Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Foreign Affairs.
Few issues better illustrate the limits of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia than the crisis in Syria. For more than a year, the United States has tried, and failed, to work with Russia to find a solution to end the violence. Moscow has firmly opposed international intervention to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, arguing that the conflict must be resolved through negotiations and that Assad must be included in any transitional arrangement leading to a new government. Although the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, reached out recently to the leaders of the Syrian opposition, these talks produced no indication that the Kremlin is seriously recalibrating its positions on Syria. And that’s hardly surprising: the main obstacle to any shift in Russia’s calculations is President Vladimir Putin himself, whose aversion to forcible regime change is intense and unwavering.
Why has Putin offered such steadfast support to Assad? On the surface, Moscow seems to profit from exporting arms to Syria, and it depends on the regime’s good will to maintain Russian access to a naval facility at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. But these are marginal and symbolic interests. Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse — a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009. (In Russia, the republics are semi-autonomous federal units comprising the historic territories of the country’s non-ethnic Russian groups.) In a series of interviews he gave in 2000 for an authorized biography, Putin declared that “the essence of the … situation in the North Caucasus and in Chechnya … is the continuation of the collapse of the USSR…. If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist…. I was convinced that if we did not immediately stop the extremists [in Chechnya], then in no time at all we would be facing a second Yugoslavia across the entire territory of the Russian Federation — the Yugoslavization of Russia.” And we know how Putin feels about the demise of the Soviet Union; in 2005 he called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” a comment that was meant to bemoan the collapse of the Soviet state rather than the demise of communism.
For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart. Ever since he took office (first as prime minister in 1999 and then as president in 2000) and was confronted by the Chechen war, Putin has expressed his fear of Sunni Islamist extremism and of the risks that “jihadist” groups pose to Russia, with its large, indigenous, Sunni Muslim population, concentrated in the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and in major cities such as Moscow. A desire to contain extremism is a major reason why Putin offered help to the United States in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is also why Russia maintains close relations with Shia Iran, which acts as a counterweight to Sunni powers.
The conflicts in both Chechnya and Syria pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups.
In the case of Chechnya, Putin made it clear that retaking the republic from its “extremist opposition forces” was worth every sacrifice. In a speech in September 1999, he promised to pursue Chechen rebels and terrorists even into “the outhouse.” He did just that, and some opposition leaders were killed by missile attacks at their most vulnerable moments. The Chechen capital city of Grozny was reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, along with jihadist fighters who came into Chechnya with the encouragement of extremist groups from the Arab world, including from Syria. Moscow and other Russian cities endured devastating terrorist attacks. Putin’s treatment of Chechnya became a cautionary tale of what would happen to rebels and terrorists — and indeed to entire groups of people — if they threatened the Russian state. They would either be eliminated or brought to their knees — exactly the fate Putin wishes for today’s Syrian rebels.
After two decades of secessionist strife, Putin has contained Chechnya’s uprising. Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched his allegiance to Moscow, now leads the republic. Putin granted Kadyrov and his supporters amnesty and gave them a mandate to go after other militants and political opponents. Kadyrov has rebuilt Grozny (with ample funds from Moscow) and created his own version of an Islamist and Chechen republic that is condemned by human rights organizations for its brutal suppression of dissent.
Leave of Absence
For the past two years, Putin has hoped that Assad would be able to do what he did in Chechnya and beat back the opposition. Based on the brutal record of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, in suppressing uprisings, Putin anticipated that the regime would have no problem keeping the state together. But now Assad seems to have failed, and Putin is not one to back a losing horse. He and the rest of the Russian leadership are well aware that their staunch support for Assad has damaged Russia’s standing in the Arab world, but they have no alternative plan to get out of the stalemate. Putin is still not ready to sanction an intervention that could lead to the dismantling of the Syrian state and to risk creating a situation akin to that in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when warring groups of extremists fought each other and created a breeding ground for global jihadism. In Putin’s view, lawless post-Qaddafi Libya, which has become an exporter of guns, fighters, and refugees to its neighbors, only further underscores the dangers of international intervention.
Before abandoning Assad, Putin will need to have answers to some pressing questions: Who will be responsible for the fallout from the regime’s collapse? Who will keep Sunni extremists in check? Who will keep extremists away from the North Caucasus and other Russian regions with large Sunni Muslim populations? And finally, who will ensure the security of Syria’s chemical weapons? Putin certainly does not trust the United States to play this stabilizing role: as he sees it, when the United States pulled out of Iraq, it left behind a Shia strongman, Nouri al-Maliki, to suppress the Sunnis; the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is leaving only uncertainty in its wake. In short, Putin doubts that the United States and the international community can deliver stability to Syria, so he continues to stand by the flailing regime as the only means of avoiding the collapse of the state altogether.
Although Putin looks at Syria and sees Chechnya, the situations are quite different. All of Syria is in the throes of civil war, and Assad does not have the same resources that Putin had in dealing with Chechnya. He cannot eliminate key representatives and supporters of the opposition abroad as Putin did with the Chechens, including by assassinating the former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar in 2004 to stop his fundraising and recruiting activities. Unable to crush or co-opt the opposition, Assad has taken Syria over the precipice. Syria is also bristling with conventional weaponry along with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that pose a significant threat to neighboring states. Those neighbors — Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Iran farther afield — have been engulfed in the conflict. In contrast, in spite of the flows of money and men into Chechnya and the spillover of refugees and terrorist acts into the rest of Russia (and sometimes into Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey), there was no similar proliferation threat in the Chechen war, and no outside powers ever became heavily involved. Chechnya is in a bad neighborhood, but Syria is in a terrible neighborhood, and the effects of the Syrian conflict cannot be contained in the way that Chechnya’s were.
Neither these differences nor the scale of the humanitarian tragedy will convince Putin to change his mind on Syria. The Russian president will continue to hold out against intervention and insist that negotiations with Assad must be part of the way forward, until some strongman can be found to restore a semblance of order to Syria’s chaos. If, by some miracle, Syria does not turn into a full-scale regional disaster, Putin will pat himself on the back and say it was thanks to him because he prevented an intervention. If the more likely scenario plays out, Putin will blame Washington. He will hold the United States responsible for destroying Syria and empowering Sunni Islamist extremists by championing democracy and the Arab revolutions. Meanwhile, Putin’s obstinacy is already turning his worst nightmare — the fracturing of a geopolitically important state — into a reality.