In recent months Russian President Vladimir Putin has again been the focus of international attention as he has come to the assistance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin is often portrayed as a villainous character, appearing on stage like a pantomime devil through a trap door. This characterisation is not only simplistic, it is dangerous.
Reducing Putin and Russia’s actions to being simply “bad” limits our ability to pursue significant security cooperation. It is important that we resist the alluring binary logic of Cold War thinking, and understand Russia as the rational actor it is.
Through the lens of flashpoints in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, Russia is perceived to be provocative and aggressive by acting contrary to the desires of US-led powerbrokers of the international community.
The annexation of Crimea in early 2014 was widely condemned as being an incursion upon Ukraine’s sovereignty, with the G8 suspending Russia and imposing economic sanctions. Using Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority as justification, Russia sought to ‘reclaim’ the small outcrop of land by deploying unmarked soldiers to the region after the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In the following months, Putin backed pro-Russian rebels in the east of Ukraine, which was seen internationally as an act of invasion and aggression, exacerbated by the disastrous shooting down of MH17.
Through 2015 in the Middle East, Russia once again antagonised the West by supporting the widely condemned President Bashar al-Assad in his suppression of rebels in Syria. Under the guise of bombing the Islamic State, the United States State Department reported that around 90% of Russian air strikes were not hitting IS targets, but moderate rebels.
These incidences over the last two years have effectively cemented Russia’s image in the West as an evil aggressor.
When examining Russia’s motivations for backing separatists in Ukraine, it becomes clear that the nation is not in fact trying to reclaim territory that it held as the USSR, but is protecting itself from NATO. NATO was established as a mechanism to contain the USSR. While the Cold War has finished, NATO remains intact with its mutual defence clause binding NATO members to the “attack on one is an attack on all” mantra.
Since the 1990s, NATO has rapidly expanded its member states to include 12 nations that fall in Europe’s eastern bloc, and consequently right on Russia’s borders. Once Ukraine sought to pursue member status within NATO in 2014 it became of utmost importance to Russia that Ukraine’s bid was unsuccessful as this would result in Russia being penned in by a hostile treaty. By backing pro-Russian rebels, Putin is able to ensure that Ukraine is unable to become a NATO member due to it clashing with NATO’s political stability requirement.
A similar principle of border protection applies in the Middle East. The US is a well-established force in the Middle East with significant military installations in Egypt, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. With the Middle East region directly south of Russia, Putin is concerned about the build-up and establishment of US forces in such close proximity to Russia’s borders.
With Syria home to Russia’s Tartus base (its last significant naval base in the Middle East) it is crucial that Russia protects its interests. This makes Syrian President Assad a natural ally. Neither the moderate rebels, nor the Islamic State can be guaranteed to support Russian presence in Syria. If Russia loses its military presence in Syria, it will have lost a huge amount of influence in the region, forfeiting most foreign influence in the Middle East to US aligned states.
Rather than Putin being a provocateur, refusing to cooperate with the West, he is opposing US attempts to encircle and restrict Russia. If Russia was to lose influence in Syria, and Ukraine to join NATO, the US will have successfully twisted Russia into an uneasy submission. By understanding these events from Russia’s perspective, the West is able to identify other flashpoints and compromise, rather than risk pushing Putin too far into a corner.
Joel Paterson is the January - June 2016 International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: Michaela (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)