Putin’s Hardheaded ‘Realism’ on Syria

By intervening in defense of the Syrian government and then pulling back Russian forces, President Putin has revealed himself to be a foreign policy “realist” who avoids ideological quagmires, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Whenever Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a significant move, several common reactions are routinely heard in American discussion. One such reaction, as Mark Katz notes, is to remark on how clever Putin supposedly is. Another common response is to express surprise. Many people expressed surprise when Russia militarily intervened last year in the conflict in Syria, and many of the same people are expressing surprise over the announced drawdown of Russian forces there.

We don’t know if the people inside the U.S. government whose business it is to follow and analyze such matters were surprised by either move, but one might question how consistent it is for anyone outside government to be surprised both by the move in and the move out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

The latest Russian move should not have been at all surprising. To the extent that it was, this is because of imputing to the Russians motives and thought processes that they do not exhibit, and neither do most other people. The announced withdrawal shows that Russian objectives in Syria were never unlimited or grandiose.

The objectives had to do with such things as a temporary propping up of the Assad regime to prevent it from collapsing, and asserting a Russian role in helping to determine the future of Syria. The withdrawal also demonstrates that the Russians, just like most other people, consider costs and the risks of incurring more costs, along with considering benefits and objectives.

The Russian moves demonstrate in addition that Putin does not apply to the Syrian situation the kind of framework that many American critics of the Obama administration’s policies apply, which is to equate activity and especially military activity with the degree to which a nation’s interests are being upheld.

A corollary to this framework is the belief that Russian military activity not only always advances Russian interests but also retards U.S. interests, and that a similar inverse relationship applies to U.S. military activity. Putin does not seem to have fallen into that zero-sum mindset, and there is no good reason for the rest of us to either.

The implied symmetry between U.S. and Russian activity in Syria leads to the notion that if Russia is managing a partial disengagement after a military intervention of several months, then this must mean that concerns about greater U.S. intervention carrying the risk of immersion in a prolonged quagmire are invalid. Actually, that notion itself is invalid.

There is not symmetry between what the Russian intervention has accomplished and what a bigger U.S. intervention would have done. The asymmetry includes, but is not limited to, the fact that Russia has been propping up an incumbent regime while any U.S. intervention would be on the side of rebels.

The major problem that is Syria today concerns the war itself, much more than any particular political outcome of the war. It is the war itself that has given rise to expanding extremist problems such as ISIS and that involve the risk of instability spreading beyond Syria’s borders. So a peaceful settlement of the conflict (at least the portions of it that do not directly involve ISIS or other terrorist groups) needs to be the top priority.

A precondition for peaceful settlement of such a conflict is a hurting stalemate in which no side believes it can win a military victory. The belligerents thus see compromise and peaceful settlement as the only alternative to indefinite, costly warfare. Here is where the Russian military intervention and its difference from anything the United States might do come into play.

When the Russians first intervened, the Assad regime’s position had become so shaky that it looked like it might fall, and this situation was reflected in adamant postures among rebels to the effect that they were determined to fight on until the regime was forcefully overthrown. Thanks in large part to the Russian intervention, that is no longer the situation.

Opposition groups have been given reason to believe that a military victory for them is out of reach, and that a negotiated settlement involving the current regime is the only alternative to endless warfare. At the same time, the shoring up of the regime has stopped well short of giving the regime any capability to achieve military victory. The current Russian drawdown accentuates the point that Moscow is not going to help the Assad regime achieve any such capability.

In short, the entire sequence of Russian moves, including the initial intervention and the current reduction of forces, has helped to create and maintain the necessary hurting stalemate to make possible a negotiated settlement. By contrast, greater U.S. intervention into the kind of situation that existed last year only would have fed opposition recalcitrance about pushing toward a military outcome and would have pushed resolution of the conflict even further out of reach.

