How Putin Is Winning in Syria – Analysis
Leni Friedman Valenta and Jiri Valenta
Middle East Quarterly, June 28, 2020 Russian president Vladimir Putin’s drive into Syria and the Middle East has been astonishingly successful, but do not expect him to build a Pax Sovietica. He intensely dislikes the Bolsheviks despite having been one himself. A student of history, he lives and breathes Russia’s defeats as well as its victories, and he still feels the pain of losing land to the Germans during World War I. “We lost to the losing side,” he told pro-Kremlin activists in 2016, “a unique case in history!” Putin, like it or not, is one of the most important statesmen of our time. Among the richest, the most experienced, the most manipulative, and the most innovative world leaders, he is obsessed with appearing strong and being strong. Not only does he have a black belt in karate, he is a judo expert at the eighth of ten levels of Dan. He has proven himself to be as brutal as he is cruel, at the cost of thousands of lives. And his primary goal is countering and containing the United States with an anti-Western world order.
Putin’s Mariupol Ploys
Russia has been fighting in Syria since September 2015 when Putin set out to rescue his longstanding client, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, from his numerous enemies: Sunni Arab insurgents, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey, and U.S. president Barack Obama, who claimed to be arming “moderate rebels.”
The murder of Libyan tyrant Mu’ammar Qaddafi by Western-backed militants convinced Putin it was time to save his Syrian protégé. He had already invested much in Syria’s port of Tartus for the servicing of Russian ships. He had established an air base at Latakia. And he saw Syria as a future transfer state for oil and gas. He also bet that entering the Syrian war theater was the best way to establish himself in the Middle East, an objective long denied him by the West.
Interestingly enough, the saga began more than a thousand miles from Syria when, in January 2015, Putin first backtracked on a military feint toward the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. After Russia’s violent assault there in January, he was expected to attack again. Instead, he surprised the West, froze the Ukraine war, and went into Syria to save the Assad regime.
Nearly four years later, on November 25, 2018, Russia seized three Ukrainian ships en route to Mariupol for allegedly violating Russian waters and detained their crews. To the West it seemed an opening gambit to cripple Ukrainian trade between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. But nothing more happened. Again, Putin froze the war in Ukraine, this time to intensify his war in the Syrian governorate of Idlib. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Turkey and Russia: A New Paradigm for Regional Rivalries?
LSE, July 6, 2020
By now, the wars in Syria and Libya should by now be considered two manifestations of one larger conflict. After Turkey suffered losses at the hands of the Russian-backed Syrian army, the UN-recognised government in Tripoli routs Khalifa Haftar’s forces from the capital with Turkish support. When Assad appears as secure as ever, Russia increases recruitment of Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya. What do these patterns mean? A set of coalitions have solidified, and the fortunes of war in both Libya and Syria are beginning to appear to be deeply connected by the larger rivalry between Russia and Turkey. Most importantly, this rivalry, and how it is pursued regionally, may be indicative of how geopolitical competition in the Middle East will play out in a future with diminished American hegemony.
It is not bold to claim that the political futures of Syria and Libya will not be decided in Damascus or Tripoli, respectively. Although the conflicts in Syria and Libya differ in many respects, especially with regards to foreign intervention, they have come to share one common trait: a proxy competition between Turkey and Russia, each side further supported by a constellation of geopolitical fellow-travellers. A quick recap: in Syria, Turkey supports a subset of rebel forces, while the Russians back the Assad government. In Libya, Turkey is a strong supporter of the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, while Russia is the most effective supporter of Khalifa Haftar.
Previously, the geographic distance and limited state (or non-state group) capacity between Syria and Libya rendered any kind of sustained connection between the two conflicts impossible, save the moral support and mutual identification stemming from the shared experiences of the Arab Spring. Geopolitical imperatives fragmented international ideological coalitions, making the international response initially far more aggressive in Libya than Syria. Now, a new set of coalitions have crystallised and remain coherent across the contextual boundaries that separate the Libyan and Syrian conflicts. Turkey transported Syrian mercenaries to support the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli against Haftar’s offensive. Russian mercenaries have played a critical role in Haftar’s same offensive on Tripoli, many of which undoubtedly served in Syria as well. This human flow represents the most potent demonstration of interconnectivity. It is not ideological conviction that drives flows of combatants from one place to the other, but rather a ruthless realpolitik logic that adjusts military commitments across borders to in response to shifting equilibria on the battlefield. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
As US-China Competition Unfolds, Russia Watches Closely
BESA, June 26, 2020
Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point in two decades. Similar patterns of warming and cooling have taken place intermittently ever since Russia emerged as a major Eurasian power in the early 18th century. Each crisis with the West alternated with rapprochement and at times full military and security cooperation.
An unchangeable trait of those relations was that Russia had scarcely any foreign policy alternatives with which to balance its West-oriented geopolitical worldview. For Moscow, the West remained a major source of technological, economic, and political progress even as it remained an existential threat, as various military invasions by western Europeans into the Russian heartland proved.
This changed in the early 2000s, when China’s rise gave Russia a new card to play. Today’s Russian political elites advocate a more balanced foreign policy in which the Kremlin’s interests lie in every major Eurasian region. According to that vision, Russia’s foreign policy is no longer attached to any specific region but is evenly spread in an era of “Global Russia.”
