I am surprised that I can be the first to write something with such a buzzy title. Russian foreign policy has stumbled: Russia has lost control of the narrative. In an unprecedented way, the loss intertwines with Russian prospects in Syria. A prerequisite article is (U.S. Army) What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria?
With the poisoning of the Skripals with a nerve agent, and the implied Russia defense of Assad’s chemical warfare against his own citizens, there is a bad smell in the fridge. Is it the kasha that has overstayed its welcome, or the kvass? Whatever it is, something has gone wrong with Russia’s foreign policy in the way it presents to the world. The ice box needs to be cleaned out.
Immorality aside, when a sane person realizes that some activity is not working, the person stops. One of the definitions of insanity is continuation of behavior that does not work. This is when the insane start banging their heads.
This is entirely apart from whether Russia’s foreign policy is ever beneficial to us. While generally it is not, Sergei Lavrov has said (citation missing, paraphrase) that if it weren’t for Russia, the black flag of ISIS would be flying over Damascus. This could be correct, in which case Russia has done the dirty work for both the U.S. and Russia. Assad, their proxy, employed methods that we could not condone or allow. The most reprehensible of these methods is poison gas, which has been condemned by international declaration since 1925. The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention bans them. But Assad has been bombing civilians with makeshift ordinance since the start of the rebellion. Clearly, this is a mockery of a sovereign state.
Early in the Russian intervention, with the first use of chemical weapons by the Syrians,, the Russians publicly encouraged Syria to honor the obligations of the 1997 CWC, to which Syria is signatory. In a public statement, Lavrov said (citation missing, quote from memory), “Assad, honor your obligations.” What has happened since, that would cause Russia to defend the indefensible, by the usual means of obfuscation and statements that are counter to the facts?
There are two completely separate reasons. The one of longer duration is Russian confidence that they can control the narrative. While Vladimir Putin is not responsible for all things Russian, he is largely responsible for renovating the image of Russia into one of a progressive state, an image which held until the Ukraine incursions. Before and concurrently with aggression against Ukraine, a number of actions, including threatening statements and behavior, unsafe intercepts, and assassinations, contributed to the tear-down of the progressive image.
The tear-down is almost complete among those who bother to inform their opinions. There will always be exceptions, like Dana Rohrabacher and Jeremy Corbyn, but remnants offer no chance of the return of Putin’s former stature as a progressive leader. Given the Kremlin’s savvy in PR, why was it not anticipated? Russian success in shaping and controlling domestic opinion is the likely reason. The propaganda methods used with such success internally were exported, and augmented with the sophisticated manipulations of the Internet Research Agency.
The unrecoverable disintegration of Russia’s image among those who choose ranks with the lost battles and strategic defeats suffered by all of the great powers, and those that wanna be. It makes impossible a coverup by Russia of Assad’s use of poison gas. The only support Russia receives in the international forum is from those who owe Russia, those of vaguely conceived tilts, such as China, and those nations that habitually commit atrocities themselves. But you are known by the company you keep.
For the second reason, refer to (U.S. Army) What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria? Quoting,
“Ambition creep” is a common illness afflicting most great powers when they deploy military forces. Russia may not have come to Syria with hopes of regaining power and status in the Middle East at the top of its agenda, but regional aspirations grew with each success on the battlefield. As a consequence, Russia has become a potential powerbroker, and perhaps a balancer against U.S. influence, even if it did not embark on the Syrian campaign with those goals in mind.
At the beginning of the intervention, the Russians advised Assad that he could not expect to regain control of all of Syria. But with unexpected success, aided by the disintegration of ISIS in Iraq, there came about ambition creep. The Assad regime now has presence, or control, of most of Syria. But it is tenuous. Given the minority status of the Alawite ruling class, how thinly spread they are, how can Assad actually impose a civil structure?
As always, carrot and stick. Money, missing as long as the Kurds sit on the oil fields, to buy the tribes and oil the mukhabarat death machine. Poison gas, to hammer the populace wherever a no-go zone spontaneously appears. Without gas, there simply aren’t enough Alawites for continual active suppression. The Syrian fire, which began with the graffiti of a child, occurs as spontaneous combustion.
Had Russia not been a victim of ambition creep, had Assad been less successful, had the Syria situation stabilized with regime control of Damascus, Latakia, and a little bit more, the Russians would not now be victims of their own success, forced into complicity with the most odious means of repression, poison from the sky. For without poison gas, there is no exit strategy.
Russia’s situation in Syria is not a strategic failure, but it is a major setback. It is the unprecedented result of failure to control the narrative. Prior regimes that attempted to control the narrative via propaganda were not much bothered by such failures. Nazi Germany just kept rolling along, even when the “big lie” of Herr Goebbels became a big joke. So why is Russia affected so deeply?
Russia is caught, not between East and West (for there is very little of the East in Russia) but between Russia and the West. Since the founding of Saint Petersburg in 1703, Russia has yearned for things Western. But the imports were selective, preserving the autocracy, with truth-as-diktat, that in the West began to dissolve with the Enlightenment. Transplanted to the West, Russians find themselves highly compatible, distinguished mainly by their accents. Yet Russian business practices are, for many reasons not fixable by regulation, incompatible with the West.
Oblivious to these contradictions, Russia wants the West on its own terms. It expects, or expected, money and commerce without the moral conflicts seen by Western observers. This explains the petulant cry (Reuters) ‘You’ll be sorry,’ Russia tells Britain at U.N. nerve agent attack meeting. The last time I said something like that was as a small child.
The East is not an alternative, since it augurs inevitable absorption by China. But without outside stimulus of dynamic societies, the socially extinct volcano that is Russia will freeze solid. So how can Russia have the part of the West it wants, while absorbing at least some of what it needs so desperately without knowing it?
It would take a third Glasnost. There have been two already, the first under Khrushchev, the second under Gorbachev.