One of the most popular Russian satirical characters, a 19th century fictional idiot-savant by the name of Kozma Prutkov, has coined dozens of aphorisms, many of which have become proverbs. One of my favorites is: “If you see a ‘buffalo’ sign on an elephant’s cage, do not believe your eyes.” When Vladimir Putin declares the end of a military operation that, at a very low cost, has been highly successful in geostrategic and domestic political terms and promises to accrue still more benefits, we would do well to apply Kozma’s words.
No matter what he says to his Western counterparts, Putin had no intention to fight ISIS when he sent advanced Su-35 fighter jets and bombers, sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and some 4,000 troops to Syria last fall. As Putin told domestic Russian audiences, the objective was to “restore the country’s legitimate authority,” i.e., Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.
In doing so, Moscow would recover an important former Soviet geostrategic asset in the form of a friendly Syria hosting Russian naval and air bases. Russia would also position itself as the dominant outside player in the Middle East in the vacuum created by the Obama’s administration’s repeated “red lines” retreats in Syria. Russia would also align itself with another ascendant power, Iran; become a permanent and indispensable element of any future settlement in Syria; and confront the West with an awful choice: Assad or ISIS.
In the past five-and-a-half months, Russia has made mighty strides toward these objectives. But it is not there yet. The future of the Assad regime, while far more hopeful today than six months ago, is far from assured. So “withdrawing” at this point makes little sense.
Shuttering down the Syrian operation (which so far has cost merely an estimated $5 million to $7.5 million per day and has resulted in only three reported combat casualties) makes even less sense in domestic political terms. This despite the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt last year, likely in retaliation over Russia’s support of Assad. “Foreign policy is the only thing the [Putin] regime has going for it,” a leading Russian political sociologist told me in Moscow in January 2014 — two months before the annexation of Crimea and the “hybrid” invasion of Ukraine. This said at a time when Russian GDP was still in the positive territory and oil stood around $106 a barrel.
Two years later, the use of foreign policy in Russia as a domestic political asset is even more important. More than $200 billion fled the country in 2014-15. The country’s GDP shrank by 3.7 percent last year, inflation reached 17 percent, and the ruble lost over half its value — a huge blow to the Russian consumer in a country that imports virtually everything of quality, from medicine and food to essential technology for all of its industries.
With no end of the recession in sight, the Russian GDP could fall anywhere from 1% to 3% this year. Inflation remains over 8%, and the regime’s “rainy day” funds could run out as early as the end of 2016. The central and local authorities to have already begun “sequestering” expenditures across the board, beginning with health and education. People are beginning to chafe. Russian pollsters report that respect for government institutions at every level is falling to new lows. Even more than before, people perceive “the system” as callous, incompetent, and utterly corrupt.
Except for Putin. The Russian President has tapped into the imperial nostalgia of millions of Russians and, with the help of monopolistic propaganda, he has become the symbol and embodiment of “Russia rising from its knees” to recover the Soviet Union’s position of superpower, of being feared and thus globally respected, and most of all to pursue Russia’s self-declared mission of being the only counterbalance to the evil United States. In these tough economic times, Putin’s political Teflon is the regime’s only claim to legitimacy. In turn, Putin’s popularity is sustained largely by the image of constant and brilliant foreign policy successes. The credibility of this vital narrative will be severely damaged if, after the nationally televised reception of the Syrian dictator in the Kremlin last October, Russia “surrenders” Assad.
Putin has saddled the tiger of patriotic mobilization and has expertly made it trot in the right direction. The problem with this mode of transportation is that it needs a steady supply of fresh meat. Syria’s supply of propaganda “meat” has been plentiful (just think of the 26 cruise missiles launched from Russian ships in the Caspian Sea against alleged “ISIS targets” on Putin’s birthday last October 7) and supplies are far from exhausted. So why quit now?
Short of the tiger turning herbivore, Putin is not leaving Syria. To paraphrase Churchill, as far as Syria is concerned, Russia’s involvement is not at an end, not even at the beginning of an end. It’s just the end of the beginning.
Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.