The Syrian civil war provides a stark example of Russia’s fears and ambitions. Above all, Moscow is anxious about another Libyan scenario in which an unpopular dictator is overthrown and encourages other disenfranchised populations to turn against their autocratic leaders. Such a wave of public anger could eventually sweep over Moscow and even precipitate civil war in the Russian Federation.
The Kremlin depicts the Syrian uprising as the subversive work of the U.S. and its European allies. Russia and China regularly veto Western-backed U.N. resolutions aimed at pressuring President Bashar al-Assad's government to end the escalating civil war and to step down from power. The key stumbling block is the West's insistence that a new resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict.
Syria remains a priority for Russian foreign policy and relations with Damascus have thrived throughout Putin’s rule. The country hosts the last remaining Russian naval base in the Mediterranean and Moscow has forgiven almost three-quarters of Damascus’s debt in order to uphold lucrative weapons orders. Soon after Washington imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004 for supporting international Islamist terrorism, Russia agreed to sell Damascus a sizeable weapons package. Russia has sold over $1 billion in arms, including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles as well as helicopters, artillery, and two dozen MiG 29/31 fighter aircraft.
The Syrian crisis demonstrates that Moscow has more important goals than regional stability, the aspirations of Arab citizens, or “resets” with the U.S. Above all, it is intent on developing and maintaining an alliance of “sovereign states” not tied to NATO, the EU, or the American alliance. These can include states that are authoritarian, statist, secularist, or even clerical. What provides a semblance of commonality is resistance to U.S. foreign policy.
Moscow casts itself as the informal leader or spokesperson for emerging regional and global players from China to Iran to Venezuela by advocating national independence and political self-determination as the primary common interest against alleged Western intrusions couched as democracy promotion, regional security, or economic reform. The development of such “multipolarity” is intended to undercut Washington’s alleged hegemony even if Russia is no longer a superpower. In addition to forging closer political contacts and increasing bilateral trade, Moscow has focused on arms sales and energy contracts in order to boost its reputation as a reliable security provider.
In this context, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping is viewed as a valuable vehicle for the Russian authorities to curtail U.S. influence among the larger and economically dynamic non-Western states. Moscow is trying to position itself as the informal leader of the world's five major emerging markets even though in the years ahead Russia is likely to be economically weaker than the other four BRICs.
Putinist Russia forges strategic links with other autocracies that value strong government to ensure national unity and a political status quo. Hence, Moscow upholds close relations with smaller or medium-sized states such as Syria that has sought to defend itself against democratic transformation and popular revolution. Developing close ties with autocratic regimes or defending their allegedly threatened independence is strategically beneficial for Russia as it depicts Moscow as spearheading opposition to America’s hegemonic globalism. It offers diplomatic and other forms of support to regimes criticized by Washington and Brussels and thereby promotes their non-Western orientation. In particular, Russian officials pursue strategic links with states that can act as spoilers to undermine U.S. interests in various key regions, including the Middle East.
Russia’s Syrian policy has broader ramifications in Eurasia. The Putin regime seeks to estrange from the West in general and the U.S. in particular countries that adopted authoritarian systems during their post-Soviet transformation. For instance, Moscow offers political support to the Central Asian governments regardless of their record on human rights and democratic governance, calculating that Western criticisms will serve to buttress Central Asian relations with Russia and remove any leverage the West has in these strategically salient states.
As during the Cold War, a number of countries outside the post-Soviet region also seek to benefit from Moscow’s ambitions. The benefits have included diplomatic protection, favorable trade and investment, and arms sales, including sophisticated weaponry from Russian companies. Washington has been particularly concerned about the purchase of Russian-built S-300 antiaircraft missile systems by Iran that could be used to shoot down American planes.
In the Middle East, Putinist Russia has pursued an assertive policy to diminish U.S. influence especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened Washington’s regional position. Moscow supports Syria and uses Iran to undermine the security of Western allies in the broader Middle East. Both countries are viewed as useful buffers against Washington. Russia has also conferred legitimacy on Hamas and Hezbollah, the two leading armed Islamist and anti-American movements in the region, by not listing them as terrorist organizations and inviting their leaders to Moscow.
In this strategic context, the fate of the al-Assad regime will help determine whether Russia can actually defend its allies or is ultimately powerless in the face of domestic opposition and international pressure. If the Syrian dictator is dislodged from power, as seems increasingly likely, Russia stands to be the biggest loser in both international status and lost arms sale.