In Ukraine, the Kremlin's overarching goal has been to bring that country back under Russian control. But as Ukraine has become a stronger state that is integrating itself with the West, the likelihood for the Kremlin's success is getting smaller every day. In order to distract from this strategic defeat, Russian President Vladimir Putin has increased his military engagement in Syria. In the Kremlin's view, Syria is another country where the United States and Russia fight for dominance, and it seems that Putin thinks that Syria presents an opportunity to win. The West should tread carefully, and take Moscow's initiative as a further sign that a major diplomatic push is way past due in Syria -- but not on Putin's terms.
Russia will not announce defeat in Ukraine. But Ukraine's resistance against the Russian-led attack in Donbas in combination with support from the West has made it impossible for Moscow to win back control over Ukraine any time soon without a major war. Instead of falling back into Russia's sphere of domination, Ukraine has started along the long and hard road toward building a liberal-democratic nation state.
The Minsk II ceasefire has given Ukraine needed breathing space, moving the conflict from the military field to the diplomatic field. Russia had hoped that it could achieve its goal with diplomatic means, exerting pressure on Ukraine and its Western backers to accept a wide-ranging autonomy of Donbas and legal opportunities to Moscow's proxies to block nation-wide policies it did not like.
But neither Ukraine nor the West is ready to accept Russia's interpretation of Minsk II. Instead of becoming a tool to control Ukraine, the Donbas region is becoming another "frozen conflict," a Russian-controlled enclave, similar to Transnistria. Under economic stress because of the fall of oil prices and Western sanctions, and without substantial support from other important players (such as China), the Kremlin seems to be ready to give up on the goal of reintegrating Ukraine, at least for the moment.
Increasing Russia's role in Syria presents an opportunity for Putin to put Moscow back in the center of global politics, distract from the quagmire that the Donbas has become, and to score points abroad and at home.
Russia has always been a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, delivering weapons and shielding his regime from international condemnation by using its veto at the UN Security Council. But the Russian military build-up in Syria late last week caught the West by surprise.
By signaling to everybody that Russia is fully committed to keep Assad in power, Putin is exploiting Washington's insecurity about its Syria strategy. While the United States and other Western governments have taken a stance against the Assad regime in the past, they have nevertheless focused their fight on the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS), not on the Assad regime. Putin wants to demonstrate that he, in contrast, is a bold actor with a strategy and a reliable patron in the region. His other message is that the time of regime change is over and that Russia stands ready to defend autocratic clients (taking a similar role to the one Russia played in the 19th century as the bulwark of monarchic legitimacy against Western liberalism and revolution).
At the same time, Putin is hoping that if he can pull together a strong anti-ISIS campaign under the headline of the "war on terrorism," the West may again see Russia as a reliable player ready to work for solutions in regional crises.
Like the Ukraine adventure, the Syrian engagement is a risky game. Assad may be just like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych: a man of the past that Putin tries vainly to keep in power. Assad will certainly not be able to regain control over Syria; at best he will be able to defend the territory he has managed to keep, or parts of it. Russia alone will not be able to substantially change the balance of power. ISIS may even be able to push Assad out, leaving Russia with no cards to play in Syria anymore. This would be an eerie repeat of Russia's bid for influence in Ukraine.
In any case, Western policymakers should resist the temptation to align themselves with Russia in Syria. They should make clear that they understand that Assad's terror is the root cause of the violence in Syria and that his bombing campaigns against civilians are the main drivers of the refugee crisis. They should understand that it is time for a major diplomatic initiative to push for a transformation in Syria, in order to set-up a post-Assad government that would be supported by the West in its fight against ISIS. The refugee crisis and Russia's stepped-up military involvement should serve as a wake-up call: the longer the war in Syria drags on, the more costly it will become, in all regards.