Imperial overreach: How Putin’s move into Syria could bring his government down

September 28, 2015
A general view shows the Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra

These are the ruins of the Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria, once the seat of a great empire. On August 30, 2015, Islamic State destroyed it. REUTERS/Sandra Auger

In his United Nations speech on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the world to join Russia’s fight against terrorism while preserving Syria as a nation. He had already boldly forced the issue by sending troops, weapons, and aircraft to Syria in the expressed hope that the rest of the world would feel compelled to follow his lead.

Yet Putin has done nothing to prepare the groundwork, either internationally or domestically, for such an inherently risky move. Indeed, he has done precisely what he criticizes Washington for doing — acting unilaterally without first consulting the global community. Putin is also an implausible defender of Syria’s integrity as a nation in the wake of Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  In fact, he is beginning another military adventure before finishing his previous one and at a time of profound economic weakness in Russia.

Putin may have pulled off a fait accompli in Syria. But he has not defined his end game. He claims that his immediate military goals are not offensive but defensive. Nonetheless, one can anticipate numerous ways in which Russian soldiers could unintentionally become embroiled in conflict, and why 1,000 to 2,000 troops will not change the facts on the ground or resolve Syria’s refugee crisis.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends his annual news conference in Moscow

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at his annual news conference in Moscow December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Putin’s primary objective seems to be to broker a negotiated settlement and to make sure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longime Moscow ally, gets a seat at the table. Yet Assad is in full military retreat, and no longer serves as a viable national figure.

Indeed, almost five years into a tumultuous, multi-front civil war, Syria as a unified country no longer exists. The United States unwittingly started the trend of undermining the Arab nation-state by its invasion of Iraq. By this stage, no outside power possesses the political will to march in and re-impose European-drawn borders in the Middle East.

So Putin’s gambit is, long-term, with no immediate payback other than to enhance his image and to divert attention from the unresolved crisis in Ukraine.

From a purely strategic standpoint, however, it remains unclear why Putin thinks it is a good idea to embark on a second military operation before the first one has ended. Russia lacks all the tactical advantages in Syria that it enjoyed in Ukraine — a common language, deep knowledge of the region and the apparent unlimited ability to infiltrate and compromise one’s opponent. Even more important, Russia has decided to engage in Syria when it has limited resources to maintain one, let alone two wars.

Though commentators remain divided as to whether Western-imposed economic sanctions by themselves have worked against Russia, there is no doubt that they, combined with the dramatic collapse in the price of oil, have had a devastating impact on the Russian economy. Russia is in the midst of a major recession, and despite the upbeat pronouncements of several ministers, the economy has yet to find rock bottom.

In addition, Putin continues to ignore pleas from former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and other advisers to implement genuine structural reforms and at least set the stage for an economic recovery.

Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk

Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic drive a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk, January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

So, Putin will now face a more direct choice between guns and butter, and his assumption that Russians will sacrifice for greater national glory will be true until it is not — as has occurred before at crucial moments throughout Russian history. Public protest and political change, for example, accompanied Russia’s military defeat, in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and Afghanistan in 1989. Twice in the 20th century — during World War One and then after the Cold War — the Russian people abandoned the Russian state altogether.

It remains impossible to predict when such a tipping point will be reached. But this inherent tension will invariably increase, as Putin runs through his hard currency reserves — currently pegged at approximately $350 billion and falling.

It is not just the potential political fallout and social unrest that Putin must worry about now. By marching into Syria, Putin will really be engaged in a war against Islamic State and Islam — even though Russia possesses a large and highly volatile Muslim population. The fight against Islamic State could quickly destabilize the North Caucasus at a time when Russia’s military forces are spread too thin.

Russia's PM Putin greets servicemen, whose colleagues were killed in Chechnya last week, at a military unit in the city of Ufa in the southern Ural Mountains

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L, in the foreground) greets servicemen, whose colleagues were killed in Chechnya last week, at a military unit in the city of Ufa in the southern Ural Mountains February 8, 2010. REUTERS/Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei Nikolsky

Imperial overstretch serves as a recurring theme throughout Russian history. Putin’s grand U.N. pronouncements should not obscure the fact that he brings few deliverables — and multiple vulnerabilities — to the table.

