Putin has publicly called the world community to unite against ISIS. He already has boots on the ground in Syria. Almost immediately Iraq allowed Russian reconnaissance in her territories. In the game of geopolitical chess, based on these smart moves by Putin, one would say he is the uncrowned yet undisputed Russian Tsar, ready to take on the world.
Cartoon by J. Awrtani (Jordan) ;
Putin’s only major foothold in the Mediterranean is Assad’s Syria, also backed by Iran, Russia’s ally and regional Shia Powerhouse. Since 2014 it appeared that Assad is hopelessly lost and Putin’s Syrian foothold is slipping fast. In fact till recently Putin was fighting hard just to retain a toe hold. But with these new developments many analysts claim he may end up gaining whole new ground. Many call Putin’s moves brilliant because:-
- Paint Obama’s America weak:-
In an interview to CNN in February 2012, Robert Gates the former Defense Secretary said (paraphrasing) “no power or any combination of powers can even come close to USA military might”.
It was true then, it is true now and shall remain true for the foreseeable future. (Sorry Rise of China theorists USA is still the greatest nation on earth)
Since Russia is not as strong as USA and cannot hope to surpass it anytime soon, Putin can beat USA by doing the next best thing i.e. by painting Obama’s America, as a weak nation. Offering hard choices is one such move.
Middle Easterners respect Strength, even if it’s in their enemies. They also abhor weakness even if found among themselves or their allies. Torn between morality (destroying ISIS by supporting Assad and hence Iran) and commitment to her Middle Eastern allies (fighting Assad and Iran, hence turning blind eye towards ISIS barbarism), America appears weak.
- Fight for a toehold, but win new ground:-
Till yesterday he had a very small sliver of land in Syria. Now he may win the war in Syria and also get a major stake in Iraq. With the lifting of sanctions on Iran his other regional ally can do well economically.
- Lead from the front and get the Moral High Ground:-
By declaring the fight early he is The Leader and others, including America, have to follow. Now Putin has the moral high ground, from where he can “preach peace” and “appear” to fight terror. If it does not join him, USA appears to be with ISIS, a morally indefensible position. It does not count that USA and her western allies are aerially bombings ISIS positions. What counts is boots on the ground and Russia has them.
- Make USA follow Russia:-
It’s one thing to lead from behind when her allies like France and UK are in the front (Libya). It is entirely different when it has to follow a Putin lead Russia, for USA will be accepting him as The Leader. There is no dearth of US political “clowns” who can undermine long-term American interests just to score some political brownie points. This will be a god sent golden opportunity for such “clowns”. With the 2016 presidential election season gaining steam it will be very difficult for President Obama to embrace this choice.
- Mitigate domestic issues:-
It helps Putin mitigate any support loss due to a bad economy. Meanwhile he can do whatever he wants in Ukraine and world will not object as Middle East is more important.
- Tackle Islamists at home and backyard:-
Export of Terror from ISIS to back home in Chechnya, Dagestan etc. can be potentially explosive. So it is a smart move to neutralize them in Syria-Iraq itself, so that these Islamist fighters will not even exist to take their fight to Russia. As Josef Stalin would say No People, No Problem.
Appears there are victories for him on multiple fronts and it’s raining strategic bonanzas. Can Putin uncork the champagne bottles? Not yet.
There is more than it meets the eyes. A cursory look of modern military history shows that the game which he is playing may well be the Russian roulette. He has to deal with not one but many hidden bullets.
What are these bullets?
Long drawn wars are recipes for disasters
In the 1990 Iraq war the US goal were very clear, to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussain’s army. No doubt it was short and America won convincingly.
America had no such objectives in Iraq (2003) and in Afghanistan (2001). Sadly both ended in utter disaster for USA. The result is more than 2 trillion dollars spent and no tangible victory achieved.
There are many examples in world history where an invading major power had to face utter defeat against a small and ill equipped rival.
- Russian invasion of Afghanistan, catastrophic defeat for the former USSR. (~ 10 years)
- American invasion of Afghanistan 2001 a major loss to America. (~ 14 years)
- American invasion of Iraq in 2003 a major loss to America(~ 8 years)
- American invasion of Vietnam a major loss to America. (~ 10 years)
- The Korean War of 1950’s is a major ongoing stalemate for global powers with none claiming victory. (~ 4-5 years)
It is safe to assume that no major invading power has conclusively won a long drawn war especially after the end of Second World War. It is safer still to premise, based on the modern history, that no matter how powerful the invading nation is, it cannot win the war unless the war is short and the objectives are crystal clear. It does not matter how small and powerless the country being invaded is.
