Russia, Syria and the Return of Putin: Where Now for Russia’s Foreign Policy?

Professor Margot Light from the London School of Economics, in a guest post blog for the Russia Foundation website, writes about President Putin's new foreign policy objectives and the country's goals in the Middle East after the Arab Spring.

President Putin’s third term foreign policy objectives

Putin’s third term foreign policy objectives do not differ much from those he pursued in his second term.  In February he published an article in Moskovskie Novosti on Russian foreign policy.   More unusually, he published a foreign policy decree – in effect, a set of instructions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- on the day of his inauguration.  In both documents he repeats familiar themes: Russian foreign policy is pragmatic, transparent, multiple-vector and independent; the use of force is inadmissible; international relations must be based on international law principles (the most important of which is non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states); Western states practice double standards, in particular in relation to human rights; NATO expansion and US plans to install a missile defence system in Europe undermine Russian security.  But Putin also maintains in these documents that Russian companies are losing their positions in the markets of what he calls ‘the Arab Spring countries’, and are being replaced by companies from the states that had a hand in changing their ruling regimes. Perhaps, he suggests, intervention was motivated by commercial interests rather more than by a concern for human rights.

Russia’s objectives in Syria and the Middle East

The principles set out in Putin’s two foreign policy documents are reflected in Russian policy in the Middle East and towards Syria more particularly.  Putin has long been trying to re-establish Russia influence in the Middle East, and he has also wanted to expand Russia’s share of Middle Eastern markets.  Russian policy is also aimed at ensuring stability in the area which – because of its close proximity to Russia’s southern neighbours -- is deemed to affect Russian security.

So far Russia has not been very successful in achieving these goals. For example, the war in Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein demonstrated how little influence Moscow really had in the Middle East.  President Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow would further undermine Russian influence in the area. On the other hand, if Russia were successful in brokering a peaceful end to the conflict, its continued influence in Syria would be assured.  

The goal of expanding Russia’s share of Middle Eastern markets has also not been successful.  First, the Iraqi war brought an end to a trade agreement said to be worth US$40 billion. Second, Russia’s support for UN Security Council Resolution 1970 calling for an arms embargo on Libya cost it an estimated US$4 billion in interrupted and lost contracts.  Gaddafi’s fall inflicted a fatal blow to Russia’s commercial relations with Libya. Russia’s economic relations with Syria are more valuable than its ties with Libya. Syria is an important customer for Russian arms and Russian energy companies have valuable energy exploration and pipeline projects in Syria.  These valuable economic links would be jeopardized if President Bashar al-Assad were to lose power.

Putin also has wider security concerns arising from the conflict in Syria. In Moscow’s view, the ‘Arab spring’ has already undermined the stability of an area which is very volatile. Syrian stability is, Moscow believes, vital to Middle East stability. It is also important to Moscow's military strategy. Russia relies on its naval base at Tartus and associated assets at Latakia.

Although endogenous Middle Eastern events have largely been responsible for preventing Russia from achieving its goals, Putin also blames western policy, in particular, the policy of liberal interventionism, whether by military invasion or humanitarian aid. Such intervention frequently leads to regime change.

Since Putin became president of Russia, geopolitical realism has predominated in Russian foreign policy thinking.  This means that the preservation of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence is highly valued and non-intervention is held to be the most important principle of international law (unless of course, it is Russia that is doing the intervening).  Putin objects most strongly to policies that are undertaken with a view to bringing about regime change.  He believes that Russia’s abstention from voting on UNSC resolution 1973 enabled NATO to intervene in Libya and bring about regime change.  He is determined not to make the same mistake with regard to Syria. Moscow has vetoed UNSC resolutions on Syria.  On the other hand, it supports Kofi Annan’s peace plan because it calls for political negotiation and demands that both sides should cease using armed violence. 

There are frequent calls for Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian government.  The Russians have probably made strenuous efforts to persuade Assad to fulfil the obligations entailed by the Annan plan.  The chances are that Assad has shown himself as impervious to Russian appeals as his father was to Soviet pressure in the 1970s and 1980s.