In a famous poem by the writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko, an ant crawling on the face of a Russian soldier killed in Afghanistan asks the dead man: “What can you give to my impoverished homeland if the shops in your country have no food?”
It’s a scene that symbolises contemporary Russia’s greatest fear: getting caught up in another unwanted conflict in a faraway country, a concern clearly informed by Russia’s disastrous 10-year war in Afghanistan.
For many years before Soviet forces entered the conflict in 1979, citizens had a saying that they accepted the hard realities of daily life in the USSR “as long as there is no war”. It was a kind of a social contract, but on sending troops to Kabul, Leonid Brezhnev broke it.
More than 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed between 1979 and 1989, and it is this history that makes President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a military operation in Syria all the more surprising.
In 2013, Putin decided to help Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, by seeking a compromise with the west.
However, three years later the Kremlin is no longer playing the role of an intermediary, but fighting on the side of the Damascus government, actively taking part in the confrontation between the Syrian regime and armed rebels.
At one time, Putin’s supporters in Russia were seriously discussing how he deserved the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in Syria. On Monday, Russia was accused of war crimes for allegedly bombing a UN aid convoy delivering supplies in a rebel-held area of Aleppo.
So what explains this sharp foreign policy shift? In a word: Ukraine.
In spring 2014, as the Kremlin made moves to annex Crimea, Putin was under the illusion that the west, particularly Europe, would allow him to fulfil his expansionist desires and would approve, even silently, the annexation of the Ukrainian territories populated by pro-Russia groups.
By the time it became clear this was wrong, a full-scale war was raging in two Ukrainian regions; a Malaysian Airlines plane had been shot down over Ukraine; the G8 had reverted to the G7; Putin’s closest friends were on international sanctions lists, and Russia was more isolated internationally for the first time since the Afghan war.
Finding himself in a Ukrainian dead end, Putin decided to raise the stakes. He acted to ensure the issue of Ukraine would seem insignificant and that Russiawould become a key player in a conflict the west could not ignore. That meant adopting a new approach to Syria.
The protracted conflict inside Syria was a gift to Putin.
With Russia now a key player in Syria , the west is once again forced to negotiate with Moscow. Russian army attacks are now targeting not just Isis strongholds, but also pro-western opposition bases. The aim is to prolong the war, thereby ensuring Russia’s place at the international negotiation table and legitimising the Kremlin’s foreign policy. It’s even more ironic, then, that Russia’s military HQ in Syria is officially called The Centre for Reconciliation.
A classical music concert played among the ruins of Palmyra, destroyed by Isis in 2015, is a perfect symbol of Putin’s politics in Syria. The headline performer of the night was cellist Sergey Roldugin, an old friend of Putin’s, who, according to evidence in the Panama Papers, is worth billions of dollars, whose origin unknown.
Russians are convinced that Putin is fighting the Islamic State, thus preventing terrorist attacks at home. It is a PR coup in Russia and abroad and nothing will change until western leaders talk to Putin – not about Syria, but about Ukraine and sanctions.