By Andrew Blinkinsop, Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst
Depending on which headlines one has been reading the last few weeks, one could be excused for thinking that NATO is already in the middle of a new Cold War, that a revanchist Russia poses an existential threat to the U.S. and its European allies, and that Russia’s escalation of force in Syria is the latest chapter in a story of Western decline and authoritarian resurgence. The narrative is ominous, yet appealing in its simplicity and familiarity. It is also appealing to those like Senator John McCain, who bemoan what they perceive as a power vacuum caused by the apparent“ abdication of American leadership” by the Obama Administration. At an even higher fever pitch, somerecent analyseswarn in dire terms of “new era of global geopolitics” and “a new Russian flank against NATO.” While the proponents of these views stop short of calling for coalition boots on the ground, there is a general feeling that NATO needs to “do something” or “be tougher” in its response to Russian actions in Syria.
On the contrary, a sober assessment of the timing and character of Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria, as well as current realities within both Russia and Syria, reveal a much different picture. Putin’s Syria gambit is best viewed as a short-term tactic given limited options, and one that does not leave Russia in an improved security situation vis-à-vis the West. Recognizing Russia’s weakness in this move is key to formulating an appropriate response. A policy of restraint, coordination, and a continued focus on Ukraine is the way forward that best defends NATO’s core security interests.
A major geopolitical inflection point?
Putin’s stated intention to join an anti-ISIS coalition of Western and Gulf powers is belied by the initial selection of targets for Russian bombing. While the Russian media does not distinguish between ISIS and the variety of rebel groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian bombers have been focusing on the latter, which pose the more direct threat to the Syrian regime at the moment. It seems clear that Russia has no near-term intention of cooperating with the West in Syria. But its move to prop up Assad does not portend the “coming defeat of NATO,” or even a “major geopolitical inflection” point, as a recent Institute for the Study of War report claims.
It is worth taking a step back to judge the current military and economic realities of both Russia and NATO. By the last officially reported totals, NATO’s total combined military vehicles outnumber Russia’s 61,000 to 28,000. NATO countries have three times Russia’s active-duty manpower. Overall, the balance of power has shifted remarkably to NATO over the last 25 years, and despite hand-wringing about boosting NATO’s defense spending and breathless warnings of the Russian threat, these facts have not changed.
The economic situation presents an even more unbalanced picture of Russia and NATO’s relative strengths. While the U.S. and Europe have recovered their GDP losses after the Great Recession, however unsteadily, Russia’s economy is feeling a tremendous squeeze from U.S.-EU sanctions and a precipitous drop in the price of oil. According to the World Bank’s baseline scenario, the Russian economy will contract by 3.8% in 2015 and continue to shrink in 2016. The Kremlin has been forced to pull from a $60 billion “secret fund” to finance its intervention in Syria. Both former and current Russian finance ministers have called present levels of military spending unaffordable. As early as May, before the recent escalation, one Russian economist predicted that Russia could keep up its current level of defense spending for less than two years before necessity compels it to withdraw from Ukraine to escape sanctions or undergo a “politically dangerous” fiscal rebalancing. Yet another foreign front will shorten this window.
In addition, military adventurism in Syria is unlikely to cause a bump in domestic approval as Russia’s policy in Ukraine has. While Putin’s approval rating is still at a solid 84%, a recent poll found only 43% of Russians support giving weapons to the Assad regime and 69% oppose direct military intervention. The deteriorating economy and the waning domestic appetite for foreign intervention will constrain Russia’s ability to supply enough force to furnish Assad with any decisive victory. In turn, the longer Russia is embroiled in Syria, the more domestic and elite pressure the Kremlin is likely to face.
Given the timing of the buildup and the situation on the ground in Syria, the Russian intervention is best seen as a short-term attempt to keep Assad in power. After a series of territorial losses over the summer, the regime was left in “the most strategically weak position…since 2013,” according to Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Centre. In particular, rebels won victories in Idlib and Homs provinces, which are precisely the areas Russia targeted during its first week of bombing. There are several reasons why Russia wants Assad to stay in power, from the maintenance of the only reliable client state Russia has in the region, to the Kremlin’s oft-stated ideological preference for dictators over “chaos.” The important point here is the reactive nature of Russia’s intervention.
Further, since the timing of the bombing overlapped perfectly with the UN General Assembly meeting last week, manipulation of the media cycle should not be discounted as a possible motive for Russia’s intervention. Indeed, despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s strident, passionate speech at the UN denouncing Russian aggression against his country, the news cycle has been dominated by events in Syria.
Additional symbolic motives have been proposed for Russia’s recent moves. For example, Putin may be trying to embarrass the West by appearing more decisive, to “stick it to the Americans” as one commentator suggested, or to boost Russia’s international prestige (although a coalition with such international pariahs as Assad and Iran is a strange way to boost prestige). While any of these motives may factor into Russia’s tactics in Syria, we must rate their seriousness before making policy. Soft notions of “embarrassment” and “prestige,” coupled as they are with attractively simple narratives of Putin and Obama’s respective images, should not provoke an overreaction.
A measured response
The conception of grand strategist Putin outfoxing a timid, flummoxed Obama plays well in U.S. politics at the moment, and the narrative of a looming Russian threat well serves those politicians who have long wanted a more muscular Western response to the Syrian crisis. The reality, though, is that the core security interests of the U.S. and NATO are not threatened by the current Russian presence in Syria. Considering the overall balance of forces between NATO and Russia, and the precarious state of the Russian economy, policymakers should be unmoved by this development as it is best characterized as a short-term tactic borne of a weak geopolitical position.
An overreaction such as the no-fly zone called for by McCain would both needlessly escalate the situation in Syria and deepen Western involvement in a messy, intractable conflict. There are not enough true U.S. security interests in Syria to warrant such a strategy. Rather, the U.S. should coordinate with the Russian military to avoid accidents and miscommunications in Syrian airspace. Furthermore, the U.S. and its European allies should keep the situation in Ukraine decoupled from developments in Syria. Unlike Syria, the future of Ukraine is of core importance to the security concerns of NATO countries, and the West should not allow Russia’s position in Syria to influence steps toward a peaceful resolution that recognizes Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.