Whither the Russian Bear?

December 22, 2015 4:44 pm Last Updated: December 23, 2015 8:44 am

Having spent roughly 20 years sulking in “hibernation” (and enjoying oil riches) following the 1989 implosion of the Soviet Union, Russian revanchism is now on center stage.

It is not as if Russian President Vladimir Putin did nothing for the 15 years that he has been in power. But much of what he accomplished in making Russia more dynamic was under the radar. Or it affected countries so much on the periphery of U.S., NATO, or Western thought that we hardly noticed his intervention in Georgia; violent suppression in Chechnya; or manipulating Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan.

Indeed, it wasn’t until Putin blithely seized the Crimea and put Ukraine in a hammerlock that NATO and the West noticed that anything was occurring in Russian foreign policy. After all, most U.S. and Canadian leadership had at least heard of the Crimea and Ukraine.

We have ignored reports of the Russian military modernization. So while Russia has deployed new missile models, launched new submarines, and professionalized a previously rather ragged army, the West sat content in presumed military superiority. Thus, it was more than a bit of a surprise to see Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian in support of the Assad regime and subsequently from the Mediterranean against assorted Syrian rebel targets.

Where does an 800-pound grizzly bear stand? Wherever it desires. And currently it desires to stand in the center of the Middle East maelstrom.

So with these developments in mind, we can ask the rhetorical question: Where does an 800-pound grizzly bear stand? Answer: Wherever it desires.

And currently it desires to stand in the center of the Middle East maelstrom. Our task is to understand Russian objectives, use them to the extent possible to further our objectives, and avoid both a too intimate embrace by the bear or encounters that would leave a bloodied bear and an equally bloodied Uncle Sam.

Russia’s First Objective

Putin seeks the preservation of the Assad regime. He may be personally indifferent to Assad, but he is significant as a representative of Russian regional reach. Moreover, his support for Syria’s Orthodox Christians enhances popularity in Russia.

We tend to forget that Syria has been Moscow’s semi-puppet since at least 1946. Damascus has received endless amounts of Soviet and Russian weaponry. Moscow retains a useful naval base at Tartus. And with Russian military intervention starting in September, an observer can conclude that Assad has won his civil war.

In fact, Assad had already defeated the anti-Assad rebels with the combination of a loyal army, Iranian special forces, and Hezbollah combatants. Russian airstrikes have been icing on the cake.

But with the anti-Assad rebels defeated, Islamic terrorists (ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, IS, Daesh, or whatever the name of the moment) are seeking to dominate Syria and Iraq as a precursor to controlling the entire Middle East. Assad stands in their way, and Russia as well as other Western powers, notably the United States, France, U.K., (and even Canada for the moment), are preventing the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi governments.

The outcome remains unclear, but even skeptics admit that eventually ISIS can be defeated. And Russia, having been there “firstest with the mostest” will reap considerable credit. Indeed, the United States has already abandoned one longstanding objective with Secretary of State Kerry declaring on Dec. 15 that Washington was not demanding regime change.

Replacing Washington

Russia seeks to replace Washington as the primary actor in the Middle East. With the steady diminution of U.S. efforts throughout the Middle East (despite rhetorical fulmination), Russian opportunities for influence are open-ended.

Moscow has emerged as Iran’s protector from U.N. sanctions, and Iraqi government incompetence provides a fertile field for adroit intervention. Washington’s oft heavy-handed drumbeating on human rights throughout the region has simply irritated allies without significantly alleviating abuses.

As an ex-KGB agent, Putin could care less about human rights. He envisions Washington walled off from Middle East influence with its undifferentiated embrace of Israel (and with a touch of mischief implicitly endorsed Donald Trump for president—an anathema to Muslims). We get Israel; Russia the rest.

Erdogan’s Comedownance

There is a centuries-long lack of love between Russia and Turkey. And Putin appears genuinely infuriated by the Turkish shootdown of the Russian fighter bomber to the extent of offering its “black box” for international analysis and describing Erdogan’s actions in scatological terms.

Putin wants regime change in Ankara and is adroitly using the incident for wedge-driving between Turkey and NATO. Washington views Turkey as a key to defeating ISIS, but orchestrating acceptable Turkish participation has been increasingly problematic. Domestic disarray in Turkey would delight Putin.

Putin has parlayed a prospectively weak hand with exceptional skill. Washington will be fortunate to escape with its shirt at the end of this game.

David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn From Each Other.”

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