For decades during the Cold War, U.S. policy sought to minimize the role of Moscow in the Middle East. As the Soviet Union weakened dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so too did its capacity to influence events there (and many other places besides). So matters have stood since. A pretty good question, then, is why on earth the Obama administration seems to be inviting a Russian resurgence in the Middle East.
The first-term Obama initiative to “reset” relations with Russia was probably worth a try. If a dose of conspicuous American respect could lead to progress with Russia on matters of mutual interest, all to the good. And indeed, the policy arguably bore certain limited fruit: an agreement that further reduces nuclear stockpiles (though not one without its critics); cooperation over Afghanistan; restraint in terms of Russian cooperation with Iran (specifically, Russia’s support for sanctions and its nondelivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system Tehran sought in order to complicate military options against its nuclear programs); an abstention on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from the last gasp of Muammar Qaddafi’s effort to stay in power.
But Vladimir Putin’s Russia never really responded to the reset by opting for a constructive role in international politics. Since Putin emerged at the top of the post-Soviet political heap, Russian foreign policy, such as it is, has mainly seemed to be driven by a combined sense of nostalgia, grievance, and resentment—Russia with a chip on its shoulder over the loss of an empire and the supposed abuse inflicted upon it by the United States in its period of weakness.
Putin’s autocratic tendencies are of a piece with his posturing on behalf of a strong Russia. Has there ever been a world leader who so likes to be photographed bare-chested? Yet he has always seemed a little too insistent in delivering his message that Russia is back.
On the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, he proclaimed his country an energy superpower, as if this were some hitherto undiscovered category of greatness in international politics. Now, if there were such a thing as an energy superpower, Saudi Arabia would surely be one; but, of course, Saudi Arabia is anything but a superpower, notwithstanding its oil riches. And thanks to shale oil and gas in the United States as well as crumbling Russian energy infrastructure, it looks like it’s the United States that will be adding the significant new dimension of energy self-sufficiency to its already considerable national power.
Russia has its nuclear arsenal and the external security such a capability provides. It is, in some sense, untouchable even by greater U.S. power. Hence the skepticism with which Moscow greeted Obama’s proposal in his Berlin speech for further deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Yet the notion of a Russian “grand strategy” that the United States has anything to fret about has long been far-fetched. The biggest problems Russia causes are exactly where you would expect to find them: in countries bordering Russia in the old Soviet space and in countries that have ties with Moscow going back to their status as client-states during the Cold War.
Russia has been especially active where the United States and its allies have been divided or acted hesitantly —a problem that did not begin with Obama. For example, NATO was divided at its 2008 summit on whether to extend an invitation to Russia’s neighbor Georgia to take the next step in its bid to join the alliance. It’s unclear whether doing so would actually have prevented Russia from responding to provocations in ethnically Russian breakaway Georgian regions in August of that year by sending in an invading force. Putin’s hatred for Georgia’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was personal and deep. But Germany’s insistence that Georgia receive something less than a definitive path to NATO membership was just an early example of an attempt to assuage Russian concerns that ended up backfiring. And even here, Putin lacked the will (or perhaps the capacity?) to send Russian tanks all the way to Tbilisi and “reunite” Georgia with Russia by force.
Western policy toward Ukraine has also been less than a model of coherence, as the United States and the European Union have swung from excessive optimism over the country’s future to self-defeating pessimism. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s future independence is not seriously in doubt. Russia seeks and maintains influence there, but influence has not crossed over into the kind of dominance the Soviet Union exerted over neighbors.
Obama didn’t improve cohesion among U.S. allies in his first term with a ham-handed effort to cancel a missile defense system scheduled for deployment in Poland. One gets the impression that senior officials in the Obama administration regard the security concerns our Central and Eastern European allies voice about Russia as overblown. They may well be. But the American dismissal of such concerns only serves to exacerbate them, which in turn encourages all the wrong tendencies within Russia. Once again, though, Russian weakness and fecklessness have protected us from major consequences of our miscues.
But in Syria, it looks like Russian weakness and fecklessness may finally be meeting their match in a race to the bottom with U.S. weakness and fecklessness. Maybe the long-overdue decision to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition marks a turning point, and the Obama administration has at last figured out that a vacuum where U.S. leadership should be can lead not only to further humanitarian disaster but also to adverse strategic consequences. But it’s remarkable how long the administration has blithely watched the erosion of our position in the Middle East—and with what equanimity it has allowed Russia to once again become a consequential player acting against U.S. interests there.
Russia’s marginality in the Middle East has been a constant since 1990-91, the time of the first Gulf war. George H. W. Bush actively and successfully cultivated the cooperation of the last Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, in presenting a united front of opposition to Saddam Hussein’s conquest and attempted annexation of Kuwait. The result was a sequence of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding Saddam’s withdrawal and culminating in the authorization of member-states to remove him by force if necessary—along with the mobilization of a large military coalition legitimated by the U.N. and led by the United States. The Soviet Union did not contribute military assets, but Bush and his national security team, led by national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, worked assiduously to keep Gorbachev on their side diplomatically while resisting all Soviet entreaties that they thought would weaken the coalition’s position against Saddam.
