The world is becoming ever more tumultuous. But amid the general storm one country can be relied upon to maintain a sanguine -- and sanguinary -- course: Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Russian president has, with stolid determination, taken advantage of the world's focus on the political upheaval in Europe and the United States to quietly advance his foreign-policy agenda. On January 29, after months of (relative) quiet in Ukraine, separatist forces backed by Russia launched a large attack against the city of Avdiyivka, just north of Donetsk airport in the country's east. At least four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a single day, and the entire Ukrainian military was put on alert across the front. Since then, increased fighting and heavy casualties has again shaken faith that a cease-fire, and a permanent peace, can be established.
Putin's main foreign-policy goal is clearly the destabilization of Ukraine -- and he continues to do so while barely provoking a squeak of protest from the international community. And it appears that foreign-policy goal No. 2, Russian interference in Syria, is escalating, too.
It was almost a year ago, following a series of defeats for Western-backed rebel groups in Syria, that Putin declared that "the objectives [that were] set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished" in Syria. He would, he further announced, be withdrawing the "main part" of the Russian expeditionary force that had been deployed to the country to prop up Moscow's client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to protect its naval facility at Tartus.
The vow to withdraw proved premature, as Russia actually increased its presence and ramped up its bombing of Syria's rebels and civilians alike with an almost gleeful abandonment. But, on December 29, 2016, coinciding with a Russian and Turkish-brokered cease-fire following the recapture of Aleppo, Putin again ordered Russian forces to leave the region. Again the time seemed ripe. Following the regime's recapture of the rebel stronghold of Aleppo and several other key victories it was clear that Assad would not be overthrown; the rebels would not win. For Moscow it was "Mission Accomplished."
The beginning of 2017 accordingly saw what appeared to be a genuine withdrawal from the Mediterranean of a naval group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, announced that "in accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria."
However, right away there were signs that once again Russia was not pulling back from Syria. Shortly after that, two U.S. officials told Fox News that Russia had deployed four new fighter jets, the Su-25 (similar to the U.S. Air Force's A-10), which is used for close air support and has reinforced armor to protect them from ground fire.
Russian air strikes, it seems, are not going to be stopping any time soon.
The escalation is not particularly large but it is significant. As Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research on International Affairs who has reported extensively from Syria and Iraq, tells RFE/RL: "Russia is there to defend the Assad regime and ensure its continuation, and it can be expected to ensure sufficient forces to achieve this goal. Russia's presence ensures that rebel victory is no longer a possibility in the Syrian war. At the same time, Russia's end goal may well not be the forcible reunification of the entire country by Assad/Iran, but rather a semi-frozen conflict in which the regime survives."
A semi-frozen conflict -- words that echo in both Syria and Ukraine.
Any idea that Assad could regain all of Syria is absurd to the point of fantasy. But this bothers his backers Iran and Russia not one whit. Both would be happy to see a loose, truncated "Assadistan" that secures Iran's land bridge to Hizballah in Lebanon, through which it can better fight Israel by proxy for geopolitical mastery of the Middle East. Russia, meanwhile, will be satisfied with securing its naval facility and proving to the world and its own people that it can protect its client; that it is the only superpower capable of winning wars in the Middle East; and that it alone is "fighting terrorism," while positioning itself as the primary peace broker. The message will be heard, as unequivocal as it is loud: Moscow is a global player once more.
The narrative does not need to be true. Because of course Russia's stated aim -- that it entered the Syrian conflict to fight jihadism, notably in its most virulent manifestation, the Islamic State (IS) group, is largely a lie. The "global war" on jihadism is perhaps the great military trope of our age. And it is both a trope that withstands scrutiny and a war that needs fighting -- unyieldingly and relentlessly. It also, however, provides the perfect cloak for a state with imperial ambitions within which to envelope itself.
As Spyer further notes, Russia has done little to fight IS. Indeed, most of its efforts have been directed against more mainstream Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad. The primary ground partners of the Western coalition in the war against IS are the Syrian Defense Forces, which is essentially an offshoot of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), plus a few others. In truth, neither the Russians, nor Assad, nor the Iranians, nor their Sunni rebel enemies are majorly involved in the war on terror in Syria.
A 'Superpower' Returns
Nonetheless, Russia's strongman will brag about how he was able to bring disparate groups to the negotiating table to seek a permanent peace. A deal will be (or has already been) cut between Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government, and perhaps even the Trump administration in the United States. In Ukraine, Russia brags that it has pushed for a diplomatic solution to that crisis through the Minsk peace process. Even if Russia were to find permanent diplomatic solutions, either in eastern Ukraine or in the Middle East, it would be only finding solutions to problems it played a leading role in creating.
With a declining economy and a population in desperate need of placation, Russia's global ambitions will almost certainly grow unchecked for the foreseeable future. Yet as the geopolitical wheels turn it is highly likely that Russia may see improved relations with the United States and several major European powers, a reward for "fixing" these crises. This is bad news for global stability and for the liberal, Western system that has largely upheld the international order since World War II, as it only encourages Russia's crimes.
But most immediately it is bad news for the people of Syria, whose suffering seems set to continue. For them, the only foreseeable future is one of more misery -- and more death.