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Putin's Syria war a glimpse of what West won't do anymore (+video)

Shifts in strategy

By many measures, Russia's foray into Syria was enormously successful. But it was also straight from the imperialist playbook. 

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin walks in Moscow's Kremlin on Thursday.
    Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/AP
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Russia’s abrupt withdrawal of its expeditionary forces from Syria beginning this week came as a surprise at the White House and in other world capitals.

But to understand what Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to, look back to Mr. Putin’s intervention in eastern Ukraine two years ago, some regional analysts say.

“Essentially Putin is saying, ‘My model is that you go in quick, you go in dirty, you stick to limited goals and you get out – and that’s how you’re successful,’ ” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia specialist at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

In Ukraine, “he went in to prevent the collapse of the separatists, just as in Syria he shored up a staggering” President Bashar al-Assad, he adds. “Then you stay just long enough to ensure that the party you rescued is in a better place to negotiate a settlement that achieves their needs and your interests.”

Putin’s broader ambition is to send the message that “Russia is back” as a world power, says Paul Stronski, a senior associate of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Indeed, Russia’s Syrian actions enhanced its relations with some regional powers that are traditional US partners, he says. Putin has basked in contrasting his model of intervention with what the US and West have done recently in Iraq and Libya.

He “is encouraging people to compare what he’s accomplished with the missions carried out by Western powers in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they stayed too long and the limited success they had quickly fleeted away.”

But that very success also points to how Western foreign policy priorities have changed. Putin’s intervention comes from the imperialist playbook: supporting a dictator with indiscriminate and devastating force. Particularly under President Obama, the US has pivoted away from using the military as a blunt force of raw power.  

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Moscow next week to try to take advantage of Russia’s pullback to advance peace talks. His trip contrasts sharply with the fallout from Ukraine, when the West shunned Russia.

“The backdrop to all of this diplomacy, at least in Putin’s view, is that when the US gets involved in places it makes these sweeping and dramatic promises about what it’s going to do – and then it turns into a quagmire,” he says. “I think he very much has in mind the US intervention in Iraq, and then the Western entry into Libya, which for him was a complete disaster.”

By comparison, Putin’s specific aims in Syria, as in Ukraine, are limited and focus on Russia’s strategic interests – not promoting democracy or values. To do this, he was willing to prop up a brutal regime and was not concerned with major collateral damage.

Though Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine played out differently, the aims were similarly limited only to promoting Russia’s strategic interests.

“Initially there were desperate warnings that Russian troops would soon be marching into Kiev, but that never happened,” Dr. Gvosdev says. “What Putin does want is a decentralization of Ukraine so it won’t have a strong central government that can align with the West, and he wants neutrality for Ukraine.”

“In Syria, it’s also not ‘Assad must stay at any cost,’ but some kind of unity government that preserves the Syrian state and recognizes Russia’s interests in Syria and the region,” he adds.

There remain caveats to Putin’s declaration of “mission accomplished” in Syria, says Mr. Stronski. He notes that Russian efforts to woo Turkey and reorient its Western leanings have been shattered by the Syria intervention. And there is nothing to guarantee that Mr. Assad’s advances under Russian airstrikes won’t be reversed.

But Putin no doubt feels justified in concluding overall success.

Gvosdev says: “I think Putin stands back and says. ‘Two years ago we were marginalized, and now we’re back in the center of things.’ ” 

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