When Bismarck was told that a Russian diplomat had died, he said, “Really? I wonder what his motive was?”, or words to that effect. Modern Russian diplomacy, particularly over Syria, hasn’t become any more transparent.
The New Russia, for some reason, still has distinct overtones of the Cold War mode. Syria was a Russian ally/client state during the Soviet era, and part of the strategic configuration of Cold War realities, where the Middle East became the testing ground for Russian and Western weapons during the Israeli wars.
That was then. The Middle East has changed, and it’s hard to see why Russia is hanging on to a dilapidated model which includes an also-ran nation like Assad’s crumbling Syria in the mix. Syria is a loose cannon, and a pretty inaccurate one at that. The recent quite unnecessary confrontation with NATO member Turkey is a good example of lousy judgment and situation management from the bottom. The massacres are not going down at all well with the population of the Middle East or anyone else.
The New York Times has a few ideas on the subject, although it’s a very Western perspective and emphasizes the role of Putin in determining this rather odd policy. The question, according to the NYT, is what value Syria has to Russia. The New York Times believes it’s a reflection of Putin’s mindset.
Though there is little comparison on the ground between the Arab uprisings and Russia’s unrest — the Russian opposition movement remains small, Moscow-centered and moderate in its tactics — the sudden change has left the government wary of legitimizing any popular dissent. State-controlled news media paint a bleak picture of Arab countries that have seen uprisings, and Russian diplomats have approached new authorities in the Arab world slowly and awkwardly.
Meanwhile, Russian leaders fear that rising Islamism in the Arab world will breathe new life into the armed insurgency in the northern Caucasus, which is mostly Sunni.
In short, Syria has provided Russia with an opportunity to say no — to Western intervention and to the specter of revolution.
This perspective does make sense- To a point. The fact is that modern Russia is a very different creature in a lot of ways these days. Real relationships are no longer purely at government level. Economics has taken over from Cold War politics. “Unofficial” relationships, which are unaffected by diplomatic hot air, are often more important than the official talkfests.
1. How does Russia stand to gain out of the hideous slaughter in Syria? It doesn’t.
2. Syria is hardly an “Islamist” stronghold. It does have a connection with Russia’s friendly Islamic colossus Iran, however, which may have a bearing on the existing policy.
3. The Iranians, in fact, pulled the plug on support and materials for the Caucasus militants, which effectively shut down the Chechnya war and some other very hot potatoes on Russia’s plate.
This makes a bit of sense, but there’s a further problem- The New Russia has to work with the new global society, not the bipolar mess of the past. Putin is no fool, and is an expert in realpolitik. His position is unlikely to be romanticised by any considerations for the well-being of Assad or the folksy charm of having yet another useless nominal ally in the region.
The New Russia has the economic clout and credibility to make friends and new associates anywhere, and can definitely go upscale compared to the disgusting mess Syria has become. It’s like washing your clothes in sewage for Russia to associate with what is obviously going to be a historical train wreck.
The NYT observes:
The answer will hinge on the calculations of Mr. Putin. He may judge that bending to Western pressure would hurt him more than losing Syria. Or, if he accepts the idea that Mr. Assad cannot extend his rule past the end of the year, he may seek to trade Russia’s stand for a concession.
The idea of a bargaining chip is credible, but “bending to Western pressure”? Everyone on Earth since Frederick the Great could tell you that Russia couldn’t care less about “Western pressure”, and never has.
The Old Model of Russian diplomacy has had its day. Putin, of all people, must know that better than anyone else. Whatever the nature of the commitment to Syria, it must have some real value, to justify even wasting breath on supporting a doomed regime. It’ll be interesting to see how the New Russia manages this situation.
One thing, however, from Russian history will very probably remain in force- Russia has never liked backing losers or lost causes. Some sort of value to Russia will have to become visible. That may well be the first clue to how the New Russia sees the world, and the first signal that the Old Model diplomacy is on the scrap heap, where it belongs.