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Russia and Syria: Imperfect, but Plausibly Realist

June 28, 2012

Dan Drezner recently made a good point that a number of realists, in self-flagellating fashion, use Russia’s assertive defense of its own national interests as a foil for America’s woolly-headed idealism and unmoored belligerence. Of course, the reality is quite a bit less simplistic than that. With that in mind, Drezner cited a recent report from a Russian think-tank suggesting Syria is not particularly important to Russian national interests in an argument that Russia was straying from realist principles in its defense of Syria.

Firstly, we should acknowledge that in Russian foreign policy generally, as well as Syrian policy particularly, there are a number of factors which stripped-down, materialist realism doesn’t always usefully account for. Firstly, Russia has a number of foreign policy ideologies with world-historical pretensions that rival or transcend American liberal idealism or neoconservatism.

Eurasianism, though hardly the guiding light of Russian foreign policy, remains a significant factor in the Russian foreign policy discourse. Eurasianist ideologies date back at least to the tumult of the 1920s and reappeared in its current incarnation within the Russian Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party of the 1990s and the banned opposition group, the National Bolsheviks. It shares some commonalities with other ideologies that recast Russian great power politics in mystical or radical, civilizational terms, such as the more radical Slavophiles or the Third Rome ideologists of the Tsarist period. Certainly Russian foreign policymakers must contend with these lofty impulses, but ultranationalism and exceptionalism are impulses most realists expect to see in great powers, and if one compares Russian foreign policy and its rhetoric with that of Alexander Dugin or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, it should be quite clear Moscow, while hardly a textbook case of Waltzian realism, is hardly taking marching orders from its extreme wing.

All that aside, little about Russian foreign policy seems so off-base as to make it inexplicable in realist terms. The case against Russian foreign policy realism follows:

A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria….

Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East.

“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.

Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’sarms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.

But this is only one side of the cost-benefit equation – sure, Syria is not vital to Russian national security, but what’s Russia’s incentive not to prop it up? As both Dan Nexon and Daniel Larison* have pointed out, there’s really no cost to Russia’s foreign policy in Syria so far. As Larison says:

Russia hasn’t committed to doing anything on Assad’s behalf. At the moment, the main cost to Russia for its current position is to suffer a loss of reputation in many Arab countries, but the Russian leadership may also think that it is gaining in prestige by being one of the main international players in the crisis.

So it may be that the Kremlin believes that blocking a more aggressive international response to Syria’s conflict doesn’t cost Russia very much. In that case, preserving its limited interests in Syria gives it enough of an incentive to continue its current course until those costs increase and become unacceptable.

Nexon also notes:

Pretty much all the Kremlin needs to is block UNSC resolutions. No great power is going to inflict material harm on Russia for its stance on the issue. Most of the costs people write about — to reputation — are pretty wooly if we live in realist-materialism land.

In other words, who’s going to go to bat against a great power over a minor state’s civil war? The United States is the only country that could seriously inflict harm on Russian national security interests, and the United States is not particularly invested in Syria. Its interests at stake, in cold realist terms, are smaller in stake than Russia’s. Moscow can deter unfavorable foreign action in Syria at a far lower price than even the U.S. could impose it. Furthermore, Russia knows its cooperation is important to the U.S. on European security, nuclear issues, exit in Afghanistan, and the Iranian sanctions, and that basically all of these appear, thus far, to rank higher on U.S. foreign policy priorities (in practice if not always rhetorically) than securing Russian permission to unseat a Damascus regime Washington lacks the stomach or compelling interest to follow through on.

As both Larison and Nexon also note, though, there’s also a more sophisticated conception of realism which includes significant normative components that dovetail and reinforce the logic and mechanisms of realpolitik. Russian realism is premised on maintaining a system of sovereign states and rules of spheres of influence, opposing humanitarian intervention, and constraining the actions of the global hegemon. As Nexon notes:

We could characterize these motivations as “emotional” or “identity-based” or whatever…. The fact is that they form a coherent, realist, approach to foreign policy. Being a “great power” — and being recognized as such via these trappings — directly enhances international influence, territorial security, and other power-political imperatives.

Drezner, in the twitter portion of this debate, suggested, however, that rather than simply being a low-cost defense of lower-grade interests, Russia’s foreign polciy is in fact significantly undermining its real interests. Drezner invoked the 1953 coup in Iran, and Operation Ajax, as a defense of this. While he didn’t elaborate – and I hope he corrects me if I’m misreading him – he was referring to the idea that Russia was sacrificing its reputation and potentially creating future enemies in the region or in Syria.

I have some problems with this idea. Operation Ajax was not a case of the U.S. behaving in an “unrealist” manner. Precisely because Iran was important to American interests, the unintended consequences of the coup were so deleterious. If America had little interests in Iran or the region it influenced, the downside of the coup would have been significantly lower. The problem with Ajax was that it was a poor way of handling a critical interest and a misleading of threats to its interest. Although, in fairness, it’s also hard to say why, in 1953, attempting a coup would have been such a bad idea. Most countries whose governments the U.S. helped overthrow do not become the Islamic Republic of Iran and wage deadly proxy wars against major U.S. interests in critical regions, nor was the rise of the IRI at all predictable in 1953.

Nevertheless, the situation in Syria is not at all analogous. If Russia’s interests in Syria really are overinflated, then Russia actually does not lose all that much on the chance that Assad falls. Furthermore, it’s not clear what benefits from Moscow’s relationship with Damascus now would survive the tumultuous process of regime change. A post-Assad government that stops killing its citizens is probably not going to be an avid customer of Russian arms, and it’s hard to see how Russia could preserve its privileged status when the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other states would take advantage of the transitionala period to increase their own influence.

Nor is it really convincing that there’s a realist logic to winning over Middle Eastern publics for Moscow. Aside from Iran, virtually every major Middle Eastern state is locked, to some degree, in the U.S. orbit, particularly when it comes to basing rights and arms sales. Russia’s diplomatic gains are far more likely to come from strengthening ties with countries that interventionist strains of Western foreign policy alienate than from trying to court the affections of countries which overwhelmingly benefit from U.S. military hegemony in the region.

In sum, Russia, by a framework of either modern or classical realism, has more than enough potential motives to preserve the plausibility of a realist explanation for its Syria policy. So long as it continues to face no real costs for its relatively simple and low-commitment policy of impeding foreign intervention, there really is no reason to think it’s behaving in a radical manner. While Russia may not need to treat Syria as a vital, uncompromising priority, virtually no other country has the combination of perceived interest, willpower, and capacity to inflict costs on Russia that would render its Syria policy inexplicable in realist terms.

* Dan Drezner, Dan Nexon, Daniel Larison, and your lowly author. Weird pattern, guys. Weird pattern.

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