As Western intelligence analysts increasingly suggest terrorism as the cause of the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, some might expect President Vladimir Putin to reconsider the wisdom of entangling his forces in the multinational campaign to contain Islamic State militants threatening to overrun Syria and oust its Kremlin-allied president, Bashar Assad.
That expectation is likely to prove wrong.
Putin’s 15-year record of executing a more aggressive foreign policy suggests he will intensify Moscow’s role in the conflict rather than retreat in fear of further retaliation by the Islamist extremists now in Russia’s sights. Putin’s flexing of military muscle has fanned Russian national pride and boosted his image as a powerful leader capable of restoring the former superpower’s leading place in the post-Soviet world order.
Kremlin analysts say Putin is likely to take an unwavering stand against Islamic State, which he has equated with the Nazi scourge of the last century. The militants hold more than half of Syrian territory as well as large swaths of neighboring Iraq, and have declared their intent to destroy Western infidels, which they now consider to include Russians.
Putin’s decision in late September to send troops, ships and air power to the government-controlled western coast of Syria could also be viewed as defensive or preemptive. An arc of vulnerable Central Asian states and predominantly Muslim communities in Russia’s Caucasus region is all that stands between Russia and Islamic State’s proclaimed caliphate to the south and Taliban-imperiled Afghanistan to the southeast.
The crash eight days ago of the Metrojet Airbus A321 is now thought by many to constitute retaliation by Islamic State or affiliated extremists for Putin’s decision to wage airstrikes against Assad foes in Syria. The air power is purportedly aimed at Islamic State strongholds but has also targeted other Syrian rebel groups to bolster Assad, Putin’s closest Middle East ally.
Putin has disparaged U.S.-led efforts to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as feeble and ineffective, making it necessary for Russia to wade in to get the job done.
“Because of the state propaganda machine in Russia, the whole society is in mobilization mode,” said Anna Vassilieva, a professor of Russian affairs at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “It will be up to state propaganda to continue the line that Russia is under siege and that compromising or stepping back would be a sign of weakness. They will say that the only way for Russia to protect its stature and the respect Russians crave is to step up the defense of national interests. In the context of Russia’s relations with the West, this feeds right into it.”
Putin presents himself as a strongman and exudes a “messianic” view of foreign intervention, proclaiming that only Russia can save the world from Islamist annihilation, she said.
“He understands that if Damascus is taken by ISIS that it is a whole different situation. It’s Afghanistan all over again,” Vassilieva said, recalling the threat of Muslim fundamentalism spilling into Russia that influenced the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in 1980.
“Tajikistan and Afghanistan are like one country, and the aged monarchs of Central Asia would be easy for ISIS to overrun. Putin understands that, and there is nobody to argue with him. He’s taking this [Syrian intervention] as a preventative measure.”
Recent polling in Russia suggests that much of the population has bought into Putin’s presentation of the nation as a righter of geopolitical wrongs. In a survey carried out in late October by the Levada Center in Moscow, 71% said they were proud of Russia’s role in the world and 82% said they believed the West was pursuing a hostile policy toward their country. The primary objective of the Western policy was to weaken and degrade Russia, 69% of respondents said, in choosing from among an array of possible motives.
Even if the investigation of the Metrojet crash conclusively determines that the cause was terrorist retaliation, Russians are likely to come away with a message carefully calibrated to lay the blame on Western ineptitude in handling the Syrian crisis. When Putin addressed the U.N. General Assembly in late September, he alluded to the year-old U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes on Islamic State as an example of Washington wading into a complex Middle East crisis with neither an effective plan nor enduring commitment.
Some Russia analysts see Putin’s Syria gambit as the latest tactical move to divert attention from an unraveling foreign adventure, in this case the faltering Russian-backed separatist rebellion that roils eastern Ukraine. Arms, mercenaries and Russian special forces funneled into the former Soviet republic have led to almost 8,000 deaths, according to the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, and the destruction of thousands of homes. It has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, obliterated the Donetsk airport, which was the most modern in Ukraine, and damaged rail lines, mines, factories and other infrastructure.
Sophisticated weapons provided by Russia to the rebels are also suspected of having led to the July 17, 2014, downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Ukrainian war zone when the separatists apparently mistook the passenger jet for a Ukrainian military transport. All 298 on board were killed.
Although Russians cheered Putin’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in early 2014, public attitudes toward Russian involvement began to sour when the bodies of Russian fighters started arriving back in their home regions for burial.
“Putin runs on moving ice,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, senior researcher and political analyst at the Geography Institute think tank in Moscow. “He has to keep moving, and he tends to go where he has had success before. It was only two years ago, before the Ukraine crisis, that Putin pulled off the successful removal of chemical weapons from Syria to avert Western strikes against Assad. He’s returned to Syria now because he wants to repeat that success.”
Putin has little concern about a public backlash over his Syria intervention, given the iron-fisted control Kremlin censors have over Russian media and a population that either supports him or is tuned out to politics and international affairs, Oreshkin said.
If Russian operations in Syria begin exacting a bigger civilian toll, Putin would simply scale back quietly, as he has in Ukraine in recent months, while managing the message for public consumption that Russian forces continue to robustly confront the country’s enemies, Oreshkin said.
“It’s as impossible for him to withdraw now from Syria,” the analyst concluded, “as it would be to give Crimea back to Ukraine.”