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Study Syria: How Putin and NATO Could Get Pulled Into a Disaster in Ukraine

Ukraine NLAW
NLAW missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In September 2015 Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened militarily in Syria to save the country’s dictator Bashar al-Assad from an imminent fall. Analysts rushed to conclude that Putin would overreach and find himself in a quagmire. Instead, he achieved key objectives without incurring crippling costs or getting involved on a large scale. Putin saved Assad and established a permanent Russian military presence on the strategically-vital Eastern Mediterranean. This position bolstered Putin’s ability to pressure Ukraine, along with all of NATO’s southern flank.

We now live in a different world. Putin’s war in Ukraine has escalated into the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II in less than two weeks. The sheer scale of the refugee crisis—over two million in about two weeks—is also on par with World War II rates.  If in Syria Putin avoided a quagmire, he may very well find himself in one in Ukraine. But so could the West.

Syria vs Ukraine

First, how did Putin avoid getting bogged down in Syria?

I go into this subject at length in my recent book, but in short, Putin intervened on behalf of an existing regime of Bashar al-Assad who was simultaneously receiving extensive support from Iran and its proxies. Moscow’s campaign focused chiefly on the use of Aerospace and naval forces, with a small elite ground troop contingent and it was limited to specific parts of Syria rather than the country’s entirety. Moscow maintained dominance in the information narrative and positioned itself as both part of the problem and part of a solution given that the West had little appetite for intervention or deterring Russia. Russian diplomacy played a major role, a topic we discuss in a recent paper with Andrew J. Tabler.

Ukraine has played out very differently. Post-Cold War Russia has never attempted a military operation on such a large scale before. Rather than prop up an existing regime, Russian leadership attempted regime change in what is the largest all-European country of over 40 million; and unlike in Syria, Russia made this attempt alone.

In Syria Putin anticipated correctly the world’s reactions. But the scale of Moscow’s miscalculation in Ukraine is astonishing. An accidentally published RIA Novosti article with the date of February 26, two days after the invasion, was pre-written to celebrate victory in Ukraine. In other words, the Kremlin expected the Ukrainian state to fall in two days.

In Ukraine, the Russian Air Force had been surprisingly timid and failed to establish air superiority, contrary to analysts’ earlier expectations, especially based on the Syria experience. In Pentagon’s March 11 assessment Russia continues to display “risk aversion” in air operations. Crucially, Moscow for once found itself on the defensive in information space and failed to create a pretext for an operation because the Biden administration quickly released intelligence information about Russia’s efforts.

A protracted war and possible outcomes

Russia now has to fight a protracted war in the face of massive international isolation and unprecedented sanctions.

The Russian military has suffered heavy losses, reportedly between 5,000-11,000 troops. To put this number into context, the Soviet Union, officially, lost about 15,000 during the entire invasion of Afghanistan—a trauma that haunts Russia to this day. In Ukraine now conscripts remain a substantial part of the Russian military forces, and since the very beginning of the campaign, evidence suggested the military lied to the troops, suggesting they would only participate in military drills; others were pressured into terms of service to be sent to Ukraine.  Many were told they would be fighting “Nazis” and needed Russia to “liberate” Ukrainians, only to be horrified by this lie, and spoke out about it. Thus, while the Ukrainian military retains high morale—and moral high ground—Russian leadership’s lying has contributed to low morale of its own military.

Still, despite the multitude of problems, Russian military power remains balanced in Russia’s favor at the time of this writing, even with sustained heavy losses.

Indeed, on March 8, the Pentagon warned that “95 of Putin’s forces are still intact.” At the time of this writing, Putin has no incentive to retreat and will use Russia’s current advantage in mass and firepower to gain territory even it means losing a lot of its own people. Despite the fact that Ukrainian forces achieved many tactical wins, they are not translating into battlefield victories because Russian forces are moving closer to encircling Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol and soon to come for the strategically-vital port city of Odessa. Indeed, Russia’s biggest gains have been in Ukraine’s strategically vital south that connects the country to the Black Sea.

Without increased military support to Ukraine, Putin could still topple the government in Kyiv and install a puppet alternative. Or, he could cut off a rump state that includes territories from Ukraine’s east and from the sea. Putin this would hold a crucial export route and fertile farms lands along with Dnieper River coastal industrial areas, leaving Zelensky a rump state in the West with Lviv as its capital. In either of these scenarios, the West will be helping hold a government in exile and an insurgency that will inevitably arise, as Ukrainians will never accept a Russian occupation. Thus, Putin could easily find himself in a quagmire he long sought to avoid.

