A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum
Michael Fredholm, Head of Research and Development, IRI, Stockholm, Associate of SIPCATS
Russia as a Guarantor of Security
Many political and cultural changes have taken place in Central Eurasia since the conference in Istanbul in 2003, which resulted in the publication of Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia, yet the balance of power from a regional perspective fundamentally remains as it was then. In my chapter on ‘Russia and Central Asian security’, I then concluded that Russia remained the key guarantor of security in Central Asia, despite often heard claims that the United States had assumed this position. Russia would assist its allies with, among others, military support and international diplomacy, particularly when faced with a threat from Islamic extremism.
This now applies to the greater region as well. When Russia in 2015 launched a major air war against opposition forces in Syria, this sent a strong message to Russia’s allies that Russia indeed would be their guarantor of security. There were other implicit messages as well in the Russian military operation, aimed at the NATO and EU member states. However, for Russia’s allies and Russian public opinion, there was little ambiguity. Russia remained a great power, despite sanctions and falling oil prices, and so, the political message suggested, Russia could be relied upon.
On 30 September 2015, Russia began to launch air strikes from Khmeimim air base near Latakia in Syria against targets primarily connected to the Islamic State (IS) but also against those of other armed insurgent groups in the country. Russia had several reasons to strike against insurgent targets. One was the aforementioned political message. Another was to prevent Russian citizens within IS from returning to Russia to carry out acts of terrorism. This was hardly surprising; less than a fortnight before the air strikes, the Russian Security Service, FSB, reported that an estimated 2,500 Russian citizens had gone to Syria to join IS or other jihadist groups. In addition, some 3,000 Central Asian fighters had joined the jihadists as well, and might return to threaten the Central Asian republics. Then, on 31 October, a Russian airliner was destroyed in a suspected terrorist attack in Sinai, causing the loss of 224 lives. Vicious terrorist attacks took place in Paris on 13 November, which focused international, in particular European, attention on the need to fight IS. On 17 November, having determined that the airliner was indeed destroyed by terrorists, Russia extended its air campaign in Syria to include long-range aviation bombers which began to carry out air strikes from bases in Russia.
Above and beyond the need to combat its own jihadists, Russia did not wish to see the Syrian government being overthrown by jihadist-led insurgents. Besides, some observers noted that the Russian initiative also might have been intended to reduce the tensions between Russia and the EU and the United States because of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing unrest in eastern Ukraine.
The United States and NATO protested against the Russian air strikes and remained committed to regime change in Syria. Turkey protested too, and on 24 November shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber. As international tensions increased, it was easy to forget that the threat from Russian-speaking jihadists was real. Many of them had links with the Caucasus Emirate, a terrorist group in the North Caucasus. It was not only for political reasons that Moscow chose not to distinguish between the different insurgent groups. Former members of the Caucasus Emirate could be found in most of them, and they were hostile to Russian interests.
On 14 March 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an order to begin the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria starting from 15 March. He concluded that “the tasks set to the defense ministry are generally fulfilled.” Putin added: “With the participation of Russian military, Syrian troops and patriotic forces in Syria have managed to turn the tide in fight against international terrorism and take the initiative on practically all directions.” However, Putin made a point of mentioning that not all forces would be withdrawn. Russian military forces would remain in Syria in the naval base in Tartus and the Khmeimim air base. Clearly, the message was, Russia had not ended its support but would remain as a guarantor of security.
 Reuters, 1 October 2015.
 Pervyy kanal, 18 September 2015 (www.1tv.ru/news/polit/292465).
 Reuters, 31 October 2015; FSB press release, 17 November 2015.
 Reuters, 14 November 2015.
 Sputnik News, 17 November 2015, 18 November 2015.
 New York Times, 16 September 2015.
 New York Times, 30 September 2015; Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2015.
 Washington Post, 24 November 2015.
 TASS, 14 March 2016.