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The Sinister Reason Russia Wants Humanitarian Corridors in Ukraine

Su-34 Russia Ukraine
Russia's Su-34 fighter-bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

After eight days of Russia’s assault on Ukraine created the largest war in Europe since World War II, the two countries agreed to set up humanitarian corridors in areas where “most intensive fighting,” according to Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. In addition, the two sides agreed to “a possibility of [a temporary] cease-fire in the areas where such evacuations will take place.”

This sounds like good news. Thousands have already died in this war, and approximately a million have become refugees. The war has every chance of spreading beyond Ukraine borders—in fact with the involvement of Belarus, it already has. The West has not experienced such upheaval for decades.

The problem is, the Kremlin’s past behavior offers little consolation it will hold true to its word. Syria is a prime example of this. Since intervening in the country in September 2015 to save Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Moscow brokered a number of de-escalation agreements, only to shore up its position on the ground, something we go into greater detail with Andrew J. Tabler in a  recent paper on Russian diplomacy .

In Syria, Western officials were too eager to take Putin at his word and continued to hope that the Kremlin could serve as a mediator; it was easier to see Russia as part of a solution than part of the problem. As we describe in the paper, Putin took advantage of this perception by positioning Russia as an indispensable interlocutor among a myriad of conflicting parties in Syria. It never offered genuine resolution.

In the same vein, a string of broken ceasefires that occurred on Russia’s watch in Syria over the years had instilled little confidence in Vladimir Putin’s ability to honor his agreements. Putin went into Syria with a key objective of saving Bashar al-Assad from an eminent fall and establishing a strategic Russian military presence on the Eastern Mediterranean. All Russian state activities, including brokerage of ceasefires, supported this goal. Indeed, the Syria experience perhaps like no other offers valuable lessons in how Moscow conducts diplomacy.

The fact of the matter is, when the Kremlin engages in negotiations it is a tactic for buying time, repositioning their operational forces, and achieving greater strategic leverage. Russia has no disconnect between those who do diplomacy and those who go to war, unlike in the West. It utilizes the entirety of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic activities to pressure its opponent’s resolve.

Putin now sees how badly he miscalculated his initial invasion, but he has no intent to stop, only to double down. A strategic pause and redirection could gain his advantages. The very same day that Ukraine and Russia agreed to establish humanitarian ceasefires, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov Russia will continue fighting in Ukraine until “the end”.  Putin himself held a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and told him the same. After the call, an Élysée Palace source said, according to CNN, “the worst is yet to come.”

The courage and resolve of the Ukrainian people in the face of Putin’s brutality has inspired the world. It exposed multiple failures of the Russian armed forces, which suffered far greater losses when confronted with a smaller opponent. Indeed, a joke began trending on social media: “NATO is free to apply for Ukrainian membership.” But the asymmetry of forces is still balanced in Russia’s favor, and Putin now understands what kind of fight he is in. To turn the tide, he may soon turn Kyiv into another Aleppo or Grozny.

Western initial euphoria needs to give way to a more somber assessment of what’s to come. This is the best way to save Ukraine. And here Syria can provide useful lessons.

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

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. yellowstoneuk

    March 4, 2022 at 7:27 pm

    Well written article, the phony negotiating by Putin before unleashing what he had intended all along into unfortunate ukraine. The double down comment reminds me of what gamblers sometimes do, but in the context of an initial loss, it is a risky and unwise manoever. Putin needs to pay homage to the West and acknowledge that Russia’s economy is puny with three American states having larger GDP than russia. The problem is that Putin a a died in the wool socislist , who has failed to take on board that the Soviet union collapsed because socialism does not work and will always be beaten by market economy countries, where freedom breeds excellent technological progress.

  2. BrianG

    March 5, 2022 at 2:55 am

    @yellowstoneuk Russia and Soviet Union are communist and it fails because of corruption and greed from the top. Canada is considered social democrat and it works because there is much less corruption.

