Syria and Broader Trends in International Diplomacy: Part 2, Russia

World Economic Forum via Flickr
World Economic Forum via Flickr

The Obama administration’s drastic shift in US foreign policy in a post-Iraq War world order has already been evidenced by its handling of the Syrian Civil War. Although it took time, the United States is beginning to recognize that soft power is a viable alternative to military and economic power. If they’re beginning to recognize the changing contours of international relations, is it safe to say that their long time enemy, ally, friend, and rival, Russia, is learning to navigate these new waters? After the success of the Syrian chemical weapons deal on September 14, this certainly appeared to be the case. In October of this year, when Forbes released its list of the most powerful people in the world, they ranked the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as number one. In an attempt to foreshadow a decline in US power, and the decline in Obama’s ability to affect change in international relations, the writers at Forbes were signalling the end of US hegemony in the Middle East. They are conversely arguing that, in filling the newly created gap in influence, Putin’s handling of the Syrian crisis puts him and Russia on track for increased influence in international politics.

While this argument is certainly attractive for critics of the United States as its controversial and resonates with their message, it is not entirely true. While this article will not take a laudatory view of US foreign policy, as American grand strategy has been riddled with its own set of problems and inconsistencies, this article (the second part of the three part series) will trace Russian foreign policy surrounding Syria and the Middle East, and try to provide an explanation for why the Russia’s handling of the Syrian Crisis does not signify its re-emergence as a leading power.

Since Russia has had a long-standing and relatively consistent alliance with Syria since the Cold War,  Russia’s involvement in Syria isn’t out of place. Russia’s intervention in Syrian politics also is not purely motivated by a desire to flex its military muscles. Syria is where Russia’s last military base (outside the former USSR) is located and therefore, Russia has a strong vested interest in preserving its Cold War-era alliance and is hesitant to allow western military intervention in what it consider its ‘backyard’. Similarly, France intervened in Mali because of its old colonial ties and its proximity to France. This doesn’t mean that France is reasserting itself in Africa, nor does France believe that they are extending their global power through intervention in Mali. In fact, the case can be made that France was only interested in actually aiding their former colonial possession, especially in light of its plan to withdraw French forces from Mali by year’s end. Furthermore, France’s unwillingness to aid the ailing Central African Republic earlier this year is evidence that France is taking steps to reduce its involvement in foreign conflicts because it recognizes that it does not possess the same degree of influence as other major actors in Africa.

While Russia’s position differs markedly from France, some important parallels can be drawn with French foreign policy. There are some who argued that the chemical weapons deal made Russia the arbiter and ultimate winner in Syria and that this was a “great success” for Russian diplomacy. The Russian media was far too eager to proclaim that, “Obama postponed an attack on Syria after Russia’s proposal.” and even went so far as to ask, “What other diplomatic front can we now triumph on?” By looking at the broader picture though, Russia’s geopolitical situation doesn’t reflect a nation that is gaining territory by eroding the global influence of the United States. While Russia was able to prevent an intervention in Syria, its ability to restrict other interventions has been far less successful. Putin had expressed his opposition to military intervention in Libya, yet he did not veto the motion that came through the Security Council.

However, Putin wasn’t even able to gather international support for stalling or halting the intervention. While this failure can be partially attributed to the fact that the conflict in Libya hadn’t reached the proportions  that Syria had, but it also exposed that Russia possesses very limited leverage and direct influence over the internal politics of Libya and North Africa. This limited leverage ensures that Russian declarations of opposition do not carry the same weight as American declarations. Despite Putin’s plea for the international community to not “pounce on a small country,” he was unable to stop the military intervention during the Libyan crisis. The Libyan failure indicates that Russia’s strategic connection with Syria was primary reason why Russia chose to take a harder stance against military intervention and explains the unique leverage Russia wields in Syrian affairs.

Other arguments have been made that the rise in Russian soft power, rather than its growing military or economic strength, was signalled by the Syrian crisis. Some argue that Russia’s ability to convince the United States of acting multilaterally is evidence of such a trend. However, we only need to look back to Russia’s policy towards Chechnya to show Russia’s complete lack of authority on multilateral action and its lack of moral weight in the international community. Putin, in 1999, writing about Chechnya, claimed that:

When a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond. That is our purpose in Chechnya, and we are determined to see it through. The understanding of our friends abroad would be helpful.

Putin never mentioned a willingness to gather the consent of the international community nor try and act with the support of any other state. In respect to both Russia’s strategic position and its international image (without even mentioning the international condemnation of their human rights abuses), Putin hasn’t shown himself to be the masterful diplomat that Forbes makes him out to be. This is because it’s far more likely that John Kerry’s acceptance of the Syrian chemical weapons plan had nothing to do with Russia’s threats or perceived strength but instead on considerations made within the United States on the changing nature of international relations (as argued in the first article in this series).

So what conclusions can be made about Russian diplomacy and their geopolitical position within the international system? The Syrian crisis certainly does not signal a significant rise in Russian geopolitical power. If anything, there is ample evidence that Russia’s current power and leverage internationally is diminishing. Russia is slowly losing ground in the Middle East and the thawing of US-Iranian relations and the decay of Assad’s regime have hastened this decline. Furthermore, Russia’s influence has been cut off in East Asia with the rise of China and a resurgent Japan. Lastly, Russia’s attempt at forming a new eastern European bloc seems to be losing traction as German economic leadership seems to be a sufficient incentive for many European nations to remain within the EU. Broadly speaking though, Russia’s decline in leverage stems from a failure to recognize a different international context.

If the chemical weapons deal succeeds, Assad’s stockpiles are removed and cooperation continues between the United States and Iran over the state of Middle Eastern affairs, Barack Obama will be remembered for earning his Nobel Peace prize, while Putin will be remembered for ‘playing the game’. Russia needs to recognize that winning and losing in international diplomacy are both relative terms and relics of a bygone age once enjoyed by the European great powers. Interpretations of ‘great power’ are even waning as explanations of events as being driven by multiple actors, including states, inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, cultural movements, and ordinary citizens. These are becoming more extensive understandings of international relations which promote the pursuit of multilateral action and decisions through consensus rather than the pursuit of power and wealth through military conquest.