A quagmire for all?

But before we rush to conclusions after about two weeks of the war, consider that, experts predict Ukrainian refugees into Western Europe could soon reach 5-10 million, which would surpass Syria as the world’s current largest displacement crisis. Putin has never gone a refugee crisis go un-weaponized. Certainly, in Syria, he helped Assad exacerbate refugee flows to pressure Europe into a dialogue on Putin’s terms, and this crisis escalated at a far slower rate. Russia’s recent bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol along with reported attacks on humanitarian convoys reflect Moscow’s tactics in Syria, and in Ukraine, these tactics are only likely to intensify.

The sheer scale of Ukraine’s refugee crisis could spur Western leaders to pressure Ukrainian president Zelensky into a negotiated settlement with Putin that may leave him wounded but not entirely defeated. Previous years of Western risk-aversion rather than risk-mitigation when it comes to Putin may win over principle.

Putin for his part will never let go of his desire to challenge the idea of NATO’s collective security and he sees Ukraine, indirectly, even as a non-NATO member, as a path towards that. He could still escalate the conflict and draw NATO in, either out of desperation of fighting an insurgency, or paradoxically after feeling emboldened if he gets a partial victory.

Ukraine meanwhile is already devastated, and a drawn-out conflict, even one where Putin finds himself in a quagmire, will only devastate Ukraine further, and weaken Europe by extension.  What will Ukraine’s reconstruction look like, and how much will it cost? The Middle East for its part will feel the pressure perhaps most acutely from a food crisis, something Ilan I. Berman wrote about even before Putin invaded Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have emerged as top supplies of wheat to the Middle East, not only Europe. Putin could use this crisis as another pressure point on the West.

Rather than signaling ambiguity to Putin, President Biden tweeted, “[W]e will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III.” By showing that the West is focused on the worst-case scenario he is only giving Putin the green light to go further into Ukraine. The fact of the matter is, the world is in for a lot of uncertainty and instability in the weeks and perhaps months ahead. And the entire liberal international order hangs in the balance, as its chief institutions failed to live up to their original purpose—to prevent the war we see today.

Yes, Ukraine is not another Syria for Vladimir Putin. But rather than celebrating that Putin has already lost, the West needs to focus on how it can truly win—how to give Putin a loss he cannot come back from.

Dr. Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. In addition, she is a contributor to Oxford Analytica and a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. She was previously with the Atlantic Council and the Peterson Institute for International Economics. A former analyst for a U.S. military contractor in Afghanistan, she has also served as communications director at the American Islamic Congress. Her analysis is published widely in publications such as Foreign Affairs, The Hill, The New Criterion, and the Middle East Quarterly. She is the author of the 2021 book, Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence (I.B. Tauris, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing). Until recently, she conducted translation and analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office and its flagship publication, Operational Environment Watch, and wrote a foreign affairs column for Forbes. She is the author of the February 2016 Institute monograph, Russia in the Middle East. She holds a doctorate from George Mason University.

Written By

Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy focusing on Russia’s policy towards the Middle East, and author of upcoming book, Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence



  1. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 15, 2022 at 9:50 am

    A sincere note of large gratitude for the welcome quality of authorship once again.

    Every party is a corner, by the looks of it.

    If the West’s idea is to hope to have Putin internally deposed at some point in the immediate future it would appear most unlikely to happen. Why would someone in the Kremlin by their own volition wish to step into a bucket of muck, a hotseat of worldwide hatred no less.

    Imaginably, at absolute best, inside the Kremlin they’ll let Putin do the dirty work, wear the pain, as they accept the gain, and pick up the pieces all bright and shiny in the personage of a brand new suit heralding the beginnings of Russian redemption.

    From the West’s perspective, without a change in substantial style of Russian leadership, which from reports also appears most unlikely (the KGB itself has to be removed apparently) a new leader under these circumstances is no change and no win.

    The wild card is the humanitarian sub-human descent into continued worldwide revolt. As mentioned, this war is not only an invasion against a country, it is an assault against what the wider world had come to believe of the warmongering faction in leadership, due to failures of the past and the travesty of Afghanistan: thtat they’d not do it again.

    Prior to the invasion we were bound in unity of belief that lessons had been learned, and a unity of facing the new World War in the form of a ferocious and indiscriminate virus.

