Wrestling the Bear

Jewish Light Editorial

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” — Winston Churchill, radio broadcast, Oct. 1, 1939

Despite the beginning of Churchill’s famous quote, it’s the second part that is most informative about the recent actions in the Middle East of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union signed the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, when Joseph Stalin perceived it was in the interests of the USSR to be on the side of the brutal Adolf Hitler. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin immediately joined the Allies in the battle against the Axis powers. Most historians agree that the addition of the brave Red Army to the Allied cause was a major factor in assuring victory over Nazi Germany.

Putin’s recent actions in Syria, ostensibly to combat ISIS but surely propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, have been interpreted by many international observers as naked power grabs. They follow his seizing of two Russian-speaking enclaves in the Republic of Georgia; providing arms, military equipment and even troops to “pro-Russian separatists” in Ukraine; and grabbing control of Crimea from Ukraine in a lightning- fast move that caught NATO by surprise.

The ouster of Assad has been sought by the United States and its Western allies since it was conclusively proved by the United Nations that he used deadly sarin gas against his own people. But Putin has sent attack helicopters, fighter jets, tanks and support troops into war-torn Syria, now in the fourth year of its civil war, and speculation on his motivations has been rampant indeed.

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Some posit that Putin, desperate at home facing a perilous economy, has gone all in on international influence. Others cite his desire to exploit vacuums or retrenchments on the international scene. And even if his intent is deciphered, the endgame of such an experienced chessplayer as Putin is always in question.

The New York Times’ conservative columnist Ross Douthat analyzed the angles in an Oct. 3 posting entitled, “Is Putin Winning?” Acknowledging both Putin’s gamesmanship and the difficulty in assessing his goals, Douthat points out, “Once again, Vlaimir Putin is on the move in ways the Obama White House did not anticipate. Once again, American foreign policy analysts can’t agree on whether he’s acting out of brilliance or desperation.”

 Indeed, Putin’s seeming lack of predictability could be part of his cold and calculating strategy to restore international credibility which has suffered since his aggression in Ukraine. Putin wants Russia to be taken seriously as a Great Power, and craves the respect that comes with being a serious player on the world stage.

Not so fast, Douthat writes: “Is Putin’s bombing campaign in Syria a geopolitical masterstroke? Is he filling a regional vacuum, creating a new Baghdad-Tehran-Damascus-Moscow axis, demonstrating the impotence of American foreign policy? Is his strategy of provocation putting NATO on the ropes?”

That’s the on-the-one-hand. Alternatively, “is Putin actually acting out of weakness, trying to save a deteriorating position? Is his Middle Eastern gambit, like his Ukrainian intervention, a flailing foredoomed attempt to regain ground that Russia has lost of late? Should we ignore his bluster and macho photo-ops, take note of his slumping economy and sanctions-bitten inner circle, and assume that his Syria intervention will lead to quagmire and blowback?” 

That latter view aligns more closely with that of U.S. President Barack Obama, who has mocked Putin’s Syria intervention as a “sign of weakness” that is doomed to failure.

Douthat’s key point: “The curious reality is that these interpretations are not mutually exclusive, because whether Putin is ‘winning’ depends on how you define success.” 

He’s right. Suppose Russia succeeds in stabilizing the Assad regime in Damascus through its military intervention. Is that a good thing because it helps fend off the amorphous and (if possible) more heinous ISIS? Is it a bad thing because it builds more stable bridges between Putin and Syria, both with Assad and a successor? Your guess is as good as ours.

And what of Israel? The nation remains officially “neutral” on the ultimate fate of Assad, and has carefully maintained a respectful relationship with Putin’s Russia. Both Assad and his late father respected the terms of the disengagement agreements negotiated after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel’s security could be vastly weakened if the Assad regime were totally overthrown and replaced with groups like ISIS or al-Qaida, both of which violently oppose the Assad regime.

 Time will tell whether Putin’s Syria intervention was indeed a brilliant masterstroke, a major blunder or something else altogether.  At this writing, we can only express the hope that the ultimate outcome of Putin’s actions in Syria will end up on the positive side of the ledger.