Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew

Russian president Vladimir Putin. Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons.
Russian president Vladimir Putin. Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons.

INTERVENING militarily in a region far from home is a risky business, politically as well as economically. The Syrian question, it appears, may hurt Russia economically.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has several objectives.

As far as one can assess President Vladimir Putin’s reasoning, the somewhat less important objectives are to retain the Syrian dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad as the only Russian ally in the Middle East (together with the harbour of Tartus as a Russian naval base) and as a valued customer of Russian military hardware.

Somewhat more important is Putin’s fear of the organisation Islamic State’s fundamentalism gaining ground in Russia’s mainly Muslim Caucasus region, especially in the volatile Chechnya.

But by far the most important is Putin’s desire to reestablish Russia as a great power on the international political scene. He has repeatedly poured scorn on the USA’s disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the British and French role to drive Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya. He now wants to demonstrate that Russia can succeed where others have failed.

But problems are looming on the horizon. In the way Putin annexed the Crimea and stoked a civil war in the Ukraine, his excellent tactical acumen could be seen, but these are proving to be Pyrrhic victories. He has driven the Ukraine and the entire Eastern and Central Europe into Nato’s welcoming arms, while the era of cutting back on military expenditure has been replaced with increased defence budgets.

It seems that in his Syrian intervention Putin’s good tactical abilities may once again be accompanied by strategic incompetence. This statement deserves a good analysis.

First of all – and this is only a secondary factor – the Russian military operations in Syria are not having the dramatic effect he undoubtedly hoped for. The Assad regime accompanied the Russian air attacks with a ground offensive, but this has stalled by all accounts.

Part of the reason is probably that the limited number of Russian aircraft – about 40 fixed-wing fighter-bombers and 20 gunship helicopters – are using mainly old-fashioned “stupid” bombs and rockets, which are relatively inaccurate compared to the highly sophisticated “smart” weapons used by US and Nato aircraft.

In addition, Putin got a spoonful of egg on his face when missiles, launched by Russian warships in the Caspian Sea (no doubt to demonstrate the Navy’s long arm) veered off course and exploded in Iran – several hundred kilometres from their intended targets.

But there are two crucial points to be made.

First, the civil war in Syria (and the one in Iraq, with which the conflict in Syria has fused), is an unbelievably complicated witches’ cauldron. This is the reason the West is treading so warily there – they fear to be burned.

Chances are that Russia’s intervention is open-ended. Which means that the country may either be sucked into quicksand (like the US in Afghanistan and Iraq), or when it pulls out, it will cost the Putin regime immensely in prestige.
Secondly, if the intervention becomes protracted, as is to be expected, it could hurt Russia exonomically.

The figures are certainly alarming. Since the beginning of the year, the Russian economy has contracted by 3.9%, inflation is close to 16%, and retail sales were down by 10.4% in September compared to a year before.

According to Standard and Poor’s, the Russian budget deficit will grow to 4.4% of gross domestic product this year. And the Putin government has had to provide a further $40bn to keep the banking system afloat.

In fact, as these words are written, the Government is taking a huge gamble by depleting the state’s last reserve funds to cover the budget, increase military spending and paying for an escalating war in Syria all at the same time. Of the $700bn the Kremlin had available when the Crimea crisis started, some $361bn is left.

The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has calculated that the military budget, which has already risen by 8.1% in 2014, is set to grow by another 15% this year. This while the low oil and natural gas price is eating away the Kremlin’s ability to raise money.

The English-language Moscow Times (one of the few Russian newspapers still clinging to its independence) recently had the think tank IHS Jane’s calculate what the war in Syria is costing Russia. The past month, the answer was $115m, which is, of course, not much.

But analyst Igor Sutyagin of the Royal United Services Intitute says the Russian intervention in the Ukraine and Syria, as well as the gigantic series of excercises designed to strike fear into the West have already gobbled up 82% of this year’s defence budget.

What makes this worse, is that Russia, because of international sanctions, cannot borrow money on the international capital markets.

Of course, it is early days, and who knows, Russia may yet overcome its economic problems. But a preliminary conclusion, based on what we know now, is that Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew. And that his strategic insights do not match his tactical talents.

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.

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