Putin sees opportunity in Syria's COVID-19 crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the dispatch of medical assistance to help Syria combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, but his real objective is far from altruistic.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attend a meeting in Damascus, Syria, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS.

Apr 1, 2020

In late March, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to discuss the ongoing battle for Idlib as well as Russian humanitarian assistance to Syria. Following Shoigu’s visit, the Russian navy delivered medical assistance, including equipment to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak in Syria, whose health system has been decimated from almost a decade of civil war. Moscow's actions might appear at first glance to be an act of altruism, but the Kremlin’s support for Assad is in fact part of a well-thought-out plan to advance Russian interests in the region. 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a decade of economic stagnation, President Vladimir Putin has embarked on a strategy of Russian resurgence. He hopes to use his brand of authoritarianism to project his reliability as a supportive ally and promote the perception of Russia as a player on the world stage equal in stature to the United States.

Putin views the Middle East as a proxy battleground, with Russia vying for influence with its main enemy, the United States, and seeks to drive a wedge between the Americans and their allies, especially NATO member Turkey. He has latched on to turmoil in the region to exploit what he views as Western policy failures and to present Russia as a steady alternative to Middle Eastern leaders. Putin sees value in rekindling the Soviet approach of playing benefactor and dependable partner during crises.

Syria has become the linchpin for Russia’s effort to boost its throw weight in the Middle East. In September 2015, a squadron of Russian jets deployed to an air base near Latakia, an Assad stronghold. It was Russia’s first military deployment outside the former borders of the Soviet Union since its disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Within days, some 30 Russian warplanes started to turn the war in Assad’s favor. Putin’s first order of business had been to game out the response of US President Trump before taking action in the Middle East. No other American president had had to seriously consider such a scenario since the fall of the Soviet Union.

A few days ago, on March 30, Putin and Trump had a lengthy call during which they likely discussed Syria among other “bilateral issues,” including the Saudi-Russian oil price war and the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic has exacerbated Syria’s ongoing humanitarian catastrophe from the civil war, which has convulsed the region and beyond, resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, an ongoing insurgency against Islamic State extremists and a refugee crisis.

As Syrian government forces continue fighting in Idlib, Putin understands that medical assistance is increasingly vital to the Assad regime's security and therefore can also serve as an increasingly powerful tool in Russia’s national security strategy. He wants the Kremlin to be perceived as being on the front line in combating the coronavirus, in part to blunt domestic and international criticism of Russia’s own initially sluggish response to the pandemic. 

In an example of so-called viruspolitik, Russia has sent soldiers and medical supplies to Italy, a member of both the European Union and NATO. Meanwhile, the United States plans to send $100 million worth of medical supplies and ventilators to the Italians. 

In addition, Putin does not want to miss the opportunity to use the coronavirus to soil the image of the United States around the world. Thousands of reportedly Russian-linked social media accounts have spread conspiracy theories holding the United States responsible for the outbreak. 

Two formative experiences in Putin's life inform his policy approach to the current situation. First, he served in the KGB and as director of FSB, the Russian Security Police, so he is naturally inclined to use espionage and influence operations, “active measures”​ in Russian spy parlance, against his domestic and foreign enemies. Second, Putin holds a black belt in judo, a key principle of which is to use an opponent’s strength against him. Applying this concept to Russia’s strategic relationship with the United States, its stronger rival, Putin has used open social media and networking platforms to target its democratic institutions and reputation worldwide.

Using tactics similar to those in the ongoing interference in US elections, the Kremlin has reportedly deployed fake online personas to deliver propaganda on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Harkening back to Soviet-era disinformation campaigns, one of which claimed that the CIA created AIDS as part of a biological weapons project, Russian bots have falsely claimed that the coronavirus is also a CIA-manufactured biological weapon. In fact, world health officials identified the novel coronavirus in 2019 and linked it to a live animal market in Wuhan, China.

Russians are fond of the saying “Cvaya rubashka blizhe k telu,”​ that is, “One’s own shirt is closest to one’s body.” Among Putin's wins to date in Syria and the region are the naval base in Tartus and the air base near Latakia. Russia’s official arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, is Syria’s largest weapons supplier.

Unsurprisingly, Putin is using COVID-19 to send a message to the United States and the rest of the world that he and his proxy Assad are the go-to guys in Syria for dealing with the coronavirus. At the United Nations on March 30, Russia's ambassador made the case that Damascus, not the remaining Syrian Kurdish or other opposition forces, should be the only interlocutors for humanitarian assistance.

The Syrian government would do well to consider that Russia’s multifaceted support does not come without strings attached. This, however, is par for the course in the Middle East. For now, while the civil war rages in Idlib, Damascus depends on Moscow’s diplomatic and military heft. As the United States has no interest in working with or through Assad, even on the refugee and COVID-19 crises, the Syrian government remains tied to Russia. Putin will ensure that this arrangement works for Russia and against the interests of the United States. 

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