Other Russian behavior, including in the partial cessation of hostilities and the U.N.-mediated political negotiations, are consistent with the current Russian aim in Syria being a peaceful settlement. If Putin is so clever, we should build on the fruits of his cleverness to pursue a peaceful compromise, which would be in U.S., Russian, and Syrian interests alike.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “Putin’s Hardheaded ‘Realism’ on Syria

  1. Peter Loeb
    March 19, 2016 at 06:29


    In a comment to Ray McGovern’s article yesterday which
    I entitled “Mr. Putin’s Political Acumen” I dealt with some
    of Paul Pillar’s concerns. I stand by that comment which
    alludes to the completion of knowledge and background.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

  2. Joe Tedesky
    March 18, 2016 at 16:21

    Russia learned a lot from the Americans. Any war fought over six months is headed toward experiencing a quagmire, and that is never good. The U.S. on the other hand seems to always have to many chiefs and not enough braves, when it comes to becoming engaged in such conflicts. The U.S. through it’s lobby system attempts to grant the wishes of too many honored nations, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and especially Turkey, in the case of Syria. The U.S. needs to admit to itself just what is in America’s interest when it comes to representing itself in the Middle East. If the U.S. is committed to fighting terrorist, it should partner up with Russia, and not demonize it’s leadership, and defeat the terrorist it claims to be fighting against.

  3. Call A Spade
    March 18, 2016 at 01:53

    There are questions not answered 1 Who is behind the rebel uprising 2 Is ISIS a manufactured organisation 3 has natural resources of Syria been promised to third parties 4 why would Russia prop up a government then walk away with no beneficial outcome 5 who actually runs the US foreign policy.

  4. michael lacey
    March 17, 2016 at 19:08

    This whole exercise was carefully planned as is all Russia’s engagements. The Jordanian Chief of Staff, General Mishal Al-Zaben, had been informed in January in Moscow, by the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and his Syrian counterpart General Fahd Jassem Al-Freij that a partial withdral would happen! From the military point of view, the Russian Army is withdrawing from the battlefield, but not from military headquarters. There is no longer much point in accumulating planes, because there are few targets left to hit – the fortifications built by the jihadists and their networks for the transport of stolen oil have been destroyed. On the other hand, the anti-aircraft systems – S-400 and Pantsir-S2 missiles – are staying where they are.

  5. Zachary Smith
    March 17, 2016 at 18:33

    At the same time, the shoring up of the regime has stopped well short of giving the regime any capability to achieve military victory. The current Russian drawdown accentuates the point that Moscow is not going to help the Assad regime achieve any such capability.

    I’ve not yet seen any evidence the Russians don’t want the Syrians to win. They’ve done some major training and re-equipping of Syrian forces. Their short air campaign has also been a major boost in Syrian morale.

    Consider this headline at the foxtrotalpha site: “As Russia’s Tactical Jets Leave Syria, Its Most Advanced Attack Helicopters Arrive”


    It’s taken me a while to understand the site has strong neocon tendencies – another headline/link within that story is this: “Watch The Kremlin’s Warplanes Hightail It Out Of Syria And Back To Mother Russia”, the implication being that Putin is a cowardly chicken**** at heart.

    Earlier today I saw a remark (directed towards the UK Guardian) to the effect that if Putin was seen walking on water, he’d be even more ruthlessly mocked for not having learned to swim.

    The neocons control major parts of the “Liberal Media”, and they’re not going to let up on the abuse.

    • March 21, 2016 at 20:07

      “… if Putin was seen walking on water, he’d be even more ruthlessly mocked for not having learned to swim.”

      gave me a good laugh …

  6. Airbrush2020
    March 17, 2016 at 18:13

    It appears that Vladmir Putin puts Russia and the russian people first in his military/foreign policy moves. By contrast, the US seems to use it’s military to support business interests (oil, minerals, military equipment sales) to the exclusion of public opinion.

    Advantage goes to Putin.

  7. akech
    March 17, 2016 at 15:27

    Putin is not interested in “resources grabbing and marginalization of severeign countries” motivated regime changes on planet earth! Is he?

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