November 13, 2015
Despite ongoing domestic challenges, NATO (the members and the organisation itself) have to make some very heavy political considerations concerning Russia, lest they lose a chance to steal momentum in the propaganda war between Russia and the West.
With Russia’s intervention in Syria kicking into high gear, NATO has the opportunity to put muscle behind undermining Russian interests in the Ukraine while their focus (and meatier PR moments) lie in Syria.
Naturally, international gambits like this are always risky. Confrontation with a country that relishes opportunities for confrontation is an extreme risk of escalation. However, gambits, by their nature, can pay off.
Some believe that Russia’s pivot to Syria was because Ukraine is a muddled conflict against national cousins, where as fighting ISIS is an excellent way to flex imperial muscle, supporting long time allies of Russia against ideology enemies whose ethnicity isn’t a confusing issue. I assume the list of Russian nationals who have relatives in Syria is much shorter than those who have relatives in Ukraine.
However, if Russia wants to secure their Middle Eastern client state, make them chose. Redouble support for Ukraine. Deploy more troops to the theatre and otherwise demand Russia focuses on one theatre or the other. They are a country of limited economic and military assets; if they want to beat their chests and talk about war with NATO, then they can’t afford to devote enough troops to make a difference in Syria.
Pulling out of Syria would be a debacle for Russia. Putin’s reputation for manliness and restoring Russia’s role in the world might not be able to withstand a failure of such a prominent policy point. Whereas, the news cycle of Ukraine has more-or-less run its course. A resurgent Ukraine might be written off as an unfortunate event– despite Ukraine being significantly more important strategically.
These consideration are interesting, because they would force NATO and its members to chose between Syria and Ukraine. On one hand, Russia invaded a country because it was getting too cosy with the West. On the other, Russia combating ISIS is a good thing. Sure, their actions will allow them to definitively crush opposition to Assad, should any effective resistance remain outside of ISIS; however, Russia has already started to coordinate with powers within the region to help combat ISIS. They don’t like ISIS, we don’t like ISIS. It’s not a bad thing that they are committing manpower to stopping them.
However, Putin is banking on Western inaction. Taking this opportunity to undermine Russia (even at the risk of benefiting ISIS) might force him, and anyone who is forced to succeed the strongman, to act cautiously in regards to ineffectual western response.
We need to think hard and long about our priorities and our international strategies. It might be popular to say that we collectively have our hands tied and that we have no choice in our destinies. This is hardly ever true. There is almost always choices to make. There is generally a price attached though.