Contrary to received wisdom, Russia’s military action in Syria poses no big threat to the existing global order. It was pure Vladimir Putin, of course: preceded by the lack of any military build-up, discussed secretly with Western leaders, and later approved by the parliament in minutes. In fact it may, under some circumstances, even help sustain it.
What distinguishes Russia’s actions in Syria from those undertaken in Crimea and in the eastern parts of Ukraine, is above all its institutionalized character. Whatever may be said about Mr Putin’s long-term goals, the current situation looks perfectly clear: a country (Russia) being asked by a foreign government (Syria) that has been considered legitimate for decades and that is represented in the UN and other international organizations, to provide military assistance, for an ailing regime. Anysuggestion that the Russian airforce hit not so much the Islamic State’s militants but Bashar al-Assad’s political antagonists are senseless: they are doing exactly what the Syrian dictator is asking for, and not something else. Russians believe that Mr Assad’s enemies are their targets, since Moscow and Damascus are allies – and this is sufficient grounds for the involvement.
But what is the real cause of Russia’s engagement in Syria, the deeper reason for Mr Putin to send his servicemen overseas? There are two elements of the answer: on the one hand, he shows his fellow citizens that Russia may act in different parts of the world, it is strong and powerful, and may constrain terrorists; on the other, he wants to send a signal to the West.
It’s crucial that the West carefully reads what this signal means – because global politics for the foreseeable future will depend on how that message is decrypted. I would argue that the most widespread explanation – that Mr Putin wishes to strike a new deal with the US and Europe, the one under which he will help the West to fight Islamic extremists in exchange for forgetting about Ukraine – may be misleading. Of course, the Kremlin is not so naïve as to believe that the major powers will become accustomed to the existence of an unstable Ukrainian state, plagued by Russian-led separatists, on Europe’s borders. Mr Putin’s message seems to address another issue, quite different from the establishment of Cold-War-like “spheres of interests” in the 21st-Century world.
However provocative it may look, it’s all about the foundations of the current global system, and first of all, about the principles of sovereignty and non-interference. In my view Mr Putin is actually concerned by one issue alone – that of his own position as Russia’s lifetime paramount leader. He cares more and more about the global order in which, as he sees it, the principles of sovereignty are no longer respected. He realises that in recent years the West made a huge advance towards Russia’s borders byenlarging NATO and the EU; that it either destroyed some autocratic regimes or seduced them to become more co-operative; that the US is building new “coalitions of the willing” which may topple any political leader they choose.
What Russia is defending in Syria is not actually Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Nor is it fighting the global terrorist network. Moscow is today attempting to re-establish its own notion of sovereignty that was the common one just several decades ago. Taking this into account, the West perhaps ought to rethink its strategy towards Russia, trying to smooth relations but stopping short of engaging in a series of trade-offs with Moscow.
In recent decades both the West and Russia made strategic moves that were not welcomed by theother side. The US and NATO backed the secession of Kosovo in 1999, and then recognized the break-up province as a sovereign state. The Russians actually did exactly the same in 2008 in Georgia, using the very same rhetoric of humanitarian intervention. These two cases were highly disruptive for the current international regime – but no one called for an international conference or convention on debating, and finally legitimizing, humanitarian involvement. In 2003, the US organized a coalition for waging a war against Iraq, saying that this state developed a chemical weapons program – a claim that was not proved later; since then, similar coalitions were organized in support of anti-government forces in both Libya and now Syria. Russia believed this was a complete destruction of the traditional notion of state sovereignty – and in some part it became an excuse for neglecting the sovereign powers of a country in trouble.
In the case of Crimea in 2014, Moscow acted in ways similar to the West – but while the Western powers decided to topple the governments of unstable nations, Russian leaders preferred to occupy (formally or not) some parts of their territory. Of course, Russia’s actions were a rude violation of international law, but the Western interventions could hardly be called legitimate either. And now something should be done to stop this race toward the complete destruction of the international order.
To reiterate, many politicians believe, that Mr Putin wants to exchange some concessions in Syria for the same in Ukraine: e.g., Russia stops supporting Bashar al-Assad, and the West agrees with Russian occupation of Crimea. In this case, however, the result will be only the legitimation of illegitimate actions in different parts of the globe, attributed to some great power’s “sphere of interest”. In return for better concessions, the West should change the agenda completely.
It should agree that the traditional sense of sovereignty must be respected, and therefore Mr al-Assad might be considered Syria’s legitimate ruler, and some territories of his state might be seen as violently annexed by either the Islamic State or some other rebel groups. The territorial integrity of Syria should be proclaimed indivisible, and the West ought not only to support Russia’s actions, but propose to builda coalition under Russian leadership (since everybody now should acknowledge that the Russians are doing their job in Syria quite effectively).
All this may happen, of course, only if Moscow rethinks its actions in Ukraine. If Russia wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, the West could reconsider its support for anti-government forces in Syria, but subordinate this to the withdrawal of Moscow’s backing for the Donbass separatists.
Such a new deal might be put forward in a very clear form: the US and Europe agree that Syria should be rebuild under the current ruler, whatever the human rights consequences may be (they cannot be much worse than they are today). So, the global powers confirm the sovereign rules are superior to the people’s right to revolt and to humanitarian considerations. In exchange the West asks Russia to fully stop its support for Donbass guerillas, making it clear that an international military involvement in Donbass if the Ukrainian government asks for would be as legitimate as Russia’s actions in Syria. So the deal may not be so much “Russia cedes Syria to the West, but the West cedes Ukraine to Russia”, but more like “The West recognizes al-Assad as the ruler of Syria and helps to crush his opposition, if Russia recognizes Kiev’s sovereignty over the whole Ukraine and allows the regular army to rid the western provinces of guerillas”. Such a proposal will either be turned down or spoiled by the Kremlin, and it will indicate that Russia doesn’t want any kind of order to be restored in international relations.
If, however, Moscow would like to negotiate such an option (that actually would look very reasonable for the Kremlin), a real breakthrough may be achieved. Both sides may develop a broad agenda of issues to be debated and solved – from the previously mentioned sovereignty to the humanitarian interventions, use of force, defence of minorities, and so on. Of course, all this will not make our world more democratic and free but it definitely will turn it into a safer place, where the great power politics looks much more predictable – and, I would argue, today it seems the best possible result that may be actually achieved.
To repeat: the Russians are doing nothing in Syria that may be considered as a violation of international order. Therefore the West should either stay aside and wait for the outcome of Russia’s risky undertaking, or signal that it got Russia’s message, has understood it, and is ready to negotiate. The second option is definitely better, particular if it gives global powers the chance to look after their own interests, while debating the fundamental issue of sovereignty.
Vladislav L. Inozemtsev Ph.D. (Econ.) is Senior Visiting Fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington (DC) and Professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow
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