In September 2015, Russia intervened militarily in Syria to save the regime of dictator Bashar al-Asad. President Obama predicted a “quagmire,” but that is not what followed. What is the nexus between the Russian intervention in Syria and the more recent Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine? What can the West learn from its failures in Syria that might apply to the case of Ukraine? Will Ukraine turn out to be the quagmire for Russia that Obama predicted for Syria? Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and author of a new book on Russia’s war in Syria, discusses all this and more on this episode of the Caravan Podcast.
To view the full transcript, read below:
Cole Bunzel: Welcome. Today is March 17th, 2022, and you are listening to the Caravan Podcast, a venture of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on the Middle East and the Islamic World, at the Hoover Institution. The working group publishes research and commentary on the Middle East with questions for US policy, and you can find our work at www.hoover.org/caravan. I'm Cole Bunzel, a Hoover Fellow and member of the working group. Today I am pleased to be joined by Anna Borshchevskaya, who is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on Russia's policy toward the Middle East. Anna is also the author of the excellent new book, Putin's War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America's Absence, which chronicles the Russian military intervention in Syria beginning in 2015, and that continues to this day. She's also a close observer of Russian policy more generally, and has written much about the ongoing war in Ukraine. So, Anna is really the ideal guest to have on to help us make sense of both the Russian intervention in Syria and in Ukraine, as well as the relationship between these two. So, Anna, thank you very much for coming on the Caravan Podcast.
Anna Borshchevskaya: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here.
Cole Bunzel: Great. So, as I mentioned, I want us to talk about both the crisis in Ukraine, as well as the intervention in Syria, since it seems to me that the two are in fact, related. They speak to Moscow's growing geopolitical ambitions, a growing defiance, and pushing back against the West in favor of friendly autocracies, but there's of course, much more to it than that. I thought I'd kick us off by bringing up something that I noticed in President Putin's speech on February 24th, in which he announced and sought to justify the incursion into Ukraine. What was interesting to me was that he actually referred to Syria on two occasions. This is what he said on one of those, after he criticized Western support for the armed opposition to president Assad of Syria. "In 2015, we used our armed forces to create a reliable shield that prevented terrorists from Syria from penetrating Russia. This was a matter of defending ourselves. We had no other choice." He goes on to link this idea that he had no choice in Syria, but to invade, to the idea that he had no choice but to invade in Ukraine, in order to protect Russia from in this case, the so-called far right nationalist and neo-Nazis allegedly being propped up by the West. So, that would seem to be how Putin, at least in his mind, how he looks at the linkage between these two conflicts, but I wanted to turn it to you to get your perspective. How do you see the nexus between these two Russian interventions, the one in Syria and the one in Ukraine? Do they stem from a similar geopolitical calculus or are they more or less distinct in their, their motives and ambitions?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Well, they very much stem from the same geopolitical calculus, and I'm really glad that you brought up these quotes Cole, because I think they're really critical in helping us understand the connections. What these quotes speak to a little bit more broadly is two things. First, Putin's overall aim to erode the liberal rules-based global order, and for as different as the Syria interventions and Ukraine interventions were in terms of how they played out, the one common thread is that both are about eroding the US-led global order. They're both about playing out the Cold War with an alternate ending, and ultimately pressing for security, pressing for changing the European security architecture. My second point relates to the first, and it's a little bit more, it's a little bit broader. It's a little bit more historical. When the Russian state looks at the world, we in the West, we tend to separate the European and Middle East theaters. Since the end of the Cold War, especially, there's been a significant decline, unfortunately, in looking at Russia's Middle East activities. The overall emphasis has been much more balanced in favor of what Russia does in Europe. But the fact of the matter is historically, really from the founding of the Russian State, the State always looked at what a "soft, vulnerable underbelly." That is a region that includes the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the Black Sea, sort of that entire body of water and land as its soft underbelly. This is where the state historically felt more vulnerable, and sought to project power to establish a permanent military foothold, not just in the Black Sea, but in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Anna Borshchevskaya: There were, the linkages between the two were very direct. So, if we look at the Ukraine intervention now, for the first time, the Russian State has a permanent military presence on the Eastern Mediterranean, along with Black sea, the Sea of Azov, the sort of triad. So, in that sense, there's simply less separation in the Russian State mind that we have in the West.
Cole Bunzel: That's really interesting. So, it, you, would you say that's, it's actually not a historical anomaly for Russia to seek to project power in both of these, what we see as separate theaters?
