Putin is pursuing a failed strategy à la Brezhnev
The loopholes of Russia’s stance on Syria are not a fortuitous phenomenon but the logical consequence of Vladimir Putin’s disdain for public opinion
Whether by intellectual inertia or by a desire to replay the Cold-War game, Vladimir Putin is showing, as regards the Syrian conflict, the same strategic weaknesses and shortcomings that characterized the reign of his predecessor and former boss Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). Several analogies can indeed be detected between the two foreign-policy tacks.
For starters, remember Nasser’s Egypt and its full-fledged alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1960s? The strategy worked well for Moscow… until the post-Nasser leadership, headed by Anwar Sadat, decided to reassess its geopolitical penchants and cut its ties with Moscow. To Brezhnev’s dismay, Egypt became both a key partner of the US and the main recipient of U.S. aid in the Arab-Muslim world.
Today, Putin’s Kremlin is mired in Syria, in a blind-alley that recalls Brezhnev’s predicament vis-à-vis Cairo. This time it is not a partner (Egypt) that runs away, but an ally (Syria) that becomes a millstone. In both cases, Moscow appears to be overtaken by events, enduring its allies’ stances rather than shaping them to its advantage.
By trying tooth and nail to salvage Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Moscow expects to preserve its sole naval access to the Mediterranean Sea, namely the Syrian port of Tartus, as well as its lucrative arms trade with Damascus.
The problem is that, irrespective of the final fate of the Syrian regime, the support given to Bashar al-Assad is bound to adversely affect Moscow’s weight in the Middle East – just as the severance of the Egypt-USSR alliance at the time of Brezhnev undermined the weight of the Soviet Union in the Arab world. It will indeed be difficult to find Sunni-led regimes willing to enter into partnerships with Putin’s Russia.
Russia is bound to lose even if Assad keeps a hold in Syria. Russia’s interests – notably its installations in the port of Tartus – would become a source of friction with the Syrian rebel forces. The Sunni-led regimes of the Middle East may in turn decide to provide financial assistance to groups fighting Russia’s hegemony in the peripheral regions of the Russian Confederation of Independent States.
And given the destruction that the present conflict has brought about in Syria, Moscow had better say good-bye to its financial claims on Damascus.
The second analogy between Brezhnev and Putin has to do with the reckless utilization of Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council.
Putin would arguably stand to gain by making a trade-off at the Security Council, namely: accepting to endorse a forceful resolution aimed at putting an end to the massacres in Syria in exchange for a prominent role in post-Assad Syria.
Instead, he has behaved in a manner reminiscent of Brezhnev’s foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, who got the nickname of “Mr. Nyet” (“Mr. No”) for his frequent vetoes on UN draft resolutions.
Putin’s systematic obstruction of UN resolutions against Bashar al-Assad plays into the hands of the U.S. administration. A post-Assad Syria is fraught with uncertainties: sectarian violence, terrorist activism and fragmentation of the country are perils that loom large on the horizon. Getting ensnared in Syria, therefore, is something that no U.S. administration would look forward to.
Hence the usefulness, for Washington, of Moscow’s intransigence at the Security Council: President Obama can shun away from a direct involvement in Syria on the ground that Russia’s vetoes eliminate the possibility of an international action in that country.
This takes us to the third analogy between Brezhnev and Putin: once again, Moscow is losing the “war of images” – to the benefit of Washington.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the repression of public dissent in Eastern Europe, Leonid Brezhnev achieved the unthinkable: to obliterate the U.S. misadventures in Vietnam. The images of the Vietnam War were indeed soon dislodged by those of Soviet troops entangled in Afghanistan and of protestors in Eastern Europe being clubbed and jailed under the instructions of the Kremlin.
Today, Vladimir Putin has achieved a similar counter-prowess. The unwieldy departure of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan has been relegated to a secondary plan in world’s attention as the images of the Syrian butchery – a crime shielded by Russian diplomacy – invade the TV screens all over the world.
The Obama administration, too, had for some time played the Assad card, with Secretary of State Clinton calling him a “reformer” as recently as in March last year. But the U.S. opportunely abandoned that narrative and has, instead, adopted an anti-Bashar rhetoric – with, admittedly, no practical effect thus far. The result is that it is Moscow’s international image, rather than Washington’s, that is crumbling along with the Syrian regime.
The loopholes of Russia’s stance on Syria are not a fortuitous phenomenon but the logical consequence of Vladimir Putin’s disdain for public opinion. A regime that persecutes journalists, jails opponents, represses public protests and chases NGOs at home cannot weigh appropriately the political cost of providing a diplomatic cover to an international outcast.
For Putin – as was the case for Brezhnev – people’s opinion counts too little, or rather, it doesn’t count at all.
Fabio Rafael Fiallo is an economist, writer and former UN official. His latest book, “Ternes Eclats”, or “Dimmed Lights” (Paris, L’Harmattan), presents a critique of international organizations and multilateral diplomacy
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