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I was in Moscow last week where I participated in a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (commonly known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO), did a radio interview with Ekho Moskvy, and talked with many Russian scholars and journalists about the current international situation.  Here is a summary of the views I heard from my Russian interlocutors over the course of the week:

Crimea:  Most Russians I spoke to strongly support President Putin’s annexation of Crimea.  They believe that since the majority of Crimea’s residents are Russian, the region should belong to Russia.  It was wrong of Khrushchev to transfer it from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.  Whatever the West might think, they regard the March 2014 referendum in favor of Crimea joining Russia as generally reflecting the will of the people of Crimea.  Even those few I spoke to who opposed the annexation (or the forceful way in which it was carried out) acknowledge that this has been highly popular in Russia and has boosted support for Putin tremendously.

Ukraine:  The situation in Ukraine is seen as being extremely complicated and the risk of civil war there as being strong.  Stalin is seen as being at fault for his redrawing of Eastern European borders at the end of World War II in which he assigned captured territory where the population was European-oriented to be the western provinces of Ukraine.  Russians I spoke with view eastern and southern Ukraine as part of the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) that does not want to live in a Western-oriented country belonging to NATO.  Western Ukraine (the region around Lviv that Stalin joined to Ukraine) they do not see as belonging to the Russkiy Mir.  They see the region around Kiev in central Ukraine as being linked to both Russia and the West.

What to do about Ukraine is unclear.  Some believe that it should remain intact (minus Crimea, of course) as a neutral nation that is allied neither with Russia nor the West.  Others see the division between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements in the population as being so great that it would be best to divide the country.  Eastern and southern Ukraine (plus Transnistria—that bit of eastern Moldova with a large Slavic population which had been part of Ukraine before Stalin redrew that border) should either be joined to Russia or become a new country, “Novorossiya,” that is allied to Russia.  Many I spoke to could accept what remains of Ukraine being allied with the West, though some can’t bring themselves to exclude Kiev from the Russkiy Mir.

Whatever happens, Ukraine’s current problems are partly the result of being dominated by oligarchs who benefit from the country’s current borderland status which gives them the ability to extract support from both Russia and the West without having to make a firm choice between either.  The increasing division within the Ukrainian population between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, though, is undermining their ability to continue doing this and maintain order.

While Putin was very much in control over what happened in Crimea, he is not in control of the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk where pro-Russian separatists have declared independence from Kiev.  While these groups are seen in the West as being under Russian control, several of my interlocutors insisted they are not, and that they are actually trying to force Putin to come to their aid through engaging in confrontation with Kiev’s forces.  If this occurs, Russia could find itself involved in a messy, long-lasting conflict.

CNN and other media reported while I was in Moscow that Chechen fighters loyal to the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, were supporting Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk.  I heard three different explanations about why this has come about:  1) the Chechens have been sent to impose discipline over the unruly Russian separatists; 2) Kadyrov sent them to show his loyalty (and indispensability) to Putin; and 3) these Chechens came of their own accord to eastern Ukraine because they are being paid well to be there.

America and the West:  The Russians I spoke with are all concerned about the economic sanctions that America and Europe have imposed on Moscow over Crimea and how this will affect them.  I argued that these sanctions have been relatively minimal, and that they were imposed mainly to show domestic audiences in the West that their governments are “doing something” in response to Russian actions in Crimea.  My Russian interlocutors, though, worry that the sanctions will soon increase.  Together with decreased European purchases of Russian natural gas, they fear that the Russian economy could be hurt badly. 

Whether supportive of Putin or not, the Russians I spoke with thought that America in particular was mishandling relations with Russia.  Some referred to the expansion of NATO and the bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s as unnecessary acts that alienated not just the Russian government, but the Russian people too.  Others noted that America has fewer people knowledgeable about Russia who can advise Washington than it did during the Cold War when relations were tense, but dialogue between us was too.  Many noted that Moscow and Washington have a number of common interests, such as preventing conflict on the Korean Peninsula, making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, combating jihadism, and maintaining peace and prosperity in Europe.  They worry that differences over Ukraine will put cooperation on all this in jeopardy.  They are especially unhappy that America is encouraging Europeans to buy less gas from Russia and to buy more from other sources, including the United States itself.