  3. Jack

    March 5, 2022 at 3:09 am

    We won’t ask what europe did to the refugees on those occasions.

  4. Alex

    March 5, 2022 at 4:57 am

    Plain blatant lies. Russia is in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government of Syria. The legitimacy of the government does not need to be assessed by third countries. But the United States carried out an intervention – they are illegally in Syria and steal oil.
    How do you know the plans for Russia’s special operation in Ukraine? I am sure that even the Pentagon does not know them, therefore you are a dreamer.
    This is a great example of propaganda: looking for something bad in the humanitarian corridors and trying to blame Russia.
    As always, the article is about nothing but the emotions of the author.

  5. wesley bruce

    March 5, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    Why is Syria popular with Russians? Putin is NOT a one-man state. His intervention in Syria is widely popular because Syria has orthodox Christians and Assad is the only Muslim that is willing to pledge and deliver safety to them. The west can’t provide that promise, we said the words in Iraq and Afghanistan then burned bibles in the local languages and failed to protect the churches. If someone persecuted the Greek Church inside NATO Putin would be in there in days armed to the teeth. Putin does not have that excuse in Ukraine and earlier Georgia. There is no history of orthodox church persecutions in either case. Putin is a Tyrant and a criminal but you must always ask why he is still popular with part of the population. Find that reason and deal with it. The Russian orthodox church has already condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but Russian media has banned the publication of it’s statement.

  6. samir sardana

    March 6, 2022 at 8:51 am

    The aim of Nato was to provoke Putin ,to invade !

    NATO purpose is served,as it has justified its existence,and has 3 more applications (excl UKR), and will raise more funds,and NORD 2 is gone (thus trapping the Germans).

    The very purpose of NATO and US was to financially cripple Russia and start an insurrection in Russia.Putin CANNOT withdraw,as his aims are NOT achieved.Longer he stays – more the sanctions – and soon,sanctions will hit the common man – and then the Orange Revolution by the CIA in Moscow.

    CIA aim,was to turn the Russians and Military,against Putin. Will there be a coup or martial law ?

    The day RUSSIAN RESERVES IN EU banks, WERE FROZEN – THAT WAS WAR BY NATO ! But Putin moved late ! At that stage, a Thermo Nuke test in Siberia,was in order !

    The aim of CIA is to induce shortages and hyper inflation in Russia – FASTER than Putin taking Kiev and Partitioning UKR.Who will succeed 1st ? ddindooohindoo

    Even if Putin just keeps the 2 provinces – US and NATO will not lift the sanctions !

    They will keep Russia in UKR for a long time – and keep tightening the financial screws !

    Lindsay is wrong on doing a HIT ON PUTIN.

    The way to TRY to topple Putin is to create mass unrest via shortages and hyperinflation and LETTING PUTIN TAKE KIEV and then send in the mili aid to insurgents – and keep Putin in UKR – and then tighten sanctions – and that will lead to food shortages and mass unemployment (as Russia is an export driven economy)

    Then Soros and CIA can start the Orange revolution

    Then at that stage,some one from the Milit MIGHT TRY TO TOPPLE Putin !

    BUT IF PUTIN ACHIEVES SPECTACULAR SUCCESS IN UKR OR PRC MAKES A MOVE IN SCS – THEN PUTIN WILL THRIVE !

    PRC is watching the sanctions on Russia !

    SCS is different

    If there is war in SCS – then US Navy will block the Malacca and SCS – and no OIl will flow to PRC.Until PRC can solve that riddle,it will wait.PRC needs SUPPLY of oil at FAIR RATES.War risk premiums on Voyage charters will blow a hole in the Oil bill – if the Oil comes in.

    Better for PRC to take North East India or Indon-ass-eaaah or Vietnam !

    Until the PLN can keep the shipping lanes open !dindooohindoo

  7. Alex

    March 7, 2022 at 6:48 am

    Wesley Bruce: I see some people are not ashamed to show their stupidity and lack of education.

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