Anna Borshchevskaya: That's exactly right. It is not at all a historical anomaly. It is actually an anomaly for Russia not to be projecting power in these regions. In fact, Catherine the Great had occupied basically what is now Beirut, for approximately two years, and from the readings that I've done by other scholars who did really good work on this, they noted that Russia had, the Russian military had written up detailed maps of that region. You don't start making detailed maps if you don't intend to stay. But historically, what had happened was while Catherine the Great was able to establish the base in Sevastopol, and they were able to push much more decisively into the Black Sea and other bodies of water, the Eastern Mediterranean tended to escape the Russian State on a more permanent basis. But this is where you saw the Soviet union trying again with the Fifth Eskadra. It's a repeated theme, and the permanent military agreement that Russia has for at least the next 50 years, that is unique to Vladimir Putin.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. So, let's revisit some more about the war in Syria, which you've written about at length. I think it's important to bring this up, because a lot of Americans are simply unaware of the extent of the Russian military intervention in Syria. So, could you discuss the scope of Putin's intervention there, when it began, and what he's been aiming to achieve in intervening in Syria?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Sure. So, first and foremost, it's important to note that Putin did not simply appear on the Syrian scene with the military intervention. He began supporting Assad in multiple ways, and always really short of a military intervention, from the moment protests broke out throughout Syria as part of the wave of the Arab Spring. Even in the earlier years, it's important to note that Putin had worked to return Russia to the Middle East. So, it's not as if there was no Russia and all of a sudden there, there was Russia. It was really the next logical conclusion of all the other steps that Russia had taken to date. Perhaps, most importantly, Putin had perceived the West as weak and risk-averse, which gave him added confidence to intervene. So, it's not so much that he competed with the West for Syria, and one, as it was a one-sided competition, where the West simply was not interested really in challenging him. Another key point to note is that in 2013, President Obama famously drew the so-called red line on, for an intervention against the Assad regime if Assad used chemical weapons. Assad did use chemical weapons, and rather than enforce the threat, Obama rushed to accept Putin's counter-offer of diplomacy in removing of Assad's chemical weapons. There were two problems with that. First, it was naive to expect Assad's chief ally to truly disarm him, and the entirety of chemical weapons arsenal was not really removed. Second, the world saw that the United States was not going to follow through on a threat, and both allies and adversaries alike drew certain conclusions from that. So, it's the next year that Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Then the following year, he went into Syria militarily. When he did go into Syria, I guess a few things to note, it was a limited intervention, focused primarily on [inaudible] use of aerospace forces with a naval component and a small contingent of elite ground troops. So, this was a very surgical intervention, aimed precisely at establishing deterrents against the West, rather than fighting radical extremists that Putin said Russia was fighting against. I'm happy to speak more detail about that, but that's the key point.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. One other question I have, because we're seeing some of these words come up, the Russian playbook in Syria in bombarding cities like Aleppo, how much was Russia involved in kind of bombarding cities like Aleppo?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Russia was very much involved, and in fact, like so many others who had watched the Russian campaign in Syria, my initial reaction, the moment Russia began discussing so-called humanitarian corridors with Ukraine began, it was a flashback to Syria, because Putin had helped Assad bomb hospitals. He, they concluded that anybody that had a weapon, who was anti-Assad was a legitimate target, and the underlying premise of this tactic is simply, twofold. First, demoralizing the civilian population into acceptance of Assad, and second, using these brutal tactics to push civilian populations into Assad-controlled territories, and also buy him time, so he could regroup and ultimately gain ground. That's exactly what happened time and time again in Syria. Whether there was a cease fire or a deescalation agreement, Russia served as a guarantor of a number of them, and all of them broke down. All of them ultimately helped Assad gain ground.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. So, that is what is meant by the Russian playbook.
Anna Borshchevskaya: Yes.