China:  In late May 2014, Russia and China signed an agreement whereby China will buy $400 billion worth of Russian gas over thirty years.  This should more than make up for any Russian loss of gas sales to Europe.  The Russians I spoke to, however, are all wary both of this agreement and of China generally.  My Russian interlocutors interpreted the announcement that the price Russia would receive from China for this gas was a “trade secret” as being bad news for Russia.  Moscow’s desperation to reach an agreement with Beijing, they believe, has allowed China to pay an embarrassingly (for Moscow) low price—perhaps so low that Russia will make no profit.  Whatever the price, they worry that increased tensions between Russia and the West will result in Russia becoming increasingly dependent on China.  One person indicated that while China has privately signaled its support for Moscow against America and the West in Ukraine and has offered to spend billions in Russia to re-orient its economy to export petroleum and much else to China, Beijing does expect something in return:  Russian support for the Chinese position in all its disputes with other Asian countries.  This is something that he did not see as being in Russia’s interest at all.

Putin and the Advice He Receives:  Someone else I spoke to indicated that Putin is also quite wary of China and would never allow Russia to become so dependent on Beijing.  But Putin may be assuming, this person said, that the current crisis with the West over Ukraine will blow over when, in six months or so, American and European leaders come to realize just how much they need Russia.  It is not clear to my Russian interlocutor, though, that the West will come to any such realization. 

Putin’s conviction that it will may be based on advisers who tell him basically what he wants to hear, and not on more thorough and objective assessments from academics.  Indeed, the Russian government seems to be increasingly suspicious of Russian academics.  My Russian interlocutors note that during the Cold War, the Kremlin sought and valued analyses from the international institutes (such as the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and the USA and Canada Institute) of what was then the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  Now, though, the Russian government seems highly distrustful of these as well as the many other research institutes that have sprung up.  Researchers now live in fear of being identified as foreign agents for collaborating with foreign foundations and research institutes.  But in addition to the negative impact that this distrust has on these individuals and institutions, it also means that Putin is depriving himself of advice that he needs to consider in order to avoid the pitfalls that will surely result from listening to those who tell him only what they think he wants to hear.

While the Russians I met with are generally (and genuinely) pleased with Putin for having rejoined Crimea to Russia, there is a sense of foreboding among them that the crisis in Ukraine has set in motion larger forces that are leading to a worsening situation in that country which Russia and the West cannot control, and to a worsening of Russian-Western relations that will only benefit China.   And much to their regret, they feel that there is little that they can do to prevent any of this.

Many believe that Putin intends to do with eastern Ukraine what he did with Crimea:  annex it to Russia.  Putin, though, may well prefer the “federal solution” that he has proposed that would leave Ukraine (shorn of Crimea) intact, but devolve power from the central government to its regions.  Here’s why:

If Russia annexes eastern Ukraine, what remains of Ukraine is likely to be even more anti-Russian than it is now and seek to join NATO—something Putin does not want.  Putin, though, does not want to have to annex all Ukraine in order to prevent any of it from joining NATO.  Attempting to occupy such a huge country where much of the population is hostile to Russia would undoubtedly prove difficult and costly for Russia.  Indeed, even annexing eastern Ukraine could prove to be so.

A “federal solution” similar to the one prevailing in Bosnia, however, could alleviate these difficulties.  While Ukraine, like Bosnia, would be an independent country with a pro-Western government, the more Russified eastern Ukraine would play a similar role to that now being played by the predominantly Serbian “Republika Srpska” region within Bosnia.  Just as Republika Srpska is largely autonomous from the central Bosnian government in Sarajevo and coordinates closely with its eastern neighbor Serbia, eastern Ukraine would be largely autonomous from the central Ukrainian government in Kiev and coordinate closely with its eastern neighbor Russia.

Further, just as Republika Srpska has been able to veto Sarajevo’s ambition to join NATO, Putin may well anticipate that eastern Ukraine would veto Kiev’s ambition to do so.  Putin, then, could prevent that part of Ukraine controlled by Kiev from joining NATO without actually having to occupy it.  And if NATO can accept such a situation in Bosnia which is so close to the center of Europe, Putin may reason that NATO will do likewise in Ukraine on its eastern edge.

NATO, of course, will not want to do this.  Putin, though, may calculate that it will have no other realistic choice.

