Vladimir Putin grabbed world attention yesterday with a disturbing power play in Syria. He recently announced his intention to get militarily involved in Syria, supposedly to primarily degrade ISIS, but his long term support of the Assad government prompted doubts that was all he had in mind. He acted surprisingly quickly by launching an air attack yesterday, but not on ISIS areas. On “moderate” rebels that we have been supporting.
There had been plans to develop communication between the Russian military in the area and our own, to avoid accidents, but this had yet to begin. Reportedly, we were given a one hour advance notice of this attack.
Not a good way to work together.
This seems pure Putin, talking about doing one thing and doing the opposite, always seeking some kind of edge, a routine on display in Ukraine over the past 18 months of civil war. For example, he’d say his troops were not involved but many were easy to identify. He would agree to some truce arrangement and then ignore it. (1)
Not the kind of guy you want to normally partner with on anything, but there is a caveat: Putin has been reliable in partnering on issues he deems vital to himself and Russia, which I tend to think are one and the same in his mind. He partnered with Obama on removing most of the worst chemical weapons in Syria, which worked amazingly well given the nature of the conditions there. As far as I could tell, Russia was a useful partner in the Iran nuclear deal, as well. That Putin also cashed in on a lucrative arms deal with Iran in the process does not erase the rest.
So, what does Putin really want to get out of this Syrian incursion? Rather than listen to me I suggest you turn to a piece by one of our most widely respected generals, David Petraeus, who recently gave the Senate Armed Services Committee a multi-hour “tutorial” on the Middle East.
He talked about Russia’s provocative actions while adding that “doesn’t mean that we need to be provocative in return. But we do need to be firm in return; we do need to establish what [are] unacceptable actions.” For example, telling “Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end — and that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying.”
And how might Russia react to that? He doesn’t say and therein you can see what a delicate, dicey process this is.
Because of a deteriorating economy (2), Petraeus thinks Putin “has actually a limited window of a couple of years to continue provocative actions,” but he cautioned, “we have to be very careful during this time, when he could actually lash out and be even more dangerous than he has been.”
(1) In thinking about this post I thought of how little coverage Ukraine gets these days, even though a civil war is continuing there. Just isn’t a hot topic now, but I did just read of yet another truce in the making there. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Putin pushed for that, as he has bigger fish to fry right now and doesn’t want to be distracted.
(2) That deteriorating economy has much to do with the sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia since the invasion – that and the drop in oil prices. In time I think he’s on the losing end, but it is the danger of the lash out that most concerns.