It is often forgotten that 100 years ago Russia, already a great power in Europe, was poised to become one in the Middle East. Under a 1916 deal worked out with Britain and France, Russia was to make huge gains in the event of an Allied victory against the Turks in World War I.
Moscow would have incorporated the Ottoman capital Constantinople (now Istanbul) into the Russian Empire, gained control of the Bosphorus straits – thus making the Black Sea a Russian lake – and seized large parts of what is now eastern Turkey.
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None of that happened because the Tsarist regime collapsed under the strain of conducting the war. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took over, leaving Britain and France to divide up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire.
Nevertheless, Russia’s history as a power in the region is still a living memory. Nostalgia for that time – as well as geographical proximity – are two of the factors that drive Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria.
Will history repeat itself?
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Putin’s bombing campaign in Syria in support of the regime’s army appeared at the start to be relatively low-risk. The stakes are rising dramatically now that it seems almost certain that the Russian air catastrophe over Sinai was caused by a terrorist bomb. If this is confirmed, the inevitable conclusion will be that it was in retaliation for Moscow’s air attacks on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The question now is which of the two lessons of Russian history will apply. Will Russia be confirmed once again as a power in the Middle East, as Putin hopes? Or will the state prove too fragile to cope with war, as happened to the tsars in World War I and to the communists in their ill-judged Afghanistan intervention?
The immediate aftermath of the air disaster showed Russia to be covered in confusion. Russia denounced Britain for “hastiness” in banning flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh – and one overzealous propagandist even hinted that British intelligence had blown up the airliner – before reversing itself and suspending all flights to Egypt.
No doubt this confusion was due to unwillingness to upset Egypt – a useful ally in Russia’s quest for influence in the region – and reluctance to accept that the despatch of an expeditionary force to Syria had led to Russia’s worst air disaster.
But confusion is not likely to last. Putin is not about to pull his troops out of Syria. More likely, he will double down to exact revenge on the perpetrators, a stance already apparent in stepped up bombings in recent days.
If the Russians have given heart to the Syrian regime’s faltering army, they have also united the formerly feuding opposition groups into a more coherent force. If Putin thinks he can win by force of arms, then he has lost his vaunted tactical nous. Russia is no more robust now than it was in 1917 or 1989.
In PR terms, the Syrian intervention serves to cover up the less-than-successful intervention in Ukraine. The Ukraine adventure has led to Western sanctions and a dramatic depreciation of the Russian currency. But Putin cannot afford to appear weak or isolated before his domestic public, whose standard of living will take a big hit when the effect of low oil prices is felt next year.
The reality is that Russia is indeed isolated. In the Middle East, Russia has only Syria as an ally. The Kremlin’s relationship with China is transactional rather than friendly; Beijing is able to drive a hard bargain when it comes to supplies of energy or arms.
But still, the Putin tactic of coming out fighting to exploit the many weaknesses in Western policy is bearing fruit. Russia is now accepted as a partner in the Minsk peace process, which is supposed to put Ukraine back together. In Syria, the US has had to swallow their words and accept the Russian view that President Bashar al-Assad should be part of a transitional government.
In the Kremlin view, all this is leading in a positive direction – that in American eyes, Russia is no longer just a spoiler. It is widely accepted in Russia that the end of Moscow’s influence in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a “vacuum” which was filled exclusively by the US. The results have been catastrophic war (in Iraq) and operational paralysis (in Syria).
It is unlikely that Russia on its own can do any better on the battlefield than the US, particularly given Putin’s failure to organise eastern Ukraine into a viable entity. The Russian bombing campaign has so far not yielded much in the way of success.
If the Russians have given heart to the Syrian regime’s faltering army, they have also united the formerly feuding opposition groups into a more coherent force.
If Putin thinks he can win by force of arms, then he has lost his vaunted tactical nous. Russia is no more robust now than it was in 1917 or 1989.
Alexander Baunov, a Russian commentator, has an idea of what Putin’s plan is. The talks being held in Vienna to find a way to end the Syrian war could be the start of a new way of doing things, just as the Congress of Vienna in 1815 established the rules for peace in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. The so-called Concert of Europe brought together allies and enemies to create a successful balance of power. Putin’s entry ticket to this modern-day “concert” is his small military force in Syria.
The devastating terror attacks in Paris on Friday, after bombings in Beirut and the downing of the Russian airliner, have added a sense of urgency to the Vienna talks, which earlier had seemed no more likely to succeed than previous efforts to end the Syrian war. But all can agree that defeating ISIL now has to be a policy priority.
It may be a dream for Putin to join a concert of powers in stabilising the Middle East. But the dream is a forgivable one. It was only 19 months ago that Putin was expelled from the G8 club of rich countries for his annexation of Crimea. Thanks to the multiple missteps of the US in the Middle East, he is on the way to becoming a Western partner once again.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.