Russian President Vladimir Putin is slowly but systemically reducing his support for Iranian interests in Syria.
We gained the newest evidence for this when John Bolton met with Israeli officials on Wednesday. Speaking in Jerusalem, President Trump’s national security adviser claimed that Putin had told Trump “that he would be content to see Iranian forces all sent back to Iran.” Bolton added that Putin had offered the caveat, “I can’t do it myself.”
For once, I think Putin is telling the truth here. The key is that Putin’s interests in Syria are now increasingly divergent from those of Iran.
Both nations sought to secure Bashar Assad’s survival, and that outcome is very nearly completed. But Putin’s secondary interest has always been to displace America as the main international power player in the Middle East. Cultivating a perception of himself as the most reliable actor to achieve their regional interests, Putin wants Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni-Arab monarchies to start buying Russian military and industrial equipment and granting Russia favored access to their energy and other market opportunities.
Putin would like Iran to buy into this scheme, but it is the wealthy Sunni-Arab states that are his favored prize.
The next point of relevance here is the question of Putin’s strategic mindset. Putin is a hard-edged realist who is not guided by an ideological vision. When he invaded Ukraine entered the Syrian civil war for Assad, and even when he attacked the U.S. election and attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, he has generally tried not to go too far. He has not, for example, invaded the Baltic NATO member states, or used cyberattacks to crash the U.S. financial system. He has not done these things not because he doesn’t want to, but in that doing so would risk an escalatory curve that outweighs what he would accomplish.
That brings us back to Syria. In Syria, Putin knows that supporting Iran is now more problematic than it is beneficial. He didn’t suddenly wake up to this conclusion, he recognized it in the context of other factors. Most important has been Israel’s vested unwillingness to allow Iran to establish a forward operating missile garrison in Syria. In numerous aggressive air strikes on Iranian revolutionary guards and their associated missile forces, Israel has risked killing Russian personnel in order to reinforce its redline against Iranian missile force entrenchment.
And Putin knows that the Israelis won’t blink here. For a time, Putin sought to play both sides: attempting to persuade the Israelis to go soft on the Iranians and the Iranians to restrict their Israeli-focused operations in Syria. But just as Putin lacked the influence to affect IRGC revolutionary strategy in Tehran, he lacks Israeli trust. In short, Putin’s Iran-angle is caught between Syria and hard-power Israeli bombs.
Finally, Putin sees the Trump administration’s increasingly unrestrained push to see Iran’s economy implode. Considering Putin’s top priority of U.S.-European sanctions relief against his economy, it makes little sense for the Russian leader to aggravate Trump by lending support to an increasingly unstable Iran that can now offers him comparatively little in return. At the same time, seeing as the Sunni-Arab states, Israel, and the U.S. all despise the Iranian regime, Putin has even more reason to ignore Iranian interests.
Instead, Putin wants to be able to earn Trump’s short-term favor and manipulate the American president into concessions more relevant to his own interests (this number includes altering the U.S. position in Syria). That speaks to the simple truth: For Vladimir Putin, Iran just doesn’t matter that much anymore.