Interview with Stefan Meister
"The Syria crisis is legitimising Putin"

Russia's backing of Bashar al-Assad and his regime is a geopolitical game, says Stefan Meister, expert in Russian foreign and security policy. Above all, however, Vladimir Putin is benefitting domestically from his Syria policy. The confrontation with the West is making him a key figure in world politics. Interview by Jannis Hagmann

Mr Meister, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has never been to Damascus. Don't close allies usually visit each other?

Stefan Meister: Of course. Normally they do. But this shows that the relations between Syria and Russia are not as close as generally perceived. Russia is a pragmatic ally of Syria. Both countries have common interests, but not a genuine, strong relationship.

Russia has been supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad for almost three years now. What are Moscow's interests in Syria?

Meister: First of all, Russia is trying to keep the U.S. out of the region. A regime change in Syria could help the U.S. spread its influence. Secondly, Russia wants to prevent further destabilisation in the region by the Arab Spring. Assad is a guarantee of the kind of stability Russia likes: an authoritarian regime with whom it can make good deals. Finally, the confrontation with the Americans in the Syria crisis promotes Putin's legitimacy.

After all, Putin has been under serious domestic pressure in his third term as president. The mass demonstrations in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections were the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Defying the Americans still goes down well in Russia.

Stefan Meister (photo: Jannis Hagmann)
Stefan Meister is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. His areas of expertise include Russian foreign and security policy and EU-Russia relations. He has served as an election observer for the OSCE and recently published the edited volume "Economisation Versus Power Ambitions: Rethinking Russia's Policy Towards Post-Soviet States".

Doesn't Putin still enjoy wide support among the people?

Meister: Putin's approval rating has dropped significantly. When he stepped down as president in 2008, it was at 60–70 per cent in realistic surveys; today it is below 40 per cent, which is actually very little for a charismatic leader in an authoritarian state. Putin needs new sources of legitimacy. The conflict with the Americans and NATO goes down well with 80 per cent of the population. By blocking the UN Security Council, Putin is standing up to Obama. That sells well in Russia. The Syrian conflict is legitimising Putin and boosting his global standing. A year and a half ago, Obama said Russia was a secondary power. Today they are negotiating on equal terms.

With Viktor Yanukovych's removal from power, Putin lost an important ally in Ukraine. Do you see a link between Ukraine and Syria?

Meister: The patterns of Russia's foreign policy are comparable. Russia is pursuing a multi-polar world in which it plays a central but independent role to the West. The Russians have a deep fear of becoming irrelevant or having no role to play internationally. But as the second largest state in the region, Ukraine is much more important for Russia and other post-Soviet states than Syria.

The conflict in Syria has already claimed 140,000 lives, many of them civilians. What does the Russian population think about the fact that Moscow is tying the Security Council's hands?

Meister: The discourse in Russia is completely different. When you turn on Russian TV, you don't see the humanitarian crisis but terrorists fighting against a legitimately elected government. Half-truths and lies are communicated. According to Russian media, the poison gas attacks are rumours spread by the Americans or were allegedly perpetrated by Islamist terrorists themselves.

Russia supplies weapons to Syria. How important is the country for the Russian arms industry?

Meister: The arms deals with Syria are a loss-making operation. In the past, Assad's debts were always ultimately paid by Moscow. While this is good for Russian defence firms, Russia is not earning any money on it. Financially speaking, Assad has nothing to offer.

The Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Military hub: Moscow has had a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus since 1977. This is the last of its bases outside the former Soviet Union

The Russian naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus is frequently mentioned as a reason for Russia's backing of Assad. It is the last stronghold of the Russian navy outside the former Soviet Union.

Meister: From a military and strategic point of view, Tartus is of little importance. The military equipment (two cruisers) and the staff are very limited. As far as I know, all the military personnel have now been withdrawn for safety reasons. This means that the base has become even less important. However, it is a crucial location for supplying the Syrian army with weapons and gathering information. Intelligence officials are purportedly still on the ground. Tartus is interesting symbolically and from an intelligence perspective, but not militarily.

If Syria is neither economically nor militarily significant for Russia, is Russian support of the Assad regime essential to Assad?

Meister: The weapons from Russia are indeed important because the Syrians have old Soviet equipment and need spare parts. On the other hand, Assad could hold on to power for a while even without Russian support. Ultimately, Russia is not that important. At the same time, Moscow would never intervene militarily in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a visit to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in February 2012 (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
"Relations between Syria and Russia are not as close as generally perceived. Russia is a pragmatic ally of Syria. Both countries have common interests, but not a genuine, strong relationship," says Stefan Meister

With its Syria policy, isn't Russia jeopardising its reputation in the region? The Gulf States and Turkey are backing the Syrian opposition, and in the eyes of most Arabs, Assad is slaughtering his own people.

Meister: Take a look at the dynamics of the region: we are witnessing the return of authoritarian anti-Western regimes, in Egypt for example. Russia will offer to co-operate with these countries militarily and economically in order to form a countervailing power. Russia sees itself as the winner of the Arab Spring. Now, with al-Sisi heading to Moscow we are seeing the emergence of quite new coalitions.

The Egyptian military chief was in Moscow to negotiate an arms deal. But the close relationship between the United States and Egypt is not up for debate. Russia will hardly be able to replace the U.S. in this case.

Meister: Well, the question is how the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt deteriorates. Egypt is becoming a military dictatorship, which can lead to isolation. Whether or not the Egyptians can afford to rely on Russia remains open. But you are right; the Russians do not have the resources to provide credit and weapons like the Americans do. Economically, Russia is in a bad way.

Interview conducted by Jannis Hagmann

© 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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