President Barack Obama can listen to Putin. But Obama should also recognize that Putin is not necessarily negotiating from a position of strength — despite his popular Western image as a man of action.

Moreover, if preservation of territorial integrity is Putin’s motivating international principle, then Obama must hold him accountable not only in Syria but also in Ukraine. Putin has used Syria to change the conversation in the Russian media and to distract the Russian people from the messy and unfinished conflict in Ukraine. 

He must not be given a similar opportunity in Europe and the United States.

35 comments

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This is great. The more entangled Russia gets in these far-flung hell-holes, the less we have to. Let the Kremlin get some new enemies.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Unlike broke USA,Russian Putin knows what exactly he’s doing. President Truman said “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. A calm, cool and collective Putin is bright and tough who does not need to get out of the kitchen because he is capable of taking the heat.

Posted by RatnaMatin | Report as abusive

Imperial overreach!!! Their you go again REUTERS not unbiased at all. Putin is an ally of Assad and has been asked to help keep Assad in power and to bring the fight to ISIS. America suffers from IMPERIAL OVERREACH ,with 800+ bases all around the world, invaded IRAQ, Afghanistan, partly involved in LIBYA, Illegal Drone Murder in sovereign countries, Prisoners held without trail. Get your facts right and stop spreading anti-Russian propaganda you are being paid by US gov to print.

Posted by SellsoulandLIE | Report as abusive

I never thought Reuters would publish such garbage.
“Putin will really be engaged in a war against Islamic State and Islam”.
Really???? What part of Islamic State represents Islam. They are group of barbarians that need to be killed. The US was stupid to arm them, thinking they are ‘peaceful’ protesters wanting secular change in Syria.

AMERICA, WAKE UP! NOBODY IN THE MIDDLE EAST WANTS TO BE LIKE YOU!!!!!!!!

Besides, last I checked Russia is doing quite fine on the world stage. Can we say the same for the US?

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Both Syrian and Ukranian wars were started by US as proxy wars, drawing Russia to the arena.

Resultant calamity of this flawed US defense strategists, was borne by both – the locals of the war countries and the tax payers of the countries involved in the proxy-war.

A single factor that plagues this nation is – the unnecessarily-exorbitant US defense budget that costs tax payers an equal sum in medical/veteran costs over time which otherwise should be spent in improving the competitiveness and for the betterment of the future of the next generation.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Reuters and the other West media remind ‘Pravda’ and Ostankino TV at Brezhnev’ and Andropov’ times.
Of course there is an authoritarian Communist regime in Washington. Look where does th so called ‘author’ – a Communist propagandist – gets a salary Woodrow Wilson Center.
It reminds me about FED, Trotsky Bolsheviks, throwing down the Orthodox Russian Emperor and creating a new Khazar empire – a Bolshevik one under the banksters’ command.
Vladimir Putin – a Communist and a KGB officer – is their puppet. But at a higher position than Barack Husseinovich Obama – a Kenyan, German Communist and Stasi agent Angela Merkel, the KGB agent David Cameron and the Norwegian Communist Jens Stoltenberg – a KGB agent ‘Steklov’.
It’s a big game of the Corporatocracy – the new stage of the World revolution.
It’s a pity for the Afghans, the Iraqies, the Syrians and the Europeans.
If you perceive the events literally never forget two things. First, Russia wil not fight for Syria and less for Assad. Second, China and Iran – the new favourite – are with Russia in Syria. Soon you’ll see Iranian soldiers there.
And ‘The White House has long stopped trying to remove Assad from power’. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldne ws/northamerica/usa/11897647/The-White-H ouse-has-long-stopped-trying-to-remove-A ssad-from-power.html)
But an ardent Bulgarian Communist may become UN Secretary General. First – NATO, then – UN… The triumph of Communism is full.
May be these lines won’t be published. So is in the Third world media…

Posted by Ifandiev | Report as abusive

Does anyone actually believe that these comments aren’t posted by Russians?

Posted by DD.V | Report as abusive

“Moreover, if preservation of territorial integrity is Putin’s motivating international principle, then Obama must hold him accountable not only in Syria but also in Ukraine.”