    The sub-humanitarian consequence, then, seems most unlikely to fall from the place of sentiment it now has, even as it lessens in printed space and broadcast time as the months progress. Every misstep by the Russian leadership, every problem caused by its presence in Ukraine, is a trigger to fire up that revolt.

    Similarly, when the slobbering lathering baying for profit by companies who notoriously place the dollar sign above principle begins its resurgent lust at the new ordering’s door, people of the West can only have their hearts sunk yet further again. Faith and trust in leadership, political and corporate, along with the backdoor repugnance of it, is set to plummet even deeper.

    This is an invasion that carries with it an extremely strong expectation that Western leadership does not fail, does not weaken in resolve, does not whimper at any new ordering’s feet. (That does not mean an escalation in military warring – the opposite. It means Western leadership has to get its head right.)

    Yet the cry for the return of goods and services in the West will also in time be strong.

    All of this, of course, is if hot-head zealotry doesn’t pull the trigger in the meantime.

    The nett result, then, is it’s difficult to see that anyone and any party in this, from this, will be satisfied.

    A critical signal would be use of chemical or biological weaponry. We can only hope that Western leadership has carefully prepared its response if so.

    What is worrying, though, is the unhelpful one-upmanship carry-on by, particularly, USA leadership. That seems almost as though it has become part of US DNA. A go-to response. A way to behave.

    There is no place in this situation for ‘traditional’ one-upmanship.

    I would dearly like to see the West, instead, call out the legitimacy of a national leader who has done what Putin has done. It would provoke, also, a flurry of retaliatory calls from people all around the world decrying hypocrisy, but that’s a conversation the world is surely ready to have.

    By not changing the narrative, by not making the declaration that the world no longer accepts aggression, invasion, the narrative does not change. It’s more of the same, with attendant problems as well described in this article and elsewhere, being the quagmire.

    Let’s have the fight over hypocrisy, and expected behaviour, instead.

    And as for regathering, as it will at some time, into the changed, new ordering, then it’s utter madness and a failure of leadership if an instrument is not put in place to stop it happening again. Otherwise, it will. Simple as that.

    I think the world citizens benefit by acknowledging a level of government which heretofore is taken as given, and therefore is unchallenged and, in effect, unseen. This is a level of government that happens sort of ‘in the ether’.

    It goes this. We elect or select leaders of our nations. Each country has its internal levels of government. The unchallenged and in effect invisible level is the next one up, the ultimate level. ‘International leadership’.

    Countries elect or select leaders to govern internally: to look after and deal with internal national matters. This focus seems always to have dominance of mind in the nation’s public. But the instant we elect or select a national leader we’ve also made of them an international leader.

    That level of government I think has to be made clearer, in acknowledgement, and, without doubt,and by that acknowledgement, in law.

    What this means in practice is tying that international level of government to the national level, more definitively and more strongly.

    My proposition is the International Leader Code of Conduct, which ties an international leader to a code of behaviour – just as that leader is tied to its national code of conduct, and as in any other leadership position you can name. It also ties that leader to the national status as held internationally.

    Breach the International Leader Code of Conduct, that nation due to its legal ties at international government level, is rendered illegitimate, unrecognised. That means it can no longer trade internationally, and can no longer participate in world affairs, through various existing forums, as determined.

    If that throws up in mind the concern, and therefore impossibility of such a CoD, that nations simply can’t stop trading, can’t suddenly cease to exist in the eyes of international law, then consider this: that in practice won’t happen.

    With the Code of Conduct in place, there’s not a nation on the planet that won’t have a replacement ready to slot in. The US is a prime example. If the president is incapacitated, there’s an order of events that unfold to replace the powers of leadership. That sort of thing for each nation can be predetermined and enacted very swiftly.

    So in the event of a breach, the nation is offlne for five minutes. No effect on the nation itself, at all.

    But what’s happened? The leader who breached the code is out. Gone. And that’s the source of the problem, out, gone.

    This, or something like this, is what the world wants and expects, when the world moves out of this quagmire.

    It wants – by all means call it if you think it doesn’t – a practical, enforceable change put in place. It does not want more of the same but re-ordered.

    Isn’t that correct? That people the world over do not want to see this happen again. We need to be able to de-power, sideline, any leader who does what Vladimir Putin has done and is doing.

    An International Leader Code of Conduct, or some other instrument that ties the ultimate level of government to the nation’s international legal status, through the behavour of the leader, if put in place enables a way out of the quagmire.

    Once signed, the leader and that nation can participate (again) in world trade and world affairs. It provides direction and stability, and confidence, as the world moves forward.

