Russia's President is using the Syrian crisis for other endsby Bill Browder / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
With Vladimir Putin’s recent military foray into the Middle East, everyone is wondering why exactly he is there. Russia’s President would have the world believe that he is helping to defeat Islamic State. More sceptical observers would say that he is in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and to protect Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base at Tartus. The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces in November has made Russia’s presence in the region even more complicated.
While there is some truth in the justifications, Putin’s primary reason for military intervention has nothing to do with Syria. It has to do with Ukraine and the economic sanctions the west imposed on Russia after its invasion of that country in early 2014.
Putin presents a self-confident facade to the world, publishing videos of his workout routine and touting his supposed 89 per cent approval rating, but the reality is that he is in a state of raw panic. Russia’s economic crisis is accelerating. Russian companies have hard currency debt in excess of $600bn which, because of sanctions, cannot be refinanced by western banks. The only source of funds to repay this debt is the $400bn in cash at the Russian Central Bank. Under most projections, Russia will run out of money in two to three years unless sanctions are lifted. He desperately needs the sanctions lifted.
The most obvious way to achieve this would be to abide by the terms of the Minsk II agreement, agreed in February 2015 and signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. This package of measures was designed to tackle Russia’s de-facto invasion of Ukraine. It would require Russia to halt its support for rebel forces, withdraw its heavy weaponry and military personnel from eastern Ukraine, and stop trying to redraw the map of eastern Europe.
Russia and the west are locked into a new violent normal
Putin’s plan for Syria
Ukraine’s tug of war
Unfortunately, one of the things I have learned from my own conflicts with the Putin regime over the last 15 years is that he never backs down from a fight. It is kill or be killed. If he doesn’t act but survives the attack, then he will be deemed weak and lose the respect of others along with everything else. This is the calculus that he goes through every day.
It is precisely for this reason that Putin has no intention of abiding by Minsk II. This puts him in a dilemma. He cannot back down from Ukraine nor can he survive western sanctions. So what does he do?
He sends military forces into Syria, throwing them into the already volatile mix. In the hordes of Syrian refugees streaming across Europe, I would argue he has cynically spotted an opportunity for himself. Western European countries are desperate to solve this crisis and negotiate a peace settlement. Rather than using his power and influence to force Assad to the table, Putin has decided to send 2,000 Russian troops to Syria and fly dozens of bombing sorties over the countryside daily. This does, of course, prop up a useful regime and protect Russia’s naval base, I acknowledge. But it also exacerbates the refugee situation, forcing even more people to flee their war-torn country.
To the casual observer this may appear to be a side effect of Russia’s military actions, but it is actually it seems to me, very likely one intended effect. And all this for the low cost of $2.4m a day, according to the military journal Jane’s Defence Weekly.
How will this help Putin lift the sanctions? It creates a problem that only he can solve. At some point the pressure on Europe will become so intense that its leaders will beg the Russian President to stop. Then Putin will look coldly at the west and say, “Sure. But first you have to lift all sanctions against Russia and respect Russia’s new borders.” Given the desperation in the west over the refugee situation, my prediction is that its leaders will cave and reluctantly give up Ukraine over the Syrian crisis.
I hope that I am proved wrong. I hope that the United States and the European Union stand up to Putin, because if we allow him to get away with what he is doing in Syria and Ukraine, then he will be knocking at our door next.