Assessing Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, Anna Borshchevskaya seeks to put it in the context of Vladimir Putin’s worldview and goals, and to demonstrate its continuity with the 2008 Russian war with Georgia and the invasion of Ukraine that began in 2014. First, she notes what might be called an ideological motivation for defending Bashar al-Assad:
November 2003 marked the beginning of the “color revolutions”—peaceful uprisings against corrupt regimes that swept the post-Soviet space, beginning with Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of late 2004-05. . . . Putin saw the hand of Washington behind these events. As a KGB man, he had watched the Soviet Union itself instigate uprisings to undermine unfriendly regimes. Putin, whose understanding of the West and especially the United States has always been limited, could not imagine that the West would behave any differently toward him. . . .
When the Arab upheavals began in December 2010, the Kremlin viewed them the same way it saw the color revolutions—and by this time Putin had become much more belligerent. . . . It is no accident that the Kremlin has always insisted that it went into Syria at Assad’s request to protect a “legitimate government” against terrorists. This line was designed to pound into the Russian audience the message that revolt against any government is always wrong. . . .
The Russian intervention in Syria saved Assad, enabled Putin to project great-power status at the expense of the West, and entrenched Moscow further in the region. . . . Putin can also claim partial success in deterring Washington in the Middle East. His military moves, from Georgia to Ukraine to Syria, show he aims to reestablish a Russian presence across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean by creating and extending buffer zones along Russia’s periphery.
While seeing ideological, geostrategic, and economic reason behind Russia’s actions in Syria, Borshchevskaya finds unconvincing the Kremlin’s claim that it is interested in fighting terrorism. “If Moscow’s priority were in fact to target Islamist terrorism,” she writes, “it would have focused its campaign in Syria on Islamic State rather than on protecting Assad.” She also notes that “years of Western enabling—perceived by Moscow as weakness—emboldened Putin to intervene” in Syria and warns that American “cooperation with Russia will not bring stability.”