Managing defeat well is one of the greatest skills a diplomat can have. Historians have a special admiration for statesmen who have extracted their countries from failed wars. These diplomatic heroes include Talleyrand, who brilliantly defended French interests after the fall of Napoleon, and Henry Kissinger, who devised America’s exit from Vietnam. As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reflects on the challenges ahead in 2013, he may wonder if he will be able to manage the consequences of a lost war.
For Lavrov, that lost war is the Syrian conflict. Although it has now claimed more than 40,000 lives, the Syrian conflict is hardly comparable in scale or importance to the wars that Talleyrand and Kissinger helped end. But over the past year, it has become a defining test of Russia’s claim to be a major power. Lavrov and Russian officials at the United Nations have steadfastly defended the Syrian regime against Western pressure, using adroit diplomatic tactics to delay, disrupt and dismiss repeated U.S. and European efforts to resolve the crisis.
Western diplomats believe that Lavrov is following an anti-Western agenda set by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seemed to be calling the shots on Russia’s Syria policy well before he regained the presidency this summer. Despite Lavrov’s skillful maneuvering, he and Putin now face the prospect of a decisive diplomatic defeat. A senior Russian official reportedly warned last week that the Syrian government is « progressively losing control » of the country. As I have noted in these pages , the real question now is whether the regime’s eventual fall will be followed by a political settlement or anarchy.
Moscow insists that the only solution to the conflict remains talks that include the failing government in Damascus. Although Lavrov is undeniably deft enough to reinterpret or drop this commitment as the endgame unfolds, there is now a very high chance that Russia will be marginalized as the rebels claw their way to victory.
This would be a disaster for Russia on numerous levels. There are an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens in Syria , including an uncertain number of military advisers, whose lives would be at risk. Putin and his advisers are worried by links between radical Islamist groups in Syria and the Russian
Caucasus . Failure to protect President Bashar al-Assad will undermine Russia’s remaining influence over other powers in the Middle East, most obviously Iran. China, having backed Russia at the U.N., will not be happy either.
This potential fallout is not only a source of concern for Russian policymakers. Since the very start of the Syrian crisis, U.S. officials have hoped to find a solution that could satisfy Moscow. They share Russia’s concerns about some of the Islamist factions at work in Syria, and they do not want to complicate already difficult diplomatic cooperation over Iran. While American and Russian diplomats have exchanged many barbs in public at the U.N., the U.S. has searched very hard for common ground in private. At times, Moscow may have interpreted this dual strategy as evidence of American weakness.
It will now be difficult for the Russians to reverse course and find a new approach to Syria before Assad falls. Giving up on a firm friend would arguably do Russia’s diplomatic credibility further damage. And although Syrian opposition leaders have visited Moscow, there is no obvious candidate for the role of « Moscow’s man » in a post-Assad Syria. Any political figure associated with Russia might not last long in Damascus.
Yet Russia needs a strategy to minimize the damage to its interests once Assad goes. As I have argued previously , Moscow could try to sustain a presence in Syria by offering troops for an international peacekeeping force. However, these forces could quickly become targets themselves. The best way to guarantee the security of Russian citizens in Syria may be to enlist some of the opposition’s international backers, such as France, the U.K. and Turkey, to steer the rebels away from targeted attacks. If the Kremlin’s primary concern is to ensure that Syrian Islamists do not aid their allies in Russia itself, it should be possible to make covert arrangements with the U.S. and other concerned powers to address the threat.
Beyond exercises in damage-control, Lavrov and Putin also need to consider more broadly how to defend Russia’s battered claim to be a great power once their Syrian clients are defeated. There is a risk that Putin might blame the fall of Assad on a Western plot to weaken Russia and become more confrontational in response. He has many ways to make his displeasure known, ranging from reducing cooperation with NATO over Afghanistan to using Russia’s 2013 presidency of the G-20 to criticize his Western counterparts in public.
There is a better course of action available, at least in theory. Having gambled and lost on the outcome of the Syrian conflict, Russia can still reassert itself as a weighty diplomatic player on multiple fronts. These include final planning for stability in Afghanistan after NATO’s departure in 2014 (.pdf), negotiating a second nuclear arms reduction deal with the Obama administration to build on the 2010 New START treaty and trying to keep multilateral nuclear diplomacy with Iran alive.
A veteran diplomat like Lavrov can surely see how these initiatives, in combination, would signal Russia’s continuing importance. The Obama administration, having invested heavily in the « reset » with Russia prior to this year, could likewise devise a package of ideas for cooperation with Moscow to take the sting out its defeat in Syria. But it is not clear that Putin will play this game. Anti-Western posturing may be easier for him. If so, Russia may end up handling its forthcoming defeat in Syria as badly as it handled the war itself.
Richard Gowan is an associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.