The method to Putin’s Syria madness
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, 2nd left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2nd right, and their wives in Moscow in 2005.
March 23rd, 2012
10:50 AM ET

The method to Putin’s Syria madness

Editor's Note: Matthew Rojansky is the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

By Matthew Rojansky - Special to CNN

To much of the world, Russia’s intransigence in the face of intense international pressure to halt the violence in Syria seems like sheer madness. Russia has prevented countless efforts to impose a ceasefire, blunted calls by Syria’s Arab neighbors to end the crackdown, and negated Bashar al-Assad’s own incentives to do anything but hold onto power by whatever means necessary.

Yet, as seen from Moscow, there is a method to this madness. For anyone who still believes the conflict should be resolved with the backing of the U.N. Security Council, Russia cannot just be written off as an irrational actor. In fact, senseless as Moscow’s position might appear, there are real Russian interests at stake over Syria, and if we make an effort to understand them, it may be possible to find a solution that satisfies Vladimir Putin and saves Syrian lives.

So, what does Russia really want with Syria?

Follow the Money. A considerable amount of cash is at stake for Moscow in Syria. Since the 1950s, the Soviet Union and then Russia were intimately involved in developing Syria’s oil-processing, electric power, irrigation, transportation and other major infrastructure projects. These, together with massive arms sales, including equipping Syria’s armies for two major wars with Israel, resulted in over $10 billion in Soviet-era debt owed by Damascus to Moscow. The Russians forgave two thirds of that in 2005, but still expected the remaining $3.6 billion to be paid by 2015.

In addition, Syria’s history as a Soviet client state has kept lucrative investment opportunities open for Russians in the post-Soviet era, including tens of millions invested in oil exploration, billions in oil and natural gas transit and refining, and some $4 billion in active arms contracts as of 2011 - not to mention the $550 million deal to sell Syria Yak-130 trainer jets signed in January while al-Assad was already pummeling Homs with Russian-built hardware.

The bottom line is that Russia’s billions of dollars in current and future accounts payable have Bashar al-Assad’s name on them, and no post-al-Assad government is likely to honor them. To win Russian support for a Syrian transition strategy will require a credible deal for compensating the Kremlin and powerful commercial interests close to it.

The “Syrian Gambit.” Putin sees Russia as a great power with global interests, and like a savvy chess player, he thinks several moves ahead. Russia’s navy base at Tartus may not be worth much today, when Russia’s skeletal navy can hardly spare vessels to patrol far-off Mediterranean waters, but Putin has a long-term plan for his country’s rearmament, which includes building dozens of new fighting ships and submarines to reassert Moscow’s global conventional military power. If al-Assad goes, Putin can hardly expect to keep his lease on Tartus, and Russia’s fleet may not find a single welcoming port of call from the Bosporus to Gibraltar.

Part of demonstrating Russia’s great power status is also proving that it is not beholden to any other global power center - especially the United States - and opposing Washington over Syria allows Russians to claim that unlike Europe or even the Arab League, they are not under America’s thumb. Whether others are persuaded matters less than that they can’t do much about it.

Above all, though, Putin would like to be the “indispensible actor” in international security. And on Syria, he must be pleased to note, he has nearly got his wish. The recent visit of the Red Cross chief to Moscow, and the entreaties of world leaders from Kofi Annan to William Hague signify to Putin that if a resolution to the conflict is possible, Moscow must be its architect. Unless the rest of the world is prepared to escalate without Security Council authorization, Putin is probably right.

Fear and Loathing. If there is one security issue that keeps Vladimir Putin awake at night, it is almost certainly the specter of Russia’s encirclement by NATO, which he and many Russians can see only as a hostile military alliance, made even more hostile and brought up to Russia’s very doorstep when former Soviet satellites joined the alliance during the last decade.

But NATO is not just encircling Russia by adding members - it is expanding its “area of operations” far outside Europe into the heart of Moscow’s former “spheres of influence.” If French planes can bomb Tripoli, and American troops can occupy Kabul, why not Bishkek, Minsk, or even Moscow? A line must be drawn, and Syria is as good a place as any to draw it. And speaking of drawing lines, Putin must make sure that Syria does not become another precedent for “people power” bringing down authoritarian regimes that once seemed impregnable. That problem hits especially close to home now, after tens of thousands of Russians marched in Moscow and elsewhere to condemn manipulated elections and call for Putin’s ouster.

Statesmen of goodwill around the world have pleaded with Putin, and have been left wondering why he cannot seem to appreciate the gravity of the slaughter that his intransigence has enabled, or at least is failing to stop. But it misses the point to conclude that Putin is simply indifferent to this tragedy.

True, the Soviet Union lost over 20 million civilians in the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, many millions more died in Stalin’s purges, and tens of thousands of Russians were killed in two campaigns to suppress Chechen separatism, so it may be hard to persuade them that the slaughter of civilians in Syria is somehow unacceptable just because of its human cost. For Putin, Syria is not about humanitarian imperatives. Rather, it is about the way he understands Russia’s financial and strategic interests, and his own elemental insecurities. Find a way to placate these, and the road to Syria’s salvation may indeed run through Moscow.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Matthew Rojansky.

