Is Putin seeking a new military adventure closer to home?

The Russian leader might seek a new adventure in Russia’s “near neighbourhood” to distract his domestic audience from the increasing hardship they are facing, writes Stephen Blackwell

Questions persist over what precisely Vladimir Putin has achieved through military intervention against Syria's anti-regime forces. Mikhail Klimentiyev / EPA
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Following the Kremlin’s announcement last Tuesday that Russia had fulfilled the objectives of its intervention in Syria, Moscow is claiming a decisive success that could pave the way for a political solution to the on-going civil war.

With John Kerry, US secretary of state, having invested significant time and effort in enlisting Russia’s help for the peace process that recommenced this week in Geneva, Washington appears ready to work with Moscow in order to bolster the current fragile ceasefire and ease the humanitarian situation.

Questions persist, however, over what precisely Vladimir Putin has achieved through military intervention against Syria’s anti-regime forces.

Though the Obama administration has striven to avoid being drawn into the Syrian conflict, attitudes among senior US politicians and military leaders towards Russia are hardening and very likely to influence the next incumbent of the White House when he or she takes office next January.

At last month’s Munich security conference, US Senator John McCain observed that “the only thing that has changed about Mr Putin’s ambitions is that his appetite is growing with the eating”.

In addition, the likelihood of an agreement between the major Syrian factions at the current Geneva meeting seems remote. Bashar Al Assad insists that he will not step down, while the opposition are adamant that his complicity in the deaths of more than 250,000 Syrians make his remaining inconceivable.

A Geneva talks collapse may not cause undue concern for the Kremlin, given that they have effectively secured a statelet for Mr Al Assad’s regime across western Syria that can be easily maintained if a low-intensity conflict persists.

Mr Putin may be content to offer the same kind of support to Damascus as he has previously extended to Ukrainian separatists and allow the US and its allies to maintain the burden of tackling ISIL.

At the same time, though the Damascus regime is grateful to Russia for having saved its skin for the foreseeable future, they have also been left in no doubt of the limits on the extent to which Mr Putin can be relied upon.

It is rumoured that the Kremlin sought to put pressure on Mr Al Assad to step down late last year in order to pave the way for a political move to complement its military action.

The Syrian leader’s insistence that he is staying signifies that he will increasingly depend on Iran rather than Russia as his ultimate guarantor. To this end Iran is willing to invest far more in securing a regime that helps Tehran maintain its links with Hizbollah and ability to project power as far as Lebanon and the Israeli border.

The Kremlin may decide to play a positive role in the Geneva talks in order to build enough leverage to request the easing of western sanctions against Russia.

Even so, there is no immediate prospect of the US and the European Union agreeing to relax the measures that Mr Putin admits have taken a serious toll on the Russian economy.

Though some European leaders have grumbled about lost business opportunities, German chancellor Angela Merkel has worked hard to keep the EU states aligned against what she sees as the Kremlin’s recklessness and adventurism in undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and intervening in Syria’s civil war.

Russia’s economic prospects remain grim given that oil prices show little sign of rising above $40 a barrel.

With the economy having shrunk by 3.7 per cent in 2015, the Moscow government has in recent weeks been mulling over a proposal to cut the $50 billion defence budget by 5 per cent.

The mooted cuts illustrate the stark choices faced by the Kremlin given that Mr Putin has prioritised spending to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars on the Russian armed forces over the past five years.

In mitigation, Mr Putin claims that the West is now taking Russia seriously again. Moscow’s carefully orchestrated celebrations of the country’s military prowess following the withdrawal from Syria included videos of Sukhoi fighter jets flying home to be greeted by enthusiastically patriotic crowds.

Though the pageantry was aimed at stoking up nationalist pride, the Kremlin no doubt also wishes to impress on the international community that Russia is back in business as a major power and capable of decisive action to defend its interests and protect its allies.

Perhaps a more accurate assessment is that the Kremlin’s decision to curb air strikes in Syria has all the appearances of a clever tactical move in the service of a strategy riddled with contradictions, uncertainty and opportunism.

Mr McCain is not alone in awaiting the Russian leader’s next surprise with trepidation. The risk is that Mr Putin might become intoxicated on his own propaganda to the extent that he will seek a new adventure in Russia’s “near neighbourhood” to distract his domestic audience from the increasing hardship they are facing.

Stephen Blackwell is an international politics and security analyst