Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been an afterthought for most Americans. Now in Syria, we see a more assertive and forceful Russia, undermining American and European policies. Why? It may surprise some, but Russia's national interests are not the same as America's, and those divergent interests are driving Russian foreign policy today.
Given that the Assad regime is one of Russia's last allies in a vitally important region, President Vladimir Putin and his advisors are making a cold, calculated assessment about the value of the regime versus the potential downside of resentment in Western capitals. The problem is that Putin (and a significant segment of Russia's elite) are suspicious of the West to begin with. And looking back, it may not be such a surprise.
Far from achieving the lofty goals of freedom, liberty, and open economic markets, the collapse of the Soviet system and the rapid, poorly-institutionalized liberalization programs allowed for the rise of the oligarchs, rampant corruption, and standards of living that made many Russians pine for the old days. At its lowest point, Russia actually defaulted on its sovereign debt in 1998, and a $5 billion tranche of IMF funds literally disappeared from Russia's coffers into various bank accounts outside of the country.
Perhaps more galling for many Russians were the diplomatic implications of the country's perceived weakness. NATO expanded into areas that were considered Russia's traditional sphere of interest, with little input or feedback from Moscow. The U.S. and its allies intervened twice against Russia's historic client, Serbia, in the Bosnia and Kosovo campaigns. After unilaterally withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2003, the Bush administration embarked on the installation of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which President Obama continued. Despite Russian objections, the United States has shown little or no interest in making formal limitations on the program, potentially allowing for a large-scale, open-ended system that could undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent capability in the future.
Throughout much of this time, Russian leaders simply haven't had many cards to play. There were discussions of putting short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, or deploying new "heavy" multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) after the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Putin has also threatened to leave the INF Treaty, which bans medium-range missiles, but even with additional resources from an upswing in oil and gas prices, a substantial military modernization program has been difficult to implement.
The conflict in Syria has provided Putin with an opening. While Russia's power has not grown in any significant way, the costs of two wars and a major financial crisis have certainly limited the capacity of the United States to commit itself to the Syrian conflict. At the very least, Putin is well aware of U.S. war wariness and the lack of public support for further military engagements in the Middle East. With an ally's survival at stake, he has made the calculation that Russia's interests are clearly engaged, and thus seems willing to consistently oppose the United States and Europe.
None of this is to excuse Putin's policies or his naked, self-interested, and ultimately bloody choice to use his influence to sustain -- rather than push out -- a long time ally that has brutalized his own people. At the same time, Washington should recognize and understand his motivations and thus work to find a solution that would address Russia's interests as well as those of the Syrian people, U.S. allies in the region, and the broader international community. Such a diplomatic solution has the best chance of ending the violence and maintaining a working relationship between the U.S. and another important world power.
The question at hand seems to be whether fighting a proxy war with Russia and damaging relations with Putin's Kremlin is more important than maintaining the potential for cooperation on a host of other pressing issues that confront the United States. Barring the outcome of the Edward Snowden saga, Moscow's cooperation could prove extremely useful on issues like strategic arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, the development of international responses to cyber warfare and espionage, the rise of China, and the reversal of Iran's nuclear program.
Some would seem to argue that U.S. intervention in the Syrian Civil War is indeed more important than these other issues, and our relationship with Moscow. This misses the larger picture. Working to gain Russia's support, rather than simply offsetting its commitment to Assad would be a far more effective approach for achieving U.S. objectives in Syria, the larger Middle East, and around the world -- both today and over the longer-term.