When Putin started to increase Russian military presence in Syria, I was reading Kissinger’s Diplomacy and coincidently its chapter on the Suez Canal Crisis. I couldn’t resist comparing Putin’s move to that of Khrushchev’s, when he provided support and aid to Nasser’s Egypt. 1950s Soviet Union and today’s Russia suffer from the effects of containment imposed by the West. Containment brought on themselves through acts the West views as blatant aggression. The difference between the two contexts is that Russia is no longer communist and the primary adversary of the West. Yet, in both circumstances the same underlying motivations and logic seem to have convinced Russia to play the Middle East card.
When Khrushchev came to power following Stalin’s death in 1953, the transition was not smooth. It took him until 1957 to cement his strangle hold on the Kremlin. This insecurity in Moscow led him to take a few cocky decisions, even when the West took him to be the best chance for peace. One of these decisions was to throw his support behind the Nasser regime in Egypt and its Pan-Arabic aspirations. The West was stunned by this Soviet diplomatic victory. Containment was intended to keep the Russian maneuvers within its communist sphere. The traditional sphere of influence of the diminishing British and French powers in Middle East now involved a new player. U.S. diplomatic bargaining with Nasser had gone no where. The end result was British and French humiliation and withdrawal from the region after the 1956 Suez Crisis, the creation of the short lived United Arab Republic involving Egypt, Syria and North Yemen and the 1967 Six-Day war.
The important point to note here is that Khrushchev did not squeeze into the Middle East power struggle at a moment of strength for the Soviet Union. It was at a point of great weakness; Stalin’s death led to power struggles and purges, the Korean war had been a stalemate and the U.S. still maintained an edge in the nuclear race. The incursion into Egypt was meant to showcase to his opponents and critics that he was a capable leader, who could take the ailing Soviet Union to heights even Stalin could not.
Putin, in contrast, definitely does not have the issue of being overshadowed by the legacy of his predecessor. He has been in power since 2000. Instead of proving to be an adversary to the West, Putin started as a surprising collaborator, supporting Bush’s War on Terror (obviously to garner support for his own war on terror in Chechnya). Over the last 15 years, he has slowly positioned himself as an adversary. The 2008 war with Georgia was the turning point. The annexation of Crimea and the insurgency in eastern Ukraine has cemented that view. He supported the Assad regime in rhetoric, vetoes and limited material support, but providing Assad with a Russian air force seemed a bit far off.
Since Soviet times, the naval base at Tartus was Russia’s only permanent naval installation in the Mediterranean Sea. It has managed to hold on to this one last bastion, even when Hafez Assad decided to bomb a Soviet vessel at the base. Thus, it is doubtful that any Russian leader would want to lose the naval base, especially one with an ailing economy and a nationalistic fervor keeping him in power.
Putin had promised much to the Russian people during the commodity boom. The military modernization project was planned on a $100 oil barrel. But that all went south when the prices plummeted in 2014. The Ukrainian crisis only made things worse as the U.S. and EU slapped on sanctions. Trade with China seems to be the lifeline of the economy. Yet the military continues to be modernized, while Soviet strategic bombers are seen from the English Channel to Guam. Putin has used displays of military prowess as a means of sustaining the nationalistic fervor at home and distracting the people from the economic woes.
Assad has been losing ground since July and many expected him to start withdrawing to his Alawite homeland in the coastal region. That was until Putin emulated Khrushchev. He announced that Russian fighter jets, stationed in Latakia would be bombing ISIS targets in support of Assad’s troops. NATO forces until then dominating the region’s air space had to suddenly share it . There was suddenly a chance of U.S. and Russian planes facing each other off over enemy territory. The only previous event of similar magnitude was when in 1970. 15,000 Soviet troops were stationed in Egypt to man a comprehensive air defense system against Israeli incursions.
The question is can Russia afford this new active role in the region, something it has not performed since the 1970s ? Khrushchev did not enter Middle Eastern affairs with a clear cut strategic end game in mind. He didn’t achieve anything of much significance other than to commit Soviet resources, when its own people and satellites in Eastern Europe needed them the most. In 1972, Egypt’s Sadat simply evicted the Soviet personnel and its Syrian foothold was what was left.
Today in trying to protect the last Russian chip left in the region, Putin might be pitting the very survival of the Russian Federation. Russia is overextended today, as it once was under the Soviet Union. The A321 flight crash over Sinai and Turkey shooting down the Su-24 jet continuously put Russia on the headlines. Initially, Russia refused to accept the Sinai crash was a terror attack, but as soon as the French attacks occurred and it was obvious that fighting ISIS would allow an “alliance’ with France, Putin declared the truth of the matter. The Turkish action has been labelled a “stab in the back” by Putin. His reaction has been sanctions against Turkey, but obviously the economic impact won’t be merely one way.
The Russian Orthodox church’s declaration that it is a holy war to defend christianity might buoy the impact of those killed to protect the Assad regime. But just like Americans, Russians would also start decrying war when the body bags count begins to increase. It helps that Russian media is under strict state control. RT and massive military parades against Fascism can only sway public opinion for so long. In 1991, Russia survived by shedding away its Soviet empire. If Russia collapses again, the Federation is what is at stake. A nuclear power in chaos is a bad proposition for world peace. So all one can hope is that unlike Khrushchev, Putin has a clear end game in sight and knows when to pull back before over extension passes the point of no return.