When Putin started to increase Russian military presence in Syria’s coastal Alawi region, I was in the process of reading Kissinger’s Diplomacy and coincidently its chapter on the Suez Canal Crisis. I couldn’t resist not comparing Putin’s move to that of Khrushchev when he provided support and aid to Nassar’s Egypt. 1950s Soviet Union and today’s Russia suffer from the effects of containment imposed by the West. Containment brought on themselves through acts the West views as blatant aggression. The difference I see between the two contexts is that Putin is no Communist and Russia is no longer the primary adversary of the West. Yet in both circumstances the same underlying motivations and logic seem to have convinced Russia to play the Middle East card.
When Khrushchev came to power following Stalin’s death in 1953, the transition wasn’t smooth. It took him till 1957 to cement his strangle hold on power in the Kremlin. This insecurity in Moscow led him to take a few cocky decisions even when the West took him to be the best chance for peace. One of those cocky decisions was to throw his support behind the Nassar regime in Egypt and its Pan-Arabic intentions. The West was stunned by this diplomatic victory of the Soviet Union. Containment was intended to keep the Russian maneuvers within its Communist sphere. The traditional sphere of the diminishing British and French powers in Middle East now involved a new player. USA’s diplomatic bargaining with Nasser had gone no where. The end result of this would be British and French humiliation and withdrawal from the region after the 1956 Suez Crisis, the creation of the short lived United Arab Republic (UAR) involving Egypt, Syria and North Yemen and the 1967 Six Day war.
The important point to note here is that Khrushchev didn’t squeeze into the Mideast power struggle at a moment of strength for the Soviet Union. It was at a point of heavy weakness; Stalin’s death led to power struggles and purges, the Korean war had been a stalemate and USA still had the nuclear lead. The entry into Egypt was meant to showcase to his opponents and critics that he was a capable leader who could take the ailing Union to heights even Stalin could not.
Putin in contrast definitely does not have the issue of being overshadowed by the legacy of his predecessor. He has been in power since 2000. Instead of proving to be an adversary to the West, Putin started off as a surprising collaborator even supporting Bush’s War on Terror (obviously to garner support for his own War on Terror in Chechnya). Over the last 15 years he has slowly positioned himself as an adversary. The 2008 war with Georgia was the turning point. The annexation of Crimea and the creation of the East Ukrainian insurgency is what cemented that role. He has supported the Assad regime in rhetoric, in vetoes and limited material support, but providing Assad a Russian air force seemed a bit far off.
Since Soviet times, the naval base at Latakia was Russia’s only permanent naval installation in the Mediterranean Sea. It has managed to hold on to this one last bastion even when Hafez Assad decided to use Mi24s bought from Russia to bomb a Soviet vessel at the base. Thus, it is doubtful that any Russian leader would want to lose Latakia, especially one with an ailing economy and a nationalistic fervor keeping him in power.
Putin had promised much to the Russian people during the commodity boom of high oil prices. In fact Europe was consistently at the mercy of Russian oil and gas pricing. The military modernization project was planned on the $100 oil barrel. But that all went south when the prices plummeted in 2014. The Ukrainian crisis only made things worse as Europe and USA slapped on sanctions. Trade with China seems to be the lifeline of the economy. Yet the military continues to be modernized while outdated Soviet strategic bombers are seen over everywhere from the English Channel to Guam. Putin has used shows of military prowess as a means of sustaining the nationalistic fervor at home and distracting the people from the economic woes.
Assad has been losing ground since July and many expected him to start withdrawing to his Alawite homeland in the coastal region. That was until Putin did a Khrushchev. He announced Russian fighter jets stationed in Latakia would be bombing Islamic State targets in support of Assad’s troops. NATO forces until then has had hegemony over Mideast air space. Suddenly a nuclear power was contending for that airspace. There was suddenly a chance of US and Russian planes facing each other off over enemy territory. The only previous event of similar magnitude was when in 1970 15,000 Soviet troops were stationed in Egypt to man a comprehensive air defense system against Israeli incursions.
The question is can Russia afford this new active role in the region it has not performed since the 1970s ? The answer might lie in what happened to the Soviet role in the region. Khrushchev did not enter Middle Eastern affairs with a clear cut strategic end game in mind. He didn’t achieve anything of much significance other than to commit Soviet resources when its own people and satellite states in Eastern Europe needed them the most. The breakup of the Soviet Union might have been sparked by this needless involvement. Why continue to endorse an oppressor who forgets you for simple geopolitical gain 1000s of miles away? In 1972, Egypt’s Sadat simply evicted the Soviet personnel and Latakia was what was left.
Today in trying to protect this last Russian chip left in the region, Putin might be pitting the very survival of the Russian Federation. Russia is overextended today as it once was under the Soviet Union. RT and massive military parades against Facism can only sway public opinion for so long. When coffins of Russian pilots and soldiers start coming back home from Syria, public opinion will start to waiver. In 1991, Russia survived by shedding away its Soviet empire. If Russia collapses again, the Federation is what is at stake. A nuclear power in chaos is a bad proposition for world peace. So all I can hope is that unlike Khrushchev, Putin as a clear end game in sight and that he knows exactly when to pull back before over extension passes the point of no return.