By David Waywell
It was a small tick in the clockwork of world affairs, but one that said much about President Putin’s dilemma.
On Tuesday Bulgaria closed its airspace to Russian planes, raising questions about the nature of the ‘aid’ being transported to Syria. This adds credence to suggestions that Russia’s president has grand plans for the country.
On Wednesday, the US confirmed that Russia has deployed landing ships and aircraft to Syria, adding to mounting evidence of modern Russian equipment being used in the conflict.
Bulgaria is an adjunct to the main story, then, yet consider how it has taken less than twenty years for the country to transform itself from one of the Soviet’s closest ally to a member of NATO and (albeit perhaps the poorest) a member of the EU. In a slightly shifted reality, their Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, might have been one of Putin’s friends. (Borissov gave Putin one of his dogs – Buffy). Yet the relationship is poor and central to this is the abandoned ‘South Stream’ project and the gas that Russia supplies (or threatens to cut off) a situation best summarised by a leaked cable from America’s Sofia embassy:
‘Borissov said Putin implied (in an off-hand remark) that Bulgarians “risk being cold” this winter if Borissov did not move forward with the projects. [09SOFIA561]’
The decision to block Russian flights will hardly impact Putin’s plans but it underlines the extent to which Russian power has slipped from the old days. Long gone are the notorious Bulgarian umbrellas on London streets, though cynics might argue that Russia no longer needs proxy agents to do its dirty work.
Hard power is increasingly Putin’s modus operandi. Whatever crisis occupies the West, Putin involves himself at the fringes. He courted Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, as the debt bailout deal looked ready to collapse, thereby ensuring that the Greek economic crisis quietly turned, as many do, into a matter of global security, as the West sought to prevent increased Russian influence in the region.
Putin’s problem has been the limited places in which he could play his pre-Glasnost games. The greater influence the West has over countries such as Bulgaria, the more need there is for Putin to demonstrate that the bear retains some teeth. That, in part, was the purpose of his adventure in the Ukraine. When he turned his attention to Crimea, the situation on the ground established the nature of what was a relatively risk-free gamble: large Russian population, historically part of Russia until a whim of Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine.
Western policy was largely pragmatic about those ambitions. Russia’s claim to the Crimea has reluctantly been accepted (a few sanctions aside) and no one realistically believed Russia would lose control of Sevastopol, home to its Black Sea fleet. Ukraine only becomes a gamble when Putin presses his ambitions further than Sevastopol.
Syria is a different proposition. Nature abhors vacuums but geopolitics abhors them more. Except for the occasional rumble of nascent ambition, no Western government looks likely to direct significant resources into resolving the Syrian problem. The West is split on how to handle the conflict.
Opposition forces within Syria are deeply factional, and governments cannot even agree on who are legitimate fighters and who are terrorist organisations. In January the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee went so far as to publish a report critical of the UK government’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
‘We ask the Government to clarify its policy on recognising and working with Syrian-Kurdish groups such as the PYD party that are resisting ISIL in northern Syria. We also ask it to clarify whether its categorisation of the Turkish-Kurdish PKK as a terrorist group or the PYD’s decision not to join the Syrian National Coalition are considered reasons not to recognise or assist the PYD.’ (UK Government policy on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, p. 51)
President Obama has repeatedly proved reluctant to act decisively. In Thursday’s New York Times Roger Cohen called Syria ‘the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions’. America and its president have no appetite for dismantling or rebuilding in Syria.
Western prevarication makes Syria a tantalising opportunity for Putin. It provides him with a situation filled with moral ambiguity that might easily be exploited. Daesh rose to prominence because of badly conceived military operations by the West, which produced situations on the ground demonstrably worse than the situations they intended to solve. Public opinion in the West remains strongly anti-war but also anti-ISIS. The conflict in Syria might be complex but the public have identified their enemy. The talk is more about Daesh than it ever was about Assad.
If Putin dismantled Daesh, he would try to legitimise Russia’s claim that it provides an alternative source of stability to that offered by the West. What if he acted and claimed to be serving the interests of the West as well as those of Russia? Could Western leaders justifiably condemn Putin should he set his military the goal of eliminating Daesh in the Levant?
We are soon to find out if Putin can afford to wage such a campaign. Does he even have the will? Despite his posturing, he has not yet proven that he’s willing to be more than an agent provocateur in the heart of any troubled land. However, he is clearly keeping his options open.