Understanding Putin’s Strategy: Projecting Power in Syria


Napoleon was right when he wisely noticed that “to know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy.” The saying is particularly valid for Russia whose recent geopolitical activities remind us of what Russian leaders have historically tried to achieve.

It has been long embedded in Russia’s geopolitical DNA to protect its insecure borders and expand toward warm waters. This expansionist policy goes back to Peter the Great who after defeating Sweden gained a foothold on the Baltic where the new capital city of Saint Petersburg was built. He then gained access to the Sea of Azov after defeating the Turks. Russia became a maritime power. Then it was Tsarina Catherine the Great who played a key role in bringing Russia close to warm waters – by taking control over Ukraine, she guaranteed Russia’s access to the Black Sea.

Since then, almost all Russian strongmen tried to preserve this legacy, and Putin is no exception. Granted, its vast and challenging geography, Russia has constantly tried to carve out buffer zones to protect the mainland. Its immense territory has made Russia a challenging country to control. The country does not have secure borders such as mountains that would separate it from other states. Its rivers run from north to south instead of west to east, thus dividing the country and making it harder to connect European Russia with Siberia. Traditionally, Russia has been vulnerable from its European side; that’s where it has almost always been attacked from. Russia because of this unfriendly geography has always sought to expand its borders for security reasons.

After coming to power Putin began rebuilding Russia internally which was followed by setting his foreign policy objectives: projecting power abroad and organizing the buffer states. As the events unfolded in Ukraine, Putin was quick to take Crimea back which illustrated his intentions of staying true to the old principle of guaranteeing Russia’s access to warm waters. While the Western powers were enraged at Putin and condemned his “aggressive expansionism” they put in place a series of economic sanctions to hit the most vulnerable sectors of Russian economy. Pundits observed that the declining economy would bring Russia to its knees and make it rethink its expansionist policies. However, the economic sanctions proved to be a double-edged sword.

The European Commission declared that the Ukraine-related sanctions have harmed the EU economies, citing their high dependency on Russian energy. The sanctions have left some European leaders divided. France’s Francois Hollande expressed his hope that his country will soon be able to lift the sanctions. Both French and German companies have suffered due to the EU sanctions and subsequent Russian embargo.

Having faced much criticism from the West and being completely antagonized, it seemed that Putin would stop his engagement in foreign soils.

As the events continued to develop in Syria and the refugee crisis hit Europe, Putin saw a great opportunity to shift the attention from Ukraine to Syria. Since the Western policies in Syria came out to be ineffective and destabilizing, Russia stepped in to take more concrete actions to fight both the Islamic State and Assad’s opposition. Putin has made it clear that he will show a support to Assad’s regime. Followed by the military buildups in Syrian port cities, Russian air force started targeting Assad’s foes by launching several airstrikes. Aside from keeping Assad in power, Putin seeks to secure a Russian access to Mediterranean and eventually replace the United States that seems more and more disengaged.

By taking a more decisive stance in Syria, Putin might offer an alternative to Europeans who have long supported the United States but have not seen any substantial change in the country. Therefore, if the Kremlin manages to eliminate the terrorist activities in Syria to some extent and bring at least a temporary stability in the region, the US will have no choice but to accept Russia’s presence in the region. This will be followed by European powers growing suspicious of supporting the US in its future campaigns and consider Russia a more reliable partner in defeating ISIS.

There is a correlation between Russian involvement in Syria and a relative peace in Ukraine, despite the growing power of Russian-backed rebels. Since Europe has its eyes on Syria now and is being trapped by the refugee crisis, it has forgotten about Ukraine. If the conflict in Ukraine freezes, European leaders will start considering lifting the sanctions, since as mentioned above, the EU countries are experiencing an economic downturn as well.
Perhaps, the most important reason for Russian intervention in Syria is the preservation of its naval base in Tartus—a similar scenario we witnessed in 2014 when Russia took Crimea.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kremlin lost all of its naval bases in Libya, Algeria, Yugoslavia, and Egypt. However, it managed to keep its presence in Tartus as a return for forgiving Syrian debts to the Soviet Union. Russia’s limited access to warm waters has always been an obstacle that prevented the Russian economy from achieving its full potential and making Russia realize its global aspirations. This begs a question: Will Putin take advantage of the semi-failed Western policies and regain Russian naval access in Libya?

Another important factor that is worth considering is the message Putin is sending to the Islamists within the Russian Federation. Kremlin’s heavy-handed and decisive actions in Syria is a warning that a similar response will come should such radical movements arise in Islamic republics like Chechnya and Dagestan.

With his Syrian campaign Putin tries to hit several target with one shot: freeze the conflict in Ukraine, at least temporarily; keep the Russian naval base in the Mediterranean safe; and make the West reconsider its approaches toward Russia.

As the airstrikes continue to intensify, Russia shows no intentions of backing up. The Western campaign in Syria which has entered its fifth year looks even more jeopardized—not only the West could not achieve its primary goal of ousting Assad but it brought in Russia. With Iran on his side, Putin will continue strengthening Russia’s position in Syria even if it will require Russian ‘boots on the ground.’ Putin wants to have a say when Syria’s fate is decided, and of course that will include keeping Assad in power.


Beinglass, Yagil, and Daniel Brode. “Russia’s Syrian Power Play.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/opinion/russias-syrian-power-play.html>.
Haddad, Benjamin. “Putin Aims at Syria — and Strikes Europe.” Foreign Policy Putin Aims at Syria and Strikes Europe Comments. N.p., 2 Oct. 2015. Web. <http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/02/syria-putin-assad-russia-ukraine/?utm_content=buffer1dcdf&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer>.
Johnson, Keith. “Putin’s Mediterranean Power Play in Syria.” Foreign Policy Putins Mediterranean Power Play in Syria Comments. N.p., 2 Oct. 2015. Web. <https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/02/putins-mediterranean-power-play-in-syria-navy-tartus-fleet/?utm_content=buffer546e9&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer>.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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