This is the first in a three-part series on Putin's Syria gambit and how it furthers his ambitions at home and abroad.
Eighteen months ago Russian President Vladimir Putin's conquest of Crimea earned him the appellation among sycophants of Putin Tavrichesky or 'the Tauridian Putin', Taurus being an ancient Greek name for Crimea. Only one other Russian bears that honorific: Prince Potemkin, who conquered the peninsula in the name of Catherine the Great in 1783. The Crimean triumph reversed an erosion in Putin's popular standing, taking his support to levels so high (close to 90%) that they raise doubts about how they were measured or tell us something about what matters most to Putin's compatriots.
After testing the will of the US and EU in Europe and finding it wanting, and having watched the refugee crisis in Europe swell while the US floundered in the Middle East and his ally Assad suffered significant military reverses, Putin has now embarked in Syria on his most ambitious gambit ever. For the fifth time in his 15 years as Russia's leader, he has resorted to military force to pursue a goal (the others were Chechnya from 1999 to about 2008, Georgia in 2008, seizing Crimea last year, and the continuing campaign to enforce his will on Kyiv by partitioning Ukraine). But this time he has also sent the Russian military out-of-area for the first time since Russia's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. His expeditionary force is formidable and operates from a secure bridgehead in the Russian naval base at Tartus and the Latakia airfield.
Simultaneously, Putin is forging a Shia coalition with Syria, Iran and Iraq. He has also backed the military deployment with a Soviet-style public relations blitz on a broad front, including an address to the UN, his first interview in years with an American television network, and a proclaimed offer to the US and its allies for a united front against terrorism. That offer is framed in unacceptable terms — it defines as a terrorist anyone who opposes Assad — but it sounds statesman-like.
The worldwide Russian public relations network has also shifted into high gear. At home in Russia, Ukraine has vanished from the (state-controlled) television networks, to be replaced by stirring coverage of Russian soldiers in Syria. And in the self-proclaimed 'People's Republics' of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, the bellicose rhetoric of Russian-backed leaders about fascists in Kyiv has given way to talk of the need for peace.
The goals of Putin's Syrian gambit appear to be: to strengthen the wilting Assad regime against all its opponents, not just ISIS (indeed, so far, scarcely ISIS at all); to strengthen Russia's presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and protect its naval base and signals intelligence station on the Syrian coast; to demonstrate to Russia's allies that she is loyal and reliable, unlike the US vis a vis Egypt's Mubarak; and to strengthen Russia's de facto Shiite sphere of influence. Above all, Putin seeks to demonstrate that under him Russia has recovered its strength and strode back onto the global stage as a main player, indispensable in all solutions to international crises.
But there are three other intertwined objectives that are probably paramount for Putin: to shore up his domestic standing as the glow of Crimea recedes and Russia's economic difficulties begin to bite; to deflect attention from Russia's re-absorption of Crimea and the messy imbroglio in eastern Ukraine; and to weaken the collective will in the EU to maintain economic sanctions (the sanctions are not the main reason for Russia's declining revenue, which is due most to the fall in oil prices, but they hurt in various ways). Finally, the Shia coalition Putin is trying to stitch together may also be about influencing the price of oil: the more clout Moscow has in the Middle East, the more leverage it might have in getting the price back to above US$100, a level that has been crucial to Putin's success as Russian leader.
Indeed, to understand Putin's policy on Syria we need to place it in the broader context of his goals generally, a truism that escapes many Australian media commentators. Importantly, these goals are his policies: Putin may invite the views of a few close confidants but he takes all the decisions that matter. Don't believe anyone who tells you he is merely the first among equals.
And to understand Putin's policies it helps to understand him.
It's clear he is a formidable opponent. He is disciplined, hard working and always a master of his brief. He stays in shape, and Botox adds sheen. Chess champion Garry Kasparov aptly describes Putin as a gambler with a talent for bluff (but not a chess player, because chess is a game with fixed rules and unpredictable outcomes; under Putin the opposite applies). He is a career Soviet KGB officer, with the outlook and values of a KGB officer who fought in the Cold War.
He is a highly trained and, by repute, gifted martial artist. He seeks weaknesses in his opponents and exploits them. He has probably read the 36 stratagems from The Art of War. He may also know the tale of Xiang Zhuang's sword dance, the most celebrated Chinese parable of diversionary tactics, which teaches that the real purpose of an act is not the act itself.
Putin has shown a gift for improvisation, especially as regards extracting advantage from setbacks. In 2004 he used the hideously botched attempt to rescue the hostages at School Number One in Beslan in the Caucasus (which left 385 dead, 186 of them children) to justify strengthening the presidency, gathering even more power into his hands. His response to that setback included another tactical hallmark: deflecting the blame for all difficulties onto foreign powers. Without naming the US, he implied it was somehow responsible for the massacre. A few years before, in 2000, his senior officials claimed the US was behind the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk, with a loss of 118 lives (two years later the official Russian report attributed the tragedy to 'shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment' on the vessel).
But self-disciplined and tactically adept as he may be, Putin is at times driven by his emotions, especially a visceral resentment over perceived personal slights and his intense dislike of the US and its current president.
These emotions may contribute to his miscalculations, such as the campaign in eastern Ukraine that produced the shooting down of flight MH17, which in turn strengthened the resolve of the EU to maintain and enhance sanctions against Russia. That campaign was presumably undertaken in the euphoria generated by his Crimea triumph. Putin has since pulled back from the goal of a Novorossiya stretching to the Romanian border but, having fueled the flames of neo-imperialist nationalism, he now has to contain them.
With a personality cult built around the image of a warrior chieftain who protects his people from their many enemies, he cannot afford to be seen conceding ground. According to some who know him well, he even avoids smiling (a show of weakness), and his humour is invariably sardonic. But he has reduced his room for manoeuvre and negotiation, ensured the long-term hostility of most of Ukraine, re-energised NATO (which was 'mouldering away to no particular purpose', in Bobo Lo's phrase) and caused major damage to the Russian economy.
Some say Putin's policies are in the main reactive and that he has no strategy. One can argue the meaning of strategy and we should distinguish between vision, goals and the tactics for achieving them. But the record suggests Putin does have clear goals and he has shown daring, patience and ingenuity in pursuing them. They include of course, and above all, staying in power.
That Putin's primacy in the feudal, authoritarian political system he has fashioned is unchallenged is a tribute to his skill in manipulating Russia's feuding elite factions. But a politician he is, so protecting and reinforcing his authority is what drives him above all else. History shows no Russian ruler can afford to be complacent, and Putin studies Russian history. The economic difficulties he faces have no doubt strengthened the perception he could again become vulnerable, as he seemed to be in 2011-12 when he badly mishandled his formal return to the presidency.
Putin will always assess foreign policy options in terms of his own interests, try to avoid whatever might threaten his position at home, and pursue foreign projects that he believes would strengthen it. And nothing has so enhanced that position as his re-conquest of Crimea. This was viewed by most Russians as revenge for the humiliating and what they saw as unjust loss of parts of the Russian empire with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another triumph may not yet be an imperative for Putin but it would be timely.