Russia Strikes Syria but Geopolitical 'Surge' May Prove Hard to Sustain

Russia's decision to initiate air strikes against Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria on September 30 signals the continuation of a much more active foreign policy than at any time since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. These strikes come at a time when Moscow is already involved (albeit unofficially) in the Ukraine conflict. However, this geopolitical 'surge' is unlikely to prove sustainable over the long term, given Russia's weak economy and bleak demographic outlook.

Russia's Threefold Aims

Russia has very real concerns about Islamist militancy, given that it has fought an insurgency in its predominantly Muslim North Caucasus since the mid-1990s. Russia estimates that there are more than 2,000 Russian citizens fighting on behalf of Islamic State, and worries that they will return home and reinvigorate conflicts in its southernmost regions. For Russia, it is preferable to fight these militants in Syria (and Iraq) rather than on Russian soil.

In addition, Russia wants to shore-up the Alawite regime in Damascus, because it has been Moscow's most consistent ally in the Middle East, with ties stretching back decades. If the Syrian regime were to fall, Russia would lose geopolitical clout in the Levant.

Finally, by attacking Islamic State in Syria, Russia is trying to break out of Western attempts to isolate it by demonstrating that it is too powerful to ignore. By emphasising the dangers posed by Islamic State, Russia is reminding the Western powers that they face a common foe.

Soviet Collapse Significantly Impaired Russian Power Projection

Russia, as one of two superpowers during the Cold War, and a great power before that, has long had a highly activist foreign policy. However, this changed in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union forced Moscow to focus on free-market economic reforms and managing the chaos that ensued on its periphery. In addition, the Russian military went into steep decline as a result of budgetary cutbacks, with morale having already been sapped by defeat in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union lost around 14,000 troops (as per official figures) in 1979-1989. Russia's military weakness was further highlighted by its defeat during the first Chechen war (1994-1996), which resulted in the de facto independence of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 largely on the back of the second Chechen war (1999-mid 2000s), but even during most of the 2000s, Russia was not in a position to project significant power abroad.

Syria Marks Russia's Third Foreign Intervention In Less Than Ten years

Although the Russian military improved in the 2000s, its brief invasion of Georgia in August 2008, despite being successful, revealed major shortcomings, which even the then-chief of the general staff admitted to. Even so, that conflict was significant because it marked the first time since 1979 that Russia had actually invaded a sovereign state. Moscow did this to preserve its interests in Georgia, namely defending the pro-Russian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from a government offensive, and deterring the pro-Western government in Tbilisi from seeking closer ties with NATO.

The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 set the scene for Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and its subsequent military intervention (still publicly denied) in support of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. As of end-September 2015, there are reports that around 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed in government-held parts of Syria, along with 28 fighter jets, 26 helicopters, and a number of tanks and missile units.

Essentially, Russia appears to be moving to shore up the belt of territory in western Syria that is still controlled by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has seen several reversals since 2014. This territory stretches from the capital Damascus in the south to Syria's Mediterranean coast, including the ports of Tartous and Latakia. Russia has had a naval presence at the former since 1971, and appears to be establishing a quasi-permanent presence in Latakia, where it already maintains an important listening post. In many ways, the emerging Alawite statelet under Assad's control could resemble pro-Russian entities in the former Soviet Union, such as Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics in Eastern Ukraine.

While we believe that Russia will continue airstrikes against IS, we consider it unlikely that the Kremlin will send thousands of ground troops into direct combat with the Jihadist group. That would raise the spectre of casualties, and bring back memories of the USSR's ill-fated war in Afghanistan, which was also aimed at shoring up a pro-Moscow regime against radical Islamist fighters. In addition, Russia still feels a need to prioritise defence of its western front (i.e. against NATO), and although the Ukraine conflict appears to be winding down, the Kremlin will need to devote a considerable amount of military resources to this region. Furthermore, Moscow will also be concerned about deteriorating security in Tajikistan, where Russia already maintains several thousand troops. In other words, a large-scale military campaign in Syria would risk overstretching Russian military resources.

Economic And Demographic Weakness To Constrain Long-Term Power

Ultimately, we do not believe that Russia's current geopolitical 'surge' will prove sustainable. The main reason is that the Russian economy has been crippled by the sharp fall in oil prices since H2 2014 and Western sanctions. The rapid economic growth of the 2000s largely came in tandem with rising oil prices, which reached a record high of USD147/bbl in July 2008 (Brent Crude traded at USD48/bbl at the end of September 2015). This also allowed a huge increase in defence expenditures. Russia's economy subsequently suffered a severe recession in 2009, when oil prices plummeted to USD36/bbl, and real GDP growth has failed to regain the rapid pace of the last decade (although this is also true of other major economies in the aftermath of the global financial crisis). The Kremlin has been unable to diversify the economy away from the oil and gas sector, and in the absence of major economic reforms, will not be able to do so. The poorer economic outlook will ultimately restrict Russia's ability to keep up with the US and China in terms of military capabilities.

In addition, Russia's demographic outlook is bleak. Although the population has stabilised at just under 144mn in recent years, following steep declines in the 1990s, and has increased slightly, there are doubts about its future growth. The declining number of males of military service age means that Russia will have trouble maintaining such large armed forces. These currently stand at 771,000, which is only 82% of their target, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). This explains why Russia announced in January 2015 that it would allow more foreign nationals to serve in its armed forces. The change appears to be aimed at hiring more soldiers locally from places where Russia already has a military presence (e.g. Tajikistan). However, this would raise the issue of their reliability and allegiance to Russian interests. Looking into the next decade, Russia could deploy more drones to make up for falling manpower, but this is also true of its competitors.

Ultimately, Russia will remain a major power, thanks to its large armed forces, sheer geographic scope, considerable diplomatic and intelligence activities, and its clear willingness to play a significant role in global security issues. However, Russia risks overstretch, if it tries to do too much at the same time. Its mission in Syria will be an important test case of this.