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Domestic factors also drive Putin’s Syria gamble

by Tina Burrett

After 13 years at the apex of power in Russia, Vladimir Putin can still deliver surprises. Since announcing his plan to bring the Assad regime’s chemical weapons under international control last week, the Russian president has stolen the initiative on Syria from the United States and its European allies. Although it is too early to say whether the Russian plan will succeed in removing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, it has already achieved one concrete result: Assad’s first acknowledgment that a weapons stockpile exists.

Given Putin’s earlier dismissal as “utter nonsense” reports that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on Aug. 21, his plan to persuade Assad to give up his arsenal took Washington by surprise. Despite being gazumped by Putin, the Obama administration has put its plans for military strikes on hold and backed Russian attempts to find a negotiated settlement. Even if the U.S. ultimately rejects the Russian-led plan in favor of military action, Putin’s volte-face on Syria’s chemical weapons represents a remarkable shift, not only in Russia’s policy on the Syrian conflict, but also in Russian relations with the U.S.

In the past week, Putin has shown more cooperation with Washington than during the whole 18 months since he was re-elected as Russian presidency in March 2012. Putin has multiple motives for his change of tack, combining domestic and international considerations. The defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s parliamentary motion on military action, followed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for any U.S. strikes against the Assad regime, showed division between the U.S. and Europe on how to deal with Syria.

With the legacy of Iraq looming in many American and British minds, Putin seized on U.S. equivocations, moving to prevent military attacks on Syria that would damage Russia’s Middle East interests and global prestige. Sensing Obama’s discomfort at the prospect of using force in Syria, Putin took a gamble on securing U.S. support for his initiative and won. In moving forward on efforts to disarm Syria, Russia and the U.S. will act as equal partners.

In 2000, Putin came to office with a largely positive view of the U.S. He began his presidency by repairing bilateral relations, broken by the Kosovo conflict. Following the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Putin’s administration gave substantial practical support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

But Putin’s attitude to the U.S. changed in response to Washington’s support for the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia. Putin became incensed at Washington’s meddling in what he considered Russia’s sphere of influence. Concluding that on-going partnership with the U.S. would necessitate Russian deference to Washington’s agenda, Putin chose to reassert Russia’s position as an independent power.

His strategic win against the U.S. over Syria provides proof of Russia’s status as a major world power, vindicating the Russian president’s foreign policy at a time when he faces difficulties at home.

Local elections held across Russia on Sept. 8 produced better-than expected-results for Putin’s opponents in key cities, such as Moscow and Yekaterinburg. In the Russian capital, anti-establishment mayoral candidate Alexey Navalny polled just over 27 percent of the vote on the back of a campaign that re-engaged Russian citizens in political life.

Rising to prominence during protests against rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011, Navalny has forced his way onto a political stage that for the past decade has been controlled by the Kremlin. By building a grass-roots movement independent of governmental and oligarchic influences, he gained support from Muscovites who had grown suspicious of politicians.

Obviously, Navalny would not have been able to stand without Kremlin approval. Despite being found guilty of fraud charges over the summer, he was permitted to remain free until a higher court hears his appeal later this year. Navalny’s liberty does not indicate a sudden embracing of democracy by the Russian authorities. Rather, keeping him behind bars risked incurring public outrage at yet another fixed election, and a further eroding of Putin’s legitimacy.

Preoccupation with the Syrian conflict came at a convenient moment for the Russian president. Although he could not have orchestrated the showdown over Syria to coincide with local elections, Putin must have welcomed the opportunity to distance himself from some messy domestic politics.

The civic reawakening in Russia that has occurred since mass protests against election fraud in 2011 has brought new challenges to Russia’s rulers. Key sections of Russian society are no longer willing to passively accept a system of poor governance, endemic corruption and fixed elections.

This awakening is occurring across the political spectrum, from liberals to orthodox fundamentalists. Putin’s personal approval ratings, while still high, have waned compared to his earlier presidencies. Throughout his time in office, Putin has always been most popular on foreign policy. Delivering success on Syria offers Putin a proven means of buoying up his domestic support. Nevertheless, in the long term, the regime’s survival depends on delivering on the economy, public services and domestic security.

The tentative re-emergence of political competition in Russia suggests Putin recognizes the finality of his tenure in office. Now is the time for him to think about his legacy. Like many leaders before him, Putin may attempt to leave his mark in foreign affairs, since achieving sustained economic growth and development are much more challenging goals.

There is little doubt that Putin’s plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal is aimed at protecting Russian interests and countering the influence of Washington. But it may also be the first sign of greater Russian engagement and cooperation on common challenges facing the international community, a development the U.S. should welcome and encourage.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of International Relations at Temple University, Japan, and the author of “Television and Presidential Power in Putin’s Russia”, Routledge 2013.