual secret behind this purported strength is the obvious weakness of the USA and the EU, which have shown only half-hearted interest in becoming involved over the four years of the Syrian war. Only the refugee crisis, the threat of "IS" terrorism and the appearance of Russian combat units have scared the West into stepping up action.

Mannteufel then argues that Russian goals in Ukraine -- to destabilize the country, jeopardize its integration with the European Union, and convince the West to end sanctions. But the fulfillment of Minsk II looks as improbable this year as it did last, effectively freezing the conflict:

Russian foreign policy in the new year will thus focus on blaming Ukrainian leaders of the state and the government for the failure of Minsk II and, at the same time, presenting Russia as a halfway cooperative partner of the West in the Syria conflict.

The Kremlin hopes that the EU states, whose cohesion has been hit hard by the Greek crisis, the refugee crisis, the terrorist threat and the growing strength of anti-European forces, will soften or even lift the sanctions imposed on Russia as a penalty for the Kremlin's policies. If this does end up happening, Putin's "Syria card" will have been played to maximum effect.

Read the entire editorial here:

Opinion: Putin's 'Syria card' in the Ukraine conflict | Opinion | DW.COM | 03.01.2016

In 2015, it looked as if Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign affairs strategists had succeeded in using the proven maskirovka (masking) tactics of the Soviet army and Soviet intelligence to deceive the West and distract it from Russia's actual goals.

View full page →
Jan 05, 2016 01:56 (GMT)

The argument is that Russia will present itself to the West as part of the solution in Ukraine and Syria, and the West -- or at least the weakened European Union -- will drop or ease sanctions in an attempt to normalize relations.

Whether this will happen or not may have more to do with domestic politics in Europe and the United States than events in Ukraine, Russia or Syria, but the article raises several important questions:

- What impact will Russia have in Syria and Ukraine in 2016?

- What can the Kremlin really offer the West in either location? Can it be part of the solution?

- Can Russia afford to keep up its foreign policy adventurism as the economy struggles?

Ukraine's "Frozen Conflict"

2015 began with some of the heaviest fighting in the entire conflict in the Donbass, with Russian combat units leading major "separatist" offensives at Donetsk International Airport, Debaltsevo, and Mariupol. The Russian-backed fighters prevailed and captured both the airport and Debaltsevo, but Ukraine refused to budge across most of the rest of the front line.  Throughout the spring, Russian forces built up between Donetsk and Mariupol and many feared another open offensive.

But the offensive never came. Ukraine's lines were tested, many died, and violence spiked in June as the Russian-backed fighters launched -- and lost -- several surprise attacks near Marinka. Throughout the summer the violence simmered in the Donbass, and Russia's war of attrition allowed the "separatist" territories to slowly expand, but it was as if the Kremlin was unsure of whether to increase or decrease its military operations there. In September, much to everyone's surprise, Russia suddenly became cooperative and the violence in Ukraine dropped significantly. It soon became clear why. Russia soon announced its new military campaign -- in Syria.

Since September violence has increased in the Donbass just enough to keep everyone on edge, but there are few signs of a significant military campaign brewing there. Ukrainian soldiers keep dying, but at rates low enough that the international press is not paying attention, while the Ukrainian people are losing their patience with the status quo and activists have taken matters into their own hands, cutting ground transportation to Russian-occupied Crimea while mysterious explosions have cut the power to the peninsula. Meanwhile, the massive underlying economic problems and the Soviet-style corruption which have not been dealt with while the country has been on war-footing are eating away at the country's bottom line and the government's credibility.

In short, Mannteufel is spot on. For Russia, a resolution to the Ukraine crisis is simply not preferable. The Ukrainian military has proven tough enough that the costs for outright military victory may be too high, but as long as Ukraine struggles then Russia can maintain the narrative that its way, not the European path, is the correct one, and the Ukrainian government, not Russian aggression, is the underlying problem.

As Mannteufel argues, then, the only way to get the West to lift sanctions is not through progress in Ukraine but through the "Syria card" -- convincing the international community that Russia can be of some use to it in Syria if sanctions are lifted.

Can Russia Be Trusted In The Middle East?

From playing a key role in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran to brokering a deal that would, in theory, remove and destroy Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, Russia has been an important part of the West's attempts to settle crisis in the Middle East.. But just as in Ukraine with the Minsk peace process, Russia's involvement is neither selfless nor entirely honest.

Russia, as a major ally of Bashar al-Assad's, promised the international community that it would ensure that all of Assad's chemical weapons were destroyed. Russia's promises likely avoided a military intervention from multi-national coalition that was set to remove these chemical weapons by force. Yet chemical weapons attacks in Syria continue, and new chemical weapons sites have been revealed in Syria, proving that both Assad and Putin broke their promises, and have not had to pay a price in doing so.

