Western analysts have been at pains to discern Russia's 'real aims' in Syria. But the best explanation probably remains the simplest: the preservation of the existing Syrian state and its institutions in pursuit of a political settlement that limits the amount of Syrian territory under permanent Islamist control.
This was the point Russian President Vladimir Putin made in an interview on Russian television on Sunday night. 'Our mission', he said, 'is to stabilise the legitimate authorities and create the conditions for a political compromise.'
Note the phrase, 'political compromise'. It appeared repeatedly on the lips of those I met in Moscow last week. All insisted that the Kremlin isn't wed to Assad other than as the head of the legitimate Syrian Government. Russia may even be ready to partition the country so long as a rump Syrian state remains intact and under the control of whoever emerges as Assad's successor.
Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defence Policy and widely acknowledged as one of Russia's leading strategists, told a party I was with: 'In the Middle East, Russia is dealing with partners (ie. the US) who have lost their strategic direction. We don't buy the argument that CIA-trained terrorists are democrats.'
The Kremlin's goals in Syria were 'to uphold Russian diplomatic weight' and to 'try to forge an agreement with the West – or at least some in the West – about Syria's future. There's no doubt that the West will split on this issue.' He continued, 'We are not interested in Assad. But we will not let him die like a dog. We will provide a way out (for him) if needed. What we're interested in is legal governments and those that exercise real power. We (Russia) are a status quo power.' [fold]
Part of the aim of such a partition would also be to 'protect the Alawites and Christians', minorities mainly concentrated in those parts of the country that remain under Assad Government control. 'We are a little amazed that in formerly Christian Europe, no one has called for the protection of Christians.'
Others expressed doubts about the wisdom of Russia's 'legitimist' rhetoric, but reiterated Moscow's fundamental commitment to finding a political solution, preferably in partnership with the West, even if that meant discarding Assad.
Mikhail Remizov, head of Russia's Institute for National Strategy, said Syria was an opportunity for Russia to present itself as both 'strong and just'. Its intervention in Syria was 'an attempt to strengthen Russia's position in dialogue with the West, especially with Europe, for which the consequences of Syria's instability are gravest.'
But he was concerned about the limits of Russia's rhetoric of legitimacy. 'In my opinion, it's a risk for Russia to promote this this rhetoric of legitimism because the real objective is geopolitical stability. Sometimes that can be achieved through the preservation of states, sometimes through their partition. That's why the legitimist rhetoric is potentially misleading.'
'Russia is not against a political transition', he continued, 'once the operation against Islamic terrorism is over. Russia understands that Assad isn't popular in the Muslim world. Russia has no desire to assume all of Assad's liabilities.'
To the allegation that Russia's anti-terrorist campaign was just a fig leaf for propping up Assad, Remizov responded that 'Russia is primarily attacking the al-Nusra Front because from the point of view of military logistics there were good strategic reasons to attack them first...With the exception of the Kurds, all the battle-worthy combatant opposition is Islamist one way or another, even if they're not part of Islamic State.'
As for Russia's greater goal in thwarting the Islamists and preserving as far as possible the existing Syrian state, Remizov argued that Moscow's chief concern was to 'recreate a relationship with Europe, which remains Russia's preference to (a closer relationship with) China.'
Rather than seeing Syria only through the prism of Russian domestic politics (and in particular Vladimir Putin's alleged need to shore up his position in the Kremlin), the points of reference here are the interests of the Russian state – identified in both cases as lying with the principles of legitimacy, order and balance.
Ukraine has entrenched a view among Western policy-makers that Russia under Putin is a revisionist power bent on destabilising regional and global order to its (and its president's) advantage wherever possible. But this may be the wrong lesson to draw.
After annexing Crimea, Moscow abandoned an apparently hastily improvised Novorossiya project in south-eastern Ukraine when it became clear that Russia lacked the overwhelming popular support it enjoyed on the majority-Russian Crimean peninsula. It sustained an anti-Kiev insurgency in the Donbass only as far as it ensured a political outcome that preserved fundamental and longstanding Russian interests (above all, preventing Ukraine ever becoming a member of NATO). That the Minsk Accords have been reached at all suggests a readiness on Moscow's part to negotiate in pursuit of limited, defined objectives.
And in helping reach a nuclear agreement with Iran (a role publicly acknowledged by President Obama), Russia has shown an ability to play a constructive role when this has coincided with its own vision of global and regional order. Even in Syria, it was Moscow that brokered the removal of chemical weapons from Syrian Government arsenals that for a while spared the US a third unwanted Middle Eastern war.
Can the West negotiate with Putin over Syria now?
According to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, in 2012 Moscow approached Washington, London and Paris about the possibility of resolving Syria's civil war by diplomatic negotiation. Confident that Assad was about to fall, the Western powers allegedly turned the Russian proposal down (though Ahtisaari's account is disputed). Three years later, Russia can probably keep Assad's Government from collapse. But Moscow knows, as it has repeatedly stated, that it cannot solve the Syrian imbroglio alone, and nor apparently does it want to.
Western governments have long believed that the ability to end the Syrian crisis is a Western monopoly. But as Rachel Polonsky argued powerfully, 'If we cannot support Russia in its mission now, or even define our own, we should stand aside. No good has come from our policy of regime change. The UK government's position on Syria is neither logical nor honest.'
That holds equally true for Australia.
So long as the West consents to the preservation of the institutions of the present Syrian state (where they still function) and an orderly transfer of power, the prospects of Russia agreeing to remove Assad might be better than expected. If his successor could be given a suitably reforming gloss, it would strengthen the principle that the repressive Syrian state is susceptible to change. It could also bring the added benefit of obtaining the services of the professional Syrian Army in the fight against ISIS.
As with so much else in today's Russia, deep continuities with Russia's pre-revolutionary history are to be found in the Kremlin's approach to Syria: an overriding (if inconsistently applied) preoccupation with the principle of legitimate government and abhorrence of revolutionary disorder; preserving Russia's credibility in defence of a beleaguered ally (which in this case provides a useful foothold on the Mediterranean); a self-appointed but intensely perceived role as patron of Middle Eastern Christians; and quashing an Islamist movement that has allegedly recruited hundreds of Russian-speaking Muslims to its cause, with dangerous implications for Russia when they return home, especially in the ever-restive Caucasus.
But after 15 years in power, Putin's interests and those of Russia cannot be fully separated, and certainly not in the president's own mind. When I asked him what Russia was up to in Syria, Igor Okunev, a vice-dean at Russia's State Institute for International Relations replied: 'In Syria, Putin's aim is to become a world hero and bring peace to Syria by destroying ISIS where nobody else could...He thinks of himself as a man of peace. And he understands that the (Russian) population can only support him if he talks about peace.'
That may be little more than personal conceit. But depending on how realistic Western governments are prepared to be about their ambitions and the means at their disposal to realise them, it may turn out to be a useful one. There are worse goals to aim for than the negotiated end of Syria's bloody civil war.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.