Russia seeks to demonstrate military prowess in Syria, Stanford scholar says

Stanford political scientist Kathryn Stoner does not expect a new Cold War between the United States and Russia over the Syrian conflict. But Russia is clearly sending a message it wants to be a global power again, she says.

eXpose/Shutterstock flags of Russia and Syria waving together

Stanford political scientist Kathryn Stoner says Russia's intervention in Syria reflects President Vladimir Putin's strategy to re-establish his country as a global power.

The Syrian conflict gives the Russian military an opportunity to show off to Western powers its newly upgraded military and weaponry, said a Stanford expert.

"This is an important message for Russia to convey when the leadership feels threatened by NATO and is currently supporting a rebellion in Eastern Ukraine," said Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford political scientist and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, in an interview. Stoner is the author of two books on Russia and the faculty director of the Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies at Stanford.

Stoner suggests Russia's Syrian intervention reflects President Vladimir Putin's overall strategy to re-establish his country as a "global power capable of extending its influence and power beyond its own borders." Russia is also re-engaging in the Middle East because of its relationship with Syria, which dates back to the early 1950s.

"Russia intervened in the fall of 2013 to stop the U.S. from 'crossing the line in the sand' that President Obama drew verbally if [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people," Stoner said.

Putin and other Russian policymakers have long complained that the United States and NATO have been responsible for causing chaos and instability throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, she said.

"They consider NATO to have gone beyond the U.N. resolution that allowed them to bomb Libya a few years ago to support a domestic uprising," she said.

Terrorism and Russia

On another front, Stoner said, Russia does have an interest in keeping the Islamic State group out of Russia itself, though they have not yet fully engaged that group in Syria.

"There is a domestic fundamentalist element in the Muslim North Caucasus region of Russia that has engineered domestic terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia that could seek assistance from ISIS or send fighters to ISIS in Syria and then come back to do harm in Russia," she said.

If Russia is attacked by the Islamic State group or other terrorists for its Syrian incursions, Stoner expects to see more intensive Russian bombing of ISIS targets. As for Russia's domestic political situation, she does not think the Syrian involvement will erode Putin's popularity.

"His public approval rating rose to a record high of 90 percent at the end of September as Russia entered Syria," she said. "Since the Russian government largely controls the television media, it can maintain tight control of the message, which is that Russia must defend itself at all costs."

Stoner pointed out that Russia has suffered many terrorist attacks in the last 20 years, including the attack on a school in Beslan as it opened for the first day of classes in 2004 that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people, most of whom were children. There were also strikes on planes in 2004 and violence on the Moscow Metro, for example. "It's not a new phenomenon, sadly," said Stoner.

Negotiated settlement with Syria?

Stoner does not foresee or urge greater U.S. military involvement in Syria.

"We have had a pretty light footprint and where we have supplied training, it seems that we've been pretty unsuccessful. We are at risk of getting into a proxy war with Russia over Syria to be sure, and I don't see how that would be in our interests," she said.

There is no military solution in Syria, according to Stoner, who ultimately expects the United States to negotiate an end to that conflict with Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others in Europe. "That probably means the U.S. will need to ease up on its requirement that Assad must leave office immediately," she said.

Stoner added, "The Russians would, I think, get rid of Assad if they are involved in the establishment of a new government in Syria. This would aid the Russian goal of becoming a 'player' again in international politics."

Stoner suggested that Russia is a very different country than the former Soviet Union. "It isn't guided by a philosophy like communism that encourages the spread of an ideology that is fundamentally in opposition to democracy and capitalism," she said.

While today's Russia is not as militarily strong as the former Soviet Union, it has inherited the Soviet nuclear arsenal and recently modernized its military, Stoner said.

"In a sense, Russian involvement in Syria is both an offensive and defensive act for Putin. I don't think this will reignite a new Cold War over the Middle East – Russia doesn't have the economic or military capacity to sustain that, and the U.S. doesn't really have any interest in going toe-to-toe with Russia there."

Kathryn Stoner, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies: (650) 736-1820,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,