Russian President Vladimir Putin's military intervention in Syria, and then his call at the United Nations for a global "anti-Hitler coalition" to fight ISIS there, can certainly look, from the American perspective, like a power grab. Putin's boldness seems like a sign that President Obama's passivity has allowed the Russian leader to run roughshod over US interests in the Middle East — particularly to hawks already frustrated that the US has refused to do more in Syria.
But don't be taken in by Putin's carefully cultivated image of strength and decisiveness. His intervention in Syria is most likely driven not by boldness but by reactiveness and, most of all, by fear. Fear of anarchy, fear of populist uprisings, fear of Western meddling, fear of any weakening of strong government rule, and fear that he himself could succumb to these forces.
(Putin's Syria strategy is also unlikely to be very effective: Propping up Assad and partnering with Shia Hezbollah and Iran seems likely to worsen the sectarianism and anti-Assad sentiment that is driving much of the war. And Russian airstrikes aren't likely to rally Syrians around Assad.)
To understand how Putin sees Syria, and why he's getting himself into this mess, you have to understand how he looks at Libya, the lessons he drew from its collapse, how it led him to misunderstand the West — and why both Libya and Syria are the sum of many of his worst foreign policy fears.
How Putin's lessons from Libya explain his worldview
As Steven Lee Myers writes in his new book The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Putin always viewed Libya and the Arab Spring uprisings as cause for concern, and not just because he saw the Mideast dictators as allies. In his worldview, few threats are greater than populist uprisings — whether they target allies or not — and the chaos and insecurity they can bring.
Putin warned when Libya's uprising broke out in early 2011, Myers paraphrases, that "the uprisings in Libya and other countries would fuel the rise of Islamic extremists allied with al Qaeda, aided and abetted by short-sighted sympathizers in the West trying to overthrow autocratic leaders":
"Let's take a look back at history, if you don't mind," Putin said in Brussels in February. "Where did Khomeini, the mastermind of the Iranian revolution, live? He lives in Paris. And he was supported by most of Western society. And now the West is facing the Iranian nuclear program. I remember our partners calling for fair, democratic elections in the Palestinian territories. Excellent! Those elections were won by Hamas."
That's not a case for coldheartedly backing an allied dictator against a humanitarian intervention (although there is certainly much of that at play in his policy toward Syria) but rather a belief that Western policy is self-defeating, and a real fear that populism, including in open elections, will empower extremists.
Putin's concerns about Western-backed uprisings against dictators are also fueled in large part by his fear that he himself could be their next target. While Russia did have substantial economic and political interests in Libya and Syria, Myers writes, Putin's response to the protests went far beyond those pragmatic concerns:
In truth, his wariness ran much deeper. He was clearly articulating the dark association in his mind between aspirations for democracy and the rise of radicalism, between elections and the chaos that would inevitably result. Reflexively, instinctively, he imagined the uprising in Libya as simply another step toward a revolution being orchestrated for Moscow.
At the time of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing Western intervention in Libya, Russia's president was Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's relatively liberal protégé, who did not share his reflexive distrust of pro-democracy movements or Western intervention. Medvedev accepted the rationale that a limited military intervention was necessary to protect civilians, and so abstained from the Security Council vote, allowing the measure to pass.
Putin deferred to Medvedev at the time of the vote, but when the bombings began, he was appalled at what he saw as the West's thinly disguised war of regime change. Believing that Medvedev had been duped by the West, Myers explains, Putin denounced the Security Council resolution as a flawed measure that offered far too much leeway for foreign intervention in Libya's affairs.
And, though the reasons for this can be disputed, the war in Libya did play out more or less as Putin feared it would. The UN-authorized military action did help to overthrow Qaddafi, post-Qaddafi Libya has descended into violent chaos, and there is little hope that it will become more stable anytime soon.
How Putin's fears led him to intervene in Syria
To Putin, there are unmistakable parallels between Syria today and Libya in 2011 — not just because he fears another Western intervention in the Middle East, but because he sees instability and the downfall of secular, autocratic regimes as dangerous trends that threaten him as well. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, he accused the West of failing to learn from its mistakes and criticized its continued support of what he referred to as "so-called democratic" revolutions.
"Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress," Putin said, "we got violence, poverty, and social disaster":
It is now obvious that the power vacuum created in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa through the emergence of anarchy areas, which immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists.
Tens of thousands of militants are fighting under the banners of the so-called Islamic State. Its ranks include former Iraqi servicemen who were thrown out into the street after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many recruits also come from Libya, a country whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. And now, the ranks of radicals are being joined by the members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition supported by the Western countries.
In other words, Putin argued that support for democratic revolutions is a bad idea in and of itself — that it will inevitably lead to anarchy and terrorism. That is crucial to understanding his worldview and why it would lead him to believe Russia needed to intervene in Syria.
ISIS, he argues, isn't an anomaly — it's the inevitable result of undermining the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In that view, it doesn't matter that Assad is a dictator who has murdered thousands of Syrians, including by turning barrel bombs and chemical weapons on his own people: The stability he offers is still preferable to the alternatives. That's why Putin can unironically call for an "anti-Hitler coalition" to support Assad as a bulwark against the rise of ISIS: In his worldview, that's the preferable option.
Putin's fears make him fundamentally misjudge the West
To Putin, the West's humanitarian interventions and support for democratic revolutions are just cynical excuses to interfere in other countries' sovereign affairs, to ruthlessly expand Western influence. That extends to his mistrust not just of Western support for uprisings, but of the uprisings themselves. It's in keeping with his paranoid belief that the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia were really the result of CIA-backed plots to destabilize Moscow-friendly governments, and that Medvedev got duped by the same kind of Western plotting in Libya.
So when Western leaders criticize Assad's atrocities against Syrian civilians, and when Obama insists that any solution to the Syrian civil war must include Assad's removal, what Putin hears is the West trying to justify more military aggression. He sees a nefarious, if shortsighted, Western agenda in which any talk of human rights is purely a cover.
But just as Americans are apt to see Putin as a master strategist always thinking 10 moves ahead, so Putin overestimates the United States, seeing a secret American grand strategy where none actually exists.
The truth is that the Arab Spring revolutions caught the Obama administration and US foreign policy establishment by surprise, and Obama has struggled to find a coherent or effective response to them. If the US is seeking to prop up loyal regimes, it did a bad job of it in Egypt and Yemen, where it helped nudge out friendly dictators. If the US is using humanitarianism as a fig leaf for militarism, it's been oddly hesitant to use force in Syria and elsewhere.
Putin's fear of a Western plot to sow chaos in the Middle East, as well as his fears of extremism and of any regime's downfall, is what ultimately drove him to intervene in Syria. What he's seeking is not a brilliant, grand strategy of expanding Russian power, but rather a way to stave off these forces that so frighten him.