Everyone is talking about Russia’s decision to formally intervene in Syria’s civil war. To say that it has sent the Beltway press corps into a frenzy would be a pretty dramatic understatement of the word “frenzy.” Russia’s intervention is so omnipresent in the collective imagination that it is even was the main subject of a highly anticipated interview between Vladimir Putin and Charlie Rose that was aired last weekend on 60 Minutes.
Needless to say, hawks have been deeply impressed with Putin’s steely resolve and determination. Charles Krauthammer, the dean of neoconservative foreign policy commentary, wrote about Russia’s Syrian adventure in terms that bordered on the breathless. He claimed that not only would Russia re-emerge as a major power in the broader Middle East but that Putin would even be able to take credit for curing Europe’s refugee crisis (this doesn’t not suggest a terribly high estimation of Europeans’ critical thinking skills, but that’s another issue). For Krauthammer and a whole host of foreign policy analysts, putting the Russian military in Syria was a strategic masterstroke of the first order, a “deadly serious” step that would perhaps see Russia become an “indispensable partner” and a “regional arbiter.”
In one of those delicious ironies in which the world so frequently abounds, quite a few Russians agreed with the broad brush strokes of Krauthammer’s analysis. They also think that Putin has been acting in a resolute, determined, and effective manner and that his policy could soon see Russia reemerge as a rival (if not an equal) to America throughout the entire Middle East. However, the Russians expressing support for Putin’s Syria policy are, in general, not the sort of people whom Krauthammer would be expected to agree: by and large they were from the government itself or from state-owned media stations like RIA Novosti or TASS. No this isn’t actually all that surprising (hawks have a particular way of viewing the world that tends to transcend national or ethnic divisions) but it is enlightening.
Moving away from abstract theorizing and into the discrete world of policy implementation, though, we can see that any ideas about a broader Russian “resurgence” are based on fantasy and wishful thinking. Even if Russia wants to be a dominant power in the Middle East, and even that is in dispute as it is possible that the current intervention in Syria is just a last-minute tactical improvisation rather than a genuine change in strategy, it does not have the capability to do so.
By all expert accounts, Russia’s military was badly strained by its ill-disguised intervention in Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, borders some of Russia’s most densely populated and developed regions. There is essentially no other place in the entire world where it would be easier for Russia’s military to project force. In Ukraine there was no need for fancy logistical footwork or a complex web of air re-supply, whatever men and material were needed could simply be moved to the front by road or rail. And even there, in a situation tailor-made for success, Russia’s practical ability to achieve its desired political outcomes through the use of military force was highly constrained.
Syria is another animal entirely. It is hundreds of miles beyond Russia’s borders and any and all supplies needed for Russian forces would have to be shipped via a circuitous route through the Black Sea and the Bosporus or, alternately, flown in (at enormous expense!) to one of the small handful of airfields still controlled by the Assad regime. Even during its Soviet-era peak, Russia’s military has never been particularly adept at operating at a significant distance from its logistical base. Unlike its American counterpart, Soviet military doctrine had little need for expeditionary capabilities: it was always about achieving the maximum concentration of force to overpower NATO. Even Afghanistan, the most famous case of adventurism, bordered the Soviet Union.
Although it is true that Russia has recently booted defense spending significantly, the sorts of logistical and organizational capabilities on which it must now draw cannot simply be “bought” or developed overnight: effectively supporting troops hundreds or thousands of miles away is a process of institutional learning, a process that Russia has barely even started.
A supposedly triumphant Russia, in other words, is trying to do something (send expeditionary forces abroad) which it has essentially never done and it is attempting to do so in extraordinarily difficult and challenging circumstances (a horrific civil war). Oh, and it is also doing so while it is in the midst of a wrenching economic crisis.
Maybe that sounds like the makings of a “triumph” to you, but to me it sounds like the makings of an utter catastrophe.
For most of Putin’s time in office, Russia seemed acutely aware of the limits of its own power. It complained a lot, yes, but it didn’t follow through on many of these complaints. Now that caution has been thrown to the wind.
This will not end well! Putin’s initially cautious foreign policy was the right one for a country at Russia’s level of economic development and with its generally negative demographic trajectory. Such a country can have significant influence on the world stage, but it must husband its military resources and use them conservatively, defensively, and only when all other options have been exhausted. None of those conditions apply to Syria.
So while it might look like Russia’s Syria policy is triumphant, it is really headed for disaster.