Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main stated motivation for intervening in the Syria crisis has alternated between supporting what he claims is the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad and pursuing the fight against international terrorism—a threat he accused the West of neglecting in a speech this week. Putin may be careless in his statements, but it is likely that he sees no contradiction between these two goals, both of which are compatible with the Kremlin’s understanding of its role in Syria. A comparative analysis of Russia’s own experience of terrorism, and other recent conflicts and political transitions, can help us better understand the complexities of its strategy in Syria and the consequences for the peace process there, which United Nations Envoy Staffan de Mistura says may resume in July.
“Terrorism” has become a catchall phrase for politicians and public figures around the world. The government in Kiev calls its war against pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine an “anti-terrorist operation,” as does the Saudi-led coalition fighting against Houthi insurgents in Yemen. For Russia, invocation of terrorism has a very specific resonance, as the country has experienced more than its share of politically motivated violent attacks over several decades, largely related to the Chechnyan independence movement.
In 1999, on the eve of Putin’s first election as president, a series of bombs in residential buildings shook the country. The Dubrovka theater siege in Moscow in 2002 ended with the death of 130 hostages, most apparently due to heavy-handed use of poison gas to root out the perpetrators. The Beslan school disaster in 2004 in North Ossetia in turn particularly traumatized the country, due to 330 hostages being killed, most of them children attending their first day of school. The Moscow metro has twice been the target of terrorist attacks, in 2004 and 2010, with a total of 81 victims, and Moscow’s Domodedovo airport was attacked in 2011, killing 37.
The Kremlin has reacted to these and other similar events by installing a government that has maintained a repressive order in Chechnya. However, the North Caucasus as a whole, particularly Daghestan, is a festering source of Islamist revolt, which the Kremlin seems unable to subdue. It is also a recruiting base for Islamists fighting in opposition ranks in Syria.
Putin believes this fight against terrorism can in turn be palatably presented to the United States as a pretext to tolerate Russian involvement in Syria. Nevertheless, American allies, notably Saudi-Arabia, the Gulf countries, and Turkey—and even some Europeans such as France and Britain—have been suspicious of this motivation. From the start of Russia’s intervention in September 2015, some Western media have complained that it is bombing anti-regime forces that are not, in Western eyes, terrorists. While this has put a dent in the Kremlin’s ambition to form an anti-terrorist alliance with Washington, Russia has still been able to attain its main goal: obtaining recognition as an unavoidable interlocutor, if not as an outright partner, in resolving the Syrian problem. Merely sitting at the peace negotiations table is a success for Russia.
Concurrently, Russia has never hidden the fact that one of its goals in Syria is to maintain what it considers the legitimate government. This is not out of any personal sympathy for Assad. In fact, Putin’s surprise March 2016 announcement that Russia was pulling out after a relatively short military campaign put pressure on the Syrian leader to show more flexibility in the peace negotiations. Russia has a stake in maintaining the fragile ceasefire for which it is one of the architects, but it is unlikely to let this override its interest in resisting rebel advances.
While Assad may be a little-loved ally, Moscow considers the forces opposing him to be led by extremists who, if victorious, would quickly suppress any moderate remaining forces. These extremists would supposedly install a radical Islamist government, hostile not only to the West but to the Russian state, whose borders lie much closer to Syria. The choice for Putin is thus a stark one between Assad and radical Islamism.
To be sure, there remains some room for maneuver in the peace negotiations. As the Russians see it, a transitional government—which has attracted little support from the Syrian opposition or its supporters—might ease Assad out of power gradually, potentially after winning a final general election. Alternatively, a constitutional change could retain Assad as nominal head of the state, but in a powerless position. The bottom line for Russia is that the opposition in its present form must not be allowed to seize power. Destroying it through force is one way of achieving this, but not necessarily the only one.
Putin’s insistence on continuity in Damascus is also dictated by experiences closer to home. He sees the Syrian civil war as a “color revolution” of the sort that has cropped up in states neighboring Russia. The Syrian revolt was initially applauded in the West along these lines, before it turned into a nightmare. By contrast, Russia’s reaction to all such revolutions, not least those in its own sphere of influence, has been decidedly negative from the outset. Whether or not Putin seriously believes that these have been the work of Western forces as he often claims, they have unquestionably strengthened Western influence, as in Ukraine and Georgia. In particular, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution beginning in 2004 and the later pro-Europe protests in Kiev’s Independence Square seriously shattered Russian complacency about its “near abroad.”
It is unlikely that Putin fears a successful color revolution at home. His popularity remains high in spite of economic hardships inflicted by Western sanctions and the fall in international energy prices. The mood in Russia is best illustrated by the fact that the Bolotnaya Square demonstrations against electoral falsification in 2011, which were touted as proof of Russian liberal opposition to Putin, attracted fewer demonstrators than the racist Manezh demonstrations against immigrants the previous year. Meanwhile, in November 2015, an unprecedented protest movement initiated by long-distance truckers refusing to pay steep road taxes disrupted roads for weeks in Moscow and triggered demonstrations in the region, catalyzed by grievances about corruption. The government made minimal concessions and this movement too lost momentum less than three months later, under the threat of repression. Although popular movements fuel all kinds of revolutionary scenarios in Russia, they seem to lack the potential to set off regime change.
Regardless, in Putin’s view, regime change can only be for the worse, and this will continue to be a major factor in determining the progress of the Syrian peace negotiations. Whatever concessions the US and Europe might offer to change this position are likely to be inadequate or unacceptable. International recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea might have the best chance of making progress, but this is a concession Western powers are unable to make. The Syrian peace negotiations will thus have to be pursued on their own terms. If they are to succeed, they must result in a situation where the appearance of continuity is maintained for the sake of the Russians, even if some form of regime change takes place and allows the US—if not the radical opposition and its supporters—to claim success.
Andre Liebich is Honorary Professor of International History and Politics, the Graduate Institute, Geneva. This article has been jointly published with the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative Observatory.