Published by the Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 23:  Number 2  


                                                                              Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

Russia’s military intervention in Syria that began on September 30, 2015, is its first major intrusion into the Levant since June 1772 when “Russian forces bombarded, stormed, and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria.”1 Then as now, the Russians backed a ruthless local client; then as now, they found themselves in “a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.” But why?

Russia has been largely landlocked for most of its history, and Moscow has always valued the Crimean peninsula for its coastline (see above). Catherine the Great took the Crimea, founding the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and established a commercial port in Odessa. But, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in an independent Ukraine, and Moscow lost not only the port of Odessa but its prized naval port of Sevastopol. 

the Ottomans, the Turkish Straits remained beyond Russia's Grasp  Britain—and to a lesser extent France and the  Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy)—repeatedly came to Turkey's rescue. This culminated in the 1853-56 Crimean war and the attendant Treaty of Paris that kept Russia caged in the Black Sea. It is hardly to be surprised that Putin, an avid  student of history, repeatedly invokes Russia's "strategic interests" in the Crimea.

Today, Russia is not as militarily dependent on the Turkish Straits as in the past. But throughout the twentieth  century to the present day, and despite the technological revolution and Moscow's formidable air forces, the Turkish Straits have remained a factor for the Russian navy.

The Fall of the USSR

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was an even larger setback than the Crimean war. Analysts have long focused  on the loss to the empire of vast pieces of real estate with the newly-won freedom of the non-Russian republics in the  Baltics and the Caucasus as well as the second largest republic, Ukraine. Yet they have not given due consideration  to what else Russia lost: waterways, coastlines, and ports, in short—the power of the Russian navy.

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:                           Putin and Trump’s ‘great game’ in Ukraine and Syria

                                                                       By Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta.

                                                                  Published Jan. 23  by the Kyiv Post, Ukraine


Children gather outside their makeshift shelters following torrential rain that affected a camp for displaced people near the town of Atme close to the Turkish border in Syria's mostly rebel-held northern Idlib province on January 10, 2019. - More than a week of heavy rains flooded flimsy plastic tents and turned nearby fields into pools of mud in the area. (Photo by Aaref WATAD / AFP)
Photo by AFP

Why Azov and Mariupol seas, and why at this time?

he West has a short memory. The present conflict in the direction of Mariupol actually began in 2014. Then, it re-emerged throughout 2018. But only when it erupted violently on Nov. 25 of the same year did it become of serious concern to the forgetful West. Then the Russian navy and Special Forces attacked three Ukrainian military vessels heading for the port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, and wounded three sailors. Maintaining that the Ukrainian ships had infringed on Russian waters, the Russian navy captured and imprisoned a number of Ukrainian sailors and a few intelligence officers. Most of them are still in jail at this time.

After the March 2014 popular revolution in Kyiv overthrew Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded with his bloodless invasion of the Crimea. Then he followed with interventions in three regions of eastern Ukraine by proxies, Chechen fighters and “volunteers” — Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol on the Azov Sea. With the bloody conflict also around Mariopul and its brief occupation by Russian proxies, western intelligence anticipated that Putin would conquer the city in 2015. That did not happen. Why?

A character out of Dostoevsky

Studying what we call Putin’s great game with America, the rather poor responses to Putin’s moves in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, have been caused by wrong assessments of the Russian leader’s motivations. The most fitting view of him is Henry Kissinger’s — “a character out of Dostoevsky.” Putin does not share Andrei Sakharov’s democratic vision of Russia, but rather the nationalistic, Great Russian, authoritarian vision of his favorite writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Like the Russian Czars, he imprisons dissidents, liquidates writers critical of his wars, or kills the secret agents who betray the Russian state abroad.

But also a Count Stolypin-like modernizer and reformer, his strategic vision encompasses nationalistic and Orthodox beliefs shared by most Russians. His aim is the protection of Russians and Russian speakers in former, non-Soviet republics, Orthodox co-believers, and Arab Christian protectors.

His strategic objective is not to recover the whole Soviet or Czarist empire, nor to undertake Nikita Khrushchev’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s costly, whole occupations of neighboring countries. Rather it is to concentrate on strategically important slices of countries that were part of the former empire, primarily those with sizable populations of Russian speakers, and Orthodox believers. Also misunderstood by the West, have also been low-cost interventions to acquire ports, coastlines, waterways, and littoral lands lost to Russia during the 1991 USSR collapse.