The above line is most curious. Who in the international community has held the US accountable for Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt? That is what directly led to the rise of IS and the Syrian quagmire. I know that some world leaders has criticized the US at the UN or the media but those are just rhetorics without concrete actions such as sanctions or diplomatic exile.

This is why some many people around the world dispises American hypocrisy. We like to hold other nations accountable for their actions but they don’t dare do the same with we because they fear how we will retaliated. Rule by fear and intimidation has never been a recipe for prolonged success so I guess we will have to see how long the US government can keep this up.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Putin pays a bottle of vodka for every published comment in his favor. This is why the high turnout on Russian stories. Gets them through another afternoon.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This is all fine, but the truth is, Putin controls the press and is at liberty to block internet in Russia. This means he completely controls the minds of the population. Yes, his reckless policy takes the country further and further down the drain, but that doesn’t mean that the people will suddenly rise up and push him out.

Things are much worse in North Korea, but somehow the dictatorship has managed to survive for 2.5 generations. Who’s to say the same could not happen in Russia, at least for the next 2, 5 or 20 years?

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

“Unlike broke USA,Russian Putin knows what exactly he’s doing.”
This kind of statement proves absolutely that the level of propaganda in Russia is second only to North Korea. It is time to pity the people of Russia. They have no access to real information. They have fallen victim to a tyrant and they believe what their government tells them to believe, despite reality.

Posted by ReverendJim | Report as abusive

Russia will not bend over in a PC fashion like the USA, they will actually get something accomplished unlike our impotent self serving “gubmint”.

Our govt is more concerned with paying the poor and ignorant to multiply.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Russian paid trolls out in force on Reuters as usual. Nobody but a Russian paid troll would defend Putin’s war on Slavic brothers in Ukraine. Well, the price of oil is going to be less than half what Putin needs to maintain his dictatorship well into the next 2 years and at the rate he is burning the Russian buffer – for no gain at all except more war and sanctions – he’s going to run out of money to pay for more shirtless photo ops in Siberia. From my perspective dead Russian soldiers in Syria is better than dead Ukrainians in Ukraine. Putin’s amazing knack of making everyone his enemy is still his number 1 skill.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

It is amusing to see people who resort to name calling other commenters because of differing opinions. It seems that if you do not agree with mainstream Western point of view on Syria, then you must be a paid agent for Putin. How silly.

Posted by JCromwell | Report as abusive

If Putin’s bomber pilots were as good as his trolls, he might be able to hit something other than playgrounds and clinics in syria. But Russia hasn’t fought a real war since WW2. They are soft and clumsy.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

There are roughly five million “displaced” Syrians as a result of MENA foregn policy, this shouldn’t become a contest of who is prettier or smarter addressing the U.N. the focus needs to be relief for these people and the countries that are being strained by hosting these displaced peoples.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

To my understanding Russia only defends what is left of Syria , not invading as the illiterate bloggers mention here. Regarding Ukraine the west can not use double standards like in the case of Kosovo letting the Albanians declare independence on Serbian soil, the case of Bosnia where the Serbians were not allowed to declare independence ,the Tibet and Taiwan question etc etc… That’s why Russia repeatedly asked for respecting the international law at every meeting at the UN.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Putin is playing with fire. He doesn’t have the means to successfully carry out 2 wars at a time. Syria may turn out to be his Afghanistan. See:

http://www.realclearworld.com/blog/2015/ 09/syria_may_be_putins_afghanistan_11145 4.html

Posted by Impertinent | Report as abusive

Imperial overreach……reuterian propaganda

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Author of this piece is highly titled expert on international policy, close to the corridors of power in Washington. That provides part of the explanation why things are so crazy there.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Putin has outplayed and overmatched Obama in every way

Posted by dencal26 | Report as abusive

All the hallmarks of some serious military escalation.
If Donald Trump is elected president in a year, you will find America will possibly withdraw from this religious and cultural quagmire
.The US will just purchase oil at reasonable prices from the eventual rulers.

