The G-20 summit in Mexico and its much-anticipated meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin raised hopes for a new U.S.-Russian understanding on Syria that could clear the way to ending the violence there. Unfortunately, the two leaders appear to have made little headway in resolving their differences, and Syria’s emerging civil war seems likely to continue—and to worsen. If the Obama administration wants to see results, it must change course.
U.S. and European officials, as well as regional governments and some other nations, have been looking toward Russia for a solution in Syria for some time. They calculate that the combination of Moscow’s United Nations Security Council veto, its interests in Syria and its long-standing connections to Damascus make the country an important player in discussions of a negotiated settlement or some form of UN-endorsed international intervention. As a result, every twist and turn in public statements by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov receives media attention around the globe.
This raises a natural question: Can and will Russia deliver? The answer cannot be known in advance, but the precedents suggest the contrary. In fairness, Moscow was too weak and too preoccupied domestically to serve as an architect of war or peace during its first decade of independence, in the 1990s. So some of the most directly relevant cases—particularly Yugoslavia’s collapse, including the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo—must be set aside.
But within a few years after the war in Kosovo, Russia was in a stronger position as energy prices surged and its economy entered a period of rapid growth. And Moscow indeed became more visible internationally during this period, when it entered talks with France and Germany to try to block war in Iraq, reasserted its influence in Central Asia, shut down natural-gas deliveries to Ukraine and even invaded Georgia. Still, these moves were all fundamentally defensive in that they were aimed at protecting specific Russian interests and Russia’s international political role. This narrow focus ensured that to the extent Russia worked with others, the cooperation was limited and tactical. It also meant that Russia did not succeed in creating a leadership role for itself, in large part because it hadn’t many followers and could not attract them to policies that others have seen as driven largely if not entirely by Russian priorities and goals.
To the extent that Moscow stands for broad principle, it has chosen the banner of state sovereignty and nonintervention, something few others are prepared to rally behind when it involves defending someone like Bashar al-Assad. China will hardly be a Russian “follower”—it is considerably more influential, when it chooses to be—and other strong supporters of sovereignty like Belarus, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela don’t enhance Russia’s international standing. On the contrary, they are net consumers of Russian prestige and power.
Moscow’s fundamental problem is that twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have still not succeeded in defining and establishing a genuine global role for the country. At bottom, Russian foreign policy is about what its leaders don’t want, not what they do want, and about the prerogatives that they should enjoy, not what they can contribute to solving pressing problems. This can succeed to a degree but is unlikely ever to win the role, respect and deference that Russian leaders appear to crave. The war in Georgia is a case in point; while Russia has likely prevented Tbilisi from entering NATO for quite some time—if at all—the war did not increase Russia’s role in European security and actually undermined it by facilitating U.S missile-defense deals with skeptical allies. Russia’s earlier efforts to use its energy leverage were similarly self-defeating in many respects.