Russia's interventions in Ukraine and Syria
What drives Putin is evident from Syria

Anyone wishing to know how far Putin will go in Ukraine should look to Syria. There, the Kremlin has been successfully asserting its own interests for years – with military ruthlessness, diplomatic pressure, brazen propaganda and tactical agility. Commentary by Kristin Helberg

Vladimir Putin has done it – Russian troops are attacking Ukraine. For the people of Syria, Russian soldiers and fighter jets have been part of everyday life for years, used by Moscow to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. Putin's methods in Syria shed light on his foreign policy actions and geostrategic self-image. Four characteristics of the Kremlin leader are axiomatic.

1. Putin craves respect

The Russian president aspires to communicate with the powerbrokers of this world on equal terms. He runs an empire and is looking to be treated accordingly. That is exactly what he has achieved in Syria – with diplomatic weight, military strength and propaganda.

As a permanent member of the World Security Council, Moscow has held its protective hand over Assad for eleven years; between 2011 and 2020, Russia blocked 16 UN resolutions on Syria. This means that crimes under international law committed by the Syrian regime cannot be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. UN aid, which is worth billions and is financed to 80 percent by the USA and Europe, is misused by the Syrian regime to maintain power. This is because aid has to be distributed in agreement with Damascus and therefore does not reach the neediest Syrians, but those who are particularly loyal instead.

Only the extremist-controlled province of Idlib, a refuge for millions of Assad opponents, still receives direct humanitarian aid from abroad. The UN Security Council has to renew this cross-border access every six months, at which point the West begs Putin to be allowed to provide humanitarian aid. In terms of diplomatic status, Syria has served the Kremlin leader well.

If resolutions cannot be prevented, Russia waters down their content. The best example of this is Resolution 2254 from December 2015 – the UN document that all actors in the Syria conflict still refer to today. The resolution was the result of intensive talks between Moscow and Washington in October 2015, the only serious diplomatic initiative to resolve the conflict with the International Syria Contact Group to date. Both countries were already militarily engaged in Syria at the time – the U.S. from September 2014 to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS), Russia from September 2015 to bail out Assad, who had lost control over large swathes of the country. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his then counterpart John Kerry considered each other equals – only one and a half years after President Barack Obama demoted Russia to "regional power" in March 2014.

Resolution 2254 called for an end to attacks on civilians, unimpeded humanitarian access and the release of those arbitrarily detained. For months, Lavrov and Kerry attempted to de-escalate the situation – without success. After all, Resolution 2254 included a loophole, at Moscow's instigation, namely that of the "anti-terror fight". The text explicitly allowed the continuation of attacks on terrorist groups such as the IS and the Nusra Front and groups allied with them. This was the carte blanche the Assad regime needed to continue sealing off all opposition regions, bombing them and thus continuing its war against civilians.

Russia not only became the decisive partner in this campaign, but also the game-changer of the war. From the summer of 2015 onwards, Putin sent troops and military equipment at Assad's request – hoping that by getting involved in Syria he would also end his international isolation triggered a year earlier by the annexation of Crimea. Damascus granted Moscow free and unlimited use of the Hmeimin airport southeast of Latakia, which Putin has since expanded into a Russian airbase where nuclear-capable bombers can land.

The Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Military hub Tartus: Moscow has maintained a base in the Syrian port city since 1977 – the last one in a distant foreign country to remain following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the Russian military intervention in 2015, Damascus granted Moscow free and unlimited use of the Hmeimin airport southeast of Latakia, which Putin has expanded into a Russian airbase where nuclear-capable bombers can now land

The supply of personnel and weapons also runs via the Russian naval base in Tartus, which Moscow has maintained since 1977. As Russia's only access to the Mediterranean, it is of great strategic importance, serving Putin's goal of preventing NATO naval domination in the region. Most recently, Russian warships launched from Tartus in the direction of Ukraine, indicating that Moscow is already using the base to counter NATO expansion.