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Topics: Russia • Syria

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    Whatever Russia wants with Syria isn't quite clear but at least the Russians are doing the right thing here. The West needs to stay out of Syria's civil war and just ket the chips fall where they may. Enough of these foreing wars which are of no concern to neither the U.S. nor Europe!

    March 23, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • Ali.Sueree

      @Marine5484 Its actually Russia that is interfering with Syrian affairs by continuing to ship weapons to the illegitimate assad regime as he continues to kill civilians. Putin is a crooked oil man, who wants to keep syria as his only surrogate in the middle east. Both the united states and russia are rogue states that should be kicked off the security council.

      March 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
      • efmbond

        @Ali Sueree, can you tell me how the free Syrian army got their weapons ??

        March 25, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  2. Albert Hoffman

    CNN's Broadcasts Are Controlled By The US Defense Department.

    March 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      It certainly appears that way Albert, judging by how many of my posts get blocked. These right-wing fanatics somehow can't stand to see anybody air views other than theirs as they want the rest of us to see things their way!!!

      March 23, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
      • Rz

        I don't understand how the post gets acknowledged (by the numbering confirming the increase) but nothing ever shows up! Any how, Syria is just an arena of rooster and dog fights for Russia and China. And they're loving it. Capitalism and religion need to stay out of it too. The world is just not ready yet for advanced intelligence and global humanitarianism.

        March 24, 2012 at 8:38 am |
      • pmcdonald

        I hardly spend any time on this blog, especially on posting replies since many replies don't get posted. Even anodyne ones.

        March 24, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Patrick

      And, how do you know this bright boy?
      What are your references?
      "My imam told me" does not count.

      March 24, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
    • efmbond

      and the State department

      March 25, 2012 at 1:39 am | Reply
  3. Wim Roffel

    The simple reason why these call for armistices didn't work was that they weren't honest. The US is still calling for the type of armistice where the Syrian army withdraws so that the rebels can occupy all the cities while the army is condemned to be sitting ducks who the opposition is free to shot.

    Russia is actually much more concerned about human casualties than the US. The US casually started a civil war in Libya that killed over 30,000. Yet somehow it still has the mettle to complain about 8000 death in Syria, a considerable part of which are opposition fighters or civilians killed by opposition fighters. If the American hawks had their way Syria would get the same treatment as Libya. Given Syria's larger population and tenser ethnic faultlines the number of casualties there would very probably surpass the 100,000.

    The only point where the article is right is where it claims that Putin wants to draw a line in the sand. We have an international law that put serious restriction on interference in the internal affairs of other countries. What the Western countries did in Libya was a gross violation of those laws – excused with legal niceties that nobody believes. If the US had its way it would be free to encourage an uprising in any country in the world and then – when things turned bloody – to claim that there is a humanitarian disaster that justifies an armed intervention. Never mind that that intervention kills much more people than would have died without...

    March 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • efmbond

      @Wim Roffel, t;hanks for your post.

      March 25, 2012 at 1:47 am | Reply
  4. Ali.Sueree

    @Marine5484 Its actually Russia that is interfering with Syrian affairs by continuing to ship weapons to the illegitimate assad regime as he continues to kill civilians. Putin is a crooked oil man, who wants to keep syria as his only surrogate in the middle east.

    March 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Jim Carry

      who did say illegitimate assad regime? The Illigamate based on what? CNN news or other propaganda? Clear your mind and try to find truth.

      March 24, 2012 at 3:14 am | Reply
  5. Omar

    Not so sure it is money driving Moscow's position. It is Russia trying to assert it's power and last foothold beyond borders especially with the American influence is strong in the surrounding-Afghanistan Iraq and turkey

    March 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  6. Zerolow

    why did Anwar Damon have to go and blow up the rest of Syrias oil....FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WOMAN THEY ONLY HAVE A LITTLE BIT she fvcking cray? Honestly CNN...thats disgusting

    March 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    In order to get Russia on board, the West should invite Moscow to join the NATO. Once a member it wouldn't need to fear any more. Assad has to go. We can't let him stay and get away with murder! Bring him down, put in peace-keeping forces in Syria until fightings stop. Then let the people elect their own government.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Although Russia has been using the Syrian port Tartus since 1971, a A joint commission for economic and military co-operation between the two countries, that was set up in 1993 didn't kick-start until 1998.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      When Assad visited Moscow in 2005, there were speculations he was seeking to buy Russian missiles. Instead he and Putin talked about Iraq, Iran tensions, Middle East peace efforts and global terrorism. What a joke! Assad has sponsored terrorism himself.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        You were there and you know this for a fact.
        Please quote references from which the truth can be derived.
        Otherwise, your rhetoric continues to be Islamic lies–as in all the other forums you have spouted lies.
        The moment you decide to have a truthful conversation, we will be ready and willing to speak with you and your islamic friends.

        March 24, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      When Putin visited the Middle East – Palestine and Israel – later in 2005, he was confronted by Sharon's fear about the Russian-Syrian arms deal. The latter worried that the missiles reaching Damascus would be passed on to terrorist organisations like Hezbollah. Putin promised Sharon that Russia would see to it that this would not happen.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Before the presidential elections three weeks ago, Putin and Sergej Lavrov were defending Assad. After Putin won the elections, Putin made an about-turn and Lavrov said, Russia was losing its patience with Assad. This change of heart could have to do with allaying protesters at home and critics abroad.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
      • pmcdonald

        Why do you make 5 posts J. von hettlingen? 4 of which are replies to yourself?

        March 24, 2012 at 10:25 am |
      • Patrick

        Because that is what his imam told him to do.
        Apparantly, Allah allows lies.
        Bukhari:V7B67N427 "The Prophet said, 'If I take an oath and later find something else better than that, then I do what is better and expiate my oath.'"
        Qur'an 9:3 "Allah and His Messenger dissolve obligations."
        Qur'an 66:2 "Allah has already sanctioned for you the dissolution of your vows."
        Bukhari:V4B52N268 "Allah's Apostle said, 'War is deceit.'"
        Qur'an 4:142 "Surely the hypocrites strive to deceive Allah. He shall retaliate by deceiving them."
        Bukhari:V7B71N661 "Magic was worked on Allah's Apostle and he was bewitched so that he began to imagine doing things which in fact, he had not done."

        March 24, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • George Patton

      Are you joking here, j.von hettlingen? Getting Moscow to join NATO is tantamount to surrendering unconditionally to the will of the right-wing thugs in Washington!!! Nobody with any sense of morality is willing to do that!

      March 23, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Reply
    • Jim Carry

      it never happened , read more about Russia .

      March 24, 2012 at 3:06 am | Reply
  8. monroe

    Most of the violence is caused by mercenaries from Libya, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudis are hiring mercenaries from Latin America for $150 a day to go in an "destabilize" (aka wantonly kill people). CNN is an accomplice to these atrocities since it still repeats lies.

    March 23, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Quite true monroe, quite true!

      March 23, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      And you know this how????????
      You have to do better than "my imam told me"

      March 24, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
  9. sadat

    See the elephant is dying and die a very sad situation

    March 23, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  10. Benedict

    Oil,arms and beautiful women! (Mrs Assad of course!!) Casino Royale comes to mind! Globally of course!!!

    March 24, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Your point Zippy?

      March 24, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply

    1. al-Assad IS in serious trouble. Obama was one of the first world leaders to call explicitly for al-Assad's ouster. ALL THE WORLD CONDEMN AND SANCTION HIM and we must keep doing it until he fall and then bring him as a war criminal along with russian leaders we must attack russian interest every where, they have blood in there hands.

    2. Force is only answer aganist syria now.along with Hizboallah, terrorists must be hunted down, Yes, the Pentagon is reportedly preparing "detailed" contingency options for U.S. military action in Syria. That's what militaries do, and it's only prudent for the United States to monitor chemical weapons sites and eavesdrop on the regime's communications. It's also a good idea for the president to have a full understanding of what his options are and the risks and costs involved.

    3. The U.S. intelligence community is concerned about hizboalla ,iran and iraqi shiia terrorists presence in Syria of fighters from Iraq's shiia branch, who are thought to be behind a spate of bombing attacks in Damascus and Aleppo.

    4. . If al-Assad is to fall, the pillars that prop up his regime must first be removed. Iran and Russia, both of which continue to send weapons and advice, if not more, must be convinced that a post-al-Assad Syria is something they can at least live with. Both countries have met with members of the Syrian opposition, indicating they want to explore their options. Perhaps

    5. Ignoring China. and use the human right tickets aganist them, make it tough for china to buy and sale to any memebers , china love money and will leave asad if there are economic snaction aganist this evil communist regime.

    6. Focusing exclusively on the Syrian National Council he;p them, arm them , finance them, get no fly zones in multiple areas so they can get weapons and supplies, they are already in civil war , so no worries we can safe civilians , al asad already kilkled 14,000 civilians, and more than 132 000 in prison, killing daily.

    .7- attack syria now alonmg with hizboallah as they are hiding chimechal weapons and stash and make the region un stable, attack them now and save millions of civilians later, attack them now and that will make it easy to get red of iran later. we all must be united to get red of those evil fregiemes, dont be silent SILENCE IS A CRIME, HITLER MUST NOT COME BACK AGAIN and he is a life and well as long as IRAN AND SYRIA THUGS ARE COMMITTING CIVILIAN KILLING.

    March 24, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  12. wdh 30

    One word money.

    March 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply

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