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.
Russia has taken the same approach to Syria in attempting to defend its less-than-advertised naval base in Tartus, its contacts and contracts with the Syrian government, its role in Syria and the Middle East. Rather than creating a leadership role for itself by developing and proposing a workable plan that others can support, Moscow is insisting that others accommodate its preferences—or Russia will veto UN resolutions and supply more arms to the Syrian regime. Witness recent comments by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said “there will not be a Security Council mandate for outside intervention, I guarantee you that” and by Rosoboronexport head General Director Anatoly Isaykin, who said that his firm was sending systems to provide “reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea” and that “whoever is planning an attack should think about this.”
Of course, Moscow’s cards are weaker than they may appear at first. Its Security Council veto is only relevant so long as the United States and others continue to see the UN process as a viable path to peace, it cannot publicly discuss Assad’s departure or wider political changes in Syria without alienating leaders in Syria upon whom its influence there depends, and it lacks the resources, capabilities or will to save Assad in the face of determined outside intervention. Some of the refurbished attack helicopters denounced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently will not even make it to Syria after a British insurer revoked its coverage of the freighter carrying them, thereby preventing the ship from entering ports. Nevertheless, leadership and diplomacy are in no small part about creative efforts to make the best use of what assets one does have—something Russia has so far failed to do. Too many in Russia do not appear to see that international leadership is earned through action rather than bestowed through entitlement.
Here, however, Russia is hardly alone—it’s hard to find much leadership in Washington either. President Obama says little about Syria, while State Department officials appear to equate leading with belligerent public pronouncements by Secretary Clinton, spokesperson Victoria Nuland and UN ambassador Susan Rice. Their public denunciations of Bashar al-Assad and of Russian leaders make for good headlines but aren’t really good policy. More generally, through its combination of ad hoc incrementalism and tough talk with limited follow-through, the administration has exacerbated many of its own problems, including by simultaneously increasing Russia’s importance and undermining the chances that Moscow will play a constructive role. Is the administration trying to bring Russia on board—or to use it as an excuse for inaction?
If the former, U.S. officials should starkly—but privately—expose Russia’s limited ability to affect the outcome in Syria by making clear that if Russia blocks a negotiated path forward in the United Nations Security Council, the United States will find its own way outside the UN, together with like-minded governments. America’s record in establishing Middle Eastern democracies may be somewhat mixed, but few question its ability to remove leaders and destroy unfriendly regimes. If Russian officials are willing to talk, the administration should put an end to its political posturing and see what can be accomplished—a negotiated solution in Syria likely is the least costly outcome for the country and for outsiders. If that is impossible due to conditions in Syria, UN-backed action will have greater international legitimacy than steps taken outside the body—but it will be far more likely to happen if the Obama administration credibly demonstrates that it is prepared to ignore the UN if needed.
Of course, this requires that the administration be prepared to follow through if Moscow does not come on board. If there is no agreement in the Security Council, however, this may be more possible than many think; notwithstanding Americans’ declining enthusiasm for conflicts in the Middle East, full-scale civil war in Syria could create unexpected new political pressures, particularly in the months before a presidential election. Russian leaders may not even object too much, as they would be relieved of mounting international expectations and in a good position to complain from the sidelines. The real question is whether the Obama administration will find a way to lead—or be content to stand on the opposite side of the field, shouting angrily at Moscow and the players on the field.