    Without such a legislative development, we’re just going to keep bumping heads together, making it up as we go along, with leaders potentially acting however they like, acting and reacting without a framework of stability and direction, ambling all over the place, deep in the shit.

    If you like the concept, share it, and if you’re in a position to develop it, please do so.

  2. Commentar

    March 15, 2022 at 11:20 am

    US & NATO will eventually get involved in ukraine, but unlike syria where US-NATO forces used jihadist forces equipped with chemicals (courtesy of riyadh) and expert headchopping specialists, ukraine will be a NO HOLDS BARRED fighting ring with the prospect of the combatants resorting to using tactical nukes.

    Biden has clearly started something he can’t finished, but not to worry.

    The people paying the price will be the inhabitants of ukraine and nearby regions.

  3. Jacky

    March 15, 2022 at 11:27 am

    It is important now for people to stock up on essential items before all hell breaks loose.

    Biden has started an anti-putin crusade which will bring the world to the edge of tge precipice.

    First, direct involvement in combat, followed by market chaos, financial wipeout, hyperinflation, shortages, social chaos, breakdown of society, nuclear war and finally THE dreaded apocalypse.

  4. Alex

    March 15, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    Some important things to keep in mind:
    1. Russia was in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government of Syria and completed the tasks that were set. At the same time, the US was not in Syria, but simply invaded Syria. Despite the support of the terrorists, the United States could not prevent Russia from achieving success.
    2. Ukraine is a territory of interests and responsibility of Russia. It is even difficult to imagine what kind of fools hoped for the deployment of their weapons on the territory of Ukraine.
    3. There will be no war with NATO, unless NATO wants to see a scorched Europe, Britain at the bottom of the sea and the Canada-Mexico Strait. After all, only this stops the Anglo-Saxons from the idea of ​​”punishing” the Slavs, and especially the Russians, for all their defeats from the Slavic world throughout history.

  5. Ben Leucking

    March 15, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    The author needs to engage someone who speaks English to edit her material before posting. She rivals Kamala Harris in the word salad department.

  6. Eric-ji

    March 15, 2022 at 2:34 pm

    “Yes, Ukraine is not another Syria for Vladimir Putin. But rather than celebrating that Putin has already lost, the West needs to focus on how it can truly win—how to give Putin a loss he cannot come back from.”

    Who is supposed to win? Ukraine or the West?

    This is Ukraine’s war. The US and NATO are not going to be drawn in, save for come catastrophic error on someone’s part. This is Ukraine’s to win or lose. Arms from the US and NATO is all the support Ukraine can look for.

    In one sense Putin has already lost. His ineffective military will reduce the country to rubble in order to ‘win’. He’s already lost in the court of world opinion. As the rubble piles up, it gets worse for Putin.

    The safest and most likely best course for the US and NATO is to let the conflict drag on (with support in arms and humanitarian aid), and let it pull Putin down. He put this ball in motion and the pendulum will swing back and somehow take him out.

    The US and NATO need to resist the sabre rattling of folks like you, Anna.

  7. Eric-ji

    March 15, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    The US and NATO should not do more than arms and humanitarian shipments. It’s Ukraine’s war to win or lose.

    Putin has already lost the court of world opinion by starting this. His inept military now has to reduce Ukraine to rubble to ‘win’.

    Putin has started the process for his demise. The US and NATO needs to do no more than they already have.

    And people like this author should stop the sabre rattling.

  8. Eric-ji

    March 15, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    The US and NATO should not do more than arms and humanitarian shipments. It’s Ukraine’s war to win or lose.

    Putin has already lost the court of world opinion by starting this. His inept military now has to reduce Ukraine to rubble to ‘win’.

    Putin has started the process for his demise. The US and NATO needs to do no more than they already have.

    And people like this author should stop trying to make it something else.

  9. Alex

    March 15, 2022 at 4:43 pm

    Erik-ji: That’s what Hitler said about Russia. If you are not a Slav, then do not go to them. Otherwise, you will find yourself in a burning hell and then at the bottom of the ocean. Look at what the West has done with 30 countries in only 20-21 sotels and shut your dirty mouth.

  10. Slack

    March 16, 2022 at 12:14 pm

    Good point, Lviv should become the capital of a rump ukraine, a country flooded with IMF money, World Bank money and cash from ecb. Live the high life !

  11. Eric-ji

    March 16, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    Apologies to all for the duplicate posts.

  12. Alex

    March 16, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    It’s okay, it’s your job.

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