Weighing Russia's Syria Success

October 1, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Russia

Weighing Russia's Syria Success

Does a big deal mean the Kremlin's back as a key global player?

Moreover, as Dexter Filkins shows in a recent New Yorker piece, the country with the most clout in Syria is Iran, not Russia. Tehran has propped up Assad’s embattled regime with massive loans, a steady airlift of arms, and support from trainers and intelligence operatives attached to Iran’s Quds Force and from Hezbollah fighters, who entered the fray at Iran’s behest. Assad may be grateful to Putin for the chemical weapons deal that he and Lavrov put together and that saved him from an American strike, but there should be no doubt that it’s Iran, not Russia, that will have the most influence over whatever remains of the House of Assad.

It’s also unwarranted to infer much about Russia’s long-term influence based on its recent diplomatic victory. Russia faces a litany of serious problems that no amount of foreign-policy proficiency can overcome. Its population is shrinking and aging, and the country faces major public-health problems. Its 2010-2020 military-modernization program, for which the state has committed over $700 billion dollars, has run into serious trouble, and Putin recently upbraided the deputy prime minister overseeing it. Its economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas sales for budget revenue (the estimates range from 35 to 50 percent) and export earnings (close to 70 percent) and is thus hostage to the price fluctuations of two commodities and changes in the energy market, among them new sources of supply, the shale revolution, and emerging alternatives to hydrocarbons. Its massive corruption and the government’s failure to implement deep economic reforms (outcomes connected to Russia’s having become a petrostate) have together prevented it from attracting the level of foreign investment that a country with such a highly educated population and a large market should. One place where the combined effects of these problems are visible is Central Asia, the sphere of influence of Tsars and Commissars since its conquest by Imperial Russia during the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Over the two decades, however, China’s diplomacy and investments and trade have been steadily eroding what has been Russia’s 150-year stretch of uncontested influence in this region.

So yes, Russia’s president and foreign minister deserve kudos for having adroitly turned the latest Syrian crisis to their advantage. And yes, their achievement contrasted with what at times resembled amateurism at the White House and the State Department. And yes, Russia matters for all manner of reasons and should be taken seriously. But Russia’s long-term gains in Syria will prove slim; and they won’t do anything to reduce the severity of the multiple problems that, left unsolved, threaten to reduce its weight in world affairs.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).