Unlike Donetsk and Lugansk, separatist cities in eastern Ukraine, Mariupo, with a sizable Russian population, is also a commercial port, transporting regional steel and agricultural products through the Azov tributary to other Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea and then, through the Turkish Straits to the eastern Mediterranean — Tartus in Syria.

It’s the Black Sea and Azov, not the Baltics!

While out of Dostoevsky, however, Putin is not crazy. He will not intervene in the Baltic states and Poland — NATO members. Thus, the building of a large, expensive military base in Poland, a Warsaw and Pentagon pet project, is a waste of money and resources, the non-NATO nations of Georgia, Ukraine and Syria , with its eastern coast now protected by Russia. There the Shiite Assad’s elite is again in charge.

Syria and Ukraine. Syria and Ukraine are in fact linked. New diplomatic initiatives and attempts at a limited partnership with the United States in Syria have been accompanied by freezing the conflict in Ukraine, yet determined to return to it and defrost it at a different time. It is happening now. Thus, Russia’s western partners in Minsk I and Minsk II agreements over Ukraine, did not realize that the agreements could not work, since they did not address linkages to Syria.

To put it differently, in order to cage the Russian bear, Western national leaders must link their great games with Russia to various war theaters as the British did in the 19th century. Then, the war theaters were Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains, the Turkish straits, and in the Balkan region — all passages for Russia to the Middle East. Today the primary war theaters are non-NATO Georgia, Syria and Ukraine, countries Russia hopes to dominate.

Putin’s hard power key instruments. The acquisition of coastlines and waterways have gone hand in hand with the buildup of Putin’s Special Forces and a lean and modernized Russian navy. The latter is a comparatively low-cost instrument that allows Russia to compete in Syria and Ukraine with the much more technologically advanced, aircraft carrier- oriented yet enormously expensive U.S. navy.

As far as nuclear power is concerned, both great powers share the perception that in present conflicts, nuclear force will not be employed for achieving strategic objectives. Yet under President Barck Obama, the character out of Dostoevsky succeeded repeatedly in using Khrushchev-ion nuclear but also conventional blackmail to intimidate the weak U.S. president. Thus, with a gross domestic product close to small country Holland’s, and an oil and gas-driven economy unimpressive in technological growth, Putin was able to prevail for years in great power games.

A character out of reality TV

Real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump, unlike his great game partner, Putin, had only a minimal knowledge of history and geopolitics when he took office. The concepts of national interest, hard and soft power, and above all, the linkages between Ukraine and Syria, were completely new to him. Closer to his heart was unique Trump real estate, including, for a while, a Trump hotel in Moscow. Despite his past sexual proclivities and difficult personality, he is strong, patriotic, and at times quite intuitive. It has yet to be proven that he acted as Russia’s agent as the special counselor, Bob Mueller’s denial suggests. Undeniably, he has shown great strength when well advised, with regard to Afghanistan and above all, North Korea.

Deciphering Russo-gate. For a long time, however, Trump lacked an understanding of the strategic importance of Ukraine, a relatively large European country, a former nuclear power with an industrial base, and productive agriculture. To Putin, Ukraine is of vital, geopolitical significance. Thereafter, Trump much-decried admiration of Putin was based on Putin’s skill in achieving successful, limited, low-cost interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

Trump repeatedly contrasted it to George W, Bush’s Iraq quagmire and Obama and Hillary Clinton’s phony intervention in Libya and covert program for anti-Assad rebels in Syria. All of these countries became Islamist paradises, and the U.S. had to repeatedly intervene, The clumsy U.S. interventions were also contributing factor in the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Unsurprisingly, Putin displayed both open and covert support for Trump, a candidate who during the 2016 elections, neglected Ukraine and primarily advocated a limited, anti-terrorist partnership with the Kremlin in Syria. By contrast, during the campaign, Hillary s principal adviser, former CIA Director Mike Morell of Benghazi fame, advocated “killing Russians” in Syria.

Trump then almost lost the election by hiring and then firing Paul Manafort, to manage his campaign. The main lobbyist for corrupt, former pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Manafort allowed several Russian agents of influence to change the GOP platform to ensure no deliveries of defensive weapons to Kyiv.

Psychological effect of Javelin weaponry.

