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The Week In Russia: Just Enough War, Just Enough Chaos

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit an Orthodox cathedral in Damascus, Syria, on January 7.

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Despite Russia’s bad reviews of the U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani -- it was a “crude violation of international law,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a statement -- there is clearly a potential upside for the Kremlin in the spike in tension between the United States and Iran.

President Vladimir Putin could use the situation to try to accentuate divisions in the West, bolster Moscow’s clout in the Middle East, and grab for a role he has shown eagerness to play despite saber-rattling remarks about Russian weapons and despite his country’s now-substantial involvement in wars abroad under his rule: that of the peacemaker.

Putin, in fact, quickly went about pursuing those aims: He voiced concern in a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, and flew into Damascus on Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve for his first known visit to the Syrian capital since the war there began nearly nine years ago. At his side, in uniform, was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu -- a symbol of Moscow’s boots on the ground in Syria, where it has backed President Bashar al-Assad throughout the conflict, and its bigger-than-before presence in the Middle East.

At a meeting two days later, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- whose countries are on opposite sides in Syria -- criticized the U.S. assassination of Soleimani and cast themselves as calm, clear-minded supporters of peace in a joint statement. While Russia has propped Assad up with a campaign of air strikes against his opponents since 2015, the statement said that in the confrontation between Washington and Tehran “the use of force by any side” is a bad idea and that foreign countries should not intervene in “intercommunal conflicts.”

Rewards And Risks

But along with the opportunities both for geopolitical point-scoring, the potential escalation also poses risks for Russia. It threatens to take the Kremlin out of its comfort zone, and points to the limits of a foreign policy that often relies on leveraging as much clout as possible while ceding dominance to others.

In Syria, where Russia and Iran have intervened to support Assad in the nearly nine-year war and plucked him from what seemed like the jaws of defeat, Moscow “benefits from a distracted Iran as well as a distracted United States,” Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, wrote in an article published on January 6.

But “if the Soleimani assassination does accelerate the drift toward war between the United States and Iran, then Russia’s calculation changes,” Mankoff wrote. “Russia absolutely does not want another large-scale war in the Middle East, particularly one that could destabilize Iran, a country of over 80 million people that borders states in the Caucasus and Central Asia that Russia considers part of its sphere of privileged interests.”

Iranian mourners at the funeral procession for Qasem Soleimani.
Iranian mourners at the funeral procession for Qasem Soleimani.

Throughout the war in Syria, analysts have said that while Russia and Iran are on the same side they are also rivals, and that despite its relatively warm ties to Tehran, Russia does not want Iran to have too much power. But in a January 7 article, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky suggested that Russia also does not want Iran to have too little power.

The argument that “it’s always been in Russia’s interest to limit Iran’s role in Syria…assumes that Russia wants control,” Bershidsky wrote. “Putin, for his part, never wanted to own the Syrian crisis, but rather to prop up forces willing to consider Russia’s economic and military interests ahead of U.S. ones.”

Ukraine And Georgia

It’s one of the hallmarks of the post-Soviet period: Russia has raged at what it says is a U.S. hegemony or would-be hegemony, accusing Washington of acting like an often-violent global policeman, imposing its will, and crimping the sovereignty of other countries -- but that big share of global power may have brought the United States a burden of responsibility that Russia did not share.

For Putin, the ideal situation sometimes seems to be a conflict that Moscow can use to wield influence -- but one that is not massive enough to pose a big risk to Russia.

After more than 13,000 deaths, the outcome of the war between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists is uncertain. But for nearly six years -- while denying it is even a combatant despite what Ukraine and the West say is indisputable evidence of a major Russian role -- Moscow has used the conflict as a lever of influence over Kyiv, though the results have been mixed.

While there have been intermittent eastward pushes by the Moscow-backed forces, predictions that they would mount a major campaign to take over a giant swath of southern Ukraine -- seeking to reach Crimea, which Russia seized control over before the war broke out, or the Moldovan border -- have not been borne out.

In 2008, Russian forces drove deep into Georgia in a five-day war that Moscow blamed on Tbilisi and called a “peace enforcement operation on its part.” Moscow left small military units in places like Poti, on the Black Sea coast, for weeks after an EU-brokered end to the war.

Those forces were eventually withdrawn, but more than a decade later Moscow holds levers of influence on Georgia -- placing a hurdle on its path to NATO membership, among other things -- in the form of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway republics where it maintains a major military presence.

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not be issued next week. The next installment will appear on January 24.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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