Where will Putin steer Russian forces next?

In Depth: Georgia, Crimea, Syria... Moscow sets its eyes on a global future

A column of Russian T-90 tanks rolls through Red Square
Russian T-90 tanks roll through Red Square during a parade in Moscow
(Image credit: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin declared victory against both Islamic State jihadists and Western-backed rebels in Syria this week, announcing that Russia is scaling down its forces two years after launching air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

“I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia,” said Putin during a surprise visit to the war-ravaged country, reports French news agency AFP.

As far as the Russian president is concerned, it is “mission accomplished” in the war against Isis.

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“On the whole, the task has been completed. And completed brilliantly,” Putin told servicemen at the Russian-run Hmeimim air base. “You are coming back home with victory!”

Russia’s Syrian intervention was a milestone in Putin’s foreign policy. Since first taking office in 2000, Putin has “reversed the country’s decline in international status”, says China’s Global Times, transforming it into a nation with influence in Eurasia, the Asia-Pacific and Middle East.

Although the bite of economic sanctions may prompt Putin to strengthen frayed diplomatic ties with Europe and the US, it is clear that “Moscow in no way fears any confrontation against the West”.

But how did Putin’s Russia accomplish what it has today and where will it go next?

Russia’s resurgence

Putin’s extraterritorial ambitions first garnered attention in August 2008, when Western news channels broadcast unnerving footage of Russian tanks rolling into neighbouring Georgia.

The invasion was, Russia claimed, an intervention to restore peace between the Georgian government and the breakaway pro-Russian states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and to protect their Russian populations.

Critics claimed that the real motive was to disrupt Georgia’s ambitions of joining Nato and the EU, which Russia views as the twin anchors of a Euro-American alliance that have left Moscow isolated on the world stage.

A Tbilisi-based diplomat told The Guardian in 2015 that “Putin seems determined to keep the country ‘off-balance’ as long as it is looking westwards”.

Some analysts have viewed the Russo-Georgian war as a “dress rehearsal” for the similarly motivated annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, says The Independent.

Despite international condemnation, almost four years later the region remains firmly under Russian control, while Ukrainian forces are still trying to suppress the Russian-backed separatist rebels who partially control the east of the country.

A place in the sun

Brute force was effective in Ukraine, but it also turned Russia into a “pariah state” in the eyes of some Western governments, says the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg. “The Syria operation forced Western leaders to sit down and negotiate with Russia's leadership,” Rosenberg adds.

In the Middle East, Russia made the leap from regional bully to global actor - and it is in the Middle East that Russia seems likely to press ahead with its plans to re-establish its global credentials.

Russia’s “growing footprint” in the Middle East includes not only Syria but also Egypt, which Putin also visited during his surprise trip this week, says the Chicago Tribune.

Even more significant was Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s meeting with Putin in Russia in October, when “the two countries shook off decades of enmity and mutual suspicion”.

Many analysts believe that Russian interventions - like its Syrian foray - will become “the new normal”, says The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrede, as an increasingly emboldened Russia “sees the use of force as a key instrument to achieve foreign policy goals”.

But some observers see the cracks in Putin’s foreign policy.

The strategy of raising Russia’s international profile has been a useful distraction, but the country’s social ills and slow economic progress cannot be ignored forever.

Indeed, enthusiasm in Russia for foreign intervention is already flagging.

In August 2017, almost half of all Russians surveyed said that Putin should withdraw Russian forces from Syria, Haaretz reports. And two in five were not interested in voting in the 2018 presidential election, which Putin is expected to win.

As ordinary Russians grow ever-more dissatisfied by domestic issues, the theory goes that “bombastic nationalism will exhaust itself”, says Nougayrede, and that Moscow will have no choice but to seek rapprochement with the West.

“A degree of hope can be found” in that scenario, she writes, but “the first view seems by far the most realistic”.

Worldwide warfare

Putin’s most powerful troops are not necessarily in the field, however, but behind desks in Moscow and St Petersburg, carrying out a wide-ranging campaign of cyberwarfare, with the stability of Western democracy in their sights.

The scale of Russian interference in the run-up to Donald Trump’s surprise US election victory in November 2016 is only now being uncovered.

Hacking may have been part of it, but there was a more insidious element, too, says The Atlantic. Russian trolls “quietly bought divisive ads and organised political events on Facebook, acting as the bellows in America’s raging culture wars”.

What surprised and disquieted many was the ease with which the Kremlin-backed campaign of misinformation pitted segments of the US population against each other.

“As early as 2015, the Russian government had not only identified the burgeoning Trump base; it had learned how to exploit its paranoias and prejudices with near-surgical precision,” says Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern.

Facing economic difficulties at home and a potentially apathetic electorate, Putin may well decide that cyberwarfare offers a better return on Russia’s stretched resources than any more foreign wars.

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