From the moment Vladimir Putin officially took the reins of power in 2000, he focused on the promotion of the Russia Federation’s great power status through zero-sum competition with the West in favor of a multipolar world. This is the broader context that stands in the backdrop of his military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Putin had multiple goals in Syria, but fundamentally, his September 2015 intervention was part of this same pursuit: the erosion of the U.S.-led global order.
Putin calculated correctly that the West would not oppose his military intervention in Syria. The Kremlin interpreted years of Western policies towards Russia as an expression of weakness. In Syria, the West had consistently signaled disinterest in getting involved beyond fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). Putin also supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in multiple ways for years before the military intervention. Moscow’s deep and multifaceted ties to Syria, together with Putin’s strategic posture toward the West, put the Kremlin on a path towards supporting Assad to the bitter end. The Syria intervention offers important lessons about Russia’s way of war and the links between Russia’s political aims and military tactics—indeed, Moscow used both to achieve its aims in Syria, where Moscow’s diplomatic campaign supported its military objectives. These efforts showed more continuity than change in the Kremlin’s approach to war and counterterrorism, as well as its broader threat perceptions, with adaptations to new realities. Moscow is unable and unwilling to lead reconciliation in Syria and can live with low-level conflict to the detriment of international stability.