Just today the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the UN chemical weapons watchdog, reported that sarin or "a sarin-like substance" has been used in Syria 11 times. The US government and Syrian opposition groups report that just last month the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the besieged Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, a town hit by the 2013 sarin attack and an area that has suffered starvation at the hands of the Assad regime (a tactic Assad is currently employing). Chlorine attacks are common across all of Syria, typically the result of barrels filled with chemicals dropped on populated areas from helicopters provided and maintained by the Russian government.

Furthermore, in 2014 a facility that manufacturers ricin, a component was discovered that Assad had not disclosed, a flagrant breech of his agreement with the international community. While the world was outraged at the discovery, Russia dismissed it and neither Moscow nor Damascus have been punished for failing to disclose the facility. Israeli intelligence reported months after the disclosure that Syria has maintained a small capacity to develop WMDs.

Despite Russia's inability to follow through with its pledge to rid Syria of chemical weapons, and the Kremlin's ever-increasing support for the Syrian regime which was breaking its own promises and continuing attacks against civilians, Russia was again placed at the head of the negotiating table in an attempt to ensure that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon. The core tenant of the agreement -- that Iran could move forward, with Russian help, in the development of a civilian nuclear energy program while Russia also helped Iran remove nuclear material that could be used to create a nuclear weapon. Then international inspections would ensure that Iran complied with the deal.

Once again, many in the West were happy to see a deal with Iran reached in July 2015, but almost immediately both the spirit and the letter of the agreement have been broken.

Soon after the inking of the deal in July, Tehran and Moscow announced that they were moving forward with a plan to send Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. The presence of this weapon system would make it much harder for the international community to react if Iran renewed its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, and the announcement of the S-300 delivery came before a single element of the nuclear deal had actually been implemented. In other words, the world will now have to trust that Russia and Iran are genuine in their desire to pursue nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons.

In the last months of 2015 the Iranian government tested a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, a clear violation of a 2010 Security Council resolution. Just today Iran released a new video of an underground missile facility. These release of these tapes by the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps may be designed to sabotage Congress's approval of the deal. But this development underscores that if Russia and Iran do not comply with their end of the agreement Iran will both have ballistic missiles to launch nuclear weapons and will have anti-aircraft weapons to defend the missiles and nuclear research and development sites.

Then there is the Russian mission in Syria, which is problematic in and of itself. Iran and Syria are now fighting on the ground against rebel groups which have, in many cases, been armed and trained by the United States. They are being directly supported by Russian airstrikes which are targeting civilians and medical facilities, grain silos and water treatment plants, and stubborn non-ISIS rebel military positions. Every day Russia conducts bombing runs in Syria, and with each passing day the evidence mounts -- the Russians are not primarily targeting ISIS, but instead the vast majority of their bombs hit areas held by Western-backed anti-Assad forces.

Soon after Russia began it's bombing campaign, Assad, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, launched a series of initial offensives, all of which failed. But Assad's recent taking of Sheikh Meskin, between Damascus and Daraa, with the assistance of Russian air power, proves that Russia's airstrikes may not have the ability to break the anti-Assad rebels but they can turn the tide in some of the most hotly contested areas.

Russia, then, is spending its (increasingly scarce and devalued) money, political capital, and the lives of its servicemen, to fight for Assad and Iran in what all three powers have defined as a regional sectarian struggle. Is it reasonable to assume, then, that Russia will accept a compromise of any kind that will weaken this coalition in any way?

Does The West Need Russia's "Syria Card"?

Recently, Russia and the United States have worked together to draft a resolution which was then adopted by the UN Security Council. As we explained, however, that resolution does not define which armed groups are part of the solution and which are "terrorists." Since both Russia and Assad consistently change the definition of "terrorist" to include any who oppose the Syrian regime, and since all of the combatants -- both the Syrian regime and the armed opposition -- have rejected the Vienna process, this resolution is doomed to fail.

Russia, then, may try to trade Western sanctions for the soon-to-be-broken promise that it will help with a peace process that has zero chance of bringing peace to Syria, with or without Russia's help. If Russia succeeds in playing the "Syria card," as Mannteufel defines it, then its economy will be stronger and it will have more resources to devote to its efforts in Syria and Ukraine.

Why, then, are so many so eager to work with Russia on the international stage? This likely has more to do with European and American domestic politics than Russia's shaky track record of following through on its promises. For a variety of reasons there is little appetite in the Western public to engage in a robust foreign policy to address a large number of issues that could explode in the not-so-distant future. Many Western politicians would rather buy political time by signing deals with Russia that may be broken by the Kremlin and its allies months, or even years, from now, saving them the trouble of championing hard-to-sell Western-driven options which have been much maligned since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But until that changes, Russia is the only superpower offering a clearly-defined, if completely dishonest, foreign policy.

-- James Miller