In an interview with Russia Direct, Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Freedman discusses the implications of Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet as well as the Kremlin’s recent moves in Syria.


People put flowers to photos of Oleg Peshkov, a pilot of Russian Su-24, left, and sailor Alexander Pozynich, who were killed in Syria as a result of Turkey's downing of the Russina jet. Photo: AP 

Turkey’s downing of the Russian warplane grabbed the attention of global media last week and revealed all the difficulties and controversies of Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict.

At the same time, it put into question the possibility of Russia-West cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). It also revealed the extent of the Kremlin’s foreign policy problems in the Middle East.

As some pundits argue, Syria for Turkey is like Ukraine for Russia. So, involvement in the direct campaign in Syria is like the West’s attempt to increase its influence in Russia’s Near Abroad, the policy that the Kremlin has been lambasting since the NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe and the instability in Ukraine. Turkey’s ambitions to restore the Ottoman Empire’s influence make it similar to Moscow’s, with its aspirations to restore Russia’s global influence and its idea of the Russian world (Pax Russica).  

To understand the implications of Russian-Turkish tensions for the situation in the Middle East, Russia Direct sat down with Robert Freedman, visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science.

Russia Direct: What lessons should the Kremlin learn from Turkey's downing of the Russian jet, in your view?

Robert Freedman: First, it [Moscow’s Syrian campaign] is not a cost-free operation for Russia. While Russian President Vladimir Putin may have hoped he could use the situation in Syria to support Syrian President Bashar Assad and demonstrate Russian influence in the Middle East, so far the Russian operation in Syria has cost Russia a passenger plane with 224 lives, a fighter-bomber, and a helicopter, with more losses likely to come.

Related: "Is an Assad victory in Syria the lesser of two evils?"

So long as Russia concentrates its attacks on non-ISIS and non-Al-Nusra opponents of Assad — some of whom have been armed with TOW missiles — such losses at the hands of ISIS and non-Islamist rebels are likely to rise, as will friction with the United States and its allies.

Second, I would say that it is ironic that Russia, which has complained so loudly about EU and U.S. sanctions because of its seizure of Crimea and its activities in Eastern Ukraine, now has put a number of economic sanctions on Turkey. In both cases, neither the EU/ U.S. nor Russia was willing to go to war, so economic sanctions were the next best option.

Third, neither Turkey nor Russia has many friends in the world. Turkey has succeeded in alienating Egypt, Israel, the Kurds and Syria, and its relations with the U.S. are problematic at best, given Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian Islamist policies, and the two countries’ differences over the Kurdish party PYD.

For its part, Russia’s only friends are right-wing European politicians like Marine Le Pen (who gets subsidies from Russia), and to a lesser extent China, to which Russia is increasingly a junior partner.

The bottom line is that Turkey and Russia need each other, and I would not be surprised if reconciliation is achieved in the not too distant future. Turkey needs Russian natural gas (its dependency is currently 55 percent), and, as Europeans shift their purchases of Russian natural gas elsewhere, Moscow needs Turkey as a customer.


Robert Freedman, visiting professor at John Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science. Photo: Russia Direct

RD: Let’s talk about the common threat for Russia and the West. Can Moscow and Washington find common ground in Syria and team up against ISIS after the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris and the Russian aircraft crash in Egypt?

R.F.: In theory, yes, but in reality no, until Russia is willing to get rid of [Syrian President Bahsar] Assad and his immediate entourage. The reason is that a lot of the attraction for ISIS comes from the actions of the Assad regime using barrel bombs, poison gas, starvation and other weapons against his opponents. This attracts volunteers to ISIS. And, again, unless and until Russia is willing to get rid of Assad, I don’t think there will be any serious cooperation.

RD: How do you assess Russia’s campaign in Syria so far?

R.F.: I am mixed. In other words, there have been some military successes helping the [Assad] regime, for example, to regain control over an airport in the North. But there have been losses in the South despite Russia’s bombing. I think Putin clearly made the decision to help Assad, but he doesn’t necessarily want a long-term occupation, except for the base near Latakia. So, Putin will be trying to cut a deal, in which he hopes to preserve Assad for at least 18 or more months, but that’s the sticking point.

RD: In this regard, how should the West regard Russia in Syria – as a troublemaker or problem-solver?

R.F.: Again, it won’t be a problem-solver until it gets rid of Assad. That’s the bottom line. And as I mentioned in my lecture, this is the demonstration by Russia to show it is back as a major power in the world. In fact, it didn’t need to fire cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, but it did it to demonstrate Russıa’s strategic power.

So, it is the demonstration effect that Russia is back as a player in the world. The question is if it is going to be constructive player or destructive player. The longer Assad is in power, the more it is a destructive, not constructive power.

RD: From your point of view, how strong is ISIS and is its threat to Russia really so great?

R.F.: There are, reportedly, according to Russia’s figures, about 4,000 Russians, including 400 Chechens, who are fighting on behalf of ISIS. There is also a problem when the United States begins a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan: Then there will be a penetration of ISIS into Central Asia, which is the soft underbelly of Russia. So, it is a problem.

I think that Mr. Putin, until the blowing up of the Russian aircraft [in Egypt], downplayed that problem: He used ISIS as an excuse to shore up the Assad regime, because bombings done by Russian aircrafts were aimed primarily – 90-95 percent – against the non-ISIS enemies of Assad.     

RD: Some experts say that ISIS is forever. So, can ISIS be destroyed at all?

R.F.: Yes, it can. I am one of those who believe that if you put boots on the ground, you can destroy Raqqa which is the center [of ISIS]. The question is if you destroy Raqqa, who is going to occupy it? And you don’t want  American or European forces occupying it for the long term. You want to have Syrian, Sunni forces occupying it. But they are not going to be willing to fight ISIS unless they think they are going to get Assad out as a trade-off.

Who joins ISIS? I think it is pretty clear now. If you are a second class Muslim in Europe without a future and you have the ideal of a restored Caliphate, where you can be an important figure, you are attracted to it. Then you have the former members of the Baath regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who provide some military support [to ISIS]. Why did people join the Nazis after all? They thought the Nazis were winning. [It is also the case with ISIS]. So, if you destroy Raqqa which is a very important symbol, that shows that the caliphate is not winning. That’s why I think Raqqa has to be destroyed.

RD: The Slavic convention ASEEES brought together a lot of experts who were mulling over Russia’s foreign policy in 2015. In your view, what are the major failures and achievements of the Kremlin’s foreign policy this year?

R.F.: Ok, we’ll start with the failures. I think that heavy-handed actions that Mr. Putin has used has driven Finland and Sweden into seriously considering for the first time joining NATO. That’s a huge mistake on his part. He was projecting Russian power, but it proved to be counter-effective. This is number one.

Number two is that the Russian strength in the Middle East comes primarily from American failures: in Egypt, Russia had a big success, due to the Obama administration’s confusion as to how to relate to the Sisi government. That was the case until the airliner was shot down, and now Russian-Egyptian relations are more problematic.

However, unlike the United States, which was wavering on supporting the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi government, Russia came immediately to support the Sisi government. And for this reason, I expect a quick reconciliation betwen Russia and Egypt.

Read Russia Direct's report: "Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East"

Also the Kremlin made use of the mistakes of the United States in getting too close to Iran, which alienated the Saudis. Consequently, the Saudis began seriously negotiating — without a lot of success so far with Russia. So there are two big successes.

RD: What are the major drivers of Russia’s foreign policy in 2015 and what factors will shape it in 2016?

R.F.: There is one straight line: What Russia wants to do is what Putin wants to do. Putin wants Russia restored as a great power and Russia wants to have a multipolar world, in which Russia is a major pole, and not the American unipolar world. I think he is going to continue to try to do that.

RD: What are the missed opportunities for U.S.-Russia cooperation in 2015?

R.F.: It is very hard to talk about missed opportunities when the Russians, first of all, invaded and annexed Crimea and aided actively separatists in Ukraine and then lied about the shooting plane [MH17 Malaysian Boeing over Eastern Ukraine] and lied about who used the poison gas in Syria, this does not make for close collaboration.

RD: So, you don’t see any chances for cooperation in future?

R.F.: I don’t see any unless Russia’s policy changes. 

RD: Ok, if you think that there won’t be any improvement, what does the Kremlin get wrong about the U.S.?

R.F.: It gets it mostly right about the United States: Putin realizes that U.S. President Barack Obama is a weak president, who is not interested in conflict. So, he is willing to take advantage, which he has done.

RD: Well, what about Obama? What does he get wrong about Russia?

R.F.: Obama thinks he operates within the 21 century, Putin thinks he operates within the 19th century. And where the world is now is more the 19th century than the 21st century.