Putin should be wary of a long drawn un-winnable war in the Middle East.
War on Multiple Fronts on a diminishing purse
- In Caucasus Russia is fighting Islamic insurgency. (since early 90’s)
- In Crimea he is fighting Ukraine since around 2013.
- Now he is fighting in Syria against ISIS, against western backed anti-Assad forces, against Turkey etc.
- The biggest worry is on the economic front. His power base consists of some two to three dozen oligarchs of varying strength. Their fortunes are mostly connected to prices of Crude Oil, Natural gas, Timber, Coal, minerals and other commodities. Crude Oil and Natural Gas prices, the lifeline for Russian Economy, are hitting decadal lows.
A fast growing world in which Syria is hopeless, Iraq is lost, Yemen is explosive, Libya is uncontrollable, Saudi Arabia is at war, and ISIS is rampaging around, would have pushed Crude Oil Prices to $150-$200 a barrel. It may be true in 2011 and definitely truer in 2006 but not in 2015. The reasons being:-
- Fracking in North America flooding the market with surplus Crude and Natural Gas.
- Iran re-joining the oil market in a big way.
- Nonstop oil production by OPEC.
- China’s falling energy demand.
- Newer fuel efficient automobile technologies.
- Clever manipulation of the energy markets by Western Nations.
On Crude Oil and Natural Gas, Russia is now getting a far lesser bang for its buck. Add to this a bad recession in China, a major importer of its other raw materials.
The above are just the grave problems of the present. Not counting Middle Eastern powers itch to “covertly support” ISIS against Russia in Syria, the following scenarios can unfold in the near future:-
- Price of Crude Oil and Natural Gas falls further and Russian energy based economy takes a bigger hit.
- Commodity prices weaken and Oligarchs supporting Putin turn restless.
- Western Powers further increase sanctions on Russia and the cabal of Oligarchs who overtly and covertly support Putin. Obama sanctions already make it hard for Putin’s Oligarchs to even move their money to safe havens let alone invest in high performing assets abroad. In the face of such adversities, he needs solid loyalty from this power base to continue ruling unabashedly.
- Capital starts leaving Russia in bigger numbers further deflating the Ruble.
- Food prices increase and inflation becomes uncontrollable. Masses may not take this quietly, especially in the long harsh Russian winters.
- Caucasus becomes troublesome with daily violence. This needs additional resources, which Russia needs elsewhere.
- Ukraine war becomes bloodier and army loses more men. Russians will become aghast seeing all those soldiers in body bags.
- Russian Army just went into Syria (officially). How long before it is drawn into battles in Iraq? The very Iraq from which USA had to beat a costly retreat. It then gets drawn into the toxic quagmire of un-ending Middle Eastern wars. Now the tables will turn on Putin as he faces a catch 22 situation. He can’t leave without a victory as Russia loses Mediterranean forever and he loses face both at home and abroad. On the other hand if he continues to fight in Syria with limited economic and political resources, he is just digging a deeper grave for himself.
These are the many bullets Putin may face in this game of Russian roulette. Waging multiple un-ending wars on multiple fronts with little money is a scenario he has to avoid at all costs. If the above unfold simultaneously or one after another the patience of the Russian masses goes for a toss. Even the endless Russia TV propaganda will not help.
A short Syrian war with a convincing victory
His only path ahead is a convincing victory in a short Syrian war, all the while dodging these bullets. To be honest a Russian Victory in Syria is good for the whole world as it becomes a far better place without the evil ISIS. (I.e. assuming Syrian victory is possible only if ISIS is destroyed.) With or without Assad he must win in Syria. Then he becomes the Czar of International Geopolitics.
One can bet many Middle Eastern forces will do everything in their power to deny him this trophy. This will be bad for the world but worse for Putin. He may no longer be the undisputed Tsar of Russia.
Author Bio: S Vadwlas is a Software architect based in the US, with an American Masters in Engineering and an undergraduate degree from NIT, India. He is a contributor to the Times of India. He has completed a writer’s course at the Writers center, Bethesda in Washington DC. His upcoming book Go Clown (Get High Legally!) is a Literary Fiction Comedy set in India, America, Nepal and Thailand. The author can be reached on Twitter at @goclown_book / www.goclown.com