Cole Bunzel: I suppose. I want to turn to something that is fairly well-known. This is in October 2015, President Obama famously predicted that Russia, this is shortly after its intervention in Syria, that Russia would become bogged down in a "quagmire in Syria," but that surely did not transpire. So, how in your view, was Putin able to avoid being bogged down in a quagmire in Syria? Why was President Obama wrong here?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Sure. My book goes into a lot more detail about this, because President Obama, like frankly, so many other analysts was thinking about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the assumption was that this will be another Afghanistan for Russia. But if we looked at how Russia actually conducted its campaign, it was precisely designed to avoid an Afghanistan. They learned from that experience, and did not want to repeat it. So, first, very limited ground troop contingent, focused on aerospace forces to avoid, to reduce the number of casualties, and what the Russians had done is they unveiled what's called an A2/AD kind of lay down by bringing in the S400s, which is basically covering Syrian airspace. The idea was, here again, with what this lay down shows is that they were, well, they talked about targeting terrorists, ISIS never had an air force. So, the purpose for bringing in an air force was really not about targeting ISIS. It was more about a message to us, to the West. Anna Borshchevskaya: The second key component of how Putin kept this limited, is he relied chiefly on Iran and its proxies, as well as other actors, but chiefly Iran, really to do most of the heavy lifting. So, the bulk of the people who were dying in Syria were Iranians. It was Iran that expended a lot of blood and treasure in Syria and Russia was sort of able to capitalize on that. Another key component was diplomacy, a very-much an underappreciated aspect of the Russian campaign, because we saw, because the military campaign was far more front and center in the news. Putin was able to do two things. He convinced the West that Russia could be part of a solution, and many Western policy-makers bought into the idea that Russia could be helpful in Syria, just like the chemical weapons example. It was very tempting. It was incredibly tempting, because there was a grain of truth to that narrative and Western policy-makers, who did not want to get involved to begin with, who were cautious, a little bit cautious about getting too involved in Syria, were willing, were very much willing to believe that idea. The second piece of it has to do with Putin's broader Middle East approach, that he pursued from the very beginning of coming to power, and that was building contacts with all major actors on the ground, who were conflicting with each other. What he did is he positioned Russia as a mediator, and he was able to get, he was able to promise something to each side, and ultimately many of those promises went unfulfilled, really most of them. But each side felt that Russia had leverage over it and saw Russia as important. So, there were, so these are some of the key components of how Putin kept the intervention limited in scope, and ultimately it achieved a key objective, which, key objective of keeping Assad in power, pushing back against American influence, which was a very much a zero sum approach. It established, it provided Russia with a permanent military presence in a strategically vital part of the world, where it always wanted to have that military foothold.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. I see a lot of ominous premonitions from the case of Syria, for the case of Ukraine, including the so-called Russian playbook of bombarding cities, kind of insincere diplomatic maneuvering. But let's turn to the war in Ukraine now, and with everything that we've said about Syria in mind, you've been very critical of the policy that we've adopted for Syria. So, what lessons do you think that the West might learn from the experience in Syria, that could apply to Ukraine? I know you've written that Washington needs to show Putin that this, and I'm quoting you here, "that this will not be the limited intervention he was able to get away with in Syria." So, how do we succeed in making that true?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Sure. Well, so the first lesson is that Putin has never paid a price for his intervention in Syria. He's never paid a price for his, never paid a serious price, frankly, for his previous war in Georgia and for his illegal annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent fighting that he started in Eastern Europe. So, what brings us to the tragedy of today, we are where we are today, at a time when Putin has simply never paid a price for what he had done, and instead felt continuously emboldened, and perhaps due to this feeling of emboldenment, there's a good Russian expression that appetite comes with eating. Frankly, I think it exists in English as well.
Cole Bunzel: Yes.
Anna Borshchevskaya: This is, I think this is sort of, again, what brings us to today. Now what's clear is that unlike in Syria, Putin has miscalculated on an astonishing scale. The Kremlin expected the Kyiv Government to fall in two days, but two things stand out about this. This conflict, first of all, this conflict is already the largest war we saw in Europe since World War II. The rate of refugee flows is also on World War II levels, where now at 3 million people in three weeks, the scale of destruction, devastation. As a Russia analyst, I think what is incredibly disheartening is that this is what it took for the West to finally begin to reassess where it had gone wrong in looking at Russia's strategy, looking at Vladimir Putin in particular, looking at Russian State overall, and that it didn't have to be this tragic. This is a very hard lesson to learn. To go back to your, to the second part of your question, how, what we need to do, we need to make sure that Putin has, receives the kind of gets the kind of loss that he does not recover from, because for all the differences that we now see in the Ukraine campaign, in terms of the heavy casualties that Russia is suffering in terms of the international isolation, the sanctions, and so forth, there's a lot still that the Russian military can bring to bear on Ukraine. This is not over by a long shot, and this is why you see Zelensky pleading for more weapons. What concerns me is that as the rate of refugees, as the flow of refugees continues, experts predicted it would be in five to 10 million, even before the fighting started, and given that we are at 3 million right now, that's a very realistic scenario, given the scale of devastation. All of these elements, remember Putin will never go where refugee crisis go un-weaponized. This is another tactic that he utilized in Syria.
Cole Bunzel: Right.
Anna Borshchevskaya: It, all of this, all of these tactics will create pressure on Western leaders and on Zelensky himself to try to come to a negotiated settlement. My concern is that if this settlement doesn't fundamentally give Putin a loss, it will only be a matter of time before he tries another military incursion again. So, in other words, sort of a wounded Putin, but one who can return, will only be a Putin who will return., And what that will mean is that all these tragic deaths that we saw in the last three weeks, all this, all this destruction ultimately will have been for nothing.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. So, as we speak, British Intelligence has been assessing that the Russian advance has largely been stalled. The Pentagon is estimating that more than 7,000 Russian troops have been killed since the start of the war three weeks ago, which is more than all the American troops killed in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. So, I guess the question I want to pose to you here is, is the Russian invasion of Ukraine going to be the quagmire that President Obama had predicted for Syria?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Yeah. Another point I'd like to bring up just for context.