Various scholars have sought to identify what the objective criteria are for a state to become and remain a great power—especially a dominant great power or hyperpower.   These include Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:  Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Vintage Books, 1987); Amy Chua (Day of Empire:  How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall, New York: Doubleday, 2007), and Richard Jackson and Neil Howe (The Graying of the Great Powers:  Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2008).  What I will do here is discuss the model of how a great power rises and falls that each of these set forth, and then discuss what each of these models implies about what great powers are likely to rise and fall at present.

Kennedy’s Conjecture

In his classic book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy described how the rising economic strength of a state not fully engaged in international relations allowed it to gain politico-military strength vis-à-vis those that were more engaged and overextended, but then how its own subsequent politico-military overextension would in turn result in this state becoming weaker versus rising economic powers that were not (yet) overextended.

I well remember how when this book came out in 1987, it received tremendous publicity in the United States for forecasting the decline of the US as a great power.  Kennedy, though, also forecast how it would be difficult for the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Europe (then still in the form of the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union) to remain (or become) great powers.

In 1989-91, of course, it would be the Soviet Empire that would collapse.  In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous article, “The End of history?” in The National Interest, where he argued that this event would result in the inevitable triumph of democracy worldwide.  Since Kennedy’s forecast of decline did not seem to apply to the US, Kennedy’s book was quickly forgotten back then.

Looking back at Kennedy’s forecasts now, what is interesting is that all but one of those countries or international groupings whose future potential as a great power that he discussed then still clearly has the potential to become or remain a great power now.  These are China, Europe, Russia, and America.  Japan is the one country that he forecast could not be a dominant great power that appears unambiguously accurate.  Candidates for great power status that he missed back in 1987 include India (definitely) and Brazil (at least potentially).

What does applying Kennedy’s model to the present forecast?   1) America is clearly the great power that is the most overextended; 2) Europe now has the same problem as Europe did when Kennedy’s book was published:  an unwillingness to project force; and 3) the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—now appear to be adhering to Kennedy’s model for rising great powers:  growing economically while avoiding military engagements.  Whether Russia, India, and China will continue to avoid military engagements, though, is somewhat uncertain.

Chua’s Challenge

In her book Day of Empire, Amy Chua described how states that became and remained hyperpowers had more inclusive and tolerant regimes than their actual or potential competitors, thus allowing the former to more successfully harness the human resources needed to acquire and maintain this status.  But when tolerance in them declined, she warned, this presaged the subsequent loss of their hyperpower status.  This pattern, she argued, was the path taken by the Persian Empire, Roman Empire, Mongol Empire, Dutch Empire, and British Empire (among others).  America, she further argued, became a hyperpower after the end of the Cold War, but that rising intolerance in the US threatens this status.

Obviously, economic and military power is needed.  But if the attractiveness to others is a requisite for being a hyperpower (or even just a great power), what can be said about the attractiveness of our potential candidates to others at present?

The rise of anti-Americanism worldwide, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, suggests that America’s attractiveness is waning.  Although the election of Barack Obama led to hopes (or fears) that this trend could be reversed, his ability to make the positive changes that he has called for appears to be limited by the increasingly intolerant Republican Party which controls the House of Representatives and can block action in the Senate.

As Chua herself argues, China is quite an intolerant country, thus limiting its appeal to others.  As for Russia:  while the Tsarist Empire had significant cultural attractiveness and while the Soviet Union led an ideological movement that was highly attractive worldwide, the appeal of post-Soviet Russia to others (for better or worse) appears quite limited.  India’s cultural attractiveness is growing, but not in the countries neighboring it.  Perhaps Brazil may have this quality of attractiveness to others.  And very strangely, Japan combines a domestic intolerance of foreigners with the possession of a popular culture that has become wildly popular worldwide with young people

Although Chua argues otherwise, the entity with the greatest attractiveness to others at present may be the European Union.  It is the only entity which other countries not only want to join, but willingly alter their behavior for in order to do so.

Demography Is Destiny

Richard Jackson and Neil Howe see population decline and aging as negatively affecting the ability of great powers experiencing them to retain this status.  The implications of their model are straightforward:  the developed world is shrinking and aging while the developing world is growing and remaining relatively young.  In their view, Europe and Russia in particular are especially unlikely to be able to remain great powers.  Developing countries will have the potential to become great powers, but their very youthful populations will make them highly unstable.  Interestingly, America—with its growing population that is aging less rapidly than Europe’s or Russia’s (due to immigration and a higher birth rate) is likely to remain a great power, but will face growing challenges.

