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Thanks, you’ve been great: Putin has now “left” the (Syrian, war-torn, unresolved) building

March 22, 2016

Summary: Vladimir Putin declares “victory” and withdraws from Syria after a brief and bombing-intensive military mission intended primarily to make Russia look like a plausible international power.  By any serious set of benchmarks, Syria is not yet resolved.  Neither has Russia actually left.  Russia continues to try to make itself look tough and effective to distract its domestic audience from economic woes (caused in part by earlier Russian military ventures).  It is making shrewd use of modern media towards this goal.  Russia will further undermine its credibility on the international stage.  How does this end?

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(Probably) Leaving Hmeymin airbase, outside Latakia

When you are talking about Russia on the global stage, it seems just as easy to say “Putin”.  The Russian president has a very direct hands-on approach and appears unencumbered by the requirement to argue his case to an unconvinced parliament, delegate key decisions or sway a complaining and critical population.  The latter seem largely incurious, preferring to keep their heads down.  A thriving, active and vocal political opposition never quite seems to get off the ground in Russia, whatever the era, be it Czarist, Soviet, post-Soviet or Putinist.  An effectively-run state-controlled media is contributing here, probably aided by the occasional unexpected and unexplained death of an opposition leader or journalist.  But others seem genuinely happy to bask in the warmth embers of some long-lost national pride.  Just so long as there are no significant Russian casualties.  Or at least, that they do not know that there are significant Russian casualties.

But Putin’s global quest for pseudo parity with the US counts for nothing if it is not strongly splashed over international and (more importantly) domestic media.

The latest Russia venture into Syria has achieved this.  Both the coming and the going of the Russian political and military intervention wrong-footed the international community.  If this alone was the benchmark for Russian “victory”, then certainly Mr Putin would be entitled to declare “mission accomplished”.

Oscar Wilde once declared: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about”.  An impressive media profile is key to Mr Putin’s game plan to re-establish Russia as a global actor.  A plan which also seeks the tacit agreement from Europe and the US that Russia has a backyard called the former Soviet Union into which no one can bring messy concepts like democracy.

But Russia also leaves Assad in a stronger position for the moment.  The withdrawal from Syria last week has generated much opinion and debate.  A skim through the analysis shows:

  • Much praise for the clever manoeuvring of Putin
  • A strong sense that, yet again, the international community has been tricked by a faster-moving Russian strategy
  • That this is what happens when the US leaves the international stage – the gap is filled – but not in a good way
  • Russia’s underlying goals have been achieved – prop up Assad, impose itself into the strategic calculations, demonstrate military successes and activity.  Original stated goals have not been achieved (defeat of Islamic State?)
  • Has Russia actually withdrawn? Answer: well, not really.  Troops, aircraft and equipment are still there.  Military operations can be re-activated in hours.
  • Good use of media and propaganda by Russia
  • Some now debating the question – where next for Russia?

And if we look wider, including Crimea and eastern Ukraine, there are several characteristics surrounding modern Russia interventions (apologies, some of this will be a bit obvious):

  1. Seizing the initiative and maximising the element of surprise – even at the expense of actually having a policy or a plan. Surprise – keeping everyone guessing, edgy and reacting to the Russian tempo – sometimes seems more valuable than almost anything else, excepting bodybags
  2. The need for a high and favourable media profile
  3. Actual goals will be radically different from stated goals
  4. Russia’s media profile will have separate and distinct international and domestic narratives
  5. The “mission” above all is Putin himself. Local and international power projections are in support of Putin and his own hand-crafted regime.  Is Putting increasingly seeing and presenting himself as the embodiment of Russia’s “re-awakening”.  Solving a war, defeating Islamic State, even propping up an “ally” like Assad are secondary.  These targets can be shifted and flexed to suit.
  6. “Me, me, me”: Dashing in, thrashing around dropping bombs and dashing out again is a highly irresponsible, self-serving and immature stance. No coordination, no handover, no continuous engagement.  This is rubbish.  How reliable and trust-worthy does this make Russia?
  7. Usual rules of international conduct seem not to apply in Russia’s case. Use of dumb bombs, cluster bombs, Russia never really held to account over bombing of hospitals and schools, crude Russian denials or lies suffice and the game moves on.  This even given that US military commanders and politicians have accused Russia of deliberately “weaponising” Syrian refugees. The key lesson Russia is learning is how effective a blunt denial or a simple lie can be.

Where next indeed? (Afghanistan, the Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine, any one of the Central Asian states, Iraq, the Baltic states…???) If the Russian population are still suffering economically without the likelihood of an early improvement, it may be that a new initiative will be necessary.  Ought this to be done before Barrack Obama leaves?  The Baltic states have been worried ever since the Crimea was annexed.  But an attack on a NATO country seems too obvious – and also too risky – for Mr Putin.

The Putin performance does show an impressive use of the resources he has and perhaps an ability to learn lessons.  He got bogged down in Eastern Ukraine – perhaps after a post-Crimea spate of over-confidence.  Now he has gone the other way, quickly getting off the stage while the applause is still sounding and the reviews are still favourable.  For the moment also, the darker art of “hybrid war” has been put on the back-burner in exchange for exciting images of fast jets bombing desert.  Ambiguous operations with proxy and harder to control militias are more fraught with risk.

But how big a global power projection has the Russian adventure in Syria really been?  It still does not offer the notion that Russia can even approach the scale of America’s military and diplomatic might.  And a lot of fast, self-serving and unpredictable Russian initiatives is going to start irritating international actors who may have to pick up the pieces of a Russian “in and out” operation. The macho use of hard power is a little bit “last century” and holds out the ever present risk of public casualties – either Russian troops on the ground or new terrorist attacks coming back to Mother Russia.  The longer Mr Putin juggles shiny military balls in the air to keep his people distracted from economic woes, the greater the risk one will drop.

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