Posted by wondering_too | Report as abusive

Putin takes the bait. Sinks into quagmire. Haha.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Didn’t Assad request Putin’s assistance? If so, we are the interlopers, not Putin, since Assad is still the legitimate head of Syria.

Posted by Lilydaisy | Report as abusive

Shock and awe.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Who would have thought Russia would come in to save the day?!

Posted by hypnomoon | Report as abusive

I guess they publish anything these days. No, Putin is brer rabbit.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

The US should defend its long time allies Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. The Kurds especially The Iraqi Kurds, who have been loyal to us for about 15yrs now. Safe zones or partitions in Syria and Iraq should be enforced for them military and economic aid. They have Allied themselves to the US. It would be a shame and a disgrace to turn our backs on them. The Palestinians have ripped up the Oslo accords. The substantial US economic aid given to them should be given to our friends the Iraqi Kurds.

Posted by Ewebe | Report as abusive

What I find commendable about these russian air strikes is the openness and accountability. Tagrets are shown and described, photographs and videos documenting the results are presented to the public. All of these are certainly available to Pentagon from its satellite surveillance, and so there is an independent verification: a forged photo/video could be readily discovered. As a result, we, the people, are being informed, we, the people can make opinon of our own based on the facts as close to the original source as they can be, and we the people can make our own judgement. Accountability to people, quite a contrast to the case of hundreds of “coalition” strikes. Way to go, Russia.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Imperial overreach is what George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2003 that gave rise to this group of barbarians who are still being supported by the US. Were Putin interested in taking over Syria, he would have done what Bush did in Iraq: disband the Syrian military, install a proconsul (remember Paul Bremmer?) to rule the conquest, sack all government employees without pay, and disband the party they depended on. All these were done in Iraq to no avail because the aggrieved parties have now evolved into this hydra-headed monster that beheads everyone who disagrees with them. Putin has been invited by the president of a country who was elected by 80% of the electorate in their recent election. He has not done anything criminal but go after the barbarians. What this article shows is the author’s ignorance or willful desire to gloss over the real masters of imperial outreach. And one has to really question what all that outreach in Iraq achieved. For starters, let’s mention the 5,000 dead US servicemen, the thousands who suffer from PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, failed marriages, suicides, homelessness, not to forget the trillion or so in debt owed to China for the finance of this imperial outreach. And this is not to forget the innocent men, women, and children Iraqis numbering in some estimates to one and a half million people who have been, and continue to be slaughtered and maimed for this ill-advised invasion on the basis of lies. That, Mr. Pomeranz, is imperial outreach!

Posted by tollgirl | Report as abusive

Are you effing kidding me?!?! Im a liberal and an Obama supporter and even I realize what complete BS this is. Putin is running circles around Obama and making the US look weak and stupid. He’s not engaged in a war in Ukraine, there’s hardly any assets there at ALL. You talk like all his resources are tied up there and Russia is spread too thin. He’s supporting a long-time partner (Assad), keeping his naval base in Tartous, and of course strengthening Russia’s influence in the middle east. He’s winning and making the US look pathetic. For f@*ks sake you couldn’t have gotten this more wrong.

Posted by JoeJoeInCO | Report as abusive

Russia is not targetting ISIL in Syria, but the non-islamic opposition to Assad:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/1 0/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0S40DF2 0151010

After the Russian bombing, the Syrian army is moving in to formerly rebel-controlled areas:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/1 1/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0S506F2 0151011

Combined with Turkish “NATO” strikes against mainly Kurdish groups, the effective opposition to ISIL is being systematically wiped out.

If ISIL is to be stopped, both Russia and Turkey must be stopped first.

Posted by Manila02 | Report as abusive

Oh come on. Putin is there to keep peace from happening. He doesn’t want to defeat ISIS, he wants to stir up uncertainty and instability so that oil prices go back up more than paying for his adventure. Meanwhile, he gets to showcase Russian arms and boost sales.

It’s a win-win for him. Loss for everyone else.

Posted by GRB | Report as abusive

I don’t like Russia, or Assad, but Syria is such an huge mess that I think that the region would benefit if Russia went in with a few tens of thousands troops and steamrolled IS, and restored order and gave Syria back to Assad.

Posted by Zugico | Report as abusive