Russia's resurgent militarism in Syria and Ukraine has brought up questions of what Putin is trying to achieve and whether Russian cooperation with the West is still possible. World Policy Journal sat down with Dr. Mark Galeotti, modern Russia expert and Clinical Professor in Global Affairs at New York University, to discuss Russia’s current objectives.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: So to get going today if you could start by speaking a little bit to Putin’s view of Russia in today’s global order.
MARK GALEOTTI: In many ways Putin’s view of Russia these days is that he wants it out of the global order. When he first came to power, his first couple of terms, he was clearly trying to see where Russia could fit. He was looking for partnerships; he thought Russia’s future lay in partnerships with the West particularly. Now he’s come back, in part because his views have changed, in part because he feels the West betrayed him and in part, I think, because he is increasingly looking at his historical legacy. In some ways his catchword these days is sovereignty, but when he says sovereignty it’s a slightly different sovereignty than we might understand it. His notion of sovereignty, to be blunt, is that Russia stands alone and that Russia should not be dictated to by any outside force or power—so not the United States, not the European Union, but also not necessarily international law, not necessarily international institutions. It’s frankly a very 19th century notion that we are strong enough to ensure that no one can tell us what to do. And it’s a sovereignty that is clearly linked to your capacity to defend it. He doesn’t think that Ukraine has the same kind of rights to sovereignty; he’s been on record saying he doesn’t really think Ukraine is a country. So really this is a man who is trying to isolate Russia. He feels that Russian society, Russian culture, Russian uniqueness is under threat from the homogenizing outside world and therefore he seems to think that his historical role is to be the man who protects Russia from these forces.
WPJ: Given Russia’s isolation, what does Putin hope to achieve with its relationship with the West, acknowledging that there is some relation?
MG: He wants the West not to try to impinge on his freedom to maneuver at home. For example, he’s always infuriated when the West complains about human rights violations and corruption and so forth. But, he knows he needs relationships with the West, and above all financial – he needs Western technology, he needs Western investment if he is to develop Russia they way he wants to develop it. I think this is as much as anything else a psychological factor, he desperately wants to feel that Russia is being listened to in the world. He feels that Russia has been denied its true position, which is in many ways the one that the Soviet Union had as one of the great powers. So this is it, he wants recognition from the West, access to Western economic assets, but at the same time wants the West to keep out of his backyard.
WPJ: In Syria, what is it exactly that Russia is trying to achieve?
MG: Well, a whole variety of different objectives. There are the tactical objectives, though not their main focus, which is to strike at the Islamic State because they’re concerned that the Islamic State is going to become a growing threat particularly in the Russian North Caucusus. He wants to protect Russia’s position in the Middle East. I don’t think for example that he actually plans or expects to keep Assad in power. I think he wants to be the person who brokers Assad’s departure, but keeps the Alawite regime that Assad has presided over in the picture so Russia will still have its allies.
Primarily what is at play in Syria, as far as Moscow’s concerned, is its relationship with the West. He sees Syria as the chance to actually force the West to deal with Russia and ideally make some kind of a deal over Ukraine. Russia took the Crimea and that was very easy and as far as they’re concerned it’s doing right a historical wrong. I think because it was so easy they went into southeastern Ukraine thinking that therefore they could use that to quickly and easily force Kiev to basically accept Russian hegemony—it hasn’t worked. Russia is now stuck in something of a quagmire it has to maintain forces in the Donbass, maintain the economies in the Donbass, and more to the point, it has to cope with all the sanctions that have resulted. So what I think Putin is looking for is the West to essentially connive a peace with honor with some kind of a withdrawal that will allow Putin to not look as if he has been defeated, because this is a man who not just his personal machismo but his political legitimacy depends on never being wrong. Generally this will mean that Russia will not lose its interests in the region. So, in a way with Syria, Putin is trying to set up a bargaining chip that he can then use over Ukraine.
WPJ: Given all the surface level contradictions between the West and Putin on Syria, do you think besides using it as their pawn for Ukraine, that at some level Western and Russian interests actually coincide with the end state for Syria?
MG: I think they are actually closer than one might think. And certainly I think there is a big difference between how Washington sees it and how many European capitals see it. It was quite interesting after the Paris attacks, very quickly President Hollande of France was in Moscow with lots of talk of amity and cooperation and so forth. Generally, we’re seeing in Europe, other than Turkey, quite a definite push to see how they can incorporate the Russians in, because let’s be honest, the Western countries are not going to deploy ground troops and they don’t want to deploy much more air power. This is not a war that can be won except for on the ground. You have the Islamic State, you have a bewildering variety of local militias and rebel movements and then you have the government forces and their militia allies, which are really largely mustered by the Iranians. Only by finding some kind of way in which you can create a battlefield coalition between Damascus and at least some of the rebel groups are you going to get any kind of a force that can take on the Islamic State on the ground. So in that context yes, no one likes Assad, yes people want to see a different regime in place, but targeting Islamic State is the immediate priority, especially from Europe’s point of view; for that Russia needs to be part of the process.
Secondly, even in the longer term, it is clear, I think, that Russia is the only power that could properly negotiate a peaceful exit for Assad. They can give him sanctuary. He can go and join all the other ex-dictators living outside Moscow. They can protect him from a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and they can also be the ones that actually tell him to go. There was recently an unexpected trip by Assad to Moscow and obviously all the media photo-ops were about amity and cooperation, but what I’m hearing from people in Moscow close to the Foreign Ministry is actually, the message that Assad was given is you are going to be going. We’re going to help you make sure that it’s as congenial a process for you and your family as possible, but frankly start getting your head around that, you are going to be going. But the point is, as part of the same deal, we’ll make sure that we look after the regime, or the rump regime, that you control. I think there is [overlap in interests], because any political solution, which brings together the rebels and Damascus, will also have to involve some kind of a political timetable. So one way or another, we’re seeing a change in power in Damascus happening, but it has to be at the pace of the Syrians. We’ve seen what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan when you try to push it to the pace that we want and that we’re comfortable with, leads to chaos.
