Standort: / Meldung: "Russian roulette"

Joanna Bostock

Reading between the headlines.

11. 2. 2016 - 16:27

Russian roulette

What exactly is Moscow playing at in Syria?

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Russia is apparently ready to discuss a possible ceasefire in Syria. That’s according to an official quoted by Russian news agencies on Thursday. Other reports, quoting US sources, say Moscow is proposing a ceasefire that would start on 1st March, but that the United States is demanding an immediate stop to fighting.

From the outset of the Syrian conflict five years ago, Moscow has supported the government of Bashar al-Assad, and in September 2015 got directly involved, launching a military campaign in support of Assad's forces.

Earlier this month the Syrian army, backed by Russian forces, launched an operation to recapture rebel-held areas in the town of Aleppo, causing tens of thousands of people to flee.

AFP/Joseph Eid

Russia's strategy in Syria

Joanna Bostock spoke to Gerhard Mangott, Professor of International Relations at the University of Innsbruck about Russia's objectives and strategy in the Syrian conflict.

Joanna Bostock: Russia has apparently proposed a ceasefire in Syria from March 1st, that’s nearly three weeks away, which is not acceptable to the United States. What do you think Russia is playing at with this suggestion?

Gerhard Mangott: Well, on the one hand Russia’s interested in the negotiations, they want to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict as they themselves realise there’s no military solution. However at the same time they want to improve the position of the government of Syria, of President Assad, at the negotiations in Geneva and that’s why they’re fighting on the ground, together with the Syrian government forces and Shiite militias, to take Aleppo which is the key symbol of the opposition. That’s what they’re trying to do and that’s why they need three more weeks – to create facts on the ground, to improve the negotiating position of Assad.

But why is Russia doing this? What does Russia get from it?

Well Russia is very much interested that a future Syrian government, and it need not be with Assad, at least not till the very end … Russia does not want to have a government in Syria which is dominated by sectarian forces. They don’t want to have an extremist Sunni government in Damascus because they are afraid that such a government can have a role in destabilising the Russian northern Caucasus, which is a very, very difficult region for the Russians – a lot of Sunni extremists, a lot of terrorist attacks. So that’s what they want to prevent. And at the same time they want to have a government which guarantees Russia’s interests in Syria, which includes of course the military bases of Russia in Syria: the maritime base in Tartus and the airbase in Latakia. So that’s what they’re striving for – a Russia-friendly government which includes parts of the opposition, but not the radical Islamists.

These military operations backed by Russia have forced even more Syrians to flee. There has been the suggestion that Russia’s bombing campaign is a deliberate attempt to foster disintegration in the European Union by flooding it with refugees from Syria. Do you agree with that assessment?

No, not really, because the real objectives and interests of Russia in bombing Aleppo and other towns in northwest Syria is to gain ground for the regime. They of course know that this will make hundreds of thousands of people flee to Turkey and from there to Europe, but that’s not their basic intention. At the same time however, they realise that the refugee crisis is destabilising Europe, and they realise that Merkel’s position as the Chancellor of Germany is getting weakened. And the Russians would of course love to see Merkel leave the position as Chancellor and that someone else takes over the chancellorship of Germany. So, as a side effect of course they have an interest in the consequences of the refugee crisis, but that’s not their primary intention, why they’re bombing Aleppo at the moment.

We’re talking about geopolitical motivations, at the same time Russia is under sanctions, there’s the economic aspect and there’s been a suggestion that Russia could be in a financial crisis fairly soon. Is Russia really in a strong position and calling the shots, or is it desperate to make advances while it still can and isn’t weakened by a severe financial crisis?

Strange as it might seem, the air war that Russia is waging here is not that costly, and the Russian defence budget can absorb the fighting in Syria. As a matter of fact, the government in Russia has decided that spending on defence, spending on the military forces, is THE key objective. They prefer to cut spending on education, on health, on pensions, whatever … but defence spending must not be stopped. So this war isn’t that costly and the Russians are willing to fund it. However, of course Russia is getting into a difficult situation economically, we have had a recession of minus 3.8 per cent last year; we will have a recession by about 1 per cent this year if oil prices stay at about 30 dollars a barrel, but the budget is spinning out of control. We might see a budget deficit of more than 6 per cent of GDP this year and this is because oil revenues are very, very low and the Russian budget is depending very much on oil revenues. So over the economic situation in Russia might get bleaker – real incomes are down, and unemployment is on the rise. So economically Russia is getting more and more into a weaker position, but so far this has not had an impact on its rather aggressive, revisionist foreign policy stance.

Does economic weakness mean that Russia is more likely to be more aggressive? Or will it weaken it in terms of what it can actually do and how much weight it can throw around?

Well, a lot of analysts thing that some of the foreign policy decisions Russia has made over the last past years, particularly in the Ukrainian crisis and now in the Syrian crisis is due to the fact that the Russian government wants to mobilise domestic support because by raising these patriotic feelings, these nationalist feelings in Russia, by showing Russia is a great power, trying to enforce its interests, this will bring people behind the government. I understand that this is certainly one of the interests and objectives of the Russian government and it certainly has worked with all the media control they have, but this is not the primary reason why they are so aggressive in foreign policy. The Russian leadership made a decision a couple of years ago that several red lines must not be crossed by the West, and when the West crosses these red lines, Russia will retaliate – even with military force. So that’s a principle position of Russia’s foreign policy, and as long as they can sustain it financially they will pursue such a course. However, as a great power they will fall behind if the economy deteriorates. Other powers will get stronger and Russia will get weaker. That’s what the Russians of course realise: “we are a power which is going down, other powers are going up” but still Russia tries to project its power as best it can under the current conditions.

So how can the United States and the West most effectively respond to this?

It seems weird, but as Russia is determined to go ahead with its foreign policy objectives, the only thing you can do is to try and find a compromise with the Russians which takes Russian interests into account and Western interests into account, or in the two crises the Ukrainian and Syrian interests into account. There’s no way of squeezing Russia out from the international stage by financial sanctions, even harsher financial sanctions. Russia will always find a means to pursue the course they have decided to pursue. So a political compromise is necessary, and that is realpolitik of course, and that requires giving in on positions you’d normally not give in on from a normative point of view, but that’s the only way to find a solution.