Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Russia Picked Last Week To Begin Airstrikes In Syria


The West is very concerned about what exactly Russia is doing in Syria - a Russian air campaign is now in its sixth day. Let's talk about this with Konstantin von Eggert, he's a Russian journalist and political commentator - among his many jobs was Moscow Bureau Chief for the BBC Russian Service. He's based in Moscow but passing through Washington, D.C. We're lucky enough to have him in the studio this morning.

Konstantin, good to see you again.


GREENE: So as we just heard right there, Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, says Russia's making a mistake using its military to prop up the Assad regime. Is that what Russia is trying to do?

VON EGGERT: Well, it does. But I think Mr. Putin - not so much prop up President Assad there but a principle - a principle of absolute sovereignty - a pre-World War I attitude to sovereignty, if you wish, under which, any regime has total right to do whatever it wants domestically to its own citizens without any outside interference. In a certain way, it is a very, very strong step to oppose what Putin sees as a regime change policy by the United States across the globe. And in this respect, with Putin being very much concerned about his domestic positions, you could say that in Lattakia, Tartus and Damascus, Putin is defending Moscow.

GREENE: He's defending Moscow and also this principle, as you say - I mean, telling the United States, telling other countries, that no matter what you think of a dictator, of a leader, no other country has the right to decide who is going to lead another one.

VON EGGERT: Absolutely. The - absolutely that. Absolutely so. And I think there are a few other things that he achieves there, or he thinks he achieves. First of all, he sends a signal to Russia's very few allies that if you're an ally of Russia, you're going to be sent, you know, marines and planes and tanks. If you're an ally of the United States, as President Mubarak was in Egypt, you get a line busy signal from the White House when they have problems. Secondly, it's a great demonstration of Russia's military potential - new weapons. And in a certain way, it's a showcase for Russia's new military capacity. Again, a very important thing - this action in Syria distracts attention from Ukraine with the Minsk agreements coming up for review, as we know, before the end of the year. And also, another thing that's an important thing, too - now Mr. Putin has created a kind of political bridge hat(ph) which will link him to the next administration because the fear in the Kremlin was when Obama goes, the new person, whoever he or she is, will come into the White House and say, what's this Vlad guy doing in the Kremlin? Why don't we sort of turn on the heat a bit on him? Now it will be very difficult because there will always be a Syria to talk about.

GREENE: You're saying the next U.S. president will have no choice, in a sense - at least this is Putin's belief - but to work with him.

VON EGGERT: Or - let's put it like that. Putin thinks that the U.S. president - next U.S. president will have no choice if the Russian troops are in Syria and if they still sustain an air campaign there or any kind of military campaign there.

GREENE: You said this is distracting attention from Ukraine. I mean, that was - to many Russians, Russian involvement there was not necessarily a bad thing, but the Russian economy, not doing well. I mean, is this Putin still looking for ways to draw attention to, you know, sort of seeing him as a tough world leader on the world stage?

VON EGGERT: Absolutely. I think that it's always the main consideration. Whatever Mr. Putin does domestically or in international affairs, domestic considerations always come on top. And his legitimacy in the eyes of the Russians very much is based on his sort of, you know, attitudes to, you know, restoring the Soviet's glories. But, of course, I think that this is a short-term view. Long-term, I'm afraid there are lots of dangers there.

GREENE: What - let me ask you about that - we just have a few seconds left - but some are actually comparing this, potentially, to the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan, which was not a success. I mean, could that be a long-term, real danger here for the Russians?

VON EGGERT: Well, as someone who remembers the Afghan operations starting and going on through the '80s, I think it's a bit more like Vietnam because in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union started straightaway with regime change and a big military operation. Now, I'm afraid that in Syria, they - the chance of being sucked into this conflict without essentially planning that is much bigger. So, in this respect, it's a bit more like Vietnam to me.

GREENE: All right. Konstantin von Eggert is a Russian journalist. He's a commentator for Kommersant FM and also a fellow at the Legatum Institute.

Konstantin, always great to see you. Thank you.

VON EGGERT: Good to see you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.