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Putin and Syria: Siloviki Realism in Geopolitical Strategy

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a foreign policy speech to Russia’s ambassadors and Foreign Ministry officials that is very much worth reading in context of his dispatch to Syria of a fleet of warships, including a battleship, to the modest Russian naval base in Tartus. Under Putin’s hand, Russian support for the bloody regime of Bashar Assad has consistently been more about safeguarding and expanding Russia’s strategic place in world than about Syria:

….We are forced to admit that no reliable solution for overcoming the global economic crisis has been found yet. Indeed, the prospects are looking more and more worrying. The debt problems in the Eurozone and its slide towards recession are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the global economy’s unresolved structural problems go. The traditional powerhouses of global development – the USA, the EU, and Japan – are seeing their leadership erode, but the absence of new development models is putting a brake on global growth. There is increasing competition for access to resources, and this provokes abnormal fluctuations on the raw materials and energy markets. The traditional Western economic powers are being weakened by the crisis, which has exacerbated social and economic problems in the developed economies, and by the multi-vector nature of global development today. We can already see this for a fact now. 

Colleagues, this is no cause for joy. We should not take delight in this turn of events, and much less feel malicious glee. On the contrary, we cannot but worry over these developments, because the consequences of these tectonic shifts in the global economy are not yet clear, nor are the inevitable shifts in the international balance of power and in global policy that will follow. 

We are all the more worried when we see attempts by some actors in international relations to maintain their traditional influence, often by resorting to unilateral action that runs counter to the principles of international law. We see evidence of this in so-called ‘humanitarian operations’, the export of bomb and missile diplomacy, and intervention in internal conflicts.

We see how contradictory and unbalanced the reform process is in North Africa and the Middle East, and I am sure that many of you still have the tragic events in Libya before your eyes. We cannot allow a repeat of such scenarios in other countries, in Syria, for example. I believe that we must do everything possible to press the parties in this conflict into negotiating a peaceful political solution to all issues of dispute. We must do all we can to facilitate such a dialogue. Of course this is a more complex and subtle undertaking than intervention using brute force from outside, but only this process can guarantee a lasting settlement and future stable development in the region, and in Syria’s case, in the country itself….

It would be harder for Putin to have been more clear about what his priorities were, or that for Russia, R2P as a doctrine has no standing whatsoever in international law [ incidentally, he’s correct on that point] and Syria is not going to be allowed to go the way of Libya, if the Kremlin can prevent it.

Generally, the media reported this speech, highly misleadingly, as Putin’s prediction of “Western decline” when the message was Russia’s opposition to Western military intervention in Syria to remove Assad from power. Putin neither overestimates the means at Russia’s disposal to accomplish his limited objective (blocking intervention) nor inflates his objective to an unrealizable, vaguely defined, abstraction.

Contrast, with the speech on Syria made recently by SECSTATE Hillary Clinton. Here is a snippet that gives the tenor of her remarks:

….What was accomplished in Geneva by the action group was, for the very first time, to enlist not only all five permanent members of the Security Council including Russia and China, but also important leaders in the region and in the Arab League in support of such a transition. The issue now is to determine how best to put into action what was accomplished there and is continuing here. And I really hope everyone reads the communique from Geneva, because for example, one of the earlier speakers from Syria expressed concern there was nothing about political prisoners. Well, indeed there is. And a call for the release from detention. So it would be very helpful to get everybody on the same page if we’re going to work together about what we have already done and what we need to be doing as we move forward.

Under the Geneva communique, the opposition is for the first time put on an even basis with the government. They are given equal power in constituting the transition governing entity that will have, as we just heard, full executive authority. That could not have been imagined three months ago, let alone a year ago.

So although none of us here is satisfied or comfortable with what is still going on inside of Syria, because it is against every norm of international law and human decency for a government to be murdering its own people, there has been in the last several months, starting in Tunisia, a steady, inexorable march toward ending this regime. What we need to do is to follow through on what each of us can contribute to the end of the Assad regime and the beginning of a new day for Syria. 

….Now what can every nation and group represented here do? I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge, but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. It is frankly not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People, because I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress – blockading it – that is no longer tolerable. 

First of all, the Secretary of State needs a more effective speechwriter. Period.

Secondly, there is a substantive problem here with an obsession with the minutia of process, possibly because the legal principle behind American policy on Syria is a novelty of intellectuals and is not accepted by two veto-wielding great powers that sit on the UN Security Council. Moreover this focus on minutia of process obstructs clear thinking in regard to the larger geopolitical picture and the ways to get to the end in mind – the removal of Assad’s regime – or the consequences for opposing American policy. Russia and China are told their continued support for the Assad regime, which they see as being in their own interests, is “intolerable” – an outburst of unseemly frustration as we have no stick and strangely offer no carrots for these states to change their positions. Instead we choose to moralize  in public, a diplomatic technique with a long pedigree of failure.

