From Stalemate in Europe to Breakout in the Middle East: Putin’s Global Engagement

By Robbin Laird

With the Western reactions to the seizure of Crimea, Putin was blocked from further incorporation of the “near abroad” directly in the Russian republic.

He certainly has generated continued pressure on the “near abroad” states and is leveraging the turn to the right in new member states in the European Union, like Hungary to position himself for ways to enhance his ability to pressure the European Union states, more generally.

But the major moves after Ukraine in 2014, clearly has been the intervention in the Syrian Civil War. 

Here he has backed a long time Soviet ally, the Syrian government, and used various military means to punish the opponents of Syria having painted the intervention as Russia’s contribution to the war on terrorism.

Given that the Russian intervention in Chechnya was characterized the same way, the Syrian intervention fitted into a long-standing Putin narrative about Russia and its legitimate role in the world.

As part of the payment for the Russian intervention, Russia now has a permanent air and naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean which provides an important access point into the region, and as European dynamics unfold in the Western Mediterranean,

Putin is looking to establish more Russian presence there, with the possibility of Russia becoming a major player in the fate of the Mediterranean region.

We argued at the time of the initial intervention that this was a significant strategic turning point for Putin’s approach to global engagement.

The Russian intervention in Syria crosses a strategic threshold. Russia has used a small but decisive air and naval force to side with Assad to protect his regime and specifically Damascus.

So far the introduction of a relatively small number of combat aircraft in comparison to U.S. and Allied airpower has operationally secured a new air base –Hemeimeem — and equally important bolstered their ability to expand the Syrian naval port of Tartus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In doing so, they have used airpower decisively in a way the U.S. has not, and have expanded their ability to influence outcomes in the region. While the Russians are delivering a relatively high tempo of air sorties from a small force and delivered weapons against targets, the U.S. tempo of sorties and weapons delivered against targets has been reduced to a trickle.

The Russians are backing a sovereign government, with that government’s approval.

This means that U.S. actions prior to the Russian engagement, whereby aiding “rebels” and inserting special forces was part of the effort takes on a new meaning. U.S. actions now face the threat of Syrian government or Russian attacks protected by international law, custom and practice. In other words, the Russians are in a military partnership with Syria their joint forces have every legal right to direct combat action against all enemies including the U.S. military…..

Significantly under-appreciated Russian diplomatic and political initiative is a new agreement with Israel.  Putin invited the Obama-shunned Israeli leader Prime Minister Netanyahu to Moscow in September to forge a deconfliction agreement between Israel and the Russians. The Israeli diplomatic mission to Moscow included senior Israeli military officials. Consequently, both political and military issues were on the table from the start and the agreement has provided the basis for Israel expanding its capability to defend its interests in Lebanon.

Since then Jordan, America’s closest ally behind Israel has also signed such an agreement.

And during this Russian Israel strategic and military process President Obama pulled Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Power out of the UN Speech being given by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

It appears that the legacy of President Kennedy is long gone “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

In other words, decisive Russian military actions is more in line with 21st century insertion forces then the ever evolving Counter-Insurgency (COIN) nation building military mantra.  Since the Powell characterization of the “if you break it you fix it doctrine,” the U.S. military has been on the path of operations on the ground to reshape political and economic systems, regardless of the inability of an outside power to do so.

In contrast, regardless of the size it is the intangible of combat decisiveness that forms the basis for the Russians expanding their diplomatic role in the region. Russia is being recognized by the key players in the region as a force to contend with….

Putin clearly has looked at the limited air campaign in Libya, the no-reaction to the Benghazi strikes, and our slow motion air campaign against ISIS and has concluded that a much shorter, decisive and brutal air campaign will get the kind of political diplomatic results he wants.

Put in other terms, while the Obama Administration and the neo-cons remain wedded to the COIN and slow-motion air campaign approaches of the past, the Russians are breaking out a new approach to achieve diplomatic power to reassert Russia’s role in the region.1

Of course, the Syrian conflict has led to an outpouring of refugees into the Mediterranean region and into the European Union.

And there is little doubt that the migratory pressures from North Africa and Middle East have been accelerated by the results of Russian action sin Syria, something which provides an indirect contribution to ramping up the direct defense challenge to Europe as well.

In a 2018 published book by the Russian analyst, and head of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, Dmitri Trenin, the author provides an insightful assessment of what Putin is up to in the Middle East with the Syrian intervention.

Trenin underscored the core significance of the Russian military intervention in Syria in terms of what it meant for the Russian military as a tool of Russian foreign and security policy.

“The Russian military operation in Syria is not only the biggest combat employment of Russia’s armed forces abroad since the Afghan war; it represents a very different kind of warfare in comparison to anything Russia had practiced before.

“First, this is an expeditionary war: Russia is fighting in a country with which it has no common border.

“Second, this is predominantly an air war: Russian ground forces are not fighting, though the navy is occasionally engaged.

“Third, this is a coalition war: in order to achieve the war’s aims, Russian airstrikes have to be exploited by the non-Russian forces operating on the ground.

“Fourth, this is a limited war very closely tied to the diplomatic process.”2

Put in other words, the intervention places Russia into the diplomatic game in a volatile region where Russian interests are clearly involved, not the least of which in terms of Russia’s energy business.

But it also provides a learning event for sorting through how to interactively use new and older Russian military capabilities to support Russia’s version of crisis management, which is a key element of what direct defense for Europe entails as well.

The political objective of the Russian intervention was clear from the outset. According to Trenin:

“Although the Russian military operation in Syria was billed from the start as “anti-terrorist,” it was mostly directed against Assad’s various armed opponents rather than the Islamic State group. This was fully consistent with the immediate objective of the Russian military operation in Syria: to stabilize the Assad regime, which was besieged by the forces of the opposition, not those of IS.3

The intervention has cleaerly placed Putin in a more central position within the region, which has reach outside of the Middle East as well. 

According to Trenin:

“Moscow also emerged from its military engagement in Syria as the player with the most connections in the region. During the war, President Putin stayed in close touch with virtually all regional leaders, including those of Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, and Lebanon.

“Russia managed to avoid the risk of falling into the cracks of Middle Eastern divides: Shia versus Sunni; Saudi versus Iran; Iran versus Israel; Turkey versus the Kurds, and so on.

“It is this ability to promote one’s interest in a conflict-infested environment that is particularly useful for a country aiming to be a global player. It is negotiating those divides that would test Russia’s ability not only to promote its own interests, but also to deliver public goods—a mark of a true great power in the twenty-first century.”4

Trenin’s interpretation of Putin’s engagement in Syria is in part that the crisis allowed him a chance to breakout from European stalemate to reassert Russian flexibility in political-miiltirary-diploamtic activity through the venue of the Syrian crisis.

As Trenin put it:

“It is not just a return to an important region, but a comeback to the global scene after a twenty-five-year absence. This breakthrough for Russia’s foreign policy has contributed to the ongoing change of the global order—away from U.S. dominance and back to some sort of a balance of power among several major players, including Russia.

“Moscow has demonstrated that a combination of a clear sense of objective, strong political will, area expertise and experience, resourceful diplomacy, a capable military, plus an ability to coordinate one’s actions with partners and situational allies in a very diverse and highly complex region can go a long way to help project power onto the top level. This was exactly what Putin was aiming for.

“His main foreign policy objective has been to bring Russia back to the top level of global politics, and he chose the Middle East as the area for that breakthrough.”5


  2. Trenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (p. 54). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  3. lTrenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (p. 69). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  4. Trenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (pp. 84-85). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  5. lTrenin, Dmitri. What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (pp. 134-135). Wiley. Kindle Edition.