By Paul Goble
Faced with ever greater economic problems at home and isolation abroad, Vladimir Putin needs to freeze the conflict in the Donbas in such a way that Russians won’t begin asking questions about why he went there in the first place, Aleksandr Rabinovich says. And consequently, he is turning up the heat in Syria.
Many commentators have speculated about the links between Ukraine and Syria with most suggesting that the Kremlin leader, convinced he can act with impunity, is simply exploiting another possibility to project Russian power and further divide the West in the process.
But Rabinovich suggests that the relationship between Syria and Ukraine may be both closer and more complicated and that Putin has an obvious incentive to intensify the Syrian crisis further in order to keep his declared support among Russians at its current stratospheric levels (apostrophe.com.ua/article/world/ex-ussr/2015-09-19/voynyi-putina-i-dengi-yanukovicha/2288).
According to the financial analyst, “the Russian economy cannot withstand Crimea, the Donbas or Syria, but that is a matter of indifference to Putin. He is not engaged with the economy. He is occupied with the intoxication of the [Russian] population in order to preserve his power.”
And because he has to “freeze the conflict in the Donbas” in order to end or at least reduce sanctions, the Kremlin leader had to come up with a way that would “not reduce the level of intoxication of the population.” The answer was his decision to expand Russian support for Syria’s Asad and set Russia on a new collision course with the West.
In the short term, Putin’s strategy will work: “the people will sober up” only in 12 to 18 months, Rabinovich suggests. But he has this working for him. “The Russian economy is very primitive and therefore it can hold out somewhat longer than some whose brains are not so primitive think.”
Obviously, Putin is acting in Syria for other reasons as well, including backing a fellow dictator, sparking the flood of refugees into Europe, potentially disrupting oil supplies and driving the price back up, and setting the stage for a “grand bargain” in which the West might accept Putin’s claims on Ukraine in return for Putin’s “assistance” in the Middle East.
But to the extent that the factor Rabinovich points to plays a role, that suggests Putin may engage in ever more threatening behavior precisely because he has an eye on his domestic situation – something that will likely make him even more dangerous in the coming days — precisely because such considerations highlight his vulnerability.