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Maxim Suchkov, a senior fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, spoke at the University on Tuesday about Russia’s actions and future plans for Syria and its policy for the Middle East as a whole. 

Suchkov, who is also editor of Al-Monitor’s Russia and Mideast coverage, began with an introduction to Russia’s Syrian intervention. In Russian foreign policy circles, the Arab Spring, which began in the early 2010s, was seen as a repeat of the “color revolutions” which occurred in Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and Georgia, and were aimed at democratization. 

According to Suchkov, revolutions in the Middle East would be disastrous from the Russian standpoint because they see no defined “good” actors in the Middle East, simply choices between bad and worse.

“Russia sees an opportunity to fill space in the Middle East, not to become the new sheriff, but to provide overseas balance.”

Russia’s military intervention in Syria began at the end of October 2015, with a sustained air campaign at the request of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. 

Before the Russian intervention, the Syrian Army was in dire shape, having lost two-thirds of its manpower and most of its aircraft and tanks. Russian military support, both in the form of personnel and weapons, as well as training and rearmament drastically shifted the tide of the war in Assad and Putin’s favor. 

While Russian bombings were condemned in the West, they served a vital role for the Russian defense and energy market, which was shut off from the West by sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea put the country at odds with the United States and the European Union. 

Suchkov summarized the success of Russia’s strategy thus far as being owed to its unique position in the Middle East. Russia is not specifically tied to any state’s long-term interests, except perhaps those of Syria. 

This means that Russia can cooperate with many partners at once, such as Israel, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. No other country has ever been able to maintain this type of diplomacy, Suchkov said.

“Countries will still usually prioritize relations and arms sales from the United States,” Suchkov added. 

Russian-American relations have soured over a number of points, although military advisors from both countries are in constant contact to avoid incidents in Syrian airspace. 

Nevertheless, Russian arms sales to the Middle East have made headlines and damaged U.S. relations, with the sale of advanced S-400 air defense systems to Turkey becoming a point of contention for U.S.-Turkey-Russia relations. 

“For the United States, Turkey is an ally, not a partner. For Russia, it is a partner, not an ally,” Suchkov explained. 

While many challenges still lie ahead, Russia is certainly in a stronger position that it was five years ago, Suchkov said. Climate change, terrorism and other issues will continue to present challenges for the future. Just last week, a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance plane was accidentally shot down by Syrian air defense while Israeli fighter jets were in close proximity, causing tensions between all three countries. 

“In Moscow, however, Russians debate whether or not there is a long-term strategy, or simply clear goals and a vision of the future of the Middle East,” Suchkov said. 

This debate will allow Russia to adapt to future challenges in what will remain a key area in the globe for years to come. 

The lecture, entitled “Russia in Syria: Opportunism or Strategy for the Long Game?”, was cosponsored by the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies; the Program in Near Eastern Studies; and the Institute for the Transregional Study of Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. It was held at 4:30 p.m. in the Louis A. Simpson International Building.

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