NEW HAVEN: The image of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov steaming through the English Channel, leading a fleet from the Baltic Sea toward the Syrian coast, signaled the Kremlin’s wider ambitions. Though the world may focus attention on the war in Syria and negotiations over Aleppo, Russia’s strategic aims loom large.
Russia’s military intervention in the Syria civil war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government has multiple motives. It is an attempt to shore up a fellow authoritarian regime against what the Kremlin sees as another illegitimate American effort at regime change. It is an attempt to shift the agenda after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned into a costly quagmire. It is also an attempt to fight terrorism, which threatens Russia as much as any Western state.
But focusing on factors specific to Syria risks missing Russia’s broader goals in the region. Syria is one part of a campaign to reshape the Middle East in a way that’s more to the Kremlin’s liking. Russia’s main goal is to shake the region loose from American hegemony. The Kremlin knows that it cannot replace the United States, the region’s dominant political and military power since the demise of the British Empire a half century ago. But Russia thinks that it can make the region more multipolar and enhance its own influence in the process.
Since the US-led victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, most resistance in the region to American dictates has come through insurgency and terrorism, whether from Al Qaeda’s branches in Iraq and Yemen or militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Even Iran, the one state that consistently sought to counter US dominance, did so primarily by backing non-state groups rather than projecting conventional military force.