The cost of war for Russia
The way that Russia has hijacked Syrian policy, concomitant with its willingness to offer help to the Iraqis, has naturally made the Barack Obama administration uncomfortable. Schadenfreude-laced remarks from U.S. officials to “let Russia fall into the Syrian quagmire” effectively highlight Russia’s limited resources in dealing with the chaotic conditions on the war front, but between the lines, they are saying: “If we couldn’t do it, the Russians won’t be able to do it either.”
As a country which has been identified as “not free” according to the Freedom House Democracy Index and which ranks 152nd out of 180 countries when it comes to the freedom of press, Russia’s aspirations to world leadership are sending chills to those who favor liberal democracy. In stark contrast to the paralyzed and indecisive attitude of the West – particularly the U.S. – vis-à-vis the civilian atrocities in Syria, Russia’s resolve and willingness to engage in the fight has boosted its prestige among its allies and forced the partners of the coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to revise their strategies.
There has been a debate for quite some time that without credible forces on the ground, it is not possible to degrade ISIL solely by relying on air offensives. In fact, this strategy proved efficient when Syrian Kurdish forces under the direction of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) managed to take back Tal Abyad from ISIL with the support of U.S.-led air forces. As for Russia’s military operation plan, the Russian Air Force is to provide air cover while the Syrian army and Hezbollah, sent by Iran, constitute the core elements on the ground together with Russian “advisers.”
Following the Duma’s granting of permission to use troops abroad, Russia started its air campaign in Syria. Soon, however, it became apparent that Russia’s primary target was not just ISIL, but also the rebel groups who have been pressuring President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in and around Damascus, Homs, Hama and Idlib.
Russia’s military engagement in Syria will certainly solidify al-Assad’s diplomatic and military position, yet it is too early to decide whether this will contribute to a permanent solution. In this respect, it is necessary to highlight a number of vulnerable points in Russia’s military strategy.
To begin with, targeting not only ISIL, but other anti-regime rebel groups, may spell counter-productive results for Russia, in the sense that this could push Sunni groups to rally around ISIL amid the threat of total annihilation at the hands of the al-Assad government. In this, it is important to remember that the justification for the resistance is the al-Assad regime, ipso facto. Second, the recent declaration from the Russian Orthodox Church calling for a “holy war” in Syria constitutes red meat for the jihadists who have been claiming that the West has indeed launched a crusade against all Muslims. Such an unfortunate message leaves Russia vulnerable to the possibility of jihadist attacks at home.
Another important issue is whether Russia will be able to shoulder the economic burden of military engagement in Syria together with its engagement in Ukraine. Due to low oil prices and continuing economic sanctions, the Russian economy is expected to contract around 3.4 percent this year. While investments decrease, inflation remains high.
Russia is suffering from serious stagnation, but it would be incorrect to conclude that the economy is on the brink of collapse. On the contrary, the devaluation of the ruble against the dollar this year benefited exporters. Although sanctions made it difficult for Russia to fund its budget through borrowing, reserve funds aided oligarchs, allowing the country to manage the economic cycle. In addition, given the fact that Russian-made military equipment and weapons are provided to Syria, the cost of military engagement is not unbearable.
However, economists also warn that the Kremlin may have to introduce new tax laws or conduct structural reforms, such as increasing the age of retirement, so as to create new financial resources. In the long run, unless the price of oil goes up, it will be hard for Russia to shoulder the financial burdens of a long-term military engagement. Sooner or later, there will be a political cost to military ventures.
Survey results published on Sept. 28 by the Levada Center, a respected independent pollster, is an early indicator of such a trend. Accordingly, only 14 percent of Russians support sending military troops to Syria. Dissatisfaction is likely to mount in parallel to military losses and casualties in Syria or in the event of a possible terrorist attack at home.
Still, in an authoritarian country like Russia, the cost of the Syrian war is more or less manageable, since the voices of opposition can be easily stifled with loud nationalist propaganda or other creative tools of statecraft.
The best thing to do would be to lean back and watch how the Russian style of leadership plays out.