Cole Bunzel: Sure.
Anna Borshchevskaya: Throughout the entire Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, officially, at least, obviously, we will never know real numbers, but officially the Soviet Union lost 15,000 troops in the decade of fighting in Afghanistan. So, if you compare that number to Russia's current troop losses, that is also pretty astounding,
Cole Bunzel: And that was a 10-year intervention.
Anna Borshchevskaya: Exactly. That was a 10-year intervention, and this is three weeks. Som this really provides you the full context for how, what losses Russia is really suffering. Ukraine very well could turn into another quagmire for Putin. The problem is it can also turn into a quagmire for us as well. There's still so many unanswered questions, questions here in terms of how this fighting is going to end. Journalists, I often want to know how is this going to end? Since the fighting really began, journalists were asking me almost immediately, how is this going to end? We still don't quite know how this is going to end. Here's what we do know. Liberal institutions, chiefly the United Nations, which were post-war liberal institutions, that were designed to prevent war, had shown to everybody that they failed. They failed to act as they were intended. So, the very fact that we could not prevent this war is an incredible blow to liberalism, as we envisioned it after World War II. Ukraine, there's a question of Ukraine's reconstruction. How will Ukraine will be rebuilt? Who will be paying for it? How, what will a final settlement look like? This goes back to my earlier point, what kind of a peace settlement will there be? Analysts often ask about off-ramps for Russia, also. Russia doesn't like to take off-ramps. They like to give off-ramps to others. So, if the peace, as we speak right now, there are negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian teams about so-called "neutrality for Ukraine." I'm not, I'm very skeptical that these talks will yield any positive results, but if Putin succeeds at taking certain strategic parts of Ukraine, militarily the most successful military campaign in Ukraine was in Ukraine's South, which is connected to the Black Sea. If Russia takes control of those territories, it will be an incredible blow to Ukraine's economy. It could render it economically enviable. You can envision a Rump state in Ukraine's West, for example, right, within insurgency that the West is going to support, with a government in exile, that the West is going to support. Yes, a situation like that will of course, be an incredibly draining on Russia's resources, but it will also be very difficult for us. What I'm seeing happening right now is also there's this sort of euphoria, because of how well the Ukrainian military seems to have been doing. They've been pushing back, but a lot of these tactical wins did not yield to real victories on the ground. That's first point. The second point again, by focusing so much on the fact that Putin has already lost, which again, I do think, I do think is correct in many ways, we are also deflecting from the fact that we've lost here as well already.
Cole Bunzel: Okay. So, perhaps we can conclude by talking about some of the ramifications that the Ukraine war seems to have in store for the Middle East. We've heard a lot about how Russia has recently pulled its support, at least temporarily for relaunching the Iran Nuclear Deal. Some of our allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the UAE have not shown the kind of condemnation of Russia that we might like to see. I'm wondering how do you see the ramifications of this conflict in Ukraine playing out for the Middle East? Another thing I can't help but think about is that the United States and Russia have forces that are deployed in Northern Syria, there could be potentially some kind of retaliation in a worst case scenario. What do you think?
Anna Borshchevskaya: Yeah. Well, first I think the examples that you point to are very important, and what the point to is a lot, a number of shortcomings of our foreign policy in the Middle East for the last, approximately the last decade, really, since the time when President Obama announced a so-called pivot to Asia, which made our allies in the middle east, very nervous about our commitment to the region. This has been now a bipartisan trend in our foreign policy since, since that moment. So, our allies have been diversifying their foreign policy. They've concluded that it's not so much that they want to move away from the United States necessarily. It's that they want to have other options, and so they're cultivating other powers. They've been cultivating Russia and China, and they also oftentimes feel, now we can discuss whether it's right or wrong, but from their perspective, there's a complete mismatch in terms of how we view the relationship and how they view the relationship. For example, with the UAE, we felt that we gave them our best state of the art weaponry. We did the best we possibly could. We were a good ally, but from their perspective, what they wanted was not the weapons, but also designation of who sees as terrorists. That's just the most recent example, right? So, this speaks to our misunderstanding of the region, and how I think, we've been losing the region perhaps more than we recognize.
Cole Bunzel: Well, that's very, very concerning way to end this podcast, but that's how we will do it. Anna Borshchevskaya, thank you very much for being on the Caravan Podcast. I highly recommend that you check out her book, Russia's War in Syria, as well as her more recent commentary on the crisis in Ukraine, which you can find on her Washington Institute profile. Please subscribe to the Caravan Podcast. We will be back soon for another episode.
Anna Borshchevskaya: Thank you very much.
Speaker 3: This podcast is a production of the Hoover Institution, where we advance ideas that define a free society, and improve the human condition. For more information about our work or to listen to more of our podcasts or watch our videos, please visit hoover.org.