Jeroen Bult: Russia in Syria – what implications for the Baltic states? ({{commentsTotal}})

Russia can potentially resume playing the game of divida et impera in Europe, writes Dutch historian Jeroen Bult.

"The Vladimir and Barack show" – that’s how British weekly The Economist labelled the diplomatic confrontation between the leaders of Russia and the United States at the recent annual gathering of the General Assembly of the United Nations – and it resulted in a clear victory for Vladimir. At least, that seems to be the conclusion of the greater part of Western media. Due to a weak and incoherent US strategy on Syria and the Middle East in general, President Putin has managed to obtrude his country as an essential partner in the fight against Islamic State, the tenor is. President Obama demurred that blood-thirsty Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of the solution of a crisis that he caused himself, but did not rule out the possibility of a "managed transition of power." 2-0 for Putin?

German magazine Der Spiegel even reprinted quotations from an interview with the late Yevgeny Primakov, former minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and renowned expert on the hornet’s nest called the Arab world: "We understand the Middle East much better than many Western countries do, we know how important it is to take into account the history, mentality and traditions. I don’t think that democracy based on the European example is possible in the countries of the Arab Spring." Measured by contemporary standards, these words of Pravda’s former correspondent in Cairo could be interpreted as: Russia was right after all.

Primakov, however, is also considered the father of the semi-official ideological framework of Russian foreign policy that has gained momentum in recent years. According to this "Primakov Doctrine", a world order that is being dominated by a single superpower – the United States – is unacceptable. Cultivating strategic and economic relations with emerging poles in the East and Middle East, such as China, India and Iran, is essential for offering counterweight to this very American preponderance that is so harmful to Russia’s natural interests and to its historically-justified Platz unter der Sonne. Primakov did not write off cooperation with the West alltogether, though; partners, preferably postmodern Western European ones, ought to be selected critically.

President Putin has proved himself an exemplary pupil of Primakov. After the "Atlantic intermezzo" under Boris Yeltsin, which, due to discontent about Western interference in Kosovo and the prospect of NATO enlargement, already started crumbling in the late 1990s, Moscow has evidently turned into a staunch advocate of the multi-polarization of world politics. Putin actively contributed to the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a follow-up of the “Shanghai Five”) and the BRICS Group and, more in general, by upgrading relations with China (whether these informal networks have really born any fruit, is a different matter). This institutional move was followed by more assertive means to accomplish the return on the world stage: the deployment of the ‘energy weapon’ and in some cases, the intervention in the affairs of neighboring, former Soviet republics that dared to flirt with the EU and/or NATO.

This worshipping of the principle of multi-polarization sheds a different light on Putin’s objectives in Syria. In his brave new, 19th- (18th?) century-style world, great powers have every right to defend their interests and grandeur/derszhavnost all around the globe, and to thwart rivalling powers that do not respect “the rules of the game”, i.e. exclusive spheres of influence.

After events in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, Syria 2015 marks a new stage in this self-perceived re-emergence as a superpower within a multipolar framework: military activities in a non-adjacent, non-ex-Soviet state. One could even wonder, whether combating IS is a top priority for Russia. Although Putin is definitively aware of the risk of IS fanning out to the Caucasus, he has been eager to see the US and their partners being mired in the Syrian/Middle Eastern bog, which would also distract their attention from geopolitical hotspots closer to Europe and Russia, like Ukraine. Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which commenced only one day after the Putin-Obama mud-throwing in New York, is clearly aimed at supporting Assad.

There are already indications that the Russian airforce (VKS) has deliberately been bombing opposition groups that are not related to IS. The military build-up in Syria that Russia has intensified over the past weeks is also a clue that it intends to ensconce itself south of NATO, after having positioned itself on the Crimea, i.e. east of NATO. No doubt Moscow will seize upon the opportunity of its boosted presence in the region to foster ties with Iran, Iraq and Egypt.

Will Russia’s most protracted involvement in the Middle East since the 1973 Yom Kippur War have any consequences for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

Veteran Estonian MP and Russia-watcher Marko Mihkelson already advised NATO to remain vigilant and to make every (deterring) effort to maintain a strategic balance in the Baltic Sea area – "in order to make it complicated for Russia to give an unexpected jab to the Western countries." Understandably, the inhabitants of that very area do not feel comfortable with a display of Russian military might, yet chances that Syria is just an exercise for the VKS, the "experiences" of which will be applied elsewhere later on, like Spain was for Hitler’s Luftwaffe/Legion Condor, are minimal.

Attacking NATO territory would be tantamount to committing national suicide. Putin, therefore, will confine himself to sneaky "hybrid" activities and tactics (propaganda warfare, cyber attacks, trade measures, etc.).

The real challenge, however, is of a more indirect, "European" kind. Last January’s atrocities in Paris inspired Russia to accentuate that Islamic radicalism constitutes the greatest threat to European security, arguing away developments in Ukraine. The underlying message: Moscow is an indispensable ally in the battle against terrorism, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force that NATO founded in September 2014, in order to assuage the Central and Eastern European member states is utterly redundant, since it is aimed at fighting imaginary perils that arise from out-of-date, Cold War-like thinking. Thus, Russia tries to appeal to fears of Muslim fundamentalists and jihadists plotting on European soil and, later on, to the concerns about an endless stream of refugees heading for Europe. The logical price for this “necessary”, closer cooperation with Russia should be the lifting of EU sanctions.

Several European politicians and opinion leaders have displayed susceptibility to this Russian rationale. German Minister for Economic Affairs and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said on September 25 that "we will have to change our relationship with Russia, we need an agreement"; the conflict in Ukraine should not be a burden in such a way that Russia is ruled out as a partner in Syria. "Everybody is clever enough to realize that one cannot maintain sanctions on the one hand and ask for cooperation on the other," he continued. It is no less tempting to propagate a full return to the status quo ante, including the restoration of trade and energy relations. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó alluded to having this wish – not to mention the advocates of Turkish Stream and Nord Stream II (proposed natural gas pipelines – editor). It goes without saying that Russian media outlets Sputnik and RT have thankfully blown up statements and signals of this kind.

From a theoretical perspective, Gabriel is right – imposing sanctions on Russia, while at the same time seeking cooperation with it is rather odd. Yet, there is a reason, why those sanctions have been imposed in the first place: a grave and deliberate violation of international law, in order to regain the stature of a great power, under the disguise of the Primakov mantra of a much-needed multi-polarization of international relations. The fact that apparently many Europeans – not just those living in the western part of the continent and not just those belonging to the loony left – are (still) inclined to express understanding for that latter "argument" and to play down Russia’s behavior in Ukraine exposes a serious problem for the Baltic states. It’s a weak spot in the European pillar of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian foreign policy: the wafer-thin cohesion of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. In the end, the ease with which Russia can potentially resume playing the game of divida et impera in Europe will be more discouraging for the three small republics than Russian sabre-rattling in the Middle East.

President Putin’s military adventure in Syria could entail a change of mood in Europe, of course – and in Russia itself. One could even wonder, whether the Arabist Yevgeny Primakov would have been pleased with the current intervention at all. For the time being, the ideas of the political strategist Primakov will prevail.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Editor: S. Tambur

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