Insight on Syria: What Are Putin's Motives?

Russia’s direct entry into the Syrian conflict in September 2015 was spurred by a plethora of motivations. Russian scholars Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux unpack the various rationales. 

Image of Putin, Assad, and others

By Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux

Fourth in a series that asks Weatherhead Center affiliates to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has confounded American policy makers with his agenda in the Middle East for at least the past decade. Russia’s stance has varied in its accord with Western policies, at times seeming to align—as in Libya and Yemen—and other times shirking, by showing indifference toward Iran’s nuclear program violations. Western diplomats have long puzzled over Putin’s real aims in the region and whether or not he could ever be a reliable ally. 
Russian airstrikes in Syria in 2015 marked a turning point in its foreign policy. Taking full advantage of the vacuum created by President Obama’s failure to intervene, Russia stepped in to lead, signaling Moscow’s new commitment to involvement in the region. Just two years prior, Putin had refused to export missiles systems to Syria, raising hopes in the West for a possible partnership that could help to stabilize the region. It was not to be. Russian officials fanned speculation and confusion about its actions in Syria. To the public, they skewed the purpose of intervention, first claiming to target Islamic State, then “terrorists” in general. In fact, Russian bombs fell on anti-Assad rebel groups, some of whom were armed and trained by US intelligence agencies. Thus began a protracted “proxy war” between the United States and Russia that continues today.

Putin is now entering his fourth term as president, buoyed by high levels of public support. Syria is facing its eighth year of conflict, and is now a devastated country, in large part due to the deadly Russian bombing strategy that destroyed densely populated areas and many thousands of Syrian lives. Last December, Putin and Assad together declared victory over Islamic State and announced the eventual reduction of Russian armed forces. Nevertheless, the proxy war rages on, with Russia’s continuing air and ground assaults against US-backed rebels. 

Taking Syrian intervention as a pivot point in Russian foreign policy, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs asked Faculty Associate Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux—director and executive director of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, respectively—to demystify Putin’s overarching goals in the region, and to consider what they might mean for future relations with the West.

The Russian View of Modern History

Russia’s engagement in the Syrian conflict must be contextualized within the reasonably coherent Russian grand strategy exercised by Putin during his third term as president of the Russian Federation (2012 through March 2018). That strategy was, in a word, restoration. Putin and his Kremlin colleagues have decided to prove that Russia is a great power with which to be reckoned on the world’s most important geopolitical questions. 

Russia’s book of post-Soviet grievances against the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the European Union (EU) is thick. This big book opens with perceived humiliations endured in the 1990s when Russia was treated as the loser of the Cold War. The first chapter, which could be titled, “Humiliation,” begins in 1991 and concludes with NATO’s 1999 bombing of Russia’s Serbian ally over Kosovo (without a UN Security Council resolution) and the integration of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic into NATO. 

The second chapter, “Betrayal,” describes further NATO expansion eastward (Bulgaria, the Baltics, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004) and a series of revolutions in the “near abroad” that Russia regards as its buffer zone against future invasions (Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004).

The third chapter in the Russian narrative, “Reassertion,” began in 2007, with Putin’s aggressive speech to an international security conference in Munich. The unipolar world, he argued, had led to an “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations—military force.” Further: “The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance. We have the right to ask, ‘against whom is this expansion directed?’” Russians see this speech as the first of many warnings that NATO and EU expansion must stop. The warning was ignored, and in 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, ostensibly to protect Russians in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and in fact creating two frozen conflicts (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) that make Georgian integration into European structures all but impossible. Over the next five years high oil prices empowered the Russian economy and its geopolitical ambitions. When the elected, Russian-backed, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv in the face of massive street protests in February 2014, Russia denounced the “unconstitutional coup” and suggested that the United States was once again fomenting regime change at its doorstep. One week later, Russian troops took over Crimea. Putin’s popularity—which had previously decreased with oil prices and state revenues—suddenly spiked, and nationalist sentiment celebrated the return of not only Crimea, but also Russian greatness. Putin drew a red line and defended it, thereby outsmarting the West and making it clear that Russia would defend its sphere of influence.

So the Kremlin has begun a new book—not, this time, of grievances, but of reassertions, retributions, and self-righteousness. Russia has bristled at the notion that it is a mere “regional power.” It sees itself as a great power, and a great power projects its authority beyond its immediate neighborhood.

