“Nothing is stranger,” writes the historian Robert Service, “than the notion, widely held, that Russia is a newcomer to the Middle East.” Tracing the development of Russian interventions in the region from Catherine the Great’s 18th-century conquests, which brought her empire to the borders of the Ottoman empire, to Vladimir Putin’s current involvement in Syria and Libya, Service calls attention to the constant themes of hostility toward the Turks and competition with the Western powers. But he also notes an ideological component:
For Moscow, the Middle East constituted a testing ground for its thinking on foreign policy. Putin became an advocate of “multipolarity” in global politics. The essence of this orientation is the idea that America had lorded it over the world for too long. Russian leaders complained that American power had been uncontested in the last decade of the 20th century and that the result was chaos and distress in many countries. The Kremlin, apart from objecting to Washington’s alleged goal of continued “hegemony,” declared that the West made fundamental mistakes by blundering into the Middle East and toppling regimes in Iraq and Libya.
It is needless to stress [that] the Putin administration was not acting in a spirit of altruism by racing to rescue Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2015. Russia is seizing its chance to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. presidents Obama and Trump. Here the Russian leadership has walked through an open door. In shoring up Syrian authoritarianism, moreover, it is acting to dampen the worldwide movement for democratization. Examples of new democracies are not welcomed by the Kremlin because they could set a precedent for Russia’s electorate to emulate.
In the early years of the current century the prospect of a free society on the Russian doorstep was stirred by the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and Putin’s policy was to destabilize democratic administrations by fair means or foul. Usually foul. Both Georgia and Ukraine have experienced invasion by forces of the Russian Federation, and the annexation of Crimea and on-going war in Donbas shows the constancy of Putin’s determination.