The West’s experts on modern Russia — its national interest and its conduct of foreign policy — have had a rough 18 months.
U.S. intelligence estimates concluded in late February of 2014 that Russia’s massive military exercises on the border of Ukraine were a hollow display of force. Russia would never openly invade its European neighbor, much less annex sovereign territory into the Russian Federation. Wrong. Following the Ukrainian invasion, an ever-stiffening sanctions regime on Russian individuals and institutions was said to constitute an inflection point at which Moscow would begin to climb down from the crisis it had sparked in Europe. Wrong again. Today, a new contention is becoming increasingly popular among the West’s Russia hands. The Kremlin is financially strained, politically isolated, and increasingly in over its head, the thinking goes. Vladimir Putin is dangerously over-extended. Russia cannot afford to sustain an expeditionary force in Syria and simultaneously conduct a covert war in Ukraine. The West has bled Russia white once before in the mountains of Afghanistan. There is no reason why the West should stop Russia from making the same mistakes again by ill-advisedly overextending itself. This is a perilous strategy.
“Overextending its power, Russia is likely to face disastrous political consequences,” wrote College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University Professor Peter Eltsov in Politico Magazine. He noted that Tsarist Russia fell into the trap of expending more resources on foreign wars than it could sustain during the Russo-Japanese War and again in World War I. The same trap was sprung again on the Soviets when they sought to prop up the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan militarily while simultaneously extending an economic lifeline to the moribund Warsaw Pact member states. A similar set of circumstances in the Middle East may soon ensnare Putin’s Russia.
“When Russian soldiers begin to return home dead or even beheaded, it is going to be much more difficult for Putin to justify his war,” Eltsov concluded. “Putin’s Syrian campaign may become the beginning of the end of his autocratic regime.”
Even the New York Times editorial board has echoed these themes. “Mr. Putin enabled the Assad government early on, and he has no particular strategy to contain the Syrian conflict,” the editorial read. “With Russia grappling with sanctions, lower oil prices and a weakened economy, it is unclear how much he can afford to invest in a dead-end war in Syria.”
This is a convenient line of logic. It excuses Western inaction and feebleness by fostering the impression that Western dominance is predestined. But this line of reasoning is fallacious. The presumption that a great power faced with substantial limitations on its ability to act in the form of political and material constraints will be forever docile is thinly supported. The declining power is as (or more) likely to strike out at adversaries as is a rising power blessed with an abundance of resources and domestic political security. The Empire of Japan did not execute a strike on American naval forces in the Pacific because it perceived itself to be ascendant. A U.S.-imposed oil embargo and an acute perception inside Japanese high command that theirs was a country on the decline compelled Tokyo to embrace preventative war. Their window of opportunity was closing; better to strike now than risk fighting a losing war at a time not of their choosing.
None of this is to suggest that Russia will contemplate executing preemptive strikes against another great power. Merely that a declining power is an unpredictable power, and that it rarely goes quietly into the night.
Even if Russia’s material limitations prevent it from becoming a dominant geopolitical force, Moscow can do a lot of damage to Western interests. In the Obama administration’s desperate efforts to avoid becoming embroiled in another Middle Eastern war, it has allowed the Kremlin to step into the regional power vacuum it created. On Monday, NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove warned that Russia’s augmented presence in Syria includes the capabilities to create a “A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] bubble” around Syria. Meaning the West might soon find that military intervention in Syria has become a prohibitively costly prospect and that the sub-optimal status quo is beyond its power to change.
Similar access denial systems are reportedly set to augment Iranian air defense systems. In August, Iran and Russia signed a deal that would transfer into Tehran’s control a number of advanced S-300 surface-to-air defense systems. The move came following a high-profile visit to Moscow by Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani, indicating an enhanced level of cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic – cooperation that is being tested on the ground in Syria.
The Middle East’s anti-Western rogue states are not the only nations that find themselves the target of Russian overtures. Over the weekend, Washington was reportedly stunned by the news that Russia and Iran had signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Baghdad. “Even as the United States has banked on a diplomatic strategy of trying to enlist Russia’s cooperation in Syria, the Kremlin has continued to join the White House with its unilateral military and political moves,” the New York Times reported.
Egypt, too, has been courted by Moscow. In February, in response to the imposition of restrictions on U.S. arms exports to Cairo following to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi by the nation’s military, Egypt’s new regime negotiated the purchase of $2 billion in defense-related equipment from Russia. Several weeks later, Cairo followed up by inking a deal with the Kremlin to create a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and to have preferential access to the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone designed to compete with the European Union. Even Israel, America’s closest ally in the region, has begun to look to the East. In mid-September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow where he and Putin revealed their intentions to coordinate military actions in Syria in order to avoid coming into contact in that increasingly crowded theater of operations.
On Tuesday, Evelyn Farkas, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, resigned her post.
If the West is going to wait around for Russia to overextend, recognize as much, and unilaterally deescalate the crises it has ignited in Europe and the Middle East, it might as well get comfortable. This could take a while. In the interim, Moscow can do a fair bit of damage to Western interests. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the cold conflict that puts Western military assets in close proximity with their Russian counterparts will not spiral out of control. Provoking an irredentist Russia is certainly dangerous, but a “hurry up and wait” strategy is not without its own set of risks.