Good vs. Evil Dualism

Map of color revolutions in Middle East and Asia

The immediate goal of Russian foreign policy in Syria is to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Relations between the nations have been close for more than fifty years, ever since the Soviet regime cultivated a relationship with Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar. The past thirty years of revolutions in the region—Velvet, “Colors,” Arab Spring, and otherwise—have taught the Russians that regime change is inherently destabilizing. In late June 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the United States might have “joined forces with terrorists” to overthrow Assad, had Russia not intervened to help him.1 

This highlights another important factor in Russia’s intervention in Syria: the fraught bilateral relationship with the United States. For some moments during the conflict it seemed that the United States and Russia might cooperate in the pursuit of a shared interest: the defeat of Islamic State. But the United States argued that it was necessary to simultaneously fight against Islamic State and weaken the Assad regime. Russian policy makers countered that the stability of the Assad regime was necessary in the struggle against Islamic State. Getting to the heart of the matter, the rest of the conversation went something like this:

United States: Assad is a very bad man and cannot remain in power.

Russia: A “very bad man,” you say! What are you talking about? You Americans have this strange Manichean worldview. You think that the world is a grand struggle between good and evil. That you are on the side of good. And that you are the arbiters of who is good and who is evil. And you think that you can rid the world of bad men so that good men will take their place. I don’t know where you have been, my naïve American friends, but very often when you rid the world of these “bad men”—in Iraq, in Libya, and elsewhere—we do not end up with these good men whom you have been awaiting. No, we end up with men who are much worse. The world is not a grand struggle between good and evil. The world is a grand struggle for power, a struggle between order and chaos. And you, my American friends, are, as far as we can tell, in the chaos business.

We should be clear that we are not endorsing the Russian position on these complex matters. But it is worthwhile to make sense of their approach, because the Russian government genuinely has its own theory of the way forward in Syria, the Near East, and indeed, in the reshaping of the world order.

Power Politics

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By shoring up the Assad regime, the Russian government has tried to demonstrate elsewhere in the Near East that it is a reliable ally that will not—unlike others—abandon its commitments after elections. As the United States has become less assertive abroad, Russia has moved to fill the gap. The lack of American ambassadors in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia does not help refute the Russian claim. In the words of Russian analyst Dmitry Trenin, “in 2015 and 2016 the Russians still entertained the thought of jointly developing and implementing a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict with the Americans. But today, thanks to waning interest in and a lack of engagement in Washington, Moscow has teamed up with the Turks and Iranians instead.”2

Russia has also used Syria to prove that its own overdue military reforms have borne fruit and it can offer impressive hardware to international buyers. Russia has been courting Egypt since 2013 and in a snub to the US last year, Egypt agreed to allow Russian military jets to use its airspace and bases.3 Russia agreed to sell two billion dollars’ worth of advanced missiles to Turkey, a NATO member, and three billion dollars in missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Just last month, it deployed its new Sukhoi SU-57 stealth fighter jet to Syria to test it in combat-like conditions.

Finally, Syria is home to one of Russia’s only two military bases outside of the former Soviet Union, and its only access to the Mediterranean. In January 2017, the Russian and Syrian governments signed a new agreement to give Russia another forty-nine years of access—and sovereignty—over the naval base at Tartus. The Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, built in 2015, has also become an important military outpost for Russia in the Near East. Syria will thus serve as base for any military and naval operations by Russia in the Near East and the Mediterranean.

The Television vs. the Refrigerator 

The handful of decisions by the Putin regime that have most alarmed the West have been among the most popular within Russia. The annexation of Crimea gave Putin’s domestic popularity an impressive boost. Earlier, the Georgian war, and earlier still, the arrest and imprisonment of Russia’s richest man and oil magnate, Mikhail Khodorkhovskii, on fraud and embezzlement charges, had been taken domestically as signals that Putin intended to tame unruly neighbors and politically influential oligarchs. 

The Russian intervention in Syria was meant to serve as a powerful opening chapter in the new book of retribution and self-righteousness: Russian greatness has been restored, and Russia is now a bulwark to the misguided adventurism of the West. That Russian strategic objectives in Syria have largely been achieved only helps to convey this message to the Russian people. 