The comparison of statecraft between Russia and the United States is unflattering. Russia has vastly fewer cards to play, but because  Putin has grounded his policy in a siloviki assessment the realities of power, has limited his objectives to those within Russia’s means and related those to the larger diplomatic context that would appeal to other powers, he has played those cards well. Moreover, Putin has positioned Russia to be an indispensable party in a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria at very little cost, as Secretary Clinton herself has admitted and capped it off with a naval show of force in the eastern Mediterranean.

We, who have a wealth of resources to employ, have squandered them ineffectively and navigate the ship of state with our heads in the clouds. We forced a vote in the UNSC on Syria, ignoring all signals that the end result would be failure. Syria shoots down a Turkish warplane intruding in it’s airspace (likely at our request) and we had no plan to capitalize on the incident. We gratuitously leak information or disinformation about covert operations that serves more to make us look amateurish than to intimidate our opponents. We do not even appear to be well-informed about the Syrian opposition we are aiding inside Syria, as opposed to expatriate organizations. Some of the fighters in the opposition are as morally objectionable as Assad’s militia thugs and secret police killers.

We play at tactical geopolitics while the Russians do strategy.

8 Responses to “Putin and Syria: Siloviki Realism in Geopolitical Strategy”

  1. L. C. Rees Says:

    Prosperity is the mother of tactics while necessity is the mother of strategy.

  2. zen Says:

    Well said, LC. agreed.

  3. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Good post. Not sure the Russians “do strategy.” While they have elections, their foreign policy apparatus is more centralized than ours. We’ve discussed this, but our system of government makes grand strategy difficult unless there is an inarguable threat (the beginning of the Cold War—and agreement slowly dissolved as we approached the end) to our existence). Relatively speaking, our systems are more open than the Russians; thus open to more scrutiny/debate.
    Hi L.C., I believe your aphorism could be considered in reverse, too: Prosperity is the mother of strategy [wealth allows reflection and planning] and necessity the mother of tactics [the “we have to do something now” line of thought]. 

  4. L. C. Rees Says:

    Scott: Your comment reminds me of Clayton Christiansen’s Innovator’s Dilemma thesis: good businesses are destroyed by good management. His favorite example, Digital Equipment Corporation, was once the most successful minicomputer manufacturer but is now an easily missed accounting identity on Hewlett Packard’s books. DEC management was so effectively at profitably meeting needs of its customers that they had no incentive to build a “disruptive innovation” like a microcomputer (now called a PC) that 1) none of its customers wanted 2) would cannibalize its existing revenue 3) suffered from lower engineering quality than DEC’s existing products 4) had no coherent constituency inside DEC to support it. When the PC came along, it was cheap enough that a broader customer base than DEC’s existing customers could afford to buy it. Eventually, even DEC’s most loyal customers moved to PCs because of their lower cost. Revenues at DEC and fellow minicomputer manufacturers simultaneously went off a cliff. They all either went bankrupt or were bought out (like DEC was in 1998).

    Poverty may not lend itself to much reflection and planning. But it can impose greater discipline and focus in follow up to the reflection and planning that it does allow. Less than optimal strategy consistently executed often trumps more than optimal strategy inconsistently pursued. Poverty is deathly efficient at culling the essential from the superfluous since the margin between success and disaster is so narrow. Those making the initial transition from poverty to prosperity often manage the latter in a disciplined manner because they retain the lessons beaten into them by the former. Those raised in prosperity without a memory of poverty’s lessons are liable to assume that their prosperity is the natural order of things rather than a highly contingent outcome bred from blood, sweat, and tears. Leaders in prosperous times are judged by their ability to keep the existing wellsprings of prosperity flowing to their existing constituents. Those trying to shift the sources of their prosperity to new unproven sources in times of prosperity are forced to do so carrying the weight of their existing prosperity and the suspicions of the currently prosperous. Poverty, even the transitory poverty of passing crisis, is far more amenable to such efforts than prosperity.

    Contemporary American leaders are rewarded for reinforcing the status quo that prevailed after 1945. That status quo was defined by one blessing and one curse. The blessing was the greatest bubble in human history, the prosperity we enjoyed when we emerged undamaged by war or ideological excess from World War II. The second was the Cold War and the expedients taken to wage it. The result of the first is an expectation that the prosperity of 1945-1974 and the excesses it allowed are not only the natural but inevitable order of things. The result of the second is foreign and defense policies governed more by demands to ritually reenact the fossilized liturgy of Cold War expedients than by their usefulness to citizens of the United States.

