By Lili Bayer and Jacob Shapiro
It may seem counterintuitive to write about Russia being in crisis today. After all, Russia’s limited military deployment in Syria seems to be paying substantial dividends. Backed by Russian air support, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has pushed forward with a two-pronged military offensive. Assad’s forces have managed to drive rebels out of Latakia province. Now instead of a desperate fight to defend core regime territory in the Alawite coastland, Assad’s forces are ready to stage attacks into key rebel positions in Idlib province. Meanwhile, the Assad regime has managed to strike at both Islamic State and rebel positions in Aleppo. Now that the Assad regime has ended the IS siege of Kuweires air base, Russia has deployed hundreds of personnel and air defense systems. Most significant, Assad regime forces have scored key victories around the city of Aleppo, and on Feb. 3 captured the towns of Nubl and Zahraa, cutting key rebel supply lines to Turkey.
Meanwhile, headlines today have focused on the administration of President Barack Obama opening a two-front campaign on Syria: ending the war on Assad through negotiations and stepping up the war on IS. Headlines can often be misleading, but when it comes to Syria, they are especially so. It wouldn’t be a normal week if there weren’t at least one article about a new diplomatic initiative to bring the Syrian civil war to a close and unseat Assad. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and representatives of more than a dozen other nations met on Feb. 11 in Munich. Kerry and Lavrov announced that they had agreed to cease hostilities and facilitate humanitarian aid in Syria, but did not know whether the leaders of rebel groups would adhere to the ceasefire. Of course, the Islamic State and other radical fighters in the region were not included in the ceasefire agreement. But the diplomats will meet again soon, with great fanfare and few concrete results.
The truth is that there are no real steps to take. The U.S. does not have a fundamental interest in seeing the Assad regime removed from power. The U.S. wants to see the Islamic State defeated. And while Russia is indeed striking mostly at Syrian rebel groups, Russia is also fighting against Islamic State. As Assad’s regime gains strength, IS has fewer opportunities to expand. Furthermore, moderate Syrian rebel groups are not the chief combatants of the Russian-backed Assad regime. Many of Assad’s recent gains have come at the expense of Jabhat al-Nusra – al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria and the strongest of the rebel groups on the ground in Aleppo. If the Islamic State were not so active in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra would be seen as the main radical Islamist threat in its own right.
These movements seem to indicate that Russia has scored a victory in Syria in its support of the Assad regime. And the Russians have indeed succeeded in demonstrating, albeit in a limited capacity, the potential effectiveness of their military. But Syria is ultimately peripheral to Russian interests. Russia became involved with Syria because it wanted to develop leverage in its dealings with the West, particularly with the United States. The primary issues for Russia don’t hang on Assad’s success. They hang on Russia’s precarious domestic situation and on its western frontier.
The Kremlin’s primary concern is Russia’s ongoing economic crisis, which threatens to undermine domestic stability. Low oil prices are forcing the government in Moscow to revise its budget yet again, and decision-makers are scrambling to find opportunities to raise extra revenues. Russia’s GDP fell by 3.7 percent last year, and the value of the ruble has reached record lows. But critically, the crisis has had a tangible impact on the daily lives of Russian citizens. Their real incomes fell by 9.5 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to official figures. For the first time in 18 years, Russians are collectively spending more than they earn. These expenditures are in part due to shrinking incomes and rising prices, but another factor is likely the uncertainty surrounding the value of the ruble and the future of the Russian economy, since foreign currency purchases are considered expenditures in official statistics.
Putin’s regime is in a relatively strong position domestically, but the Kremlin is highly aware that deteriorating economic conditions undermine its core social contract with the Russian people. The Kremlin enjoys widespread legitimacy mainly due to the belief that it is guaranteeing stability.
Moreover, financial troubles are forcing the Kremlin to focus its expenditures inward, thus limiting the amount of funding available to spend on fulfilling foreign policy objectives. While the Kremlin is busy attempting to mitigate the impact of Russia’s economic crisis, it must also continue pursuing the country’s primary strategic goal: maintaining buffer zones between Russia’s vulnerable core and the West. Ukraine is one of these key buffer areas. Ukraine has its own economic troubles, and the government in Kiev is heavily dependent on external financing to pay its bills. At the same time, the Ukrainian government is weak and divided. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde warned on Feb. 10 that the future of the country’s ongoing $40 billion bailout program may be jeopardized if reforms are not implemented.
On one hand, Russia benefits from a weak Ukraine plagued by financial difficulties. Ukraine is less likely to successfully pursue Western integration if corruption, weak governance and poor economic performance persist. On the other hand, the Kremlin understands that the 2014 regime change in Kiev signified a shift in Ukrainian society and politics as well as in Ukraine’s relationship with the United States. Regardless of their squabbles, the majority of Ukrainian political factions are pro-Western and the annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine turned the tide of public opinion against Moscow. Most important, the U.S. and key European powers like Germany are committed to the pro-Western regime in Kiev. Moscow does not have the military or financial ability to occupy Ukraine, and cannot afford a direct confrontation with the West. Russia’s options in Ukraine, therefore, are very limited. The best the Kremlin can hope to achieve is a nominally pro-Western but practically neutral Ukraine.
Ukraine, however, is not the only country in the historical buffer area that Moscow is worried about. Following the annexation of Crimea, both the U.S. and NATO committed to boosting their presence along the alliance’s eastern edge.
On Feb. 10, NATO ministers approved a framework for a plan to boost multinational troop reinforcements in eastern member countries. This decision came after Obama’s administration announced on Feb. 2 that the U.S. will more than quadruple military spending in Europe in 2017. The U.S. government plans to deploy more weapons and equipment to Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a full armored combat brigade. Russia lost the Baltic states and former members of the Warsaw Pact like Hungary and Poland as buffers years ago when these countries joined NATO. However, the deployment of U.S. and NATO troops and equipment in ever larger quantities close to Russia’s borders adds to Moscow’s insecurity and highlights that an increasingly weak Russia is unable to fulfill its basic strategic goal.