It’s no surprise that Putin waited till Congress failed to stop the Iran deal (Tehran is an important ally for Moscow) before beginning to visibly ramp up military support for the Assad regime in Syria.
Now, Putin is all in.
But it’s not clear how far the Kremlin is going to take its new war.
What does seem pretty obvious is what Putin hopes to get out of his latest military adventure.
#5. Buffer with ISIS. Both Moscow and Tehran have every reason to prop up Assad, Syria’s strongman who is no longer so strong. Most vitally right now is that Assad serves as a buffer with ISIS. That said, there is little evidence Russia is planning a campaign to crush the caliphate. Much more likely, Putin seems perfectly content if ISIS just turns its efforts elsewhere, threatening the Arab states to the south, Israel, the Europeans and the Americans. Pretending to care about ISIS seems mostly an attempt by Putin to turn the attention of Washington and the European capitals away from his meddling in places like the Ukraine and Georgia.
#4. Destabilize and Distract Europe. Russian military operations in Syria are likely to drive more refugees to undertake the trek north. More refugees means more problems for Western Europe. That’s fine with Putin.
#3. Higher Oil Prices. The more the Middle East gets messy, the more the price of oil is likely to stop going down and start heading back up. Moscow would like nothing more than higher energy prices; Putin’s economy is running on fumes. Only a significant spike in energy exports can stave off another serious economic downturn.
#2. Become a Player in the Region. This is shaping up nicely for Moscow. Tehran, its ally, is getting at least a $150 billion cash infusion from the West. Assad won’t be thrown into the sea. The Arabs are pressed by ISIS. This leaves space for Russia to play a larger role in the region, expanding Putin’s capacity to command Russia’s “near abroad.”
#1. Make America Look Weaker. Anything that weakens America in Putin’s eyes is a net benefit for Russia. Obama has already made a mess of his Middle East policy, and Putin is just helping by showing how vacuous U.S. global leadership has become.
None of these bonus points for Putin suggest that the regime in Moscow is almighty. It is certainly not. In the end, the Kremlin might make its problems worse by overreaching, getting bogged down in a mess of a Syrian civil war.
Nor does Russia getting all into the Syrian disaster suggest that the U.S. should follow.
What Washington needs is a plan that works to marginalize troublemaking from Russia, paired with a little backbone, demonstrating that America is prepared to protect its own interests.