The Putin doctrine has now reached Syria

For the Middle East, Russia's "near abroad" just got a little nearer, writes Faisal Al Yafai

In the early hours of August 8, 2008, an unexpected escalation took place on the edges of Europe. Russian troops crossed the border into Georgia, swiftly followed by tanks and aircraft. Russia was at war with a neighbouring country.

The war was brief, but decisive. Within two weeks, Russia's parliament had voted to recognise two territories inside Georgia as separate republics. The world moved on. Russia had gone to war in Europe, won and claimed territory as its prize.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was a turning point for Russia's relationship with its European neighbours. But, unfortunately, it was not a turning point for how Europe dealt with Russia.

The Russo-Georgian war was the first hard demonstration of what is sometimes called the "Putin doctrine". This is the belief that Russia will now defend by force its "privileged interests" in what is sometimes called its near abroad, or the post-Soviet space.

With the entry of Russia into the Syrian conflict, that doctrine has now reached the Middle East. And it has arrived precisely because of what happened in 2008.

The Russo-Georgian war was the moment when it became clear to Moscow that the West simply didn't have an appetite for war any more. Nato would defend its members, but those countries that were tilting towards Europe could be sacrificed.

The person who understands this best is Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia during the war and now governor of a Ukrainian province.

Last year, after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, he wrote: "If the West had reacted properly to Georgia, Ukraine would never have happened. The invasion of Georgia was the first time since the Cold War that Russia had tried to revise existing internationally recognised borders.

"Looking back, this gave Putin the sense he could get away with a similar adventure closer to Europe's heartland."

The West, Mr Saakashvili wrote, just wanted to get back to business as usual with Russia.

But after rewriting the rules of engagement, Russia's relationship with the West was never going to be the same, nor its relationship with all the countries of the post-Soviet space.

The problem is that the security architecture in Europe has been predicated on the idea of external guarantees of security.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the flirtation of the countries strung along Russia's western borders with the West has been assisted by the idea, spoken overtly but not formalised in most cases into treaties, that if the Russian bear came knocking, they would be able to turn to Nato for assistance. But when the bear burst through the front door, Nato walked away.

The message telegraphed to Moscow at that moment was repeated two years ago in Syria. It wasn't merely from Russia's near abroad that the West was retreating.

When America retreated over its red lines on chemical weapons, it emboldened Russia.

Barack Obama's inaction was a recognition that even in an area that America has historically dominated, even with Syria sharing a border with US allies like Jordan and Israel, even with a conflict that was destabilising the Arab world and European allies, even with a civil war that was providing a space for its enemies to gather and organise – even with all of those reasons to intervene, America would not intervene.That left the field open for Russia.

And by intervening so forcefully on the side of Bashar Al Assad, Moscow is itself sending a powerful message – that even if the whole world is against you, even if you have committed serious crimes, if Russia is your friend Russia will stand with you and fight for you. Expect that message to win lots of friends for Mr Putin in the coming months and years.

In politics, inaction has consequences just as surely as action. Not doing something sends as strong a message as doing it.

The Putin doctrine has historically been applied in Russia's near abroad, in the countries where Russia has long had influence. Now, with the exit of the Americans, it is being applied in the Near East as well.

For the Middle East, Russia's "near abroad" just got a little nearer.

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai