RD Interview: Stephen Holmes from New York University discusses the challenges and results of the Kremlin’s foreign policy in 2016.

Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, second from right, talks with Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, second from left, after a Security Council meeting at UN headquarters, Dec. 19, 2016. Photo: AP

Looking back at the past 12 months, it’s clear that the Syrian crisis was the defining moment in Russian foreign policy. With that in mind, Russia Direct recently sat down with NYU professor Stephen Holmes to discuss the broad ramifications of Russia’s Syria policy. In addition, Holmes discusses whether or not there might be opportunities for closer coordination between Russia and the U.S. in the year ahead under a Trump administration.

Russia Direct: What was the key event in Russia’s foreign policy in 2016?

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Stephen Holmes: In 2016, Russia’s ongoing intervention in Syria was obviously the most significant event. For Russia, going to Syria to compete with the United States proved useless because, in reality, the United States under President Obama completely gave up its attempts to replace [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, and completely gave up serious support for the opposition, because it is too fragmented to govern. Instead, the U.S. is supporting the same Kurdish groups as the Russians.

If the purpose of going to Syria was not only to sell arms by showing how magnificently Russia has modernized its weapons production, but also to stick a finger in the eye of the United States — well, that was pointless and based on a mistaken reading of U.S. policy.

America policy in Syria is effectively passive and in no way contravenes Russian actions to prop up Assad.  In my understanding, Moscow’s escalation there was meant to show that Russia has an ability to stand up to the West. But the West to which it is standing up does not exist, is an fiction. But Russia has unleashed hell from the air in Syria. It has been destroying hospitals, killing many civilians as well as “terrorists” in Aleppo.  The humanitarian tragedy was not necessary if the point was to disprove Obama’s casual and unserious remark long ago that “Assad must go.”  He didn’t mean it, and never acted on it.

RD: Some pundits see this policy of the Kremlin as a case of pure double standards, with Russia pointing fingers at the West and accusing it of killing civilians and causing the refugee crisis in general.

S.H.: What is missed in such accusations is the fact that Russia has, for all practical purposes, allied itself with Tehran against Riyadh. And I can’t believe that this side-taking in the Tehran-Riyadh conflict is in the long-term interests of Russia.  On this matter, Russia and the United States have a shared interest in de-escalating the Tehran-Riyadh conflict, which is threatening to burn down the Middle East. This should be the number on shared Middle Eastern policy goal of both Moscow and Washington.

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The United States and Russia should jointly seek to mediate and de-escalate this aspect of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Yet, Russia has been taking sides in order to poke a finger in America’s eye to stand up to the U.S. And this is a very misguided and dangerous policy for the Kremlin’s long-term interests and, particularly, for the world, because if we had cooperated with the Russians and de-escalated the Tehran-Riyadh conflict, we’d now be in a much better place. Fueling this conflict by taking Iran’s side, as Russia has done, is very unwise.   

RD: What are the odds of Russia and Syria being able to cooperate in Syria to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) under Trump, given his promises to involve as many stakeholders as possible coping with terrorism?

S.H.: They are going to cooperate; yet I don’t think that the ad hoc cooperation will amount to much.  The ISIS problem will continue to evolve and torment the world.  More important than joint bombing missions to smash ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria would be a joint mission to organize the autonomous governance of Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria that will never submit to being ruled by Tehran.  If our joint focus on fighting ISIS means taking sides in the Tehran-Riyadh war, we are just adding fuel to the flames.

Stephen Holmes. Photo: NYU School of Law

After all, in this war you can eliminate ISIS, but Tehran-Riyadh tension will remain. Iran cannot govern Sunni areas. Some kind of condominium has to be created, in which Sunnis govern themselves. The unified state of Syria no longer exists. It cannot be recreated. Some sort of decentralization has to be established to put an end to the bloodshed. But neither Assad nor Iran seems interested in such a compromise.  Moscow may or may not feel unconformable with their bloodthirsty approach.  But Moscow has little leverage and will in any case do nothing to prevent a continuation of the butchery.

RD: What about the ongoing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine?

S.H.: The question is what Russia wants to achieve in this conflict.  Are they trying to bring disorder to the country in order to show how the West is not reliable, how the West could not deliver on its promises, how the West doesn’t really care, how Europe doesn’t care and the U.S. is not interested? if so, then the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine was demonstrative adventurism.

Now, under Obama then U.S. has been pulling back, disengaging from the world. For Russia, here again, standing up to the U.S. seems redundant and out of date. So, what are they [Russians] doing in Eastern Ukraine? What are they trying to accomplish? Trying to make Ukraine ungovernable is redundant. Trying to prevent Kiev from joining the EU or NATO is redundant. So, what are they trying to accomplish? It seems to be a policy without an objective.

RD: What are other challenges for Russia’s foreign policy for 2017?

S.H.: Probably the greatest danger ahead is a collapse of internal legitimacy, a system failure due to economic stress. A serious crisis of political legitimacy would make it attractive for the Kremlin to try something adventurous abroad somewhere, to make some “heroic” moves. These actions, while applauded at home, might provoke a terrible reaction from the West. And any accident involving, let’s say Americans and Russians [in the Middle East or Baltics], could produce a very violent patriotic reaction in the U.S. And this should be avoided.

Another point. The most important thing that Russian officials have got to stop doing is casually threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons. If Russia talks this way now, and a serious crisis comes along, those Americans who are in charge of crisis management will be uncertain what the Russians are going to do. So, casual talk of using nuclear weapons is very, very dangerous psychologically, because it will create an additional uncertainty in moments of crisis when decision makers have only a few minutes to decide what to do. Casual talk of using nukes is a very bad input into the calculus machine at a time of crisis.