Subjective vs. Objective

While there are undoubtedly objective criteria that affect whether states become and remain great powers, public opinion, commentators, and policymakers in different countries often employ highly subjective criteria in making assessments about this.  Policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in various countries often maintain not only that their country deserves to be a great power, but also that because it deserves to be a great power, then it either is, will remain, or will become one.  Similarly, policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in one particular country often maintain that certain other countries do not deserve to be great powers, and therefore they will either not gain or retain this status.

Employing these subjective criteria, then, every country that wants to become or remain a great power can convince itself that it can do so.  Whether or not they actually can, though, is another matter.

The disposition of Crimea has an odd history.  At some point after the Bolshevik Revolution, it was assigned to the Russian Federation, but in 1954 Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.  The majority of Crimea’s population, though, is Russian.  And ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians there and in Russia itself have called for its return to Russia.  Ideally, the question of whether Crimea should belong to Ukraine or Russia, or be independent, should be decided by an internationally-monitored referendum.  What Putin has done is highly provocative, but it also has support on the ground.  The question now is whether he’ll go after other parts of eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations but where they are not a majority (Crimea is the only place in Ukraine where they are).  Obama’s reaction so far has been underwhelming.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what he can do.  

I recently received a query from Greek journalist Ειρήνη Μητροπούλου (Irini Mitropoulou) of Το Βήμα (To Vima) asking me to comment on whether I think that Russia is back as a major or even a super power in the global economy and the international arena.  In an article published in her newspaper on December 8, she was kind enough to include a quote from the much-longer-than-asked for response that  I sent back to her.  I am not sure, though, what part of my response she quoted from since it’s all Greek to me.  So here is my entire commentary in English:

Many see Russian President Vladimir Putin as having successfully built Russia into a major power both politically and economically.  The influential American business magazine, Forbes, even listed him as number one in its 2013 list of the world’s most powerful people.  But while Putin has succeeded in restoring the image of Russia as a great power that was shattered by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, that image is largely illusory.  Indeed, it is not clear that Putin will even be able to succeed in maintaining the illusion of Russia as a great power for much longer.

In the economic realm, Putin benefited from the steady rise in oil prices that occurred during his first stint as president (1999-2008).  While still high, oil prices have come down considerably since then.  More importantly, the leverage many believed Russia would gain over Europe through being its major gas supplier has eroded as a result of Europe’s ability to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Algeria, and other sources.  Further, the increased possibility of improved ties between Iran and the West raises the prospect that Iranian gas will soon become available on the European market.  In addition, the increase in American petroleum production combined with Russia’s problems with maintain its current production levels are further eroding Moscow’s ability to leverage petroleum exports into political influence.

In the political realm, Russia’s weakness has been starkly revealed by the popular protest in Ukraine when pressure from Putin influenced that country’s president not to sign an association agreement with the EU.  The mark of a true great power is that other countries ally with it voluntarily.  Putin’s Russia has precious few such allies.  And Putin’s efforts to gain allies through intimidation either push countries toward the West or result in alliances that only last as long as unpopular leaders remain in power.

A prosperous, democratic Russia might be more successful in attracting allies—as well as customers and investors.  But so long as Putin’s stagnant authoritarian rule continues, Russia’s economic and political influence in the world appears destined to decline.

 

The latest issue of the German journal OSTEUROPA contains a virtual roundtable on Russia and Syria.  The editors sent a set of questions to six different scholars (including myself) and invited us each to pick from among them several to address.  Their questions and our responses were published by the journal in German. Here in English are my responses to the questions I chose to address:

OSTEUROPA:  The Syrian civil war has sectarian, ethnical, social, and geopolitical dimensions. It is an internal conflict, but regional and even global actors also play an important role. Moreover, in most of the states involved, Syria policy has a domestic function. Which of the conflict’s dimensions does Russian diplomacy emphasize? On which level (local, regional, global) is Moscow most engaged? Why?