Russia's entry into the war alongside Assad turned the tide in 2015. Because Putin intervened at Damascus' invitation, his intervention in Syria – unlike the current war of aggression against Ukraine – is not illegal under international law. Indeed, his disregard for international law has been evidenced far more by the way he engages militarily. The Russian air force bombs residential areas in Syria without regard for civilians. Its targeted attacks on hospitals, schools and markets, as well as the use of incendiary bombs, cluster munitions and vacuum bombs in civilian areas, have been documented many times and do not bode well for the people of Ukraine. The non-governmental organisation Airwars, which documents the airstrikes of all warring parties in Syria, estimates that more than 23,000 civilians have been killed by Russia, while Moscow claims that not a single civilian has been harmed.

This glaring contradiction makes Putin's third instrument all the more important – disseminating disinformation. He is not beyond using grotesque propaganda to discredit his opponents and justify his own actions.

The fact that he accuses Ukraine of "abuses and genocide" comes as no surprise to Syria watchers. Since 2016, for example, the Kremlin has been agitating against the Syrian civil defence organisation White Helmets – winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize – which documents its rescue missions with the help of handheld and helmet cameras. Russia considers the NGO a threat – after all, its videos regularly show the civilian victims of Russian missile strikes.

Russia's attempts to blame Assad's crimes on others as so-called "false flag" actions are also brazen. Especially when it comes to the use of chemical weapons, this has worked frighteningly well. Even when investigators from the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded, as in the case of the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, that Damascus was responsible for the poison gas attack, other versions of the attack persist, because Russia has dismissed the investigations as frivolous and continues to make abstruse claims to this day. Putin has perfected the media strategy of spreading numerous narratives and contradictions about a certain event until the truth ultimately appears to be just one of several possible versions.

2. Putin is a tactician, not a strategist

Although it may seem so in retrospect, the Russian leader did not have a long-term strategy for Syria in 2011. The decision to keep Bashar al-Assad in power followed NATO's muscle-flexing in the region, especially in Libya. In March 2011, Moscow's abstention at the UN Security Council enabled NATO intervention in Libya, which bombed Muammar al-Gaddafi's regime out of existence a short time later, even though – according to the UN mandate – it was only supposed to protect civilians. This was not to be repeated in Syria under any circumstances, Putin decided. After all, once the region fell almost entirely under American influence over the course of the 2000s, Assad was Moscow's last ally in the Middle East.


Putin's plan for Damascus has thus been limited to preventing Western-backed regime change. The man in the Kremlin has become Assad's most powerful patron saint, indispensable for all parties involved and ultimately pulling the strings. Putin does not follow a rigid plan, but rather reacts to current events – the more dynamic they are, the better for Putin. As an impulsive autocrat he can use every crisis to his advantage, whereas Western politicians have to take public opinion into account, involve their parliaments and co-ordinate any action.

In September 2013, for example, Putin pulled off his greatest tactical coup. Following the poison gas attacks on the suburbs of Damascus on 21 August with more than 1,400 dead, U.S. President Obama was forced into action. One year earlier, the American president had called the use of chemical weapons a red line, now he was desperate to avoid a military strike, fearing the U.S. could be dragged into another war. Putin helped him out of his predicament. He committed the Syrian regime to the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile by the OPCW, thus providing Obama with a welcome excuse not to attack. Instead of being punished for the gassing of hundreds of civilians, Assad became a partner, the OPCW inspectors received the Nobel Peace Prize shortly afterwards – and Putin appeared as the one to trust in a crisis.

Whenever an opportunity for action presents itself to Putin because other, primarily Western, actors leave a gap, he seizes it. Consequently, when it comes to managing a conflict with Putin, it is essential not to hesitate, but to proceed in a consistent and predictable manner.

3. Putin does not overreach himself

Whatever action Russia has taken in Syria, Putin knows his limits. Unlike Ukraine, Syria is geographically and emotionally distant for most Russians. The intervention is therefore unpopular and Putin has been careful to minimise Russian losses. From the outset, he has limited the operation to military advisors, the air force, some naval units and special forces – including mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-affiliated private security company that was also deployed in Crimea.

