Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST [Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies] is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a — dare I say it — neoconservative fashion towards Syria.
I’d be very curious to hear from realists if they concur with this assessment. If it turns out that Russia is not acting in its national interests, it would be a body blow to both realism as policymaking advice and as an objective paradigm to explain world politics. Realists would no longer be able to say that the United States was the only great power not acting in its national interest. More significantly, if lots of great powers act to advance their emotional, historical, or ideollogical interests, then the world doesn’t look very realpolitik at all.
It doesn’t seem that CAST’s analysis is claiming that Russian leaders are “wildly inflating” Russian interests in Syria, but that the government is somewhat exaggerating the relatively small but real stake that Russia has in Syria. The FT article refers to Russia’s “dogged defense” of Assad, but apart from providing Syria with diplomatic cover at the U.N. Russia hasn’t committed to doing anything on Assad’s behalf. At the moment, the main cost to Russia for its current position is to suffer a loss of reputation in many Arab countries, but the Russian leadership may also think that it is gaining in prestige by being one of the main international players in the crisis.
So it may be that the Kremlin believes that blocking a more aggressive international response to Syria’s conflict doesn’t cost Russia very much. In that case, preserving its limited interests in Syria gives it enough of an incentive to continue its current course until those costs increase and become unacceptable. It’s also possible that Russian leaders are simply tired of seeing their preferences ignored on the international stage, which touches on Moscow’s desire to be perceived as a great power capable of wielding influence beyond its immediate vicinity.
If so, their intransigence could be intended as a sort of payback for previous military interventions that Western governments have carried out since 1999. Viewed that way, Russia’s position on Syria isn’t just informed by limited Russian interests in Syria, but also by Russia’s perceived self-interest in being seen as responsible for thwarting Western-backed regime change in yet another country. In fact, if the U.S. and NATO were intent on military intervention in Syria there is likely not much that Russia could or would do directly in response. It may be that Russia is taking advantage of Western war-weariness and American unwillingness to act without U.N. authorization to make it look as if Russia has stopped a new intervention that was never going to happen anyway. Meanwhile, Russian relations with the U.S. and Europe have soured a little, but not so much that it is costing Russia a great deal.
There may be additional factors that aren’t being considered here. Sergey Markedonov outlined some of these earlier this week:
Today, as a result of growing violence and hostility in Syria, the Circassian community has found itself living under extremely harsh conditions. Hence, there is increasing interest in the idea of repatriation to the historic motherland in Russia. This approach is supported by Circassian activists in Russia and leaders in the western regions of the Russian Caucasus.
Resettlement of Circassians from Syria to the Caucasus would weaken Georgian attempts to raise the specter of the Circassian genocide. Moscow could also use the current Circassian situation as an opportunity to decouple the Circassian problem from the Sochi Olympics it will host in 2014.
I’m not sure I find the Circassian argument all that persuasive. It seems like a stretch, but it does fit in with the pattern of Russian-Georgian squabbling in the North Caucasus over the last few years. Markedonov’s article raises the possibility that there are factors informing Russian policy that most of us in the West are not seeing or have overlooked because of a desire to come up with a more familiar ideological or emotional explanation. If Moscow sees the conflict in Syria as something that could have effects on Russian internal security, its position becomes much easier to understand.
Update: Dan Nexon makes a very similar argument.
Second Update: Daniel Trombly continues the discussion:
In sum, Russia, by a framework of either modern or classical realism, has more than enough potential motives to preserve the plausibility of a realist explanation for its Syria policy. So long as it continues to face no real costs for its relatively simple and low-commitment policy of impeding foreign intervention, there really is no reason to think it’s behaving in a radical manner. While Russia may not need to treat Syria as a vital, uncompromising priority, virtually no other country has the combination of perceived interest, willpower, and capacity to inflict costs on Russia that would render its Syria policy inexplicable in realist terms.