In retrospect, Gorbachev’s sometimes noble, sometimes hapless efforts to cope with the terminal crisis of the Soviet Union give the impression of a man trying to ride a tiger. Some forward-thinking senior Soviet officials seemed genuinely to have supported his position at the side of President Bush. But not all. Yevgeny Primakov, Gorbachev’s special envoy for Iraq, was on the hunt from the outset of the diplomatic maneuvering in the run-up to the war for a face-saving out for Saddam. His frantic maneuvering in the days before the commencement of the ground war in February 1991 eventually persuaded Gorbachev to approach Bush with a proposal to defer the ground campaign in response to supposed “concessions” from Saddam. The response from Bush and his team was a diplomatic but firm “no”: Saddam’s only way out must be full compliance with all the provisions of the Security Council resolutions demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal.
And that was that. Gorbachev went away empty-handed, unable to force an outcome more to his liking. The Soviet capacity to influence events against the wishes of the United States in the biggest international crisis in 10 years or more was nil. Within a year, the Soviet Union itself dissolved, its influence in the Middle East having predeceased it.
Gorbachev did not, however, bolt on the coalition effort. He grumbled, but he acquiesced. And this has largely been the pattern of Russian-American relations on matters of high policy ever since. Russia opposed military action against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing and atrocities in Kosovo in 1998-99, and used its veto power to refuse to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action. When NATO decided to go ahead anyway, Russia denounced the move, but if Milosevic harbored the impression that the Russians were going to come to his rescue (which he may have), he eventually became disabused of the notion and capitulated. The main angle of Russian maneuvering was for participation in the follow-up peacekeeping mission. Russia aspired to a sector of its own—and was denied it by NATO.
Russia was nominally opposed to the 2003 Iraq war but supported Security Council Resolution 1441, in November 2002, giving Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” and promising “serious consequences” for the failure to do so. The United States expected to but couldn’t obtain a second Security Council resolution in early 2003 containing explicit authorization for the use of military force against the Hussein regime; the big problem then was not Russia, but France. And of course the United States was prepared to act on its own authority anyway, about which Russia could or would do nothing of consequence.
Similarly, Russia did not like the idea of NATO enlargement, especially into formerly Soviet territory, namely, the Baltics. But was Russia willing to, for example, act covertly to destabilize Lithuania in the hope of derailing U.S. enthusiasm for its inclusion in the enlargement round in 2004? No, it wasn’t (or couldn’t).
More recently, Russia was hardly enthusiastic about coming to the rescue of Libyan civilians as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi closed in to crush the rebellion and—if Qaddafi’s own words were to be believed—exact reprisals on a mass scale. Certainly Russia was not in favor of toppling the Qaddafi regime. But Russia and China did voluntarily subscribe in 2005 at the United Nations World Summit to the principle of the “responsibility to protect”: that if a state fails to act to protect its populations from atrocities (or perpetrates atrocities), the international community acting through the United Nations may do so. And so Russia and China abstained on Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.
When NATO exceeded the explicit U.N. mandate by continuing its air campaign in support of the opposition until Qaddafi fell, the Russians protested loudly that they had been hoodwinked; they would never have allowed 1973 to go through if they had known NATO intended to topple Qaddafi. Given that the leaders of France, Great Britain, and the United States had all publicly declared that Qaddafi had to go, it’s rather difficult to credit Russia with sufficient naïveté not to have known that the Security Council resolution was providing cover for regime change. Putin, though he occasionally strikes a pose of wounded innocence, is no ingénue.
But then came the beginning of the protests in Syria. The demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad began peacefully in March 2011. Many Syrians were expecting Assad to respond by broadly opening the political system. He chose not to, but rather to suppress the protests by force, opening fire on civilians first in Daraa in April. Thus was born the Syrian rebellion.
The United States began to press for action at the United Nations, but no resolution was forthcoming as the death toll continued to mount. A year into the rebellion, in April 2012, came the only resolution the Security Council has ever passed on the crisis, a toothless expression of support for a cease-fire and the diplomatic mission of special envoy Kofi Annan (a mission Annan would abandon as hopeless a few months later). About a month before, a U.N. official placed the civilian death toll at about 9,000.
Russia, along with China, professed to have learned a lesson from the Libya experience. They promised to veto anything that might set Syria on a path toward the ouster of the Assad regime. The Russians have made good on that threat four times, most recently in June by vetoing a British-drafted resolution condemning attacks on civilians in Qusayr. The United Nations recently issued a new estimate of casualties of the civil war, placing deaths at around 100,000 including combatants on both sides. The number of civilian deaths is in the scores of thousands, with millions displaced internally and over a million having fled across the border to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Moscow and Beijing have been unyielding in their cynical claim to be issuing their vetoes in order to uphold the principles of the U.N. Charter. As the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, piously noted in June 2012, “These purposes and principles include respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a state and the obligation not to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states.” Lavrov, in short, would like to leave international relations about as they were at the time of the Treaty of Westphalia. The purpose of the U.N. Charter, at least notionally, was certainly not to allow states to slaughter their civilian populations with impunity. The charter gives the Security Council “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” in the hope that the body will act when necessary, as is certainly the case in Syria. The international element is obvious: refugee flows, even leaving aside the responsibility to protect.