He leaves the war on the ground to others, first and foremost Iran, which is building up the National Defence Forces along the lines of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. These forces are recapturing opposition areas for Assad, but they would be lost without Russian air support. In this respect, Putin is providing exactly what the regime needs without risking too much: expertise and modern technology with a minimum of manpower.

By trialling new weapons systems in Syria, the Russian army has boosted their sales figures, while modernising itself. The mission in Syria has thus proven useful preparation in terms of military technology for the attack on Ukraine.

4. Putin – pragmatic and flexible

More than any other conflict, the Syrian war has been characterised by shifting alliances. The intervening powers do not stick to long-standing alliances, but enter into short-term alliances of convenience to advance their own interests. Putin is a past master at this game.

Turkish President Erdogan hosted Russian leader Putin and his then Iranian counterpart Rohani for talks on Syria in Sochi, Russia, in February 2019 (ohoto: Reuters/S.Chirikov)
Pragmatic relations: Turkey supports various rebel groups in Syria. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, are on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "The tense relationship between the autocrats only works because both think extremely pragmatically. For example, Putin and Erdogan regularly prevent military clashes in one place from affecting their relations elsewhere in Syria. In this respect, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is only a well-rehearsed test of their mettle. The fact that Turkey is supplying the Ukrainian army with combat drones against Russian aggression will not change the ambivalent yet stable relations between Moscow and Ankara," writes Kristin Helberg

Following years of diplomatic co-operation with the U.S., Moscow launched a new initiative in the Kazakh capital Astana at the beginning of 2017. Putin counted on reaching an understanding with regional powers Iran and Turkey. After all, talks with Washington were not worthwhile under Donald Trump, while the Europeans, who were not only unwilling to get involved, but had also shown a total lack of strategy, were considered to have no say in Syria anyway.

The three most influential warring parties were meant to defuse the conflict to increase the prospects for negotiations. Ceasefires became "de-escalation zones", which have, however, proved unworthy of the name. Russia and Iran have continued to fight alongside Assad as before, while Turkey opened another front against the Kurds in the north at the beginning of 2018.

Putin has found a sparring partner in Turkish President Erdogan. Both are playing high stakes in Syria and are fond of dramatic gestures, while being able to keep a cool head when it counts. Erdogan turned his back on his former friend Assad at the beginning of the uprising and has been financing Islamist militias for years – meaning Turkey and Russia are on opposing sides in the conflict.

Yet they are working together. In Idlib, Putin has promised to put the brakes on Assad's reconquest plans so that millions of internally displaced people do not push further towards Turkey, while Erdogan is supposed to contain the jihadists. Neither is succeeding. In the Kurdish-dominated north-east, Russian and Turkish soldiers are patrolling together to maintain a buffer zone between Turkey and the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG). Here, too, however, there are repeated clashes.

The highly complex and tense relationship between the autocrats only works because both think extremely pragmatically. For example, Putin and Erdogan regularly prevent military clashes in one place from affecting their relations elsewhere in Syria. In this respect, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is only a well-rehearsed test of their mettle. The fact that Turkey is supplying the Ukrainian army with combat drones against Russian aggression will not change the ambivalent yet stable relations between Moscow and Ankara.

After eleven years of war in Syria, Putin is in a comfortable position: in Damascus sits a ruler who is devoted to him in grateful dependence and to whom large parts of the world will turn again. Russia's interests in the Middle East therefore seem secure.

The situation in Ukraine is quite different: Kiev is home to a president who seeks to lead his country towards the West. The biggest difference between the two conflicts for Putin is the time factor – in Syria it has worked with him, in Ukraine it is working against him. That is why he has acted now. Decisively, boldly and confident that the West will hold back in Ukraine, just as it did in Syria.

Kristin Helberg

© 2022

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