Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun
For the last 52 years, leaders from around the world have gathered in Munich for an annual review of world security problems. This year’s discussion focused on the civil war in Syria and its refugee flows that are causing a political crisis in Europe. By contrast, the focus last year was on Russian aggression against Ukraine. Behind both topics, however, lies the question of what Russia wants. Ironically, at the same conference in 2007, Vladimir Putin warned of a more assertive Russian policy against the West.
Recently, I attended the conference and listened as Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev gave a tough speech asserting that the world has “slipped into the era of a new Cold War” which he blamed on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This came despite the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had just met with others to try to arrange a ceasefire in Syria. Kerry announced an agreement to send humanitarian supplies to cities and a cessation of hostilities within a week. Lavrov then told the conference that he put the odds of success for the agreement at 49 percent.
Russia is backing the government of Bashar al Assad, which has been dropping barrel bombs on civilians in its efforts to regain control of major cities like Aleppo. Russia has been accused of striking civilian targets rather than just attacking terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Syrian and the Levant, often referred to as ISIL. Alexander Grushko, Russia’s envoy to NATO, told the conference that Russia was not violating its commitment to bomb only terrorist groups designated by the United Nations. However, British defense minister Michael Fallon accused Russia of deliberately targeting civilians and warned that Russia “risked becoming a pariah in the Middle East.”
What is behind Russia’s behavior? Officially, Russia says it is intervening in Syria to help defeat the terrorist threat from ISIL, but its target list suggests broader objectives. Until recently, some observers thought the Assad regime was losing the war, but Russian intervention has changed the momentum on the battlefield, and that balance of forces affects any negotiations. By preventing the Assad regime from being defeated, Russia retains a toehold for its influence in the region. Moreover, it has used its veto in the UN Security Council to prevent any international peacekeeping efforts. Any efforts to resolve the crisis must take Russia into account. What price will Russia charge to abandon Assad?
Given the burden of refugee flows on European unity, Russia may try to link the Syrian crisis to the sanctions that Europe imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bravely said Germany could handle a million refugees, but now the political backlash in Germany is growing, and the European Union is facing a threat to its Schengen zone of free movement of peoples. Perhaps the road to Damascus ultimately leads to Ukraine?
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Is the American Century Over?”