So Moscow’s behavior in Turtle Bay has been reprehensible and also newly uncooperative. The pattern of two decades—denounce but acquiesce—has been broken. What’s more, the Russians have gone much further than mere rhetoric. They have actively been supporting Assad, selling him arms, providing military advisers, and making a show of their presence in the region. Syria is home to Russia’s sole remaining naval base outside the territory of the former Soviet Union, at Tartus. Russia conducted an 11-ship naval exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean not far from the Syrian coast earlier this year, the biggest such Russian exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has provided Syria with antiship missiles, believed to be operational now out of Tartus.
But by far the most troubling show of support for Syria was the Russian foreign ministry’s announcement in May of a contract to supply Assad with the S-300, air defense technology far more advanced than anything Syria deploys. This is a system Russia has repeatedly been talked out of delivering to Iran, largely on the grounds that Israel would move militarily to prevent its deployment. After word of the plan (half-baked though it may be) to deliver the system to Syria came out, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Putin at which he reportedly urged Putin not to make good on the S-300 deal. Israel would certainly act to take out the system before it became operational in Syria. The U.S. State Department has also expressed strong opposition. After considerable confusion about exactly what the status of the deal is—including an apparently erroneous report attributed to Assad that the system had already arrived—Putin weighed in to say that though a deal to supply the S-300 to Syria had been reached some years ago, Russia had not fulfilled it.
The S-300 is no giant-killer. On the other hand, officials from the Obama administration have asserted time after time that Syria’s existing air defenses are much tougher than those Qaddafi had in Libya—supposedly evidence of the difficulty of imposing a no-fly zone in Syria that would spare civilians some of the worst of Assad’s assaults. Yet it seems implausible in the extreme that the U.S. military is unprepared to defeat existing Syrian air defenses, especially given Israel’s demonstrated ability to conduct loss-free airstrikes on Syrian military targets. These cautionary notes seem to have a lot more to do with bolstering a position of U.S. inaction than an honest assessment of military capabilities.
Nevertheless, even the rumor of the arrival of the S-300 was sufficient to elevate the perception of the importance of Russia in the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has been scrambling to convene an international peace conference on Syria, in which Russia would take a leading role. If this sounds like conventional 1970s-era diplomacy at its worst, that’s because it is. Henry Kissinger spent much of his career in and out of office trying to shut down calls for such a Mideast peace conference with Moscow, on the grounds that the most likely outcome would be an increase in the Kremlin’s influence in the region and the isolation of Israel. The world has changed considerably since then; this equation, not so much. Presumably, Kerry envisions Putin pressing Assad into some kind of cease-fire and settlement—on grounds that without Putin, Assad is finished. That analysis essentially leaves Putin in charge of the terms of the settlement.
In short, the Obama administration has been conducting its Syria policy in a fashion that maximizes the influence of the least constructive “partner” we have to work with. The United States spent a couple of years trying to address Syria through the Security Council, where Russia readily blocked action with its veto. Although President Obama himself said almost two years ago that Assad must go, a sentiment he reaffirmed in March with Netanyahu at his side and in May with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his side, the United States has done nothing of consequence to increase pressure on Russia at the Security Council by showing Moscow we have other options. Meanwhile, we have talked up Assad’s dubious capacity to deter us, which only encourages his favorite arms merchant, Putin. The prospect of Russian arms sales changing the military balance in the Middle East is now before us, and with it an increase in the likelihood of conflict. Our delay in responding may also have given Russian military advisers an opportunity to take up positions that are potentially in harm’s way, further complicating our options. And now we come, hat in hand, hoping for Moscow’s good offices at an international peace conference.
There is no good reason for any of this. If the idea was that Russia would get out of the way of constructive action on Syria, as it so often has chosen to do before, the administration should have recognized that its premise was erroneous 18 months ago. It didn’t take the Clinton administration very long to figure out that it needed a bypass around the Russian veto over Kosovo. One hopes the idea wasn’t that tens of thousands of Syrian civilians are expendable because we need Russia on board for our U.N. diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.
Without quite realizing what we were doing, our non-response to Assad’s atrocities opened a door for malign Russian influence of a kind that we have avoided for more than two decades. It remains uncertain whether Putin has the nerve to walk through it, but that’s his call. If he doesn’t, it won’t be for want of opportunity we have created for him. The president himself has declared, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Syria is a textbook example of how failure to act in response to atrocities can leave a vacuum in which our national security interests are at serious risk.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.