The undisputed fact about the tussle around Syria is the re-emergence of Russia as a major international player. The Russian proposal that Syria surrender its chemical weapons to international control averted a costly military intervention in Syria. It has brought together the West and Russia that were seen as descending down the road of irreconcilable hostility. It has allowed the reiteration of the importance of the United Nations in international relations.
Many western observers appear surprised by this transformation of Russia from a ‘spoiler’ in international affairs into a positive force that is willing to work with the West towards a common goal. This surprise is an indication of how badly the Russians have been misunderstood.
According to the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, the western policy elite, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, expected that “...Russia would reform itself and become a junior partner to the US in global affairs. Instead, the country was re-established as an authoritarian and fiercely independent State.”
This western disappointment led to the vilification of Russia as a country obsessed with its quest to regain its status as a global power. Any attempt by Moscow to protect its interests in its neighbourhood was attributed to the Kremlin’s ‘evil imperial designs’.
But discerning observers would have seen, from the beginning of the 21st century, Russia’s attempts to re-establish itself as a major global player. It started, paradoxically, with Russia giving up its military bases abroad — Cuba and Vietnam. Resources were directed at consolidating power in Russia. This was accompanied by an emphasis on the ‘near abroad’ and rebuilding relations with countries like India and China. Putin also pursued a policy of conciliation towards the West. He was among the first international leaders to express support for the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
With Russia’s overtures to the West repeatedly rebuffed, Vladimir Putin and his team began to fear that the US would not restrict itself to changing regimes in small countries but also later target bigger ones, like Russia. Nato’s expansion eastwards only exacerbated these fears.
And so Moscow began to throw its weight behind the creation of a multi-polar or ‘polycentric’ world. Moscow evolved ‘red lines’ and it was prepared to defend with force.
Twenty-one years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has emerged as the only country in the world that is willing to openly take on the US in the international arena. Russia genuinely believes that constraining US unilateralism is beneficial to the world. It is aided at this stage by the relative decline of the US, exhausted by two prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and beset by a financial crisis.
However, it is important to note that it is unlikely that Russia will be able to win this battle on its own. China, it would appear, is better placed for this role. But Beijing keenly watches this ‘battle of titans’ and builds good relations with the US and Russia at the same time.
The war in Syria and the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad has turned out to be a perfect opportunity for Putin. Once again to quote Trenin: “... (Putin) he invites Americans to ‘right-size’ their foreign policy and international stature, and offers Obama a way out of the difficult situation into which he has manoeuvred himself on Syria... He understands the US is much stronger than Russia, but he nevertheless demands a relationship of equals .... He is determined to turn the resolution of the Syrian conflict into a path toward equality in US-Russian relations.”
Nandan Unnikrishnan is a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal