Putin’s Failure in Ukraine Could Worsen Syria Crisis.
By Richard Gowan, on ,
The reason for this is simple: The dictatorial pair share a patron in Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has shielded Assad from international pressure and provoked the Ukrainian crisis by persuading Yanukovych to ditch a trade agreement with the European Union. Little more than a week ago, Putin appeared to be winning on both the Syrian and Ukrainian fronts. While Yanukovych fobbed off Western efforts to resolve the chaos in Kiev, Assad’s envoys used peace talks convened by the United Nations in Geneva to display their contempt for the opposition, effectively ruling out any serious negotiations.
None of this stopped Western athletes from heading to Russia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. But by this weekend, Putin’s strategy for the Ukraine was in tatters as Yanukovych fled Kiev. Moscow now has nothing but bad options in Ukraine, ranging from compromising with the anti-Yanukovych forces to intervening militarily to secure parts of the country with large Russian-speaking populations, such as the Crimea. Putin does not face such acute choices on Syria. But the Ukrainian debacle will also influence Russia’s ability and willingness to invest further political energy in propping up Assad, with unpredictable results for Syria.
On Saturday, Russia voted in favor of a Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s actions, including its use of barrel bombs against civilians, and calling for increased humanitarian access. The resolution had weaknesses: The Western diplomats who drafted it toned down many passages, including references to sanctions, to secure unanimous agreement. Yet this was still a symbolic loss for Russian diplomats, who had initially tried to avoid discussing the text altogether. Having vetoed—with China’s support—three earlier U.N. resolutions on Syria since 2011, Russia could easily have done so again. There are multiple explanations for its failure to do so.
European and U.S. diplomats had bet that Putin would avoid an unnecessary fuss on the last weekend of the Olympics. China appeared uneasy about blocking a resolution with an explicitly humanitarian focus. In addition, Russian officials have reportedly been irritated by the Assad regime’s crude behavior in Geneva, and may have wanted to signal their displeasure to Damascus. American officials have also recently indicated mounting disillusion with the entire diplomatic process over Syria and hinted at a new willingness to send arms to rebel groups. Moscow may have concluded that passing this mild resolution would make it harder for the West to reject diplomacy.
It is possible that this combination of factors could have persuaded Moscow to support the Syrian resolution even if Kiev had been calm. But its final decision to vote in favor cannot be disentangled from events in Ukraine. Russian leaders have continued to take a hard line against the “coup” against Yanukovych , and face a bruising contest with the West over the country’s future. Picking a fight at the U.N. over Syria this weekend would have cost the Kremlin sorely needed diplomatic capital at a very bad time indeed. At the least the resolution, which requires U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report on the situation in Syria in 30 days, has bought Russia breathing space.
The maneuver may also breathe some life back into the Geneva process, which most observers—including U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi—had given up for dead. Brahimi could now reconvene the Syrian government and opposition to see if Russia and China’s new stance will make Assad’s negotiators behave better. But looking beyond this tactical opportunity, there is no guarantee that the Ukrainian situation will ease Syrian diplomacy.
In a best-case scenario, Moscow will continue to take a conciliatory line over Syria as it tries to regain its footing in Ukraine. But Putin and his advisers have other options. They may try to distract their top-level Western counterparts from maneuverings in Ukraine by grinding out complex diplomatic procedures over Syria. Russia can chew up time with stop-and-go deal-making over issues such as humanitarian access to cities like Aleppo and the ongoing effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons. More menacingly, Moscow could respond to Western efforts to consolidate a pro-Western government in Ukraine by prodding Assad to unleash further bouts of terror against his people.
It is simplistic to believe that Russia can change the level of violence in Syria at whim. But Moscow can still put the U.S. and Europeans on the defensive by explicitly linking events in Ukraine and Syria. We know this worries Washington because President Barack Obama has said as much. Last week he told journalists on a trip to Mexico that the U.S. remained committed to the “hopes and aspirations” of the Ukrainian and Syrian peoples, and added that “our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.” The rather obvious implication is that Putin sees the countries in just those terms. Moscow could yet respond to strategic failure in Ukraine by trying to force a strategic failure on the West in the Middle East—not only by ratcheting up the level of violence in Syria, but by putting the fragile nuclear talks with Iran in danger as well.
So Yanukovych’s fall may have helped the U.S. and its allies gain a tactical victory at the U.N. over Syria last week, but the crisis in Ukraine could still add new venom to diplomacy over Syria. Putin’s winning streak in diplomatic chess has come to an abrupt halt. It was ugly while it lasted, but the aftermath could prove to be uglier still.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.