Another Perspective

Putin’s Historic Quest in Syria

There’s every reason to expect it will cost him badly.

By 10.13.15

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If you want to understand the foreign policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, you might begin by looking at a map of Russia. It is a vast country that spans the globe from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean at latitudes that make winter a series of omnipresent challenges. One of those challenges is the need for warm water ports.

Access to the sea is vital to Russia’s prosperity. Russia’s quest for warm water ports has dominated its policy of expansionism since Ivan the Terrible, and it guided the policies of Peter the Great when he wrested what became known as St. Petersburg from Sweden.

There are only three places through which Russia can trade by sea with the wider world — St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Crimea. Vladivostok is thousands of treacherous miles from the hub of the Russian economy and requires icebreakers four months of the year, making Crimea and St. Petersburg all the more important.

When Russian President Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea back to Ukraine, it was at a time when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. To reestablish Russia as a military and economic power, Crimea is essential. Putin could no more leave Crimea to the Ukrainians than Barack Obama could give Pearl Harbor back to the Hawaiians.

No matter who governs Russia, every head of state must pursue, acquire, and defend warm water ports for Russia’s merchant and military naval fleets.

Like nature, strategic interests abhor a vacuum. President Obama has decided to withdraw from the Middle East and develop Iran as the regional hegemonic power.

Having been outwitted by Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy, the Russians have not had a formidable presence in the Middle East since the 1970s. Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus, one of the few places in the region where Russia has had a presence, is now being dramatically upgraded. Tartus will provide a haven for Russian ships to be serviced and resupplied without having to go all the way back to the Black Sea.

Obama is leaving. Putin is arriving. The airfield at Latakia is surrounded by Russian marines, and Russian planes are now flying sorties from the base against the opposition to Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad.

To put a thumb in Obama’s eye, the first two attacks were launched against the opposition groups that America supports, not against ISIS.

Russia has warned both America and Israel against interfering with its aerial attacks and flying into Syrian airspace. For Israel, which has had a free rein over Syrian airspace, this is a critical change. For America, which is withdrawing from the region, this is a challenge that can be ignored.

For talk-show hosts, this has been more than sufficient reason to have an apoplectic fit about the decline of America and the rise of Russia. The scenario is that an aggressive, nationalistic Putin has Obama on the run, and America’s role in the world is diminished accordingly.

Before you get too bent out of shape about this dynamic, consider that Russia needs Tartus so its navy doesn’t have to sail up through the Turkish-controlled Dardanelles and Bosporus into the Black Sea for servicing. America, on the other hand, no longer needs the Middle East because American access to domestic energy is abundant and now cheap.

To add to the hysteria, Russia is announcing that it has plans for more external military bases, including Asia and Latin America. But all of that should be taken with the proverbial grain of sea salt. Russia’s economy is spiraling down the drain of cheap and abundant energy.

Putin is making the same mistakes the Soviet Union made. He is expanding his military on the foundation of a weak and vulnerable economic base. It has the potential to result in a rerun of the winter of 1991.

As for Israel, the threat from Assad has always been greater than the threat from ISIS. After all, ISIS has only been successful when going up against the disorganized forces on the periphery of a failing state. ISIS has done poorly against the Kurds and against the regular Egyptian Army in the Sinai. But as long as ISIS and Assad are fighting each other, neither one is going to be concerned about Israel.

Putin’s narcissism could be his worst enemy. It appears that he has already put troops (Special Forces) on the ground with nearly 150,000 more set to enter the theatre. He has not learned from Russia’s dismal experience in Afghanistan. The Russian people are not going to stand for their children coming home in body bags for another faraway war. Add what will undoubtedly be an eruption of ISIS terror striking inside Russia’s borders, he is setting the stage for a revolution at home that will make the October Revolution look like a child’s birthday party.

Israel will emerge as a beacon of stability in a sea of chaos, and the regional threat from ISIS will be a catalyst for military and economic cooperation with Israel’s Arab neighbors. In contrast, Putin’s historic quest for another warm water port at the cost of involvement in a military conflict might well prove an economic catastrophe.

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About the Author

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a senior fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. @salomoncenter