Katz:  The Syrian conflict has been especially important for Moscow on the global and regional level as well as on the domestic Russian political level.  Moscow has identified Syria as the place where it seeks to halt American “unipolarism” if it can.  In addition, Moscow believes that however bad the Assad regime is, it is better than what Moscow sees as most likely to arise after its downfall:  a Sunni radical regime.  Finally, after so publicly backing Assad for so long, Putin does not want to be seen as giving in to U.S. demands that Moscow cooperate in bringing about his downfall.

OSTEUROPA:  Moscow argues that an international jihadist movement threatens order throughout the region, from the Caucasus via Syria to North Africa. Is this an actual danger? Does Moscow really fear such a jihadist movement or is it wilfully exaggerating the risk?

Katz:  It is not clear that this is an actual danger, but it does appear that Moscow really believes that it is one.

OSTEUROPA:  When Russia launched airstrikes against Georgia in 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked not only the Russian Constitution, which calls for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, but also the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm that is grounded in international law since 2005 and binds the international community to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Is there any debate on R2P in Russia today (at least in the sense that, in Syria, the requirements for international measures of enforcement according to principle of R2P have not yet been met)?

Katz:  Russia has adopted a double-standard with regard to R2P.  While opposing Western intervention on the basis of R2P (as well as expressing deep scepticism about whether concern for R2P underlies it), Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene in former Soviet republics on the basis of its unilateral assertion of an R2P justification without consulting the UN Security Council.

OSTEUROPA:  Russia has an interest in enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Why does Moscow refuse even limited air strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons?

Katz:  The Kremlin fears that if it agrees to this, the West will not limit itself to limited air strikes, but will give large-scale aid to the Syrian opposition to topple Assad.

OSTEUROPA:  Is Russia seriously interested in resolving the Syrian conflict? Does Moscow have concrete proposals for settling the conflict? Or is Moscow content with simply countervailing the United States?

Katz:  Moscow would like to see the Syrian conflict end through the Assad regime totally crushing its opponents, and thereby restoring “order.”  Until that occurs, Moscow seeks to block the U.S. and its allies from helping the Syrian opposition stop Assad from doing this.

OSTEUROPA:  What would a joint U.S.-Russian position on Syria look like? What would Washington have to do to convince Moscow to accept such a compromise?

Katz: Despite their agreement about placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Moscow and Washington agree on little else regarding Syria.  Their most crucial disagreement is about whether the Assad regime should remain in power or not.  It is doubtful that either will convince the other to adopt its view.

OSTEUROPA:  What role does Iran play in the conflict? Could Moscow help to resolve the conflict by using its connections in Tehran?

Katz:  Like Russia, Iran provides important support to the Assad regime.  If anything, Tehran is more committed to the Assad regime remaining in power than Moscow is.  This being the case, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could make use of its Iranian connections to resolve this conflict.  If, however, an Iranian-American rapprochement takes place, then Washington and Tehran may be able to work together to do so—and thereby force Moscow to go along with them or be completely isolated over Syria otherwise.

OSTEUROPA:  Could the involvement of the International Criminal Court serve to de-escalate the conflict?

Katz:  No.

I am posting here my lecture notes for a presentation I gave at the Kennan Institute/Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on Monday, October 7, 2013:

Why has Moscow backed the Assad regime in Syria so strongly?

More than anything else, this appears to be the result of Russian President Putin’s conviction that this is the right thing to do—both in foreign policy terms and in Russian domestic political terms.

Putin has devoted considerable energy into reasserting Russia’s role as a great power, which declined markedly under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

One way in which Putin has sought to do this is through restoring Moscow’s ties with its Cold War era allies in the Middle East.  But these have either been not especially interested (i.e., Algeria), or have fallen from power—Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  Bashar al-Assad is Moscow’s last remaining Arab ally.  If he falls, then, Moscow will have no allies there.

And as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has noted, “Russia’s stance on Syria is based, above all, on its leader’s largely traditional view of the global order.”  Keeping Assad in power is Moscow’s way of ensuring that it maintains some influence in the Middle East.

Further, Moscow anticipates that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria that will be anti-Russian as well as anti-Western.  Moscow, then, sees the West as having an interest in seeing that this does not happen—even if not all Western leaders recognize this.

And this concern about the rise of Sunni radicals in Syria feeds into Moscow’s concern about their possible rise in the Muslim regions of Russia as well as Central Asia.  Some might argue that local grievances on the part of Russian and Central Asian Muslims may account more for the rise of radicalism among them, and that outside jihadist forces don’t need the Assad regime in Syria to fall in order to help them.  But this is not how the Putin administration sees things.

