Eighteen months ago, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, confusion prevailed in the West. Today, as Russia sends troops, armor, and aircraft to Syria, we are once again perplexed. On Monday President Vladimir Putin provided the explanation: Russia’s intervention is aimed to defeat ISIS and reduce the flow of refugees to Europe. A review of the last major Russian intervention, in Ukraine, might help us to evaluate this claim.
The superficial links between the two conflicts are obvious. For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, a ceasefire is holding. This has allowed Moscow to send special forces from Ukraine to Syria. The naval base in Crimea is now used to project Russian power southwards.
From Moscow’s perspective, there is not much difference between university students protesting in Kyiv for closer ties with the European Union and Islamicist terrorists gaining ground in Syria. In both cases, Russian leaders can, quite understandably, see a coming domestic problem. If people can gather peacefully in Kyiv, why not in Moscow? If Islamic terrorism can work in Syria, why not in southern Russia?
But the more important factor is domestic public opinion. Russia is a television culture, and Russian television news is devoted almost entirely to the world beyond Russia. In the last few days, Russian television has completely changed the subject: from Ukraine to Syria. What must not be mentioned is that Russia has not achieved its goals in Ukraine. The Ukrainian war shows that Russia can fail even when the European Union pays only a very small amount of attention to the conflict. What Russian leaders seem to want in Syria is a war without EU sanctions, which they can win for the viewers at home.
The war in Ukraine was thus never about Ukraine alone. It was always about the destruction of the European project as such. If the European Union fails, then there is no danger that Russians will see Europe as an alternative. If Europe fragments into nation-states, Russia becomes a much stronger player. Thus Russia seeks to destroy the European Union by supporting radicals and populists who oppose European integration and seek a return to the nation-state. Although President Putin spoke of a revived “anti-Nazi coalition,” his friends in Europe include fascists.
So Ukrainian experience gives reason for skepticism about Putin’s claim that Russia is intervening in Syria to help Europe with its refugee problem. The politics might well be exactly the opposite. Having found a powerful ally in its quest to end European integration, the European far right has followed Moscow’s lead on the Ukrainian conflict. But the natural subject of Putin’s allies in Europe is immigration. By supporting the Assad regime, Russia helps to produce the refugees that drive European politics rightward.
President Putin spoke of the “universality” of international law regarding “sovereignty.” And here he was quite right. If Russia were serious about law and sovereignty, President Putin might have announced at the UN that Russia is withdrawing its support from its separatist clients in Ukraine and withdrawing its troops and armor from sovereign Ukrainian territory. If he had said these things, then the world would have had very good reason to listen.
Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History and the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, released earlier this month.