The narrative of grandeur on the world stage has, however, been undermined by a weak domestic economy with no realistic prospects of meaningful improvement. A clever metaphor that has made its way into the Russian vernacular is that the television is at war with the refrigerator. The television—the source of imagery for the narrative of grandeur—is at odds with the refrigerator—increasingly bare because of declining living standards. It remains to be seen whether Russians will be swayed by their televisions or their refrigerators.

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Meanwhile, as inconvenient casualties have mounted and the Syrian conflict has gone from being a civil war to an international conflict, the centrality of Syria to the narrative of restoration has become a challenge to maintain. The Russian Orthodox Church has been actively deployed to buttress the argument, with Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS) explaining that “today the IOPS, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Russian Orthodox Church, together with the Syrian brothers, are doing all they can to save not only Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria, but the civilization as well.”4 

With the original goal of bolstering of the Assad regime largely accomplished, the way forward for Russia is increasingly unclear and contested within the Russian political and military establishments. As tempting as it might be simply for the Russian government to declare victory and withdraw, the situation on the ground in Syria now requires leadership in the negotiations among other players as well: Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Russia, the United States, the Assad regime, and its opponents. In the words of Pavel Baev, a Russian analyst, “the space for maneuvering between regional adversaries is narrowing, and Moscow can neither take sides nor secure its own ground.”5

Concluding Reflections

The involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict is a result of many overlapping causes. Every conceivable domestic and international political logic pointed the Russian government in the same direction. The key feature of the story is that it is part of a larger post-Cold-War Russian narrative about the nation’s place in the world. A decade of decline, humiliation, and the accumulation of grievances against the West was followed by an era of resurgence, national pride, dignity, and reassertions of Russia’s proper place among the world’s other great powers. The Russian government’s disdain for, and frank alarm at, the American appetite for regime change is central to its grand strategy of favoring even deeply problematic stability over the uncertain disorder of rapid change. Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime is neither new nor surprising, particularly given the longstanding importance of Syria for Russia’s access to the Mediterranean. The final remaining question for Russia is whether it will be possible to disengage from the Syrian conflict while sustaining its justification for the intervention among the audience that matters most to the regime: the Russian people.

—Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Rawi Abdelal, also the director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is the Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Management, Business, Government, and the International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School.

Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is a lecturer on government at Harvard University.

Also in the “Insight on Syria” series:


1. Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, reviews troops alongside Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, left, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, during a visit to Khmeimim Air Base December 11, 2017 in Latakia, Syria. Putin announced the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria following the war against the Islamic State. Credit: Kremlin Pool / Alamy Stock Photo

2. 'Wars not diminishing': Putin's iconic 2007 Munich speech (FULL VIDEO). On February 10, 2007, Vladimir Putin delivered his keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference, challenging the post-Cold War establishment. RT looks back a decade to see how accurate his ideas were. Credit: Russia Today

3. Map of countries of the color revolutions and Arab Spring. Source: Wikipedia. Credit: Kristin Caulfield

4. Porcelain plates bearing portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L) are displayed at a handicrafts shop in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on February 4, 2016. Syrian government troops moved closer to encircling rebels in the country's second city Aleppo, threatening a total siege after cutting their main supply line. Credit: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

5. A picture taken on January 29, 2018 shows destruction around the Udai hospital following airstrikes by government forces on the town of Saraqeb in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib. Syrian troops had been advancing on Idlib as part of a fierce offensive launched in late December with Russian backing. Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images


1. “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: NATO ‘doomed to failure,” Washington Examiner, last modified July 1, 2017, accessed April 3, 2018.

2. “Putin’s Plan for Syria,” Foreign Affairs, last modified December 13, 2017, accessed April 3, 2018.

3. “In Snub to U.S., Russia and Egypt Move Toward Deal on Air Bases,” The New York Times, last modified November 30, 2017, accessed April 3, 2018.

4. “Mr. Stepashin, 'The Russian Orthodox Church Together with the Syrian Brothers are Doing Their Best to Save Christians in the Middle East',”, last modified March 5, 2018, accessed April 3, 2018.

5. “Russia Stumbles in the Fog of Syrian War,” Brookings, last modifiedFebruary 21, 2018, accessed April 3, 2018.