There are other factors encouraging Russian support for the Assad regime:

–The Obama Administration’s clear unwillingness to become militarily involved in Syria or provide much support to the opposition has given a greater degree of freedom for Moscow to support Assad, and can be seen in Moscow as an indication that Washington too fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria.

–President Obama’s threat of a military strike at Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013 was a departure from this pattern.  But Obama’s seeking Congressional authorization, Congress’s obvious unwillingness to grant it, and Obama’s quick acceptance of the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control all showed Moscow (and many others) that Obama still does not want to intervene.

–There is also the Israeli factor.  Despite the Assad regime’s hostility toward Israel, alliance with Iran, and support for Hezbollah, Moscow understands that Israel also fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to a far more hostile regime in Damascus.  Moscow sees Israel as an ally in urging restraint on Washington.

–Further, despite Turkish and Arab public hostility toward Russian support for Assad, Moscow’s ties with Turkey and most Arab governments have not suffered notably.  Russian-Turkish trade booming; Putin and Erdogan seem to have agreed to disagree on Syria.

–The new military government in Egypt has soured on the Syrian opposition, and so this is not something that divides it from Moscow.

–While Moscow frequently cites what happened to the Gaddafi regime in Libya as reason for not allowing a Security Council resolution authorizing any use of force or even economic sanctions against Syria, Moscow gets along with the new government in Libya as well as anyone else has—notwithstanding the recent attack on the Russian embassy there.

–And, of course, Moscow and the Shi’a-led government in Iraq (with which Russian economic ties have grown) are basically on the same side in Syria.

Indeed, Moscow’s policy toward Syria has not appreciably damaged Russian relations with most Middle Eastern governments—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Moscow sees these two as supporters of radical Sunni elements in Syria, elsewhere in the Arab world, Central Asia, and inside Russia itself.  (For their part, these two see Russia as allying with their Shi’a opponents in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.)  Their actions—or perhaps more accurately, Moscow’s interpretation of their actions—have only served to intensify Moscow’s desire to prevent the violent downfall of the Assad regime at the hands of Sunni radical forces.

There are, however, limits on what Russia can accomplish:

Moscow clearly wants to prevent a Western intervention in Syria as occurred in Libya.  And this goal appears likely to be met—not because of Russian ability to prevent it but because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to undertake it.

But while the West is unlikely to act to bring down the Assad regime, the war there is continuing with no end in sight.

Moscow’s preferred outcome to this conflict is similar to that which former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad achieved in 1982, the Algerian military achieved in the 1990’s, or what Putin and the Kadyrov clan accomplished in Chechnya:  the defeat of the Islamist opposition and the restoration of state security service control.

Yet even without Western intervention or major support for the opposition, this outcome appears highly unlikely to be achieved in Syria now.  The Assad regime may not be ousted, but the war is likely to continue on indefinitely despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government.  Moscow, then, is stuck in something of a quagmire.

Further, Russia is not in a strong position to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict.  It may be that nobody else is either.  But if a settlement to the conflict is to occur, it will probably require heavy involvement on the part of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Should such an effort succeed, the influence of what are now the Assad regime’s adversaries will probably increase in Syria while that of its current supporters—including Russia—will probably decrease.

The possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement could also complicate Russia’s Syria policy.  If such a rapprochement occurs, one element of it might well be Tehran reducing or even ending its support for Assad.  If this occurs, Moscow could find itself either virtually alone in supporting Assad, or playing little role in an Iranian-American agreement concerning Syria.

If, on the other hand, Iranian-American relations remain hostile and Iranian support for Assad continues, Moscow may not be in a position to effectively pressure Assad into making any concessions for resolving the conflict if he thinks that he can survive with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.

Thus, while Russia can help the Assad regime avoid being overthrown, it is not in a strong position to end the war either through helping Assad crush his enemies or providing the requisite incentives and disincentives for a successful conflict resolution effort.

Finally, if radical Islamist forces grow stronger inside the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus and Volga regions of Russia, and/or in Central Asia, then the fate of Assad—whether it is win, lose, or draw—will be of less concern for the Kremlin than dealing with what will be far more urgent matters.

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