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The Fear That Drives Russia's Support For Syria's Assad

Editor's note: In an interview with NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Fiona Hill discusses how Vladimir Putin’s fear of state disintegration influences his actions on Syria. Read an excerpt below.

Neal Conan: Repeated American attempts to work with Russia on Syria have floundered on a fundamental difference. Vladimir Putin insists on a deal that includes Bashar al-Assad as part of Syria's future. So the civil war grinds on and the situation of civilians there grows ever more dire. So why? Arms exports? Access to the port of Tartus? Standing up for old allies?

In a recent article in foreign affairs Fiona Hill argues that Putin looks at Syria and sees his old fears of Chechnya brought back to life. Fiona Hill was co-author of "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," and joins us now on the phone from Florida near Miami. Good to have you with us today.

Fiona Hill: Hi. Thank you, Neal. Thanks for having me.

Conan: So how can Mr. Putin look at a civil war in Syria and she - a nightmare for him, the old rebellion in Chechnya?

Hill: Well, this is a prism that he's brought to looking at most conflicts like the conflicts in Syria that threatened the sanctity of his state. Mr. Putin actually came in to the presidency if you can recall back in '99, 2000 in Russia, just as the second war in Chechnya was starting off. And he saw that as his biggest challenge of keeping the Russian state together, so it didn't fall down the same path as the Soviet Union into collapse. And Putin was really brutal in pursuing the war in Chechnya. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in that holocaust of conflict including many civilians.

The capital city of Grozny in Chechnya was reduced completely to rubble, and Putin felt that this was worthwhile because it kept the state together. And over the course of the conflict in Chechnya it morphed in the same way that we've actually seen in the war in Syria. It went from a conflict that was mostly focused on political secession from Chechnya, from the Russian Federation and over time, really took on more of an extremist element, more of Sunni extremist groups who moved in to exploit the conflict and also many people who came from outside including from Syria to fight in Chechnya.

And Putin is now pretty much concerned that we're going to see a repetition, the collapse of the states in Syria, knock-on effect for conflicts at home for him as well as (unintelligible) across the hall in the Middle East. And yet again, another collapse of the state, that is something that he would like to see avoided at all costs.

Conan: Now Russia, a state with considerable resources was able to pacify, I think that's probably the right word - Chechnya. It is a completely different situation in Syria.

Hill: Neal, I'm very sorry. I didn't hear that. Could you repeat it, please?

Conan: I was saying that because of its enormous resources, Russia was able to pacify Chechnya, at least for the time being. Syria seems to be a very different situation.

Hill: That's very much the case. Yes. Mr. Putin has a lot of things that he was able to draw upon that Mr. Assad has not. He was able to take out the Chechnyan position, both at home and also abroad. In 2004, the Russians assassinated one of the top leaders of the Chechnyan opposition, Mr. Yandarbiyev, who had been an acting president and he was in Doha in Qatar at the time and was killed in a car bomb explosion.

Also other members of the opposition were picked off in other cities including in Europe. And Mr. Putin brought the full weight of the Russian army against the Chechnyans. And also he was able to perceive the war for such a long time quite ruthlessly because the Chechnyan opposition, generally, because of the number of very high level terrorist attacks and this infiltration of extremists lost any kind of support among the population.

So it was a very different conflict. It was very much confined to one region of Russia although there were terrorist attacks and spillover across the whole of the Russian Federation. But it wasn't at all like Syria where it's a full-blown civil war. And Mr. Assad is actually, at this point, seemingly perhaps not outgunned but certainly outnumbered by the number of opposition that are arrayed against him.

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