By Lee Clark
For some time now, Russia has been setting up a chessboard on the global stage. On one side sits the great Russian bear, recovering from decades of social, political, and economic chaos. On the other side: the American eagle, lofty and dominant. It is a scenario reminiscent of the Cold War: The US facing a difficult crisis from one perspective, and the Russians approaching from the other, with less powerful nations caught in the middle hoping not to be crushed under the weight of the two rivals. It’s a game both nations were once accustomed to playing, though the US has been caught off guard and out of practice. Russia’s pivot to Syria is a move observers in the US never saw coming, though it should not come as a great surprise.
Syria and Russia have long been allies. The close relationship of the two countries goes back to the Cold War, during a time when Russia’s economic and military presence in the Middle East was an international norm. This alliance came into the limelight during the beginning of the Syrian civil war, with Russia posturing in the UN to defend the Assad regime. Russia’s focus on energy prominence and outmaneuvering the West make Syria a perfect opportunity, given the history the two nations have.
From Khrushchev’s monetary aid during the Cold War to Putin’s shipment of airpower, Russian-Syrian military ties have been and will remain strong. The current buildup of Russian forces in Syria should surprise no one, but many observers in the West still struggle to define and anticipate Russia’s aims in the 21st century. Russia is pursuing a new Yalta agreement, and continued military and political ties with Syria serve as an opportunity to achieve that objective, at least in Russia’s estimation.
The Yalta agreement was an accord between the Allied powers during WWII that created strategies for dealing with international issues after the war. Under these agreements, Russia expanded its grip on Eastern Europe and central Asia. It has been said before that the Yalta Conference marked the beginning of the Cold War. Many Russians look back on this time with a great deal of pride in their nation’s dominance in global affairs. For those in Russia of this mindset, the pivot to Syria is a step towards reviving the glory of the motherland.
This Russo-Syrian alignment serves a few purposes: it highlights Russia as a mature global player, it makes the US look ineffective and hesitant by inserting Russian force where many in the international community believe the US should be leading, it confirms Russia’s willingness to protect its interests in energy and global clout, and it advances Russia’s pursuit of strong alliances with non and anti-western entities around the globe. Syria is a near perfect opportunity for Russia. The two nations are members of special gentlemen’s club: Both nations face international outrage for human rights abuses, and both nations are the subject of severe Western sanctions. And it is no secret that both nations perplex American policymakers.
The West is unsure of how to handle both nations. Reluctant to work with Assad against ISIS because of human rights concerns and hesitant to confront Russia out of long-standing interests and deterrents. The US is vulnerable in this situation, and Russia is pouncing. With human rights abuses of its own, Russia has no qualms with Assad’s leadership and is more than willing to lend a hand. By approaching Syria this way, Russia is now picking up a job that the West did not dare touch. Moving into Syria demonstrates Russia’s willingness to get its hands dirty and work on difficult problems.
More important than the practicality of the Syrian situation, though, are its philosophical implications for Russia. Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East is important for its soul. Because Russia’s national identity is tied to its role as a heavyweight in international politics, the move into Syria indicates a larger strategy, paralleled by aggression in Ukraine and the Arctic. These actions represent a renewed focus on Russia’s great power narrative, fueled by centuries of history, culture, and myth. This multi-regional increase in military aggression is Russia’s opening move in a new round of an old game.
Russia wants nothing more than to reclaim its place as a dominant superpower with a vast and productive sphere of influence. By increasing military presence in the Arctic, Eastern Europe, and now Syria, Russia is sending a clear message: We’re back and this is still our turf. I am not alone in this assessment. Certainly, Russia wants its superpower status restored. Russia wants respect. It wants its clout back, harkening back to a time when it was feared and any decision in the international community had to include discussions of Russia’s interests. But why does Russia feel entitled to such a status?
Though the answer to that question involves nuances and explanations that could fill a series of books, here we will deal with one aspect that is essential to understanding the Russian volksgeist: the third Rome ideology. A prevailing idea in Russia for centuries, the concept is that Moscow is the natural successor to the Roman Empire. The first Rome fell, the new Rome in Byzantium fell, and Russia believed (and continues to believe) that it is fated to pick up the thread of old Rome, or at least the idea of it. Russia wants to be the next society so formidable and so vast that merely claiming citizenship will grant a virtual cloak of protection across the world. It already sees itself as having a cultural tradition that rivals Rome, a society with a language and culture so rich that its influences will be felt millennia into the future. This is what Russia wants. Russia wants to be universally perceived as the most cultured, enlightened, thoughtful, and formidable society on Earth. And as far as the Russian public conscience is concerned, the motherland was never closer to this goal than under Stalin and the massive influence Russia built after the Yalta Conference. Many in Russia believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the end of Russia’s destiny as the heir of the Roman Empire. But Putin, with his autocratic style and slavophile ideology, is holding onto the dream with his teeth.
By increasing its military presence in Syria, Russia is showing the world that it is again capable of coordinating an intimidating, multi-regional military force. It is demonstrating that Russia can support and benefit from global players neglected or jaded by the West, and when the West doesn’t have the stomach for it, Russia is capable of cleaning up their mess.
Putin has worked hard to sell this image of Russia. The cost has been high: human rights abuses, massive military spending, and strained diplomatic relationships have all been obstacles. But Putin has thus far held the course. Putin’s broad domestic support comes in no small part from the perception of him as tough on the West, willing to confront and disregard the Westerners who would seek to rob Russia of her rightful power and glory. By expanding Russian military activity into Syria, Putin is adding the Middle East to the list of areas Russia considers to be under its guardianship.
Russia is trying to redraw the old lines. Students of the Cold War will recognize these lines, and will recognize where contemporary gaps are. Indeed, anyone not in the current generation is probably experiencing a bad case of deja vu. If Russia can flex its muscle in Syria, the Arctic, and Ukraine, could it not also reach for other areas that got away? Areas like the Baltics, the Caucasus, or Central Asia? It’s not time to panic over a Russian conquest, but perhaps it is time to seriously consider counter strategies to an old adversary actively trying to regain the old status quo. Maybe the West was naive in disregarding Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and maybe it’s time to start paying attention again. Russia has been planning the board for over a decade, and now it’s our move.
Lee Clark is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce. His professional interests include diplomacy, security, and humanitarian work. He is currently interested in study abroad and internship opportunities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.