Editor, The World Today
What is Vladimir Putin up to in Syria? A good place to look is this piece by Nikolay Kozhanov, from our August and September issue.

Thanks to the West’s missteps in the Middle East, Nikolay writes, Syria has become an easy win for Kremlin propaganda. It is not hard to find an audience in Russia for a narrative that Washington is the source of instability and terrorism in the Middle East. But he warns that there is a risk that Russian officials will come to believe that a simple propaganda advantage amounts to a victory in the real world.

This seems to be the case. As Barack Obama is mired in operational paralysis, Putin is pressing his advantage by deploying fighter bombers and attack helicopters in support the crumbling army of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. If rescuing the Syrian president is the immediate goal, the longer term aim is to teach the Americans a lesson that in future they should deal with Moscow - in the words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - ‘on the basis of equality, balance of interests and mutual respect.’ In short, America can’t do anything without Putin’s say-so.

In the Cold War atmosphere aroused by Putin’s military adventure, it is easily forgotten that even in its heyday the USSR was wary of expeditionary operations far from its borders. It controlled and garrisoned the countries of eastern and central Europe that it liberated from the Germans, but otherwise it kept its military operations to its immediate neighbourhood. When the fate of communism was being decided in Angola, it was Cuban troops that went to fight, not Soviet ones.

Even in Afghanistan, a neighbour of strategic importance in Soviet times, the Kremlin never had more than 100,000 troops there. By contrast, the US had more than half a million in Vietnam. So the Syrian intervention is not really a throwback to the old USSR. It is an adventure of a new sort for the Kremlin. If the aim is to show off Russian military equipment, and command a key role in a future settlement, it may avoid disaster. There is no need for Russian soldiers to fight in large numbers on the ground – there is the Syrian army to do that. In this case, air support can make the crucial difference. The Americans proved this by providing air support to the Kurdish militias which retook the town of Kobane, as noted by our Syrian interviewee, Haytham Alhamwi. There is a chance for Putin to avoid being drawn deeper into an unwinnable war.

But if Putin is intent on driving home the lesson that Russia is the equal partner of America, and is ready to use his armed forces to prove it, then the Syrian inferno is likely to drag on even longer.

Alan Philps