This, of course, was a key element of Putin’s strategy. For four years with both Obama and Trump, the Russian leader skillfully fielded all U.S. attempts to arm Ukraine with anti-tank, Javelin weapons, also convincing the inexperienced Trump that Ukraine was not important enough for America to engage in such deliveries.
However, Trump has always been interested in his own survival besides promoting America’s national interests. After negotiations with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko he reversed himself and approved the sale to Ukraine of 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers. And without even realizing it, he changed the great game in eastern Ukraine

Putin returns from Syria to Azov Sea

Use of the U.S. made weapons had a tremendous psychological impact on the Russian tank crews in Donetsk and Lugansk. As Poroshenko just revealed, “They refused to deploy and shell Ukrainian positions” as they had for years earlier. As we predicted already in 2014, these weapons made a huge difference.

Throughout 2018, and aided by Iran, Russia finally prevailed in preventing the fall of Assad’s Shiite regime to the rebels. Then, after Russia’s victory, he deployed some of his navies back to the Black Sea with a new mission — economic strangulation of Ukraine in the Azov Sea. While previous attacks in 2014-15 were land attacks on Mariupol, Putin’s new tactics utilized naval power on the Black and Azov Seas.

The new strategy became obvious as in 2018 the Kremlin finished building a bridge from Russia over the narrow Kerch Strait to the Crimea. The 18 km long bridge is so low that tall Ukrainian commercial ships cannot pass through the Kerch bottleneck, and being inspected by the Russian navy, only a limited number of then have been allowed to do so.

America must fully engage in the great game in Syria and Ukraine. With Putin returning to Azov in the direction of Mariupol, yet keeping his forces also engaged in supporting Assad’s regime, we must, as Great Britain did throughout the 19th century fully engage in our new great game. To avoid global war in the nuclear era and preserve a modicum of peace is sadly all that we can hope for.

However, new global war can originate elsewhere than expected, as happened in 1914. It did not come as expected it, between Russia and Great Britain over Afghanistan or the Turkish Straits, but over the terrorist act against Archduke Ferdinand in Bosnia Herzogovina. And Russia became a British and American ally in WWI before she became Bolshevik. Yet the 19th-century Great Game prevented major global war for many decades.

In our own era, nuclear weapon have had a stabilizing effect. But to preserve peace, we must engage in deterring rising ambitious powers like Russia and China. Thus, we are condemned to continue as ever great games with competing powers.

Our presence in Syria is indispensable!

Deterring Russia in the Crimea and Azov Sea is as well. Without our presence in Syria, Turkey will engage in destroying our Kurdish allies, and Iran, with Hezbollah and Hamas will continue attacking our partner, Israel, until Israel will use its air force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. the U.S. contingent presence in Syria is indispensable. Thus Trump must reverse himself on Syria and stand up to Putin in the Black and Azov Seas as he did in eastern Ukraine

Finally, we cannot disregard the new military linkages emerging between Russia and two failed regimes close to our shores; Venezuela and Nicaragua. Here, as George Kennan argued years ago in the case of Cuba, some reinstatement of Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean might be in order.

Finally, it behooves us that experienced analysts born during the last great war, and who have survived the Cold War-like these writers, help to educate national leaders and the American people about the need to pursue the great game with Russia while negotiating and waiting for Mr. Putin’s successor.

We thus hope to enlighten Trump and other national and western leaders who just woke up to the new danger in the ongoing great games. In the Black Sea, the U.S. and Great Britain are deploying some naval ships. Is that enough? We think not. While strictly following the international convention on the deployment of foreign ships through the Straits of Turkey in the Black Sea, nevertheless, we must bring more naval power into play. Above all, we must help to rebuild the minuscule Ukrainian navy to a much larger deterrent.

In 2009, our on-site research in Georgia as well as in the Crimea led us to believe that a Russian invasion of the Crimea might become inevitable. I said as much while lecturing to students at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. Students and faculty were unimpressed. So were our Western colleagues.

As in the past, only one thing will prevent the strangulation of Mariupol. As in the past, only a strong response by the democratic West will reduce the potential for an expanded conflict that could engulf neighboring countries and far more.

Jiri Valenta: Presently a non-resident, senior research associate at the BESA [Begin-Sadat] Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. A long-standing member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he has also served with two other leading think tanks in America; Brookings Institution and the Wilson Center for International Scholars. See photo and short biography here. Leni Friedman Valenta is Jiri’s wife, partner and long co-writer on Perspectives for BESA, The Middle East Quarterly, The National Interest, Aspen Review, Miami Herald, Kyiv Post, and Tbilisi Georgian Messenger. A graduate cum laude of Brandeis University, she holds an MFA in play-writingfrom the Yale School of Drama. Her historical works include The Fortress, a full-length play about Benedict Arnold and a biography of Clara Barton.