The godfather of Russia’s military intervention in Syria is Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister and intelligence chief and for decades his nation’s leading Arabist. A hint of Primakov’s influence on Russian President Vladimir Putin came in the unusual eulogy that Putin delivered at his friend’s funeral in Moscow four months ago.
“Primakov had global vision and was open and bold in his thinking,” Putin told mourners. By asserting Russia’s interests and power, Primakov “got the country through a very serious crisis” after the fall of the Soviet Union. His understanding of the Middle East was “tremendous,” and his influence beyond Russia was “undeniable,” Putin said.
“Many spoke with him, sought his advice, shared with him their plans and actions,” Putin said. “I can say that this applies in full measure to myself, too.”
Putin is moving with a determination that Primakov would have admired — but might also have seen as risky. By sending Russian warplanes, troops and tanks to Syria, Putin has launched one of Russia’s boldest military moves since 1945. He has begun to restore Primakov’s dream of Russian influence in the Arab world, but at a cost of assuming the burden of fighting Muslim extremism, an effort that has been so draining for the United States.
Primakov symbolized the idea that Russian power was not dead in the post-Soviet era, and that Moscow was not a permanent junior partner to Washington. His defining moment came in 1999, when as prime minister he turned around his plane on the way to the United States and flew home after learning that NATO would be intervening militarily in Kosovo, against Russian wishes.
Russians called the mid-Atlantic course reversal “Primakov’s loop.” The message was that Russia might be too weak to stop U.S. military action, but it wouldn’t meekly submit to U.S. dictation.
The newspaper Izvestia published a eulogy for Primakov in July that stressed his role in asserting Russia’s independence and dignity in those days of national despair: “He managed to stop this humiliating slide of Russia toward the status of a country ‘in receivership,’ and to reformat our foreign policy, restoring honor and decency.”
Primakov’s specialty was the Arab world. He was Russia’s premier handler of its two chief Arab clients, the Assad regime in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Over Primakov’s career, when U.S. power in the Middle East, anchored by Israel, was on the rise, a moribund Russia lost one ally after another. This started with its expulsion from Egypt in 1972 and continued as regimes in Iraq and Libya were toppled.
Putin decided to stand his ground in Syria, as Primakov probably counseled. Russia’s intervention there has been advancing in slow motion for months, but U.S. analysts seem to have missed its military dimension and consequences. President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry welcomed greater Russian diplomatic involvement in the region after Moscow’s generally helpful role in the Iran nuclear talks. They apparently didn’t anticipate that Russia would seek to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the battlefield as a prelude to any diplomacy.
Putin was hardly ambiguous about his intentions. He said in a Sept. 28 speech to the United Nations: “It is now obvious that the power vacuum created in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa led to emergence of anarchy areas. . . . We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face.”
For the United States, military intervention in Iraq was a “war of choice.” But in Putin’s mind, fighting the Islamic State seems to be an existential matter, for a Russia with a large and growing Muslim population.
If Russia really means to be the enforcer against the Islamic State, this could mean a fundamental change in power relations in the Middle East — with Russia bidding to become protector not just of Assad but of a Europe that is frightened about terrorism, refugees and energy supplies.
At the United Nations in September, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked Putin if he was serious about taking on the jihadists. According to an Iraqi official, Putin answered that he was serious about dealing with the threat posed by 2,000 Russians who have joined the Islamic State.
Primakov dreamed about reviving Russian power in the Middle East and globally. Putin is now doing it, and it’s a change, fraught with danger for Russia and the United States both, that could alter the balance of power in the region and beyond.