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V. Putin after Syria: still master tactician and poor strategist?

By Alain Guidetti

Russian President Vladimir Putin is famous at mastering communication, and his recent and unexpected announcement of a (partial) military withdrawal from Syria, which seems to have taken even the White House by surprise, is further confirmation. 

Indeed, Mr Putin shows remarkable skill at both hiding his intentions and keeping his adversaries and allies unaware, uncertain and insecure. Similar patterns of unexpected behaviour on matters of geopolitical scale have been observed for years, but it seems to have become a defining characteristic of Russian foreign policy since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine in early 2014. The sudden annexation of Crimea and the military intervention in Eastern Ukraine have produced similar reactions of surprise -and consternation- in the international community, as much as the announcement last September of military operations in Syria and, now, the withdrawal of the Russian forces.

Meeting on Russia’s Armed Forces actions in Syria, 17 November 2015 – © Kremlin

Unexpected behaviour on matters of geopolitical scale have been observed for years, but it seems to have become a defining characteristic of Russian foreign policy.

The discomfort generated by the lack of preparedness and understanding of Russian intentions that the element of surprise highlights invited observers to further engage in exploring Mr Putin’s policies in Syria, Ukraine and he Russian periphery. It also prompted them to score the Russian leader’s achievements, thus contributing to the communication effect intended by Mr Putin. More remarkably, it triggered renewed discussions around the Western, and particularly American, strategies in Syria and Ukraine. In both cases (Russian accomplishments and Western and American strategies), the views expressed illustrate the deep divide within the intellectual and political establishment on the role of Russia in world affairs and the Western and American responses to the current efforts of Russia to assert itself in its periphery and in the Middle-East. The real picture is more nuanced, but there are the two major directions in this debate.

More remarkably, it triggered renewed discussions on the Western and particularly American strategies in Syria and Ukraine.

The first direction gathers observers and politicians, mainly rather interventionists, who emphasise what they consider as the achievements of Mr Putin, in both Syrian and Ukrainian theatres. By doing so, they do not necessarily intend to praise the Russian leader for his foreign policy successes, although many do not hide some degree of admiration for his tactical skills. Their aim is rather to highlight the supposed successes of Russia in its Syria and Ukraine policies, by pointing to the accomplishment of its presumed objectives that reveal, by contrast, what they consider to be weaknesses of the West.

Strategic mistakes and tactical gains

In particular, they stress Russia’s success at securing its further military presence in Syria; consolidating its allied regime (which was about to collapse); reversing military trends on the ground (by crushing the recognised opposition and allowing the regime to regain control over swathes of territory); and imposing Mr Assad at the negotiation table. Furthermore, they praise Russia for having conducted operations in Ukraine and Syria at very low cost (“cheap” intervention) and for withdrawing from Syria at presumably the most favorable moment: on the eve on the resumption of the Geneva peace talks and when pursuit of the conflict would have necessitated a much larger engagement to fight ISIS.

At the core of this line of thinking is the desire to expose the presumed failures of the Western and particularly American leaderships.

At the core of this line of thinking is the desire to expose the presumed failures of the Western and particularly American leaderships due to their reluctance to topple Mr Assad after the US ultimatum on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army in 2013, and to engage more extensively in support of the Syrian opposition. The aim is to demonstrate that the aversion of President Obama to engage in Syria was ill-founded and based on a strategic mistake that opened the way for Russia to successfully intervene. Indeed, according to this narrative, the Russian President precisely achieved what the White House proved not to be able to, namely to combine the political will to intervene, the capacity to change facts on the ground, and the ability to get out of the conflict at one’s will. The latter in particular is deemed remarkable, since it goes to the heart of American sensitivity, after the Iraq and Libya failures and the growing opposition in the US to military interventions with no clear perspective of exit.

The argument goes further into the strategic realm by pointing to the global implications of the military success of the Russian operation, since, in a widely shared view, it definitely contributes to resettle Russia as a world power or at least as an unavoidable player in Syria, and beyond in the Middle East, as well as in its near abroad. To be fair, the proponents of this line of thinking do not elude some caveats in this achievements list: it is far from certain that a peace accord can be met in Geneva and even if it were, its sustainability would be highly questionable. Moreover, they recognise that the reality is far from a nice picture: the Russian intervention did not help to solve the core issues related to the causes of the conflict in Syria and to weaken the Islamic State, which remarkably has only marginally been affected by this operation.

The opposite line of thinking is mainly represented within the Obama Administration and some liberal circles leaning toward restraint. They put less emphasis on the tactical achievements of the Russian operation. They primarily focus on strategic arguments and considerations related to the political and economic background in Russia. They assume that Mr Putin made a fundamental mistake in intervening in Ukraine, annexing Crimea and intervening again in Syria. The international sanctions caused by the intervention in Ukraine, coupled with the fall in energy prices have substantially weakened the Russian economy, since energy revenues contribute to a large part of the Russian GDP. In the absence of sound economic policy, these factors confront Moscow with the risks of lasting depression and possible subsequent political turmoil, which could only tarnish Mr Putin’s ambitions of great power status.

The human cost

Russia exposes itself to the mercy of China, a much stronger power, if not in military terms, at least in economic and political ones. 

They also underline that, by turning away from cooperation with Europe and the West, and thus from necessary economic reforms, Russia exposes itself to the mercy of China, a much stronger power, if not in military terms, at least in economic and political ones. Furthermore, they - perhaps less vocally - argue that after having caused fear in Eastern Europe, Russian provocations have then been met with growing responses from NATO and the US military. That would make further provocative actions from Russia less credible, and a renewed “Ukrainian scenario” supposedly more elusive.

The proponents of this line of thinking do not contest some Russian achievements in Syria - and perhaps in Crimea – but assert that tactical gains have been reached at heavy cost in the long term. They stress that Russian operations in Ukraine and Syria have not occurred out of a position of strength, as Mr Putin would like to make the world believe, but as an expression of weakness, for the reasons just exposed. Still, these assumptions do not in themselves justify the resolute restraint demonstrated by the Obama Administration on the Syrian issue.

The answer perhaps lies in a recent interview of Mr Obama by the magazine The Atlantic (“The Obama Doctrine”, April 2016), where he develops his vision of the US role in the world. He argues that, after the end of the Cold War and the costly operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (economically and politically), the Middle East is perhaps no longer the priority it was for the US, a position ceded to Asia as demonstrated by the “pivot to Asia”. To the charge, asserted by many, that “the US credibility is in danger” with the Syrian abstention, the White House has hinted that the US can no longer afford to be involved in all crises and that the failures in Iraq and Libya should make the US all the more cautious before embarking into renewed interventions in the region.

Among the arguments of the proponents of a more interventionist stance, the one that seems perhaps the most persuasive is the cost related to the non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. The enormous refugee crisis and its terrible impact in Europe, which have only worsened thanks to the Russian intervention, was admittedly not entirely foreseeable in 2013. But the opposition of the US Administration to consider even a humanitarian zone of exclusion certainly did not help to ease the already challenging refugee situation. And its increasingly noxious political implications for Europe have still to be measured.

Many observers used to claim that Mr Putin was a master tactician and a poor strategist. They may be right, in particular when considering his mastery in tactical moves from a Russian perspective, notably his ability to take advantage of the vacuum left in Syria and beyond by the apparent aversion of Mr Obama to any substantial intervention in the Middle-East. This might lead to other Russian surprises in the region and in the Russian neighbourhood, even “out of a position of weakness”.


Alain Guidetti, a former Ambassador and Swiss career diplomat for more than twenty years, is currently Senior Diplomatic Advisor at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).