Great Power Politics around Syria and Ukraine

Pikkuparlamentti Auditorium · 10.11.2015 09:00 - 11:00

Notwithstanding the differences between the two cases, the wars in Syria and Ukraine have become hotspots of broader confrontation between Russia and the West. In both conflicts, the West has struggled to define an appropriate response to the aggressive pursuit of great power ambitions by Russia. What is at stake in these wars at Europe’s doorsteps? How are the recent dynamics in and around Syria and Ukraine interconnected? What is the role of Russia in both cases, and how should the West respond? What are the possibilities and limits for cooperation with Russia?

Pavel E. Felgenhauer, Defense Analyst and Columnist for Novaya Gazeta
Camille Grand, Director, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique

Brigadier General Juha Pyykönen, Defence Command, Finland

Chair: Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar

First, Mr Felgenhauer described the differences in the involvement of Russian forces in the crises of Syria and Ukraine. In Ukraine there are ground troops involved, whereas in Syria it is the Russian air force that is in action. However, there are connections between these crises, which should be understood well. He emphasised that we should look at the overall strategic picture and objectives. Ukraine is important to Russia in a different way than Syria, which is more of an optional engagement. Ukraine is seen as absolutely essential to Russian defence. Russia’s strategic view of the world as described by Russian military and security leaders is that Russia is building a massive defence in all directions, which Ukraine is part of. In the threat assessment picture of Russia, threats are arising and by 2025-30 the threat to Russia will be very serious. There will be a threat of possible global war or a series of large regional wars, both of them possibly involving nuclear weapons. These wars might arise from the resource scarcity facing the world in the future. Many countries will attack Russia because of its natural resources since Russia is a big country with relatively sparse population. This threat has led to strategic decisions and Russia began some five years ago a very ambitious and massive rearmament programme. Russia has spent a lot of money in building up capabilities to fight the expected resource wars. While there is engagement in Ukraine and in Syria, very serious resources are being invested in building bases in the Arctic. Russia is preparing to fight ground battles in the ice of the Arctic.

Mr Felgenhauer emphasised that Russia will never let Ukraine go. He stated that the thinking in the West that the fighting in Donbass is moving towards freeze is wrong. Economically, financially and strategically there is no possibility right now of a frozen conflict in the present positions. The strategic objective of the war has not changed, but in August Russia made the decision that there will be no more offensives or any serious ground fighting in Donbass at least till New Year. Moscow is now waiting to see what happens in Kiev. In Moscow, it is believed that Ukraine is going to disintegrate, so that there will be no need to start any offensive. In the meantime Russian forces have been engaged in Syria. The narrow strategic objective of this engagement is to support al-Assad’s regime and help him to win the civil war, which will guarantee Russian influence and military presence in Syria.

The larger strategic view of the engagement in Syria is that it could be used as a basis for re-building relations with the West and find a mutually beneficial decision concerning Ukraine. This could lead to a ‘Yalta 2’ conference where the great powers could decide on a new world order primarily in the Euro-Atlantic zone. In Moscow the 1945 Yalta Conference is seen as great achievement which gave Europe peace for generations. The Syrian adventure could be used to get together to decide on a new world order. The problem is that it is not fully working out. As al-Assad’s troops are not advancing as effectively as it was hoped, Russia faces a dilemma. Russia must either escalate, withdraw or continue as it is. Most likely the conflict stays as it is now, but there is a possibility of escalation. There are signals coming from the Kremlin that the Syrian engagement should be temporary. The apparent terrorist attack that destroyed the Russian passenger plane over Sinai is maybe just a beginning of possible mishaps, threats and losses that the Russian engagement in Syria might bring. The lack of progress in building a coalition over Syria is bringing additional changes in Russian internal policy. In the end, Mr Felgenhauer stated that Syria is beginning to throw a bigger shadow over Russian foreign, security and defence policy as well as internal policy, than what was intended.

In his presentation, Mr Grand first stated that Europe, the EU and NATO, developed during the last 20 years a very post- Westphalian narrative according to which the use of force was vanishing at least in Europe, old-fashioned geopolitics was disappearing, and peace was spreading through cooperation, including with Russia, and the expansion of the EU and NATO. Now this narrative is no longer valid and we are seeing the transformation of our environment, which is not Europe’s choice, but a decision taken by President Putin. Russia has decided to challenge this post-Cold War order and has returned to more traditional geopolitics, which Russia has never really given up. This involves the idea that changing borders by force, as seen in Crimea, is an acceptable behaviour on the part of great powers.

Next, Mr Grand discussed whether Ukraine and Syria follow the same pattern when it comes to Russian security policy. Both crises highlight common strategic objectives. The core element is the Kremlin’s choice to re-establish Russia as a great power almost at any cost. During the Ukrainian crisis the worst sanction was President Obama’s comment about Russia being a regional power. Now Russia wants to send the message that it is a great power again and it has a legitimate right for a seat at the high table of any major international crisis. The secondary objective is to preserve Russian influence in key areas, particularly in the Post-Soviet space that is the primary zone of interest, but it goes also beyond that, meaning the importance of Syria and Middle East. The third strategic objective is a strong signal of opposition to any form of revolution. The message coming from Moscow is that, be it al-Assad, Mubarak, Gaddafi or Yanukovych, one should not change leaders by demonstrations or by force. The fourth strategic objective is to make sure that Russia will be part of any future negotiation regarding the crises it pays attention to.

