By intervening in Syria, President Vladimir Putin has broken Russia’s relative isolation and is making it the “indispensable nation” in conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and with Islamic State while the United States balks at deeper involvement.
But in this geopolitical poker game, it’s not clear he will be able to quit while he’s winning, especially when events can take unexpected turns such as the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey’s air force on Tuesday.
Russia’s air strikes, cruise missiles and trainers on the ground have tilted the balance of forces in Syria back toward President Bashar al-Assad’s army, forcing a U.S.-backed coalition waging an air war against Islamic State onto the back foot.
Now Putin has seized on this month’s Islamist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt, which was claimed by IS and killed all 224 people on board, to shift his focus and offer France an alliance against the militant group, also known as ISIS.
The Russian Defense Ministry released pictures of bombs destined for Syrian targets inscribed “For Paris”.
“Russia has been willing and able to bring significant firepower to bear against ISIS at a time when France is willing but not entirely able, and the United States is able, but not entirely willing to bring its full firepower to bear against ISIS in Syria,” said Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
From a pariah in the West over his action in Ukraine, Putin has become a sought-after interlocutor due to his “realpolitik” combining hard power and diplomacy.
Western leaders who had lectured him over Ukraine at last year’s G20 summit Brisbane, Australia, and sidelined him from the G8 group of industrialized powers, vied for private meetings with him at this year’s G20 in the Turkish resort of Antalya.
After the failure of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 “reset” of relations with Russia, it could be seen as a “re-reset” by the West, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
It doesn’t mean Putin can escape yet from Western sanctions over his seizure of Crimea in 2014 and support of Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine. The five main Western powers agreed last week to extend them for at least six months.
Nor does it guarantee the Russian leader a successful outcome to his Syrian venture. Military interventions often start in triumph and end in ashes, as the United States and Britain learned to their cost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Putin believes he has put Russia in the position that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed for the United States in the late 1990s as “the indispensable nation”.
But some strategic analysts believe Putin is overreaching and storing up security and economic dangers for Russia from domestic militants and Middle East oil powers.
It is not only events such as Tuesday’s shooting down of the Russian jet, described by Putin as a “stab in the back”, that could affect relations with other powers. A “friendly fire” incident involving Western forces or strikes that caused huge civilian casualties could also blow his campaign off course.
“Putin is a geopolitical master-tactician. Whether one likes it or not – and I don’t – ‘Putinpolitik’ is doing pretty well,” said Michael Emerson, a former European Union envoy to Moscow.
He noted it was the second time Putin had wrong-footed the United States by taking an initiative in Syria that saved Assad from potential military defeat and make himself an unavoidable partner in any solution in the country.
The first was in August 2013 when Putin persuaded Obama to use diplomacy to achieve the chemical disarmament of Syria rather than enforce the U.S. leader’s own “red line” by striking Assad’s forces over the use of the banned weapons.
That decision was a “major foreign policy mistake” that signaled U.S. fatigue in the Middle East and was duly noted in Moscow and Beijing, said former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Obama belittled Russia after its seizure of Crimea as a “regional power” acting out of weakness rather than strength and not a “number one security threat” to the United States.
Putin’s instinct for exploiting perceived U.S. and European weakness has been one of the features of his vigorous foreign policy as he has tried to reassert Russia’s great power status.
“He has an incredible nose for political opportunity, but also for power,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank and advocacy group.
“He was stuck in Ukraine… and couldn’t see a way out. He initially stepped up the Russian footprint in Syria because Assad was in trouble. Now he has managed this extraordinary pivot after the Paris events,” he said.
French President Francois Hollande, who had been a small part of the U.S.-led air campaign against IS, has called for a single coalition including Russia to eradicate the militant group in Syria. He will discuss cooperation with Putin in Moscow on Thursday after making his plea to Obama on Tuesday.
A Reuters analysis in late October showed almost 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in Syria were in areas not held by IS.
Tertrais said the French believe nearly 90 percent of Russian strikes were on Western-backed anti-Assad rebels before the Paris attacks and the Sinai plane bombing, and just 10 percent on IS. In the last week, those proportions have roughly been inverted, he said.
Other Western experts say Moscow has continued to hit Western-back insurgents, notably those that had acquired U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles, but at least half its strikes now targeted IS leadership and logistics in Syria.
Both Russia and France are reported to have hit oil installations exploited by IS as a source of revenue.
While the Kremlin leader has overturned the table in Syria, possibly creating space for a negotiated settlement to four years of civil war, his use of force beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union has raised risks for Russia.
“Putin is not a good strategist. He is stirring up a hornet’s nest of Sunni Muslims who will hold a grudge against him,” said Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington and a former deputy Secretary of State and veteran Russia expert.
“He already had an internal problem with Islamist extremism and he now has an external problem since ISIS was responsible for the Sinai plane bombing.”
By aligning himself with Shi’ite power Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah militia allies, he said, Putin risked antagonizing Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia, which have driven down the oil price on which Russia’s sanctions-weakened economy depends.
European diplomats say even if Russia, the United States and Europe had a common interest in achieving a settlement in Syria to focus on Islamic State, the Saudis, as well as Turkey and perhaps Iran, may see interests in keeping the conflict going.
“Faced with a choice between keeping Assad in power and destroying ISIS, Putin is caught in a vice of his own making,” Talbott said. “He has pushed Assad’s exit off into the future at great cost to Russia, because ISIS is going to be stronger.”
He now faces a potential upsurge of Islamist militancy in Russia’s Caucasus region which has spurred attacks in Moscow and other cities since the Chechen wars of the 1990s, Talbott added.