Donbass-Damascus: Coincidental similarities or Russian strategy?

The admittance by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia is pursuing a two-track goal in Syria — “stabilizing the legitimate authority in this country and creating conditions to look for political compromise” — raises an intriguing speculation that Moscow could be applying the same tactics in its Middle East proactive policy as it previously did in its reactive response to the hostilities in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.


Syrian army personnel fire a machine gun in Latakia province, about 12 miles from the border with Turkey, Syria. Backed by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian army has launched an offensive in central and northwestern regions. Source: AP

In some sense, the pattern of Russia’s behavior in respect to the rebel “republics” in the Donbass resembles its handling of the four-year old crisis in Syria.

The recent Syrian army counter-offensive, which came as a surprise for many, appears to be strikingly similar to the clashes at the end of summer 2014 around the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Virtually on the brink of disintegration, the rebel regions suddenly fought off the assault of the more powerful Ukrainian army. It’s hardly a secret that Moscow simply did not allow the defeat of the predominantly Russian-speaking “republics.” – just as it has now saved Damascus from collapse at the last.

Are there similarities between Moscow’s policy toward the Donbass and its actions in Syria? Do they reveal a certain pattern of strategic thinking? Sergei Markedonov, an associate professor from the department of regional studies and foreign policy at the Russian State University for the Humanities, is not convinced the comparison is fully relevant. However, talking to Troika Report, he pointed out the lessons from the history of diplomacy now being projected onto the Syrian conflict.

“Moscow is seeking guarantees. It has the experience of the Balkan drama and of Libya. In both cases the arguments put forward by Moscow were either dismissed altogether or accepted selectively. Under such circumstances, Moscow wants to have a meaningful dialogue (with the West) on the basis of equality.

“A party to any negotiations is listened to if it has strong arguments on its side, and it is no big secret that military potential is just one of such arguments. The history of diplomacy serves as evidence. If someone cannot be conquered or even subdued, it paves the way to negotiations.”

Earlier, the same model was applied by Moscow to the crisis in the Donbass, where Ukrainian citizens, who at the time had no intentions either to set up a separate state or join the Russian Federation, rejected the legitimacy of the new parliament and government in Kiev and rebelled. The central authorities assembled a large military contingent, comprised of the regular army, paramilitary units of the nationalist group Right Sector, and battalions armed and financed by local oligarchs.

The self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk were doomed to be overpowered. Nonetheless, this didn’t happen. On the contrary, it was the Ukrainian “army of conquest” that suffered a chain of defeats and came to a standstill. This was not only due to the reluctance of professional army officers and soldiers to fight in a civil war, or the resilience of the rebels who fought for their families and homes. Moscow most certainly provided the essential support that leveled the balance of power between the adversaries on the battlefield.

In the absence of a rapid victory and amid the deterioration of the security environment in eastern Ukraine, a group of four nations (Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia) initiated peace talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk. Negotiations resulted in two sets of Minsk peace agreements, yet to be implemented in good faith and in full accordance with their letter and spirit but which are already underpinning the truce and a return to normal life in the Donbass.

Similarly, at the beginning of this year, no pundit could have envisaged that continental Europe’s two leading politicians, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, would have admitted the expediency of keeping Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad in power for the time being, and even attempt to bring under one umbrella — to fight ISIS — the regime in Damascus and the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army. To make it happen, the warring parties had to accept the impossibility of gaining the upper hand and agree to start talking to each other.

So, how justified are parallels between the two cases of civil war, in Ukraine and Syria, and the foreign policy model followed by Moscow? In his comment for Troika Report, Alexander Rytov, an expert with the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, emphasized that the two conflicts are different in nature and characteristics. However…

“…the only thing in common is the traditional maneuver aimed at reaching a balance of power, reaching parity on the military side as a precondition and stimulus to start negotiations. In Ukraine the inability to reach an end result by means of force produced the Minsk agreements. In Syria, the offensive by government troops could set the stage for talks with the ‘moderate’ opposition, with paramilitary units of other groups, and even with a moderate wing of ISIS which could emerge after the defeats on the battleground.”

Could the changing realities on the ground sweep aside the disagreements between Russia and the West, and the United States in particular? Could the proposed Putin-Obama summit be a game-changer? Military expert Ivan Konovalov, director of the Strategic Conjuncture Center, had this answer for Troika Report.

“The key issue, contentious as it is, at any potential meeting between Putin and Obama would be the political transition of the Syrian regime. The United States evidently would be anxious to draw a red line between its consent to cooperate with Russia in fighting ISIS and the legitimization of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, let alone contributing unintentionally to its strengthening.

“Yet the ongoing mediation by Moscow to stimulate inter-Syrian dialogue is also becoming part of the process. It means that at the potential summit Syria would be discussed not only in the context of the fight against ISIS but as a separate problematic topic.”

— The unexpected statement by Angela Merkel that Assad could be accepted as a sort of provisional ally in the battle against radical Islamists can be interpreted that the Western stance in respect to the regime in Damascus is now splintered. But is this really the case?

“It is more correct to say that it is not a sign of a divergence of views but a hint that priorities differ. Europe, unlike the U.S., cannot sustain for long the current turmoil in the Middle East since it keeps generating a flood of refugees and the danger of infiltration of the EU by radicals. Merkel seems to be one step ahead of Obama because for Europe the present turbulence comes at a higher cost.”

In sum, the strategy of “peace enforcement” is largely built on the first phase, when the party on the offensive is deprived of the chance to end as the only winner. In the Donbass conflict it was the Ukrainian army which Moscow sought to prevent from conquering the two self-proclaimed republics. In Syria, it meant stopping ISIS from taking Damascus. The second phase is to support the counter-offensive by what can be considered as pro-Moscow loyalists: in Ukraine those were the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, and in Syria — the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The third and most crucial phase, coming on the heels of a relatively re-established balance of power, is devoted to setting in motion the process of a political settlement. In this case, the new realities “on the ground” leave no option but to forge a compromise.

This conclusion is essentially supported by Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Middle East Studies, who shared his view with Troika Report:

“The Russian attacks on the positions of major terrorist organizations, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and others, will give a chance for normal peace talks and a political process.”

Whether or not this line of thinking is the actual intellectual lining of Vladimir Putin’s policy regarding conflicts affecting the national interests of Russia is debatable. Yet there are too many coincidences and similarities to dismiss them outright.

The opinion of the writers may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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