Also an important point is the use of tools in managing the crises. It has been seen that, on the Russian side, there is a readiness to use force and the threat of force in the management of a geopolitical crisis. Mr Grand pointed out that there was a surprising message coming from Russia that in four months the Syrian crisis will be over and solved. From the Western perspective this will be more complicated than that. If airpower could have solved the Syrian crisis it would have possibly been done earlier by others. Russia’s air campaign hasn’t changed dramatically the situation. The second feature in terms of tools is the readiness to use the full spectrum of tools. We saw both in Ukrainian and Syrian cases the use of multiple tools, ranging from cyber to hybrid and conventional tools, and even explicit nuclear signalling. Thirdly, there is a massive use of strategic communication through the media and social media and also storytelling which aims at influencing public opinion, not only domestically, but also in the West by portraying Russia as a solution to the problem. However, it is interesting that Russia only accounts for roughly 10 % of Western military spending, which is more or less the same as Britain and France combined are spending.

From that perspective, how should we deal with Russia? Firstly, we need to understand that there is no going back to the post-Cold War cooperation narrative. Russia’s new strategic policy, characterised as active, assertive or aggressive, is here to stay and it is a strategic challenge to the West. Mr Grand pointed out that we worked quite well together with Russia on Iran and it is possible that a similar process could be established over Syria. In the case of Ukraine, there is no interest to establish a connection to Syria, but it should be approached on its own merit. Mr Grand argued that it is not yet a frozen conflict. In order to manage all of this, we need to admit that the current relationship with Russia is quite different from that of the post-Cold War era. There is a need to foster deterrence and defence in Europe, as has been started by NATO. Russia is complicated to manage because declining powers and old fashioned powers are complicated to manage, and we have conflicting strategic objectives.

Mr Pyykönen took a small nation perspective on the consequences of the crisis. He started by saying that geopolitics is back from a Western viewpoint, but it never disappeared from the Russian way of thinking. Today Russia is back in the geopolitical game with two major goals, the first one being to regain its sphere of influence. The other major goal is to regain the status of a great power. Russia has two major tools: the nuclear arsenal and the permanent seat in the Security Council.

In this situation, the West should reconsider how to organise defence and what is the difference between an allied nation and a non-allied nation. The game changers here are Russia, NATO, the EU and the US. The era from the collapse of the Soviet Union till the change of Russian policy in mid-2000, when Europeans enjoyed freedom, security and justice, was nice, but it is over now. For a small nation, this time was positive. We could afford to diminish our peace dividend without any immediate consequence but now we have the consequences in hand because of the lower defence budget level. In the framework of NATO, interdependence and cooperation increased, which was very positive and set the scene for a very profitable and promising future. We can still utilise this future perspective, but whether it will happen is up to the nations. Meanwhile in Russia pan-slavism, orthodoxy and communism were gradually revised towards power vertical and sovereign democracy. Also wordings such as a strong state, great power status and patriotism can be used to describe how Russia would like to see itself. This is supported by the clear majority of Russians, so it is called democracy. But when Russia violated international law, the reaction from the West was inevitable. For a small state this is a very worrisome development, especially when the state is bordering Russia.

NATO has transformed back from crisis management to collective defence. For a small nation this makes a big difference. Once this transformation from crisis response to re-emerging collective defence alliance is in place, this will increase the safety and security of smaller states in Europe, mostly because it will ensure balance of power. What we must do is to convince the US that the Europeans will take their own proper share of the defence burden. The small states have hardly any role in convincing the US, but they can count on the European bigger states. Mr Pyykönen stated that the EU defence didn’t really materialise. However, we have the solidarity clause and mutual assistance clause in force today. The credibility of the two arrangements is vague, both in quantity and quality. Also, operations and missions have not been very ambitious recently. There is a lot of potential and need for EU operations, both civilian and military, but no action has been taken. Despite this negative development, there is one positive sign regarding the Ukrainian crisis; the division of labour. NATO is doing what it does best, meaning the military defence, and the EU is doing the rest, the other security sectors related to a wider security concept. Furthermore, Mr Pyykönen argued that the EU could take a bigger share of crisis management. For a small state like Finland, it will provide some fresh opportunities.

In the end, Mr Pyykönen stressed that all these challenges introduced in his presentation have some potential for the better from a small nation’s viewpoint. We don’t have to follow the same track that we have been walking during the last 20-25 years. There could be regionally or even bilaterally focused aspects to solving the security challenges. He was confident about the Western nations’ will to defend themselves.



Speech by Pavel E. Felgenhauer
Speech by Camille Grand part 1/2
Speech by Camille Grand part 2/2
Speech by Juha Pyykönen part 1/2
Speech by Juha Pyykönen part 2/2