WPJ: And you mentioned Turkey, given the downing of the plane and the strong words that have been exchanged between Turkey and Russia, what do you see as the future of their relations in the near-term?
MG: I’m actually unfashionably optimistic, or at least complacent about this. Clearly the Turks were waiting for an opportunity. To have shot down that plane and, even by their own accounts, the 17 seconds it was crossing this spur of land, it clearly posed no threats to the Turks themselves. To do that, especially since Erdoğan said he gave the order, means they were waiting. I think they wanted to make a point to the Russians, and stop the Russians from bombing their proxy forces within the rebel movement. And, quite possibly, they wanted to make it more difficult for the Russians to be part of any coalition. Naturally, Putin and Erdoğan as two, actually quite strikingly similar characters, both strongmen politicians, who have cultivated this forceful political persona were going to trade jibes. For me, what was quite interesting was at the same time the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was immediately trying to play it down. Likewise, Turkey’s NATO allies are clearly very much trying to tone it down. So, yes, I think we’re going to see some tit-for-tat sanctions and we’re going to see a certain amount of heightened rhetoric, but I don’t think we’re going to see anything more. The rest of the NATO powers are clearly trying to stop Erdoğan from making more trouble and likewise around Putin there are people saying, ‘Look we really can’t fight yet another diplomatic war, let alone anything hotter than that.’ So I think we’re going to see some sound and some fury for a couple of weeks and then it’s going to quietly recede.
WPJ: Absolutely, it certainly seems that it’s just arm flexing, that nobody really wants it to escalate by any means. Moving back to Russia a bit more specifically, how would you say domestic politics influence Russia’s foreign policy?
MG: Well, there is clearly a very very strong interaction and in many ways nowadays one of the fundamental pillars of Putin’s own personal legitimacy is his forward foreign policy, which most Russians seem to be broadly happy with. Yes, they’re concerned when one of their passenger planes gets downed by apparently an Islamic State bomb. And they certainly don’t want to find themselves sucked into some ground conflict in Syria, too many resonances of Afghanistan. But at the moment, they’re actually quite pleased that there’s a man who is simply standing up for Russia. Remember most Russians get their news from the television; the television is government controlled or influenced and plays a remorselessly upbeat version of what’s going on in the world. If anything that’s becoming more and more important, because precisely the irony is that, at the same time, it’s Putin’s aggressive assertive foreign policy, which has led to the sanctions regime. Though the sanctions are not the primary reason for the decline in the Russian economy, that’s all to do with oil prices, it certainly doesn’t help. We’re already seeing social strains and tensions as currently big protests by truckers, for example, in Moscow. We’re seeing generally a rash of labor unrest, which is in many ways how ordinary Russians show their dissatisfaction with the regime. They know the elections don’t matter or anything like that, so they tend to strike. So at a time when the public clearly has its concerns because they feel the quality of their life decreasing, this has always been the basis for Putin’s regime, that he always offered a steadily improving quality of life. Well, that social contract’s being broken. A way of distracting the Russian people, a way of keeping them comfortable with the regime is to say, ‘Well, yes. At the moment, you’re going through some temporary economic problems, but just think—we Russians can now be proud again.' And so far it’s working, but of course, there’s a limit to how far actually foreign policy glories can make up for trouble at home.
WPJ: Right. Shifting gears a little bit, given your expertise in organized crime as well as Russia, could you just speak a little bit to what the relationship is between organized crime and the state?
MG: In many ways, the state is the biggest gang in town, though I don’t actually accept the notion that this is a mafia state. What has happened is, in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed organized, crime exploded. In some ways and in some areas it was at least as powerful if not more powerful than the local arms of the state. And this is one of the many impulses that led to the rise of Putin, because they wanted someone, the elite and public alike, who could rebuild the authority of the state, and rebuild stability on the streets—Putin did that. Russia became a lot calmer, a lot quieter, and a lot safer. The way that was done was by very clearly reaching a settlement, which basically said that as long as you, organized crime, do not challenge the interests of the state directly, which includes mayhem on the streets, we won’t crack down on you as much as we might. There are still police officers doing what police officers do, there are still arrests and such, but there isn’t anything like the truly serious and draconian campaign that, if Putin was really worried about the mafia, he would undertake. And also part of that deal is that sometimes, organized crime operates on the sufferance of the state and therefore has to, in effect, do services for the state. We’ve seen it for example in terms of the Russian intelligence community using organized crime to move money and people, we’ve seen it in the sense of computer criminals being pressed into service as patriotic hackers when clearly the government wants other governments to feel low-level cyber war. So basically, the formulation I’ve sometimes used is that this is not a mafia state but it’s a state that’s nationalized organized crime. When the state wants things organized crime has to deliver or else bad things will happen. But, that said, the real threat of the 1990s was in a way that organized crime, politics, business were becoming indistinguishable, that has receded. The biggest crooks in Russia are clearly kleptocratic members of the senior elite, who don’t really have much connection with organized crime. Organized crime is something separate. You have, as it were, just a variety of different people robbing the Russians blind.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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