War Stories

The New Graveyard of Empires?

Vladimir Putin’s grand ambitions for Syria aren’t working out quite as planned.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.

Many American pundits have bought into the idea that Vladimir Putin is a grand master of international politics and that the Russians are better than we are at eking strategic triumphs from tangled quagmires. Syria now stands as the smoldering rebuttal to this shrewdly woven myth.

The myth long predates Putin’s rise. In 1979, as a congressional aide, I attended a classified briefing by the Defense Intelligence Agency on the Soviet Union’s then-recent invasion of Afghanistan. Toward the end of the meeting, a fellow aide for a liberal Democrat asked if the Russians might get bogged down in this war, just as we did in Vietnam. The DIA briefer smirked; the other, mainly hawkish, congressional aides laughed out loud. The aide no doubt snickered a little himself nine years later, when the Soviets rolled out of the “graveyard of empires” and saw their own empire crumble soon after.

In Syria, the Russians are making a better show of things than we are. In part that’s because we’re pursuing lots of interests (with varying degrees of enthusiasm), many of them mutually exclusive, while the Russians are focused on just one. We want to crush ISIS, help the Kurds, placate Turkey, contain Iran, keep Iraq from falling apart, and reach a political settlement that eases President Bashar al-Assad out of power. These are all worthy goals, but it’s impossible to achieve any one or two of them without torpedoing the others.

Russia’s goal is to maintain its long-standing foothold in Syria, including its naval port and air base—Moscow’s only military facilities outside the area of the former Soviet Union. So a threat to Assad’s regime could endanger Putin’s dream of restoring Russia as a global power—or, to put it another way, expose that dream as a fantasy.

And so, when the regime began to crack under rebel pressure in 2015, Putin sent more planes, missiles, advisers, and troops, saving Assad from a catastrophic fall. But that feat and that augmented military presence haven’t boosted Russian power in the Middle East. Rather, as a recent Rand Corp. study concluded, it’s left Russia “trapped in Syria.”

Putin has run up against the same limits that the United States is facing. There are many wars going on in Syria. Allies in one war are deadly foes in another. All the wars overlap politically and, to an increasingly alarming degree, geographically. Therefore, as long as the wars intensify and there’s no clear road for diplomacy, any one country can amass only so much power—and is likely to lose much of that as the fighting gets thicker.

Last fall, it seemed as if Putin was indeed gaining an upper hand in Syria. His pummeling of rebel groups had helped secure Assad’s hold on power, so much so that Putin announced his own troops would soon be going home. In November, he organized an international conference in Sochi, Russia, to discuss Syria’s future. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Through military intervention and diplomatic maneuvering, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his country into one of the major players in the Syrian conflict.”

But Putin’s stab at playing peacemaker proved pointless: Iran and Turkey were the only foreign powers to attend the summit in Sochi, and any formula set just by them would be ignored, if not defied, by the wars’ other combatants and donors.

Then the quicksand thickened. On New Year’s Eve, a rebel militia shelled Russia’s air base in Syria, destroying at least seven planes, blowing up an ammunition dump, and injuring more than 10 military personnel. Early this month, another rebel alliance shot down a Russian fighter jet. Last week, U.S. air and artillery forces killed more than 200 Russian “contract” soldiers as they tried to recapture a base held by American and Kurdish troops in an oil-rich area of eastern Syria.

The Russian Defence Ministry disavowed any involvement in the raid, claiming that only 25 “Syrian” soldiers were injured and that if Russian citizens were among the fighters, they were on their own. But a U.S. military statement described the pro-Assad force as a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, and mortars.” (Just on Thursday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman acknowledged that five of those killed were “presumably Russian citizens” but added, “I want to stress again that we are not talking about Russian servicemen.”)

The death toll far exceeded Russia’s casualties in Syria so far. By comparison, 40 died in all of 2017—small numbers compared with the 5,000 or so civilians that its airstrikes have killed. Even so, the toll set off alarm bells in Moscow. Putin may have shielded himself from accountability in many spheres of Russian life, but sensitivities run high when it comes to body bags returning from dubious wars in distant lands. Hence the Kremlin’s refusal to acknowledge Russian casualties in Syria and the near silence in state-owned media about any Russian fighting there since the announcement of an imminent withdrawal (which, of course, has not occurred).

Putin, or at least his general staff, must also know that the Russian military has never been skilled at sustaining operations at great distances. Logistics were a problem even in neighboring Afghanistan, as they are in the eastern sliver of Ukraine that its troops—also unacknowledged—occupy today. Many analysts were amazed that Russia managed even to mobilize the number of advanced fighters, drones, artillery rockets, and tanks that have been sent to the much farther battlefield of Syria.

So, yes, as the Foreign Affairs analyst noted, Russia has emerged as “one of the major players in the Syrian conflict.” But that’s not entirely good news. It’s more akin to the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”