What Putin is really after

Moscow’s intervention in Syria is driven by realism, but the pilot’s death brings domestic factors into the equation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin [AP]
Putin's refusal to meet Erdogan can be explained as a bargaining tactic, writes Karagiannis [AP]

The shooting down of the Russian bomber by Turkish F-16s last week has taken the relationship between Moscow and Ankara to its lowest point in the past two decades. All signs indicate that the two countries are not going to back down from the standoff any time soon.

The Turkish decision to attack a Russian jet took many Western countries, and Russia itself, by surprise. However, the Kremlin’s response to this unprecedented incident has revealed the intricacies and complexities of Russian foreign policy.

Although Moscow’s intervention in Syria has been driven by classic great power politics, the killing of the Russian pilot has brought domestic factors into the equation.

Can Turkey and Russia resolve their dispute?

To start with the large picture, Moscow has dramatically increased the level of its military engagement in Syria. It appears that for the first time, Russian special forces are fighting alongside Syrian government forces. This could have been seen as Putin’s risky adventure in the Middle East but it goes beyond a leader’s personal desires. It only confirms Russia’s new proactive foreign policy in the region.

The puzzle of Russian involvement

Some analysts have pointed out the long ties between the militaries of the two countries, Russia’s naval base in Tartus, and the selling of Russian weapons to Syria as possible factors explaining Moscow’s stubborn support for the Assad regime. While these factors have played a role, they alone do not provide a sufficient answer to the puzzle of Russian involvement in Syria.

Also read: Predicting Putin’s next move

Russian foreign policy is back to the Cold War days, when the USSR supported client regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the sake of confronting the United States.

Russian foreign policy is back to the Cold War days when the USSR supported client regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the sake of confronting the United States.


During the 1990s, the Kremlin failed miserably to support the pro-Russian regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. It did not stop NATO from bombing Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and four years later did not prevent a NATO attack against Serbia over the fate of Kosovo.

This inaction was interpreted as a sign of Russia’s decline and encouraged the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia to apply for NATO membership. After all, a great power is judged on its capacity to defend “friends and allies” and Russia did not look like it was able to do it.

The sending of Russian troops to Syria possibly marks the beginning of a new era of great power rivalry in the Middle East. It is clear that Moscow is prepared to defend the Assad regime at any cost.

What is at stake in Syria now is Russia’s status as a great power, capable of projecting power in the so-called middle abroad (srednee zarubezh’e). That is, the Middle East and the Balkans.

And, if worse comes to worse, Moscow could always help Assad to establish a Red Alawistan as a safe haven for other minorities such as the Christians and the Shia Muslims.

Such a statelet could eventually become the equivalent of Somaliland in the Eastern Mediterranean: an island of stability surrounded by a chaotic sea of jihadism. In other words, Russia has returned to the Middle East for good.

Competing visions

In this context, Moscow and Ankara have clashed over their competing visions over Syria. The Turkish government has followed a fundamentally different approach to the Syrian conflict. It has opposed the pro-Russian and pro-Iranian Assad regime, while supporting the Syrian armed opposition.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 leaders' summit in Antalya, Turkey on November 16 [REUTERS]
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 leaders’ summit in Antalya, Turkey on November 16 [REUTERS]

In addition, Ankara has used the Syrian Turkmen as a proxy army against both government forces and Kurdish rebels. The Kremlin was aware of all this, but it hoped that these different priorities would not affect the thriving bilateral relationship with Turkey.

Yet the Turkish action against Russia has game-changing potential. And this is where domestic politics comes in. Putin has invested considerable financial resources in Russia’s military modernisation programme.

The bloodless takeover of Crimea demonstrated the country’s new military capabilities. However, the downing of the Russian Su-34 by a NATO country could undermine the confidence in the military as a tool of foreign policy.

More importantly, it can damage seriously the image of Putin as a strong leader who envisions the return of Russia as a major international player. Therefore, the Kremlin is almost obliged to follow a tough policy vis-a-vis Ankara. Economic sanctions are the safest option for the Russian side, but other things can come later. For example, Moscow can give military aid to the Kurds.

Also read: Turkey’s move against Russia: Cold War redux?

It is hardly a coincidence that Putin has labelled the Turkish government “accomplices of terrorists”. He knows very well that the ISIL atrocities and the involvement of Russian Muslims in the Syrian conflict are feeding Russian nationalism which has taken an increasingly Islamophobic character. Turkey has long maintained a relationship with restive Muslim minorities such as the Chechens and the Crimea Tatars.


Putin’s refusal to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be explained as a bargaining tactic before the eventual normalisation of Russian-Turkish relations.

But it can also mean that the damage to the bilateral relationship is beyond repair because Russian public opinion would interpret an immediate de-escalation as a humiliating defeat from a second-rate power such as Turkey.

History shows that nationalist sentiments can change the course of a country’s foreign policy towards a neighbour. The coming weeks will show whether the Syrian conflict will develop into a Turkish-Russian confrontation.

Emmanuel Karagiannis is a senior lecturer at King’s College London.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.