The notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has outsmarted a series of American presidents and dramatically strengthened Russia’s position globally has become the conventional wisdom in recent years.
Many Western analysts and policy makers believe that Putin has played a weak hand skillfully, evolved from a tactician into a first-rate strategist, and won a series of major victories for Russian diplomacy -- from seizing Crimea and eastern Ukraine to strengthening the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
This attitude is deeply held inside Russia as well, where recent polling shows that nearly 90 percent of the public has confidence in Putin’s handling of world affairs.
But is this interpretation accurate? In my opinion, it pays too little attention to the long-term costs of Putin’s foreign engagements -- three in particular that will carry a heavy price tag.
First, it's true that Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 helped to stabilize the tottering Assad regime, prevented a looming assault on key government-held territory in western Syria, and ensured a sustained Russian military presence there. It also guaranteed that Russia would be an important player in future negotiations about Syria’s fate.
However, while Assad currently enjoys the upper hand on the battlefield, there are still tens of thousands of embittered and heavily armed opposition fighters who will never accept his leadership. There are also thousands of Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated extremists who, despite battlefield setbacks, are likely to continue operating in Syria, meaning that Russian forces will have to remain engaged in combat there for the foreseeable future -- at considerable cost and with more casualties.
At the same time, Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign last year around Aleppo has undoubtedly raised Russia’s profile within the extremist community, ensuring that it will remain high on the terrorist target list. In addition, based on my participation in National Security Council meetings at the time, the civilian toll of Russian military actions was a critical roadblock to any potential counterterrorism cooperation between the Russian and U.S. militaries in Syria. (I left that job for a government funded fellowship earlier this year, and these views are solely mine and not reflective of the U.S. government.)
Moreover, as long as Assad remains in power, the international community is unlikely to provide significant reconstruction assistance to Syria, guaranteeing that Russia will be forced to foot at least part of the reconstruction cost, which is key to ensuring Assad’s -- or any hand-picked successor’s -- political viability.
And finally, Russia’s cooperation with Iran in Syria has alarmed Sunni states in the region and strained Israel-Russia ties. Israel’s recent military operations in Syria reflect its deep fear over Iran’s presence on its borders, and there is a growing risk of a clash between Israeli and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. This would put Russian forces in a particularly precarious positon given their proximity to Iranian proxies on the battlefield. One final point: Given Iran’s considerable influence on the ground, it’s quite plausible that Russia’s military intervention has actually ensured that Tehran, not the Kremlin, will play the largest role in shaping Syria’s future.
In Crimea and Ukraine, meanwhile, Putin acted quickly in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych to annex Crimea and prevent Ukraine from pursuing closer integration with the West. Through the use of asymmetric warfare and the provision of military hardware to Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Putin secured Russia’s influence over the Donbas region (long considered Ukraine’s industrial heartland).
But again, at what cost? Putin has turned a generation of Ukrainians against Russia -- recent polling shows that while nearly 95 percent of Ukrainians viewed Russia positively as recently as 2010, that number now hovers in the low 40s, and is undoubtedly much lower than that in western Ukraine. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine also triggered a series of punishing economic sanctions from the U.S. and Europe, which, when coupled with the sharp decline in global oil process, has devastated Russia’s economic growth, undermined the ruble’s value, and eroded real wages. Russia is poised to resume moderate growth this year (around 1.5 percent) but that level of growth cannot compensate for Russia’s economic contraction of recent years.
Putin’s military operations in Ukraine have also renewed concerns in the U.S. and NATO about Russia’s intentions in Europe, spurring stepped-up defense spending within the alliance, the redeployment of a U.S armored brigade to Europe, and the deployment of British, Canadian and German battalions closer to Russia’s borders in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In many ways then, Putin’s military operations in Ukraine are helping to create the NATO he always feared.
Similarly, Putin’s well-documented efforts to influence public opinion and elections in the U.S. and Europe have succeeded in sowing disarray, but also have caused Russia to become so distrusted that it’s now virtually impossible to cooperate with Moscow, even in areas of mutual interest such as the global counter-Islamic State campaign.
In Germany, concerns about Russian meddling in advance of September’s election were so high that the head of the country’s domestic intelligence service publicly accused Russia of trying to influence the outcome and destabilize Germany through cyber operations. It and countries throughout Europe have embarked on programs to strengthen their cyber defenses, protect critical infrastructure, and ensure their ability to respond in kind if attacked -- and it’s quite clear that the new initiatives and capabilities are aimed squarely at Russia.
Meanwhile, the strong performance of centrist parties in recent elections in the Netherlands and France despite Russia’s influence campaigns, coupled with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election and the sharp setback for Germany’s Russia-friendly Social Democrats, does not portend warming relations between Europe and Russia nor sanctions relief for Moscow anytime soon.
So, what to think of Putin’s foreign policy accomplishments?
In Syria and Ukraine, Putin has held serve and maintained a degree of Russian influence in both countries. He also cleverly used Russia’s leverage in Syria to cultivate a new relationship with Turkey, particularly through cooperation along Turkey’s border and the potential sale of sophisticated Russian air defense systems to Ankara. If Putin is eventually able to drive a wedge between Turkey and NATO, that would represent a strategic win for Moscow.
Putin’s election meddling has also helped fuel doubts in the West about the fairness and credibility of democratic processes -- a key foreign policy objective.
However, Putin’s actions have implicated Russia in a series of conflicts with no resolution in sight; re-awakened fears of Russia in the West; precluded trade, investment and scientific cooperation with the U.S. and its allies (critical to Russia’s long-term economic growth); and sparked an escalating series of security responses from the U.S. and NATO.
So, while many of Putin’s gains have already been realized, the bill for his foreign adventures has not yet been paid in full, and the final cost is likely to leave the Russian public with a major case of buyer’s remorse.