    This is one reason for the differences between the energy of President Putin’s remarks and the woodenness of Secretary Clinton’s: Putin is attempting to motivate apparatchiks beaten down by twenty years of “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” while Clinton is a high priestess performing the highly formalized rituals of Cold War foreign policy for congregations at home and abroad that remain fanatically devoted and highly sensitive to the correct observance of those forms. Given their roles as challenger and challenged and the different incentives offered to each role, they’re playing their parts as expected. 

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi L.C.,
    Excellent points, all. Agree with most of your points. I made a mistake in my presumptions (which admittedly will paint me an idealist); namely, nations with wealth were inclined to look past the status quo. I know from experience, in reality, this is not true.
    I know about poverty and planning. I’m currently trying to bootstrap a $100M business with marginal-to-no capital; so I squeeze old Ab until he has a permanent wave in his beard. I know exactly what you mean and agree with the premise.
    Your use of the word energy in Putin’s remarks reminds me of a couple of close synonyms I use frequently in my consulting practice: vigor and rigor—we don’t have enough (vigorously rigorous). Another word that creeps in company of these is “conviction.” I’m an old Southern boy, and “conviction” implies a level of competent passion sadly lacking in our public discourse. Too many are about as deep as thimble, and reading lines written by staff who are treading water, and trying to keep their boss as unremarkable (out of trouble) as possible—anything to avoid controversy or a day as a headline in the news. 
    That said, your response makes sense, and I’m a bit embarrassed I allowed the idealist in me peek out in public:)) Your comments always force me to think—sometimes rigorously, and for that your comments improve the quality of the site’s discourse. Thank you.
    I contend Putin is probably not doing strategy as much as he’s attempting to consolidate his power and get a “rudder with a bit of speed” into the Russian foreign ministry bureaucracy–and the remainder of his gov’t. While he may have been “motivate apparatchiks” he was also striving to avoid the loss of Syria—much like the miscalculation on Libya. As Zen and I have discussed in email correspondence, Putin won’t be “rolled” again. Syria is not our fight, and there doesn’t seem to be a gov’t in waiting that will improve their lot over their current despot—just another despot. The neocons and progressive R2P types clamoring for intervention are lost on me. We’ve left too much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan—and war with Iran looms. Syria is not our fight.

  6. L. C. Rees Says:

    The problem of contemporary American idealism is one of degree not kind. My grandparents, born between 1905 and 1914, were idealists but it was tempered because they’d had to live life closer to the metal. Their standard of living growing up was higher than most of their contemporaries around the world but it was never as extravagant as that enjoyed by their 33 grandchildren born between 1953 and 1979. The postwar boom allowed those that grew up in it to live lives of perfectly abstract idealism without the cold shower of hard knocks earlier generations of Americans received.

    The R2P mindset is the sort of idealistic treacle that modest prosperity discourages but extravagant prosperity enflames.

  7. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Of course, the fig leaf is our supposed “extravagant prosperity”— a chimera, not base on our fiscal reality. We’re operating on fumes and our reserve currency status—both are on life support.
    Thoughtful response; I grew up close to the “metal” and should know better. 

  8. Madhu Says:

    Zen and crew, I thought you might be interested in the following comment that I left at SWJ:
    Searching for something else on the topic of contemporary NATO, I came across the following transcript:

    “OLLIVANT10:21:34I think he’s exactly right. The original purpose, you know, which the wags used to say was to keep the Americans and the Russians out and the Germans down, clearly no longer exists. But NATO is this one multilateral institution through which the United States can work and, quite frankly, doesn’t have to worry about a Russian and Chinese veto. So it’s the second-tier organization you can go to, not quite as much legitimacy as the U.N., but clearly a broad, multilateral institution through which the United States can work.”

    (Diane Rehm Show)


    I want to “vet” ideas, I have no interest in personalizing any arguments based on any of the people mentioned in my comments.

    Regarding the pivot to Asia, some pundits and scholars caution that the US and its allies may be creating an unnecessarily provocative posture toward China. However, is that sort of thing embedded institutionally within the NATOist “mindset” already?

    By using the NATO alliance as a way to “get around Russia and China” are we creating problems for ourselves and are we blinded to what may be the reason for some friction?

    Forgive my sarcasm, but poring over maps of MittelEuropa and obsessing over relations with the MidEast may not be the only intellectual background a person needs in this, the early twenty-first century…. 

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