Much has been said recently about the unpredictability of Russian foreign policy, and the resulting uncertainty. In reality, Moscow’s interests are quite limited and focused on its near abroad. Understanding how Russia prioritizes its security challenges and how it assesses the security situation on its borders is a start to clearing up much of the uncertainty in Eurasia today. This analysis focuses on critical situations that may develop this year into vital challenges to Russian interests, triggering a response from Moscow.
It has been two years since Russia found itself in the middle of a geopolitical tornado. Could it deliberately stay out of it? We believe not. In nature, wind emerges because of differential pressures between regions. Similarly, in politics, conflicts emerge from a change in the balance of power and destruction of the status quo. The collapse of regimes in Ukraine and in the Middle East created low-pressure zones, drawing neighboring countries into the regional storm. Having found itself in a hurricane, Moscow made its choice. It could have lowered its sails and followed the wind, but it preferred to keep to its course even if it meant sailing against the wind.
Moscow’s offensive had its achievements: Russia is holding the initiative and managing crises wisely for its own purposes. However, in recent months Russia missed at least two sensitive blows. The first was miscalculating the consequences of the public protests in Kyiv in late 2014; the second was underestimating the risk of a Turkish military provocation during Russia’s Syrian operation. However cautious Moscow is in its foreign policy, blind spots trouble every experienced operator.
In its worldview, Russia is a great-power chauvinist and a hard-power athlete. Modern Russia is a status quo player focused predominantly on its nearest abroad. Neither Russian security priorities nor its resources compel Moscow to project power beyond one thousand kilometers from its borders. The basics of Russia’s security strategy are simple: keep the neighboring belt stable, NATO weak, China close and the United States focused elsewhere. Russia supports and abides by international rules, but only until a third party ruins the status quo and harms Moscow’s security interests. When Russia sees the security environment around it as certain and predictable, it feels no need for intervention. But when uncertainty arises and a crisis occurs, Russia responds forcefully.
Logic of a U.S.-Russia Divide
How does Russia see its place in the geopolitics of today? It is clear that the rivalry between the two centers of geopolitical gravity—the United States and China—in defining the rules of international order is a defining process of the twenty-first century. And as the Atlantic bloc is gradually losing its weight, the United States has shifted from expanding to defending its positions. This American strategy may be tagged “new enclosure,” that is, creating exclusive zones enclosed against rivals (first and foremost China) with economic, political and other kinds of barriers.
As a result, Moscow assesses U.S. policy towards Russia as a preventive attack carried out before Russia restores its historic place after the period of crisis. Washington, Moscow assesses, sees the possibility of Russia, clamped deep in the continent, being prevented from being a serious economic rival and therefore unable to form an alternative center of power in Eurasia. A weakened Russia will be kept in fear of Chinese expansion, and will be forced to become an American partner in Washington’s major project for the twenty-first century: the containment of China. And as long as American elites aim for global leadership, there is no alternative to their strategy of weakening Russia. And there is no use looking for a conspiracy in this strategy—Russia simply happens to be in the way of America’s plans. It makes no difference to Washington whether Russian elites are pro- or anti-American; their position only affects the way the United States achieves its goals. With Putin as Russia’s president, Washington avoids the trouble of paying compliments to its opponent, and can easily trip Moscow up.
The way American elites refuse to abandon the idea of global leadership, Moscow cannot afford to be weak. Russia has always been under pressure from rival civilizations to the west and south—pressure that is still growing. The goal of the current sanctions war is to exhaust and drain Russia, making it use up its limited resources, creating feelings of despair and inevitability of collapse among the public. In this environment, Russia chooses to escape direct strikes and distract the offender, shifting the front line far from its territories.
Russia’s first attempt to seize the initiative was the “Turn to the East” and the 2015 BRICS Summit in Ufa, aimed at mobilizing its allies. But it was only successful in part. The BRICS countries were not ready to sacrifice their relations with the United States, and the “Turn” could not bring fast results to influence the current balance of power.
A second, more successful attempt was the Russian operation in Syria. Europe’s exhaustion from Ukraine and the migrant crisis contributed to its effectiveness. But the main reason was the stalemate in U.S. policy, between the declared goal of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad and the impossibility of allowing an ISIS victory. Trying to find a way out, the United States decided, at least temporarily, to accept Russia’s offer to change the game. But the general goal of making Moscow surrender never disappeared. And even though it is not a key short-term goal for the Washington, it will never resist the temptation to use emerging possibilities to weaken Moscow.
The Syrian Crisis and the Conflict With Turkey
From the Russian point of view, allowing ISIS to gain control over Syria and Iraq means a new influx of well-trained terrorists in the North Caucasus and Central Asia in five years. By some estimates, out of seventy thousand ISIS militants, up to five thousand are either Russians or citizens of CIS countries. Their return home will have an overwhelming influence on the already-fragile situation in the Russian Caucasus and Central Asian republics. In these circumstances, Moscow believes it is cheaper to fight Islamists in the Middle East than at home.
Russia’s strategy in Syria is advantageous, achieving a great deal with minimal resources and a relatively low level of involvement. In order to get what it wants, Russia only needs to disorganize—not entirely destroy—the terrorist infrastructure. Russia will be able to preserve the friendly regime in Damascus in one form or another, strengthen its first major naval base in the Mediterranean and retain its leadership in offshore gas projects in Syria, Cyprus and Israel.
Russia will consolidate its position in the Middle East as a country able to exercise expeditionary military campaigns. The Syrian operation displays the efficiency, accuracy and reliability of Russian arms capabilities, satellite communications and the GLONASS navigation system. All of this is clear evidence that Moscow preserves full sovereignty in twenty-first-century warfare.
Russia’s potential benefits from the Syrian campaign are great, but so are the risks. Russia unintentionally sparked confrontation with an important regional power, namely, Turkey. Ankara’s interest is to topple Bashar al-Assad, and it is using the fight against ISIS to combat Kurdish armed groups in Syria. It is not the first time that regional differences have arisen between Russia and Turkey, but it has been a century since they used force against each other.
In the worst-case scenario, Ankara and Moscow may now become the first parties to a revolution in warfare, where there is no front line or thousands of victims, but where the damage is devastating to space satellites, communication systems, logistical hubs and Internet infrastructure.
However, Russia’s greatest potential risk is getting drawn into the regional Sunni-Shia confrontation on the side of Iran, which is opposed by a coalition of Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia. Considering that the majority of Russian Muslims are Sunnis, Moscow should be especially cautious.
In this context, Russia will find it hard to ensure the support of the Syrian Sunnis who oppose ISIS. Drawing on its experience in Chechnya, Russia will aim to settle the Syrian conflict by enabling cooperation between the regime and leaders of Sunni communities who are ready to join the fight against terrorists. In the case of success, they will be the ones to fill the power vacuum after ISIS’s defeat—akin to what happened with the Kadyrov family in Chechnya.
The Cancer of Jihadi Terror
Regions where armed jihadi groups act are, of course, deeply interconnected. The flow of militants from Palestine, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan to the Caucasus and Central Asia and back is an urgent problem. Even if the coalitions fighting terrorists in Syria are successful, this will not mean a victory over terrorism in general. Most qualified militants and commanders would simply move from Syria to other countries (Iraq, Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia and so on). The insuperable crisis that threatens state institutions in Middle East and Africa also encourages the resilience of jihadi mercenaries. Moreover, in the last several years such mercenaries have come to organize global criminal economic networks and find support from some state authorities. Such groups cost little to sustain and may be enough to destabilize a whole region.