Will Putin double down on a war he never expected to win?
[*Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, before Russia admitted its passenger jet was bombed in Egypt, the Paris attack and now the incident in Turkey. That being said, it’s still interesting to see if my thesis will hold in light of just how much has happened in a short amount of time.]
The alleged bombing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula has brought home the risks involved in Moscow’s Syrian intervention. The question is, will Putin be forced to change his political calculus in battling an enemy where victory in any traditional sense was never really part of the equation?
From “likely” to “99 percent certain”, Western intelligence has increasingly taken the view that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 on board.
Moscow has been far less willing to jump to conclusions or air its own intelligence on the matter, though Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev conceded “the possibility an act of terror” downed the plane.
Russia’s reticence to speculate on the incident likely reflects the potential domestic and international consequences a terrorist strike would entail for Moscow’ recent Syrian intervention.
There are several factors, however, which will diminish Russia’s need to mitigate for any sense of popular backlash, leaving Putin’s Syrian objectives unaffected.
Matter of opinion
Empirical evidence suggests that Russian public opinion on Syria remains highly malleable. Less than two weeks before bombs started falling over the Levant, only 14 percent of Russians believed Moscow should give the regime of Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Following a targeted media blitz, a later poll by the Independent Levada Center saw a full 72 percent of Russians feel mostly or entirely positive “towards the strikes on the ‘Islamic State [IS]’ in Syria.”
Interestingly, another survey released by the Levada Center on November 6 (though conducted prior to the October 31 crash) found a plurality of responds (a full 40 percent) believed the primary benefit of the Syrian intervention would be “a decrease in the terrorist threat to Russia posed by the Islamic State.” Only 17 percent believed it would increase the threat.
Thirty four percent also said intervention would “strengthen Russia’s authority in the Middle East/the world arena,” while 22 percent believed it would “normalize the situation and end the bloody war in Syria.”
Only 6 percent believed Russia’s actions would undoubtedly lead to “a new Afghanistan for Russia,” while 29 percent thought it was entirely possible an Afghanistan-style quagmire could develop.
While Afghanistan syndrome and the increased likelihood of terrorism remain genuine concerns, anecdotal evidence suggests Russians by and large have not begun to question Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria as a result of the Sinai incident. Rather, they appear increasingly dead set on seeing IS destroyed. This in part stems from the fact that Russians have a different relationship to acts of terror than Westerners, and thus expect different reactions from their leadership when such acts occur.
Putin would know, for he himself helped create this expectation.
The June 1995 hospital siege in Budyonnovsk, in which Chechen separatists took at least 1,000 people hostage, proved instrumental in forming Putin’s zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism.
Following failed attempts to storm the building, Moscow was compelled to negotiate with the militants, ultimately securing a ceasefire which was viewed as a turning point in the First Chechen War.
It is unsurprising that Putin’s rise to power was cemented by a rebuff to this perceived humiliation, when the suspicious 1999 apartment bombings helped spark the second military conflagration in Chechnya. Putin’s “we will rub them out in the outhouse” philosophy came to signify a willingness to stop at nothing to counter terrorism, even if it meant significant Russian civilian casualties.
From the 2002 Moscow Theater hostage crisis, in which Russian special forces employed an unknown chemical agent, leading to the deaths of 130 hostages, to the 2004 Beslan school siege, where 385 were killed after Russian forces stormed the building using tanks and rocket launchers, Moscow will risk sacrificing its own citizens rather than capitulate to terrorist demands.
Due in part to a compliant state media, proclivity towards stoicism, employment of conspiracy theories to deflect blame, ethnoreligious animosity, and a militaristic culture which places a lower premium on human life, Russians appear willing to accept such civilians losses. As for the Sinai incident, nothing indicates anything will change in that regard.
Putin doesn’t care?
Recently, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told the Moscow Times “Putin is not concerned with domestic events at all,” and thus does not feel an obligation to his electorate during this time of tragedy. A Washington Post editorial noted that unlike Western states, Putin was more interested in “defending” his government than his own people.
While there is some truth to these assertions, they miss the broader point. One, Putin’s actions on the international stage are all done for domestic considerations. As it stands, domestic events are a less efficacious path towards generating a sense of national greatness the Russian public craves than international ones.
Secondly, that this potential bombing happened abroad gives Putin more room to maneuver. Domestic attacks, especially those conducted by separatists, are viewed as an existential threat to Putin’s state supremacy model, giving him no choice but to execute his “outhouse” policy. An attack on a soft target abroad, meanwhile, allows for a more nuanced response.
Another factor comes into play as well. Just as in the West (or anywhere else for that matter), the attempt to correlate acts of terror with foreign policy decisions is a non-starter. Russia is no exception in this regard.
Staying the course
Even if the Kremlin is more or less indemnified from public outrage, will Putin feel compelled to prove to IS or the Russian people that such attacks will not go unanswered?
For now, Flight 9268 will likely facilitate Putin’s pre-existing goals in the Levant rather than spawn new ones.
Putin’s primary strategic goal remains securing Russia’s military foothold in the region while dictating any forthcoming political settlement, ideally with Assad still in power. As early as 2012, Syrian expert Fabrice Balanche propopsed that “Russia and Iran can support an Alawite state on the coast, like [Russia’s support for] Abkhazia in Georgia.”
Ultimately, Russia only needs to secure about 20 percent of Syria to achieve its aims, though any additional territory would be a bonus.
An extended campaign against IS would likely run counter to those strategic goals, though Putin would remain amenable to forming his proposed “anti-Hitler Coalition” in Syria in exchange for a range of concessions from the West, including a lifting of Ukrainian-related sanctions.
Meanwhile, the need to look strong and reaffirm to the Russian public that the terrorist strike will not go unpunished, while simultaneously not risking a more serious ground campaign, can be accomplished with the help of state media.
Despite the perceived need for vengeance, there is really no litmus test for retribution. How many televised airstrikes, how many glitzy graphs detailing the number of terrorists killed would be needed to sate the Russian public?
As it stands, an estimated 88 percent of Russians receive their news via a largely state-controlled medium (television). This gives the Kremlin carte blanche to create its own Syrian realities for the public —something it has clearly been doing from the outset.
Of course, if additional terrorist strikes against soft targets are forthcoming, or if zinc coffins start piling up in Sevastopol, public sentiment could eventually push Putin’s hand. But even in the event that cutting and running became politically expedient, Putin would neither have to deal with a critical media or viable political opposition in executing a Syrian volte face. Turn on the television, and whatever message the Kremlin needs to tell will be told. That will be true for the Sinai crash; that will be true for whatever comes to pass in Syria.