Since the 2008 invasion of Georgia Vladimir Putin has led Russia through a series of aggressive military actions. These interventions include both the Invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the war in the Donbas, and the current campaign in Syria. To an outside observer it appears as if Putin is may be attempted to rebuild the Soviet empire, or at least reassert Russian power on the world stage. In truth, Putin is doing something much less glorious.Putin is trying to put the brakes on a Russia’s ever decreasing global power and disintegrating position as a great power.
The last 30 years have been a death spiral for Russian military, political and diplomatic power. Communism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. Countries like Ukraine; which had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries became independent nations. NATO expanded to the Russian border. Even the Baltic States, which had been part of the Soviet Union, joined the Alliance.
Russia was left with only a meager collection of small and weak former Soviet states to form its power bloc. Tajikistan, for example did not have an air force until 2006 and relies on Russia to provide much of its air defense. Even Kazakhstan, the second most powerful member of the CTSO has less than 50,000 soldiers under arms.Soft power is lacking as well. None of Russia’s allies are particularly wealthy or influential.
In the Middle East the story is much the same. Many of Russia’s Cold War era allies have been either swayed westward, or have been destroyed in western interventions. Egypt shifted away following the signing of a peace treaty with Israel and a massive influx of American military aid. Baathist Iraq was destroyed in 2003 and Libya in 2011.
Today only Iran and the Assad regime remain as allies of Russia in a region dominated by American influence. With Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, and Iraq all either hosting American bases or actively supporting American military and diplomatic efforts.
With the Civil War in Syria Russia is now facing another step down from its throne as a superpower. It has already lost Europe. NATO has expanded to the edge of Russia’s border and officially neutral powers like Finland and Sweden are getting closer to the alliance every day. With the defection of Ukraine, it came dangerously close to losing its only warm-water port.
Russia’s toe hold in the Middle East is now under threat. In Syria it is now in danger of losing another ally to an uprising backed by the West and the gulf states. Assad has been pushed to the brink of defeat. Tartus, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is less than 80 Kilometers from the rebel front line at Homs, with the M1 highway offering a direct path from Homs to the base.
Losing Tartus would endanger Russia’s ability to operate in the Mediterranean and make it difficult to project power in a region which only a few decades ago was a battleground between Soviet and American Influence. It would force Russia to pass through the Bosporus Straits every time it wished to conduct naval exercises and make NATO the gatekeeper that could lock the Russian navy into the Black Sea.
For Russia, military invention is the only option it has available. It cannot match American military aid in either dollars or quality of goods. Besides its opposition to the west, it no longer has an ideology to spread. When a government it supports falls it has little leverage to bring it back into the fold other than the threat of force. The spark that set off the Ukrainian revolution for example, was the dearth of benefits an alliance with Russia brings.
Far from helping the situation regarding Russia’s lack of soft power, Putin has exacerbated it. Russia’s economy is in trouble. The dual impact of western sanctions and low oil prices have had a crushing effect, with capital hemorrhaging from the country. Russia is also reliant on western technology to produce oil. If the sanctions are not lifted it will see a drop in production in the mid-term. If this should occur the Russian economy (heavily dependent on oil) could collapse.
Russia also has major problems in the naval sector. Not only is it fighting wars to retain ports but the ships that use those ports are also under threat. Russian shipbuilding is not currently at a level where it can fulfill the needs of the Russian military. Important Soviet shipbuilding facilities are now outside the borders of present day Russia. (in Ukraine Ironically). Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has to be shadowed by tug boats because the Russians are not capable of replacing or repairing its boilers with their current facilities and expertise. Russia did have a chance to acquire carrier technology to rebuild it’s fleet, but that deal was scrapped when Russia invaded Ukraine.
In short, Russia is in trouble and Putin is only making the situation worse. In a desperate, tactically minded attempt to retain Russian power Putin is putting Russia in a untenable position strategically. His military adventures are not evidence of a Russia that is resurgent, but one that is slowly losing it’s grip on it’s own sphere of influence.