From the Russian perspective, the competition between the US and China is a geopolitical development that could offer Moscow many opportunities. The US, which once focused on containing Russia through broader support for vulnerable territories from Scandinavia to the Black Sea, is now focused on Syria and other Middle East trouble spots and is shifting its attention far from Russia’s borders to the Indo-Pacific.
There is, indeed, an urgent need for this shift in American focus, as China’s power far outstrips Russia’s. But for the Russians, the shift in the American worldview means US power will be depleted even more than it was in the 2000s. Over the century’s first two decades, the US entered Afghanistan and Iraq and later got involved in Syria, spending trillions overall.
This means that Russia’s pivot to the east, rebalancing the West with China, has much deeper geopolitical significance than many believe. Russia-China cooperation goes far beyond the “partnership of convenience” propounded by many analysts.
As the US-China competition persists (as it is likely to do for decades), it will grow easier for Russia to maneuver and attain at least some geopolitical aims in its immediate neighborhood. For Moscow, the longer the competition between the two economic and military powers goes on the better, as it will help Russia position itself as a separate pole of geopolitical gravitation. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
East Ukraine’s European Roots and the Myths of Purtin’s Russian World
Atlantic Council, July 13, 2020
Since spring 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been waging a hybrid war against Ukraine to prevent the country’s departure from the Kremlin orbit. This unconventional campaign involves military, economic, diplomatic, and informational components. Underpinning it all are Russia’s historic claims to much of present-day Ukraine. Putin makes little effort to disguise his contempt for Ukrainian statehood. Instead, he argues that Ukraine has always been part of Russia’s traditional heartlands and is destined to remain so, whether Ukrainians like it or not.
Throughout the past six years, Putin has repeatedly asserted that the Russian-occupied Donbas region in eastern Ukraine is an important element of Russia’s national inheritance. In a notorious April 2014 speech that followed the seizure of Crimea and signaled the next stage of the war against Ukraine, he claimed the Donbas had never actually been Ukrainian and was inexplicably handed over to Soviet Ukraine in 1920. “God knows why,” he commented. More recently, in December 2019, Putin used his annual press marathon to refer to the Donbas as “ancestral Russian lands that had never had anything to do with Ukraine”.
Putin’s selective reading of the past may suit his political objectives, but it does not stand up to closer scrutiny. In reality, the Ukrainian presence in the contested Donbas region of eastern Ukraine stretches back for centuries, while the area’s European roots make a mockery of Kremlin attempts to portray it as sacred Russian land.
Putin’s simplistic narrative conceals a far more complex picture. For centuries, the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine was part of the “Wild Fields”, a vast swathe of sparsely populated borderlands stretching across the Ukrainian steppe that separated the Slavic states to the north from the Crimean Khanate and Ottoman Empire to the south.
In the late sixteenth century, the rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth recognized the rights of the Ukrainian Cossacks to settle the Donbas up to the Don River. Further waves of settler migration came as a result of the Russian-Turkish wars in the eighteenth century, with Russian ruler Catherine the Great offering land grants to entice newcomers.
The majority of settlers were Ukrainians, but new arrivals also included large numbers of Russians, Romanians, Serbians, Hungarians, and Germans as well as ethnic Greeks from nearby Crimea. This helped to make the Donbas region one of the most cosmopolitan corners of the Russian Empire. Indeed, today’s Donbas is still home to a large Greek population centered around Mariupol.
The next major turning point in the development of the Donbas was the nineteenth century industrial revolution. With its rich mineral resources, the region emerged as an important European hub that attracted a new influx of opportunists and industrialists from across the continent. Many saw parallels between the explosive growth of the Donbas during this period and the westwards expansion taking place at the same time in North America, leading Russian author Alexander Blok to dub the region “New America.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
For Further Reference:
Russia, Turkey, and Iran Coordinate anti-US Syria policy, Slamming Israel: Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2020 — Russia, Turkey and Iran held a virtual meeting last Wednesday to coordinate efforts in Syria. They have been holding similar meetings since 2017 as part of what is called the Astana Process.
Protests Rock Russian Far East With Calls for Putin to Resign: Andrew Higgins, NYTimes, July 11, 2020— Tens of thousands of people protested in Russia’s Far East on Saturday in a rare display of opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin in the country’s vast hinterland, chanting “Putin Resign” and demanding the release of a regional governor arrested this past week on suspicion of multiple murders.
Britain Sanctions Russians, Saudis: Elizabeth Piper, Andy Brace, National Post, July 7, 2020 — Britain imposed sanctions on 25 Russians and 20 Saudis on Monday as part of post-Brexit measures Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said were aimed at stopping the laundering of “blood money.”
Is Yemen the Next Frontier for the Turkey-Russia Conflict?: Irina Tsukerman, BESA July 7, 2020 — In a recent video, Turkey-backed Syrian mercenaries fighting on behalf of Tripoli’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, aided by local Islamist militias, are seen saying, “We are just getting started. The target is going to be Gaza.” They further state that they